Sunday, November 26, 2006

A friend of mine and I were discussing books we read in high school. This buddy had just started re-reading "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, and he couldn't believe how different the experience was. Ten or fifteen years passed between his readings. In between, he married, had kids of his own, and traveled the world. He promised to mail me the book when he was finished. Last Monday, his paperback copy arrived. I remembered days and days of reading Catcher the first time, but it only took two sittings this time. I also found myself laughing out loud more often. I read "The Catcher in the Rye" for the first time when I was fourteen or fifteen. The narrating character, Holden Caulfield, is sixteen. Now I am twenty-nine. Sixteen has transformed from older and worldly when I first read Catcher, to innocent and naive this time around. Since my first reading, I've acquainted myself with a major character in the book: New York City. As safe as the city is now, the idea of Holden roaming clubs, hotels, bars, streets and parks alone gave me the most peculiar feeling. Rather than identifying with Holden himself, I found myself seeing the whole novel from the eyes of the adults that he encounters. The idea of a distraught young man wandering aimlessly -- half hoping to bump into some consolation, some explanation -- it all made me want to try helping poor old Holden. Mr. Antolini's half-sober speech -- his earnest but pathetic attempt to save Holden -- left me completely confused and befuddled when I first read it. In fact, the awkward scene that follows dominated my memory of Mr. Antolini's character. I only remembered that Antolini frightened Holden by patting him on the head. I had forgotten that a paragraph earlier Antolini had tried saving Holden from the impending nervous breakdown. The book evoked sympathy in me; my first reading was mainly confusion, but I did empathize with Holden. The extra years helped me understand Holden's experience and emotional exhaustion. The claustrophobic sense of a narrow path in life (like being stuck in an elevator going up and down) was a mystery to me then. At fourteen, the world seemed infinite. NYC was a concept, an ideal. Now it is a place I go for work; it is a train ride away. Amazingly, what I gained in understanding, I lost in empathy. Just as the city is no longer just an idea to me, a wealthy but discontent intellectual young man has become familiar too. Holden has become merely an archetype, rather than a blurred reflection. Memory and witness of illness, suicide, abuse, and psychological breakdowns have filled the gaps in my understanding. Holden's experience, then, has become more external. I know better the kind of demons to whom he is succumbing, but knowledge makes my view of his character third person, rather than first. Re-reading Catcher provoked intense introspection, but also a few new insights and questions about Holden. What I wonder about most almost makes me feel guilty. I feel terrific sympathy for Holden, but I can't help but wonder: how honest is Holden's account? He explains several times his compulsive lying. So, even though the narrative has the feel of a long confession, I wonder if Holden is being completely honest and forthcoming. The simultaneous sympathy and distrust for Holden is what I appreciate most this time around. Salinger's telling evokes the very sensation Holden explains in his description of his perfect job as "The Catcher in the Rye". Holden is the child you want to save. Holden is the one oblivious to the cliff. The reader feels the compulsion for, and frustration from, trying to save him.

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger

A friend of mine and I were discussing books we read in high school. This buddy had just started re-reading "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, and he couldn't believe how different the experience was. Ten or fifteen years passed between his readings. In between, he married, had kids of his own, and traveled the world. He promised to mail me the book when he was finished. Last Monday, his paperback copy arrived. I remembered days and days of reading Catcher the first time, but it only took two sittings this time. I also found myself laughing out loud more often.

I read "The Catcher in the Rye" for the first time when I was fourteen or fifteen. The narrating character, Holden Caulfield, is sixteen. Now I am twenty-nine. Sixteen has transformed from older and worldly when I first read Catcher, to innocent and naive this time around.

Since my first reading, I've acquainted myself with a major character in the book: New York City. As safe as the city is now, the idea of Holden roaming clubs, hotels, bars, streets and parks alone gave me the most peculiar feeling. Rather than identifying with Holden himself, I found myself seeing the whole novel from the eyes of the adults that he encounters. The idea of a distraught young man wandering aimlessly -- half hoping to bump into some consolation, some explanation -- it all made me want to try helping poor old Holden.

