Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On abortion

I have come 180 degrees on the subject of abortion. I have thought a great deal about it, listened to debates about it, considered all the many points of view on it, and even been involved in it, and I now believe that abortion is morally wrong. My position, in essence, is quite simple: Since we do not know and cannot decide precisely when the embryo becomes a human being, we must, as moral people, err on the side of life.

There are those who argue that humanity invests itself at the end of the first trimester, and so, up until that time, abortion is morally unobjectionable. But these people must be required to answer the following question: Why is abortion permissible on the 90th day, say and not permissible on the 91st? Why is it permissible at 11:59 pm of the 90th day, but morally wrong at 12:01 am of the 91st? When called to answer this question, their argument falls apart. Especially in face of the fact that every pregnancy is different, and so, even if one accepts the idea that humanity invests itself at a discernible point in pregnancy, does that point not differ from one pregnancy to the next?

Now, I am acutely aware that pregnancy is a matter more urgently pressing on the woman than the man. From this, it is argued that it is the woman who ought to have the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. But as a father (and one who holds fatherhood as a sacred obligation), I take exception to this. The father is physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually linked to the new life (or ought to be - if not, he is a swine and not a man), and so should have nearly as much say as the mother. Indeed, I would support any father who insists that an abortion of his child can not take place over his objections. Nonetheless, since the actual burden of pregnancy falls harder on the woman, it seems irresistible that she have the prevailing voice.

Given this, if a pregnancy must be terminated (and the reasons ought to be compelling, even overwhelming), then it seems to me that a convenient point of demarcation would be the presence of a heartbeat, which generally occurs about the fifth to seventh week. I offer this opinion only with the greatest reluctance, out of a need to set some defining limit to the option of abortion that may minimize the possibility of the commission of a grave moral wrong.

However, in general, I do believe that abortion is morally wrong, and ought to be approached only with the utmost caution and careful deliberation. That it is the most common form of elective surgery performed upon women in our country is a disgrace, and utterly unconscionable. One does not counter moral irresponsibility such as unwanted pregnancy by committing a greater moral error such as abortion. This simply multiplies the moral wrong and drags those who commit it into deeper guilt. One does not solve a moral problem by committing an immoral act.

Clearly, taking responsibility for one's sexual behavior is the key to resolving this matter, but since our society does not appear inclined to praise restraint and discourage indulgence (just the opposite, in fact, is usually the case) the primary and most effective solution will probably not prevail. Given that, it seems to me imperative to educate our young people to the moral, psychological and spiritual implications of abortion; not simply to offer it as the first and most convenient solution.

Though at one time in my life (a much earlier time) I agreed with the feminists and the abortion advocates, I now see those who militate for abortion rights as morally blind, degraded and self-deluding people. In almost every case, I am inclined to believe, they have succumbed to the dictates of a political agenda, or of personal interest, or are in the grip of a private guilt which they are trying to assuage by elevating it to the level of civil liberties, privacy rights or gender politics. Whatever the case, they are avoiding the simple moral imperative that, when in doubt on matters of life and death, we must, as moral beings, err on the side of life. The imperative is that we ought to do to others as we would have them do to us - yes, even to unborn others; the fact that our humanity is measured by the extent to which we recognize and reverence humanity in others - yes, even unborn others.

I find it curious that so many of those who advocate abortion rights also oppose capital punishment. Here, it seems to me, the values of such 'progressive' thinkers are characteristically inverted. Such people take the position that innocent, unborn life ought to be destroyed, but that guilty, mature life ought to be preserved. This is backwards. If we are to take a position for and against life, surely it must be that innocent life should be preserved, and guilty life (guilty of the most heinous crimes) should be destroyed. I find the argument for abortion and against capital punishment utterly inane.

The decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is a heavy and solemn one. One piece of advice I might offer in helping to make this decision is this: Give the fetus a name. Do not refer to it by such politically driven sophistries as "tissue mass" or "non-viable embryo," but name it, if only with a nickname. (In my case, we called my first child Chip in the womb, and the second, Squeak.) Then, in considering whether to abort, use the name in your discussions. Do not speak about "the fetus " or "the pregnancy"; rather, use your chosen name or nickname, and then see if you can as easily decide to abort.

This is precisely the kind of thing that the abortion advocates do not want us to do, but that, as human beings, we naturally tend to do. And in this there is a warning: Whenever we act in contradiction to our natural human tendencies, especially for the sake of a political or personal agenda, we are probably doing wrong.