Mr. Antolini's half-sober speech -- his earnest but pathetic attempt to save Holden -- left me completely confused and befuddled when I first read it. In fact, the awkward scene that follows dominated my memory of Mr. Antolini's character. I only remembered that Antolini frightened Holden by patting him on the head. I had forgotten that a paragraph earlier Antolini had tried saving Holden from the impending nervous breakdown.

The book evoked sympathy in me; my first reading was mainly confusion, but I did empathize with Holden. The extra years helped me understand Holden's experience and emotional exhaustion. The claustrophobic sense of a narrow path in life (like being stuck in an elevator going up and down) was a mystery to me then. At fourteen, the world seemed infinite. NYC was a concept, an ideal. Now it is a place I go for work; it is a train ride away. Amazingly, what I gained in understanding, I lost in empathy. Just as the city is no longer just an idea to me, a wealthy but discontent intellectual young man has become familiar too. Holden has become merely an archetype, rather than a blurred reflection.

Memory and witness of illness, suicide, abuse, and psychological breakdowns have filled the gaps in my understanding. Holden's experience, then, has become more external. I know better the kind of demons to whom he is succumbing, but knowledge makes my view of his character third person, rather than first.

Re-reading Catcher provoked intense introspection, but also a few new insights and questions about Holden. What I wonder about most almost makes me feel guilty. I feel terrific sympathy for Holden, but I can't help but wonder: how honest is Holden's account? He explains several times his compulsive lying. So, even though the narrative has the feel of a long confession, I wonder if Holden is being completely honest and forthcoming.

The simultaneous sympathy and distrust for Holden is what I appreciate most this time around. Salinger's telling evokes the very sensation Holden explains in his description of his perfect job as "The Catcher in the Rye". Holden is the child you want to save. Holden is the one oblivious to the cliff. The reader feels the compulsion for, and frustration from, trying to save him.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin

Histories are rarely graced with literary invention. Excellent prose, yes. Intriguing insights, sure. But plot? Character development? Tensions? Deceits? Doris Kearns Goodwin does it all in this hefty tome that compares the life and politicking of Lincoln to his contemporaries. To quote the grandfather in the Princess Bride -- "Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles... "

Goodwin immediately draws you into the Civil War era. The tension and danger are so palpable in her writing, you feel as though you are reading newspaper dispatches instead of a biography. The portrait of the coming war is so vivid, you can practically hear the guns roar at Bull Run.

While the pace and excitement of the writing make the book a pleasure to read, what I admire most is the careful, but not tedious, comparison of Lincoln to his chief rivals for the Presidency. The very men he fought to become President graced his cabinet, and it wasn't all gentility. Lincoln found a way to assert his will, while still accepting counsel from men whose ambitions drove them to attack, badger, undermine, antagonize, deride the man himself.

Goodwin writes with a compelling grace, extolling the Lincoln as a political genius. Her case is well proven; Lincoln must be considered a political genius just for attaining the Presidency from within the ranks of the newly minted Republican party. What I saw in her story, and admired even more, was Lincoln as a management genius.

Lincoln not only survived his political adversaries; he was able to recognize their individual strengths and harness their relentless ambitions to accomplish his own agenda. Goodwin makes a clear, strong case for two personal qualities that defined Lincoln's management style: endless magnanimity; and iron resolve.

Throughout his life, Lincoln avoided two mistakes without exception -- he never held a grudge, and he never reversed public positions. From Goodwin's telling, I would say Lincoln's magnanimity was an innate talent of historic proportions. His consistency in public positions, however, goes far beyond mere talents. Based on this biography, I would argue that Lincoln's remarkably steady public record was the direct result of his cabinet structure. By surrounding himself with powerful, ambitious men that matched his own intellect, Lincoln created a private gauntlet for his own ideas. Often he yielded to the arguments of his "Team of Rivals"1 -- modifying his position or reversing his thinking altogether.