I suppose I ought to post here some reflections on my career as a Hollywood screenwriter, since that is what most people seem to want to know about. Why that should be so, I can only guess.','I have for fifteen years now worked full-time as a screenwriter in Hollywood. It is my career, my professional identity; both the chief source of my income, and the sole source of whatever fascination I may hold for strangers. And it is strange that this should be so. I never wanted to write screenplays, never held them in particularly high esteem, and still do not, though I have practiced the craft with some degree of success. I will take time here to write about the creative process and the commercial business of screenwriting, neither of which is well understood by people outside the industry (the former is almost completely misunderstood by people within it), as well as about the role and status of the screenwriter in Hollywood.

But I will also, from time to time, describe experiences I have had in the business, and reflect upon those experiences, and the personalities that populate them. I will try to avoid gossip, not only because I do not care for it myself, but also because I am still very much employed by and with those about whom I would be tattling. Still, it is diverting, and apparently an endless source of fascination to the public, to talk about the peculiar creatures who inhabit this bizarre world, and even I may not be able to avoid the temptation of sharing tidbits.

I have had a great deal of good fortune, and have had the pleasure of associating with many fine people, in the Hollywood community. I am not bitter about the business (which has by-and-large been good to me), but I have become rather cynical about certain aspects of it. I have also had in Hollywood some of the most disheartening and demeaning experiences a writer can have, and I have had the misfortune of having worked with some of the worst people I ever hope to encounter. I expect that I will have some things to say about all of this, too.

And so, for those of you who cannot restrain your curiosity about what life in the Hollywood film business is really like, you shall have my rather limited perspective on it, for what it may or may not be worth.

On Priest Sexual Abuse

I was born and raised a Catholic in the strictest sense. I attended Catholic grade school, high-school and college, I served as an altar boy in my parish for ten years, and, after college, I worked as a volunteer with the Catholic missions in Africa, living in a Jesuit community. I have thus experienced Catholicism from every conceivable point of view: as a birthright, as a family practice, as a participant in worship services, in the form of education, and living in close association with priests and nuns. When the clergy sexual abuse scandals broke over the Church and the nation, they came as little surprise to me.

Abuse of children was part of the institutional fabric of Catholicism as I experienced it. We children in Catholic schools, from the earliest age, were subjected to systematic abuse, intimidation and mistreatment by both nuns and priests; an abuse that was not only accepted by our parents, but was, in fact, reverenced by them, and boasted of by the perpetrators. The nuns and priests who raised us in loco parentis (that is, in the place of our parents) believed they had a God-sanctioned right to engage in the cruelest, most degrading and hurtful forms of psychological abuse and physical mistreatment on almost a daily basis.

I will not enumerate here the many examples of such abuse to which I was witness as a child, and of which I was, myself, the victim. Suffice it to say that brow-beatings and actual physical beatings were commonplace in the schools which I attended. Intensifying the effects of this abuse was the use of spiritual inducements and threats by the clerics to whose care our parents entrusted us. They did not scruple to rationalize their mistreatment of children on the grounds that they were enacting God’s will, nor did they shrink from terrifying us with the prospect of eternal damnation to unspeakable agony if we did not submit to their control. No child should be subjected to such righteous terrorism.

That many of the nuns and priests with whom I came into contact were deeply disturbed people who sought refuge and legitimization in the clergy is now beyond question in my mind. Most of the nuns who taught me were self-loathing women whose hatred of their own gender, and terror of sexuality, had driven them to hide themselves in locked convents and beneath yards of black muslin. The priests, as I came to know them, were frustrated, lonely men, often suffering from severe sexual confusion, whose lack of faith and purpose in their lives deepened as they aged, driving them to such destructive behaviors as alcoholism and sexual perversion.

In saying this, I wish to point out that the sexual abuse scandals with which we have become familiar are only one aspect (albeit the worst) of a systematic attitude of abuse toward children which has characterized the Catholic Church in my experience. This is not to say that there are not many fine, well-intentioned and devout men and women serving the Church; but I wish to express here my firm conviction that sexual abuse among Catholic clergy is far more widespread than either we suspect or the Church will ever acknowledge.

If, for example, the Boston Archdiocese admits to 400 abusive priests, that is only because it knows of 400 more, suspects 400 beyond that, and remains unaware of another 400. I am thus prepared to state that, in my opinion, the sexual abuse problem within the Church is three or four times greater than that which has so far come to the fore. Indeed, I will say that sexual misconduct among priests is common, and not the rare exception, and that it is being covered up by men – bishops and cardinals – who are guilty of it themselves.

Guilt on the part of the hierarchy is only the first of three reasons which I perceive for the strident, almost hysterical, attempts by the Church to cover up the abuse scandal. The second is, of course, financial. Knowing the true extent of the abuse, Catholic leaders understand that the lawsuits provoked by it may well bankrupt the Church. In my own view, this would actually be a boon to Catholicism, which for centuries has sacrificed its spiritual birthright on the altar of wealth. An impoverished Catholic Church might be forced back on its spiritual roots, and rediscover the meaning which the religion has lost. It may, as a result of bankruptcy, become once again a mystical body ministering to the spiritual needs of its members, rather than a sprawling fiscal and worldly empire awash in its own hypocrisy and greed.

The third reason for the cover-up is much more subtle, and, to Church leaders, much more dangerous. The Roman Church, uniquely among Christian cults, claims for its priests the miraculous power to transform the bread and wine of the Mass into the physical body and blood of Christ. This miraculous ability, called transubstantiation, is the essence of the liturgy, and so, lies at the heart of the Church itself.

Now the Church finds itself in the untenable position of having to admit that those same consecrated hands of priests, which it claims perform the miracle of the Eucharist, are also capable of raping little children. Those blessed fingers, which daily bring God to Earth and hold his physical body, may have, just the night before, violated the body of a child. To prevent this idea reaching the public consciousness, the Church will, and has, gone to every length imaginable to suppress and minimize the clergy abuse scandal. For, just as the resultant lawsuits threaten to strip the Church of its wealth, an awareness of this contradiction threatens to strip it of its soul.

It is simply impossible for any right-thinking Catholic, no matter how fervent, to sustain in his mind the idea that the miraculous power of the Mass can co-exist with the commission of child rape. It is impossible to maintain faith in the Eucharist when its sacred miracle can be performed by a man who sexually molests children.

In short: No one can believe that a child rapist can possess miraculous spiritual power. Yet this is precisely what the Church maintains when it declares, as it does: Once a priest, always a priest. To which I respond: Once a child molester, always a child molester. The two cannot be the same person: he is either one or the other; either a priest possessed of miraculous power, or a monster of the worst sort imaginable. But to the Church, they are the same thing. And this, Church leaders cannot allow the public to contemplate.

This damning contradiction is the true threat which Church leaders perceive in the priest abuse scandals. Not even bankruptcy menaces so much as this, since money may be recovered in one way or another. But the spiritual core of the Church once lost, the entire edifice crumbles into dust. And so, the Church will transfer priests from parish to parish, spreading the infection of molestation to unsuspecting children in city after city, it will shield and conceal guilty monsters, it will refuse to admit their crimes, refuse to turn over their personnel records to the authorities, hide behind claims of protected status and statutes of limitations, and offer the most cynical and self-serving settlements to the victims, in hopes, above all, of covering up, not just the abuse, but the untenable theological contradiction exposed by the abuse.

This contradiction strikes at the very core of the Catholic faith, which must be lost forever in the hearts of Catholics who love and cherish the health and safety of innocent children more than they do that of their guilty Church.

Abortion and the Culture of Death

I watched last year with alarm a pro-abortion demonstration in Washington, D.C., which was addressed by, among others, Hillary Clinton. Though she is now attempting to modify her position, in an effort, I suppose, to move closer to the political center as she prepares her candidacy for president (an unmistakable gesture of hypocrisy, I might add), at that time she appeared to be endorsing the unfettered right to abortion-on-demand. And while, as I have mentioned, there was a time in my life when I might have agreed with her, I now regard such advocacy with dismay.

We are, in this nation, it seems to me, moving more and more toward the acceptance of a culture of death. In cases where matters of life and death are uncertain, I note that we tend more and more often to opt for death, whereas, when I was a boy, such an attitude would have been unthinkable. I refer, for another example, to the Terri Schiavo case, when so many were clamoring so publicly for an end to the poor woman's life. 'How can they be so ardent in their advocacy of death?' I wondered at the time. 'Surely, if there is any doubt at all, decent people would support her right to life.'