Goodwin details the story of one reversal -- Lincoln had wanted to provide tremendous leniency to the South in Reconstruction. He even initially planned to allow the Confederate legislatures to reconvene and repeal their own articles of secession and rejoin the Union. With his entire cabinet against the idea, he recanted. Yet, many of the players involved expressed the notion that if Lincoln had won over even one of them, he would have held original position.

His was a careful calculus, weighing the opinion of many gifted peers against his own thoughts. Lincoln's careful judgment about when to be swayed and when to be firm shine through as his singular gift.

Goodwin also saves her best work for the end of the book. She unfolds the night of Lincoln's assassination, while maintaining her steady comparison between him and his rivals. The result is a truly literary concoction of tensions, entwined lives, multiple perspectives, and ultimately, tragedy.

Notes
1. Quoting the title is something I hate reading, but somehow find irresistible when writing. I apologize also.
2. Princess Bride quote verified at the imdb.
Histories are rarely graced with literary invention. Excellent prose, yes. Intriguing insights, sure. But plot? Character development? Tensions? Deceits? Doris Kearns Goodwin does it all in this hefty tome that compares the life and politicking of Lincoln to his contemporaries. To quote the grandfather in the Princess Bride -- "Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles... " Goodwin immediately draws you into the Civil War era. The tension and danger are so palpable in her writing, you feel as though you are reading newspaper dispatches instead of a biography. The portrait of the coming war is so vivid, you can practically hear the guns roar at Bull Run. While the pace and excitement of the writing make the book a pleasure to read, what I admire most is the careful, but not tedious, comparison of Lincoln to his chief rivals for the Presidency. The very men he fought to become President graced his cabinet, and it wasn't all gentility. Lincoln found a way to assert his will, while still accepting counsel from men whose ambitions drove them to attack, badger, undermine, antagonize, deride the man himself. Goodwin writes with a compelling grace, extolling the Lincoln as a political genius. Her case is well proven; Lincoln must be considered a political genius just for attaining the Presidency from within the ranks of the newly minted Republican party. What I saw in her story, and admired even more, was Lincoln as a management genius. Lincoln not only survived his political adversaries; he was able to recognize their individual strengths and harness their relentless ambitions to accomplish his own agenda. Goodwin makes a clear, strong case for two personal qualities that defined Lincoln's management style: endless magnanimity; and iron resolve. Throughout his life, Lincoln avoided two mistakes without exception -- he never held a grudge, and he never reversed public positions. From Goodwin's telling, I would say Lincoln's magnanimity was an innate talent of historic proportions. His consistency in public positions, however, goes far beyond mere talents. Based on this biography, I would argue that Lincoln's remarkably steady public record was the direct result of his cabinet structure. By surrounding himself with powerful, ambitious men that matched his own intellect, Lincoln created a private gauntlet for his own ideas. Often he yielded to the arguments of his "Team of Rivals"1 -- modifying his position or reversing his thinking altogether. Goodwin details the story of one reversal -- Lincoln had wanted to provide tremendous leniency to the South in Reconstruction. He even initially planned to allow the Confederate legislatures to reconvene and repeal their own articles of secession and rejoin the Union. With his entire cabinet against the idea, he recanted. Yet, many of the players involved expressed the notion that if Lincoln had won over even one of them, he would have held original position. His was a careful calculus, weighing the opinion of many gifted peers against his own thoughts. Lincoln's careful judgment about when to be swayed and when to be firm shine through as his singular gift. Goodwin also saves her best work for the end of the book. She unfolds the night of Lincoln's assassination, while maintaining her steady comparison between him and his rivals. The result is a truly literary concoction of tensions, entwined lives, multiple perspectives, and ultimately, tragedy. Notes 1. Quoting the title is something I hate reading, but somehow find irresistible when writing. I apologize also. 2. Princess Bride quote verified at the imdb.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I don't have time to regail you with the stories, but here are the pictures from del and robert's wedding. The whole weekend was stupendous.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

See just pictures of our hike to Oberberghorn.