I see many of my fellow citizens coming down on the side of death in such uncertain matters, and the fact disturbs me. This is especially so in view of the menace of terrorism, whose adherents are in love with death - others' as well as their own. Surely this is the ultimate degradation of humanity. Yet, just as the terrorists militate for death in the name of jihad or salvation, the advocates of abortion militate for death in the name of gender rights or reproductive freedom. But death is a human experience unlike any other; as the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, pointed out: Death is unique among human possibilities in that it alone cancels out all other possibilities.

I think that to the extent that we choose death over life, we cut our moral moorings as a society, and begin a drift toward a spiritual chaos from which it may not be possible to return. Our society is anchored by certain principles, which the Founding Fathers cherished, and among these is the belief in a sacred right to life. Yet with each passing decade I see these fastening principles being gnawed away by narrow interest groups seeking to advance selfish agendas, in defiance of the fact that no society can endure which is not grounded in a belief in immutable Truth, and the stabilizing strength that flows from that belief.

I wonder how long our society can sustain its moral center, and a confidence in its own goodness, in the face of the deliberate deaths of millions of unborn children. It is a carnage which continues day after day, and is rationalized, even sanctified, by the agendas of feminism and the far left, whose spokesmen argue that abortion rights are essential to the status of women and the safety of civil liberties. (One wonders what kind of status and safety must be sustained by the deaths of innocents.) In doing so, they assure us that we ought to feel no shame in exercising this inviolable right to terminate pregnancy, and in that I see the beginning of the end of their argument. For every wrongdoer, as a first order of business, seeks to dissociate shame from behavior, in order that others may follow his or her example without fear of guilt.

I recall a woman I once knew who, by the age of thirty-three, had had six abortions for the sake of her career. She was a successful woman, much admired in some quarters. Leaving aside the almost criminal irresponsibility of her sexual conduct, I asked her simply, 'Where are your children?' She sighed, a look of profound sadness came over her face, and she replied, 'They are all dead.' Not, 'They never existed;' not 'They were non-viable tissue mass;' simply, 'They are all dead.'

She had accepted the assurances of the advocates of abortion to rationalize her behavior; indeed, she had relied on them. Yet when she was asked in plain human terms about what she had done, her soul could not deny the guilt and sorrow that she felt. There was an emptiness in her being, an underpinning of remorse, which no polemic could assuage. Six times she had chosen death, for the sake of a life the happiness and dignity of which had been undermined by her choice. My conversation with her (and with others) has forced powerfully on me the suspicion that even the most 'enlightened' and progressive-thinking woman who aborts her children will come to realize eventually that she has done wrong, and will suffer for it, and no rationale on earth can heal that hurt.

We may allow ourselves to be blinded to the truth of our behavior by the public spokesmen of political points of view, but so were the Germans and the Russians, even as they watched their societies descend into chaos. It is we, and not the activists, who must live with the consequences of our choices, and, perhaps, answer for them after our deaths. In matters of moral crisis, each of us must ask himself or herself, not what the advocates of this or that position say, but, what does my heart say, what does my conscience say, what does my soul say? And if we do so honestly and earnestly, I believe that our humanity will answer in a voice that none of us can mistake or deny.

Memorable Quotes

In the course of my reading I have come across some quotes which I have thought important enough to memorize. I will list them here in the hope that they may be of use to you, as they have been to me.

From Tolstoy:

That which gives life is the same in all things.

From Edwin Campion Vaughan, a World War I British infantry officer in the trenches of Flanders:

We may not be able to control our destiny, but we are responsible for our dignity.

From Sir Edmund Hillary. [While climbing the summit ridge of Everest, he was forced by a cornice onto a tiny ledge overhanging the south face. He glanced down between his boots to see the roofs of the Thyangboche Monastery, the highest permanent dwelling in the world, ten thousand feet below. He remarked:]

For a moment I considered the consequences of a slip, and then decided to put such unprofitable thoughts out of my mind.

From Tolstoy:

The inorganic is merely the life of that which we do not understand. For a flea, the inorganic is my fingernail. In the same way, evil is the non-understood good.

From the great German mystic, Meister Eckhart:

We must become pregnant with Nothing in order to give birth to God.

And also from Eckhart:

Your best chance of finding God is to look for Him where you left Him.

From Hamlet:

If it be not now, then 'tis to come. If 'tis not to come, then 'twill be now. And if it be not now, then surely it will come. The readiness is all.