After our long ride to the Jungfraujoch, we were ready to get around by foot for a few days. Near Interlaken and Untersee is an ancient cave called Beatus-Hohle. The natural cave is named for the Irish Saint Beatus, a missionary who came to Interlaken to convert the medieval Swiss to Christianity. Among his many adventures, Beatus slew the dragon that was living in the cave. According to the local myth, which they tell you once you reach the 1km turn-around mark, Beatus cast the dragon from the cave to the lakes below with his glowing staff. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted anywhere inside the caves, so there isn’t much to show. We do have one nifty tip though – because the walk into the cave is largely uphill (you hike up 80m to find yourself 400m below the surface), you can’t really see all the streams, stalagmites, and stalactites on your way into the cave. Most people seemed to nearly run on their way out. If you take your time, the downhill trajectory of the exit path with reveal much more of the streams and waterfalls that continue to carve out the cave.

There is bus service from the center of Interlaken to the caves, but we opted to walk the 5 or so miles through the Interlaken nature preserve. The walk runs along the canals that connect Thunersee and Brienzersee, and since the land is flat, every bit is used for grazing cattle . There was also an impressive medieval castle, which was once on an island before the gifted swiss engineers diverted the rivers to open more dry land. We took pitifully few pictures of the castle in fact, only one out of the first floor window . The hike up to the Beatushohle’s entrance is very steep and provides some great lookouts to the lakes below . Despite being a few hundred meters up from the road, the Swiss have managed to pave the path and build a lovely spelunkology museum . I wondered how they kept the three restaurants, the museum, and the facilities stocked – I guess this zip-line/dumbwaiter is the answer: .

Beatushohle, and the walk to it, were invigorating. So much so, that they inspired us to take a real hike in the Alps. Armed with water, camera, almond-filled croissant, completely inappropriate footwear, and train tickets to Schynige Platte (a small plateau that the Swiss immediately filled with a train depot, playground, and restaurant) we trekked up the hills to the mountains (by train of course). On the way to the train station, we stopped to snap some photos of our destination (the green mountain to the left) and took a quick video of the paragliders that were landing in front of our hotel all week .

The hike we chose was regarded as beginner level – mild ascents and descents that net to very little altitude changes. We were meant to walk from Schynige Platt to Oberberghorn (a small rocky peak) and from there on to Laucherhorn (a slightly bigger, rockier peak). The Schynige Platte hosts not only a train station, but also a high-altitude dairy farm . We took the Wandernweg (hiking path) on the way out, which wound mostly through grassy highland plains. We finally reached the Laucherhorn, where we tried to take some fake stunt pictures of me “climbing” the Alps . We also ran into an American family that were wrapping up a day long hike down from the town of First (about 5 hours). We nick-named them the Howells for their lock-jaw accents, casual yachtsman flair for hiking, and consistently absurd pronunciations of the names for the mountains that they appeared to know so well. The eldest Howell was celebrating his 50th birthday by leading his whole brood through the mountains of Switzerland, taking hundreds of photos of his brood in said vicinity (clearly in black and white, and certain to be developed by hand in his basement, by Elder Howell, himself), and ultimately climbing a few peaks (possibly even Jungfrau herself).

On the way home, we decided to take the Panaramenweg (sp? scenic route), which was a LOT more exciting , and included some sincerely panoramic lookouts . Alpine beauty was in abundance for flowers , big skies , jagged peaks , rolling valleys , and combinations of all the above . The whole way is marked off with tidy, swiss-made yellow signs that include the destinations and the estimated walking times . The paths are dirt trails that have been rutted into the landscape , so your feet are always a few inches below the grass, as demonstrated by Caitie: . The Swiss manage to make even the thin air of high altitude comfortable, and the trails are dotted with little family vacation homes . On the way home, we walked well above the trail we took on the way out, and were able to peak over the vertical edge of the Platte to see both lakes and the town of Interlaken as well as Moench and Jungfrau (fogged in for our trip) . The terrain continues to steepen the whole way back, which I tried in vain to capture on film . To come as close to the climbing experience as possible, short of going on belay, you can take the short but extremely steep trip to the top of Oberberghorn (that rocky peak for which the trail is named) . The hike around the base of the Oberberghorn is a tight switchback, with the turnaround corners apparently levitating over the mountain valleys. The final ascent is assisted by a ladder and then a gangway that ultimately provides a view from a small cave out onto the rest of the Alps . The small peak pokes through an altitude layer and you could feel a significant difference in the air -- which only adds to excitement and perception that you are really climbing a mountain.

For slightly less excitement (and probably equal safety), the end of the hike features a nifty slide (sorry, I took the video with a rotated camera) and a map (shouldn’t that be at the beginning of the hike, maybe we went around the loop backwards) .

After all that hiking, we took walked back to the hotel from the train station, and snapped a few last pictures of the gates on the canal , and the border between Interlaken and Untersee .

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Check out the pictures from our Jungfraujoch Trip (The Top of Europe) or read all about it: Interlaken sits in the valley of the Jungfrau region, between the Thunersee and Brienzersee from which it takes its name (between the lakes). The view from our hotel room window faces west, to some minor hills in the valley . The defining tourist trap for the Jungfrau region is a trip up to the Jungfraujoch, aka the "Top of Europe". We noticed that most of the locals chortle when the ubiquitous automaton voice of the Swiss Rail System (a disembodied floating voice that reminds me of the central computer in I, Robot...). Perhaps they laugh because, no matter which language the train voice is using (german, english, french, italian, japanese) the highest train station in the world is always subtitled "The Top of Europe". You take three separate trains from Interlaken, to Lauterbrunnen, and finally to the saddle between Jungfrau and Moench that is home to the T.O.E. The second and third trains are cog trains, meaning they use gears to propel them up the steep terrain. The final leg, on the Jungfraubahn, runs through a four mile tunnel. Along the way, there are two stations with windows carved into the north face of the Moench . At Jungfraujoch, the ever-engineering Swiss have built a remarkable structure that includes a museum of mountain transportation (most interesting exihibit was of the two-seater open-air carriage that was the original Jungfrau train), several restaraunts (including a quite fancy one) and a long tunnel into the permanant ice of the glacier that remains on Jungfrau all year. The tunnel is filled with eternal ice sculptures . There is also an "Platte" that allows dramatic views of the Jungfrau glacier, which forms an ice river that feeds the lakes below and gives the Brienz and Thun lakes their azure color. Caitie and I managed a self-portrait on the first try: . Despite the overcast weather (Jungfraujoch was actually between two cloud layers), we got some decent pictures of the peak: and, of course, a quick panoramic video . Caitie noted that the ground on the platte looked like a Boston sidewalk in January . Despite warnings, caitie decided to hop the fence... (right). In an incredible waste of space on my camera, I took a picture of the avalanche zone warning sign . Another 300m up from the Platte is the "Top of Europe", which has an outdoor, grated rotunda that provides ample opportunity for vertigo . On the way home, we rode through Grindelwald, one of the major towns in the area, slightly up-mountain from Interlaken. The ride reinforced our impression that Switzerland is actually a life size toy train set, complete with dainty dairy cows , and scenery that goes beyond idyllic to actually just being cute . Caitie really enjoyed the scenery on the way down: . A good travel tip we stumbled upon -- pony up for the first class ticket. No one else pays th 10% surcharge, so you actually have room to stand up and store your bags .