From Lincoln:

Government should do nothing that the people can do better for themselves.

From Tolstoy:

All great art ultimately asks questions that are religious in nature.

From Dostoevsky:

Good and evil are two ends of a stick that bends back upon itself.

Tolstoy's threefold remedy for hurt:

1. Remember that you have done worse than the person who is hurting you.
2. Remember that in five or ten years, you will not even be able to recall the hurt.
3. Remember that the person who is hurting you cannot behave in any other way.

(It was many years before I understood the third point, but now, I believe it is true.)

From Churchill:

Anyone who is not a liberal before the age of thirty has no heart; anyone who is not a conservative after the age of forty has no brain.

(There is thus a ten-year period during which we may register as Independent.)

From William Blake:

We are led to believe a lie when we see with and not through the eye.

From Tolstoy:

Kindness is a necessary addition to everything.

From Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Nor mind had, no nor mouth expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed

From Tolstoy:

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

From Thomas Jefferson:

People suffer terribly in thinking of what was expected to happen, instead of what has actually happened.

From Robert Frost:

Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

From Hemingway:

Everyone needs a clean, well-lighted place.

From Robert Bolt:

You either write it, or you talk it to death.

From William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wildflower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

From Tom Stoppard:

We emerge from the womb bloody and screaming, and knowing that for all the signposts in the world, there is only one direction, and time is its only measure.

From W.H. Auden:

Tears are round, the sea is deep,
Roll them overboard, and sleep.

From W.B Yeats:
(On rediscovering his creativity)

I will lie down where all the ladders start:
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

From Tolstoy:

Only one step lies between a five-year-old child and a man of my age. Between a newborn baby and a five-year-old child lies a huge distance. Between a fetus and a newborn baby lies an abyss; and between non-existence and a fetus lies not only an abyss, but a gulf that surpasses comprehension.

From Shakespeare:

Thou hast nor youth nor age, but as it were, an after-dinner's sleep, dreaming on both.

This thou perceiv'st which makes thy love more strong
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

From Tolstoy's diary:

Sometimes a man tells a woman more than he should. He forgets, but she never does. The worst thing is not a woman who holds a man by his balls, but she who holds him by his soul.

From War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator (Actually, Mac Grider, a young World War I pilot):

Courage is doing your duty even though you're scared as hell... It takes a brave man even to experience fear.

From W. H. Auden:

You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.

From Dylan Thomas:

Now as I was young and easy
In the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying,
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

From T. S. Eliot:

Shall I, after tea and cakes and ices
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted,
Wept and prayed, though I have seen my head,
Grown slightly bald, brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet, and here's no great matter.
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat
And snicker, and in short: I was afraid.

From Tolstoy:

Speak less. We often regret having spoken too much, but we never regret remaining silent.

The Amish and Hollywood

I was deeply disturbed last week at the news of the shootings in the Amish school in Pennsylvania. When I turned on the television that morning and caught the headline, I immediately thought it some sort of tasteless joke. A shooting in an Amish school? This is carrying mock-journalism too far.

Then, as I continued to watch, I became increasingly dismayed. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and the Amish were never far from my youth. I was fascinated by them as a boy, and came to admire them greatly as an adult. I made several trips out to Lancaster County in an effort to make their acquaintance and understand their values. I met with bishops and common farmers, and read and wrote about the culture. I had planned to make a documentary film about them, but I took to heart the lesson urged on me in my last visit: To respect them and leave them alone.

I never viewed the Amish as quaint or picturesque, or even as odd. I saw them instead as people engaged in an enormous struggle - a struggle against the encroachment of modernity into the world of faith. 'I can resist anything but temptation,’ Oscar Wilde said; well, the Amish have chosen to insulate themselves as far as possible from temptation, understanding that few of us - themselves included - can resist it.

To be left alone by what they call the 'English' world is all that the Amish have ever really asked. Recent reports of abuse within the community only served to remind me that they are, after all, merely human like ourselves. But unlike ourselves, they have chosen, generation after generation, to live 'the way we believe God wants us to,' as one bishop said simply to me.

But finally, it appears, the world came crashing into their isolation, in the form of an angry little man with a score to settle, and guns to settle it with. The product of violence himself (as it appears from the accounts), he transported that violence into the most peaceful precinct of America. In the midst of a private nightmare, he invaded a communal dream, and the victims, as they so often are, were children. Amish children, brought up from birth to love God and practice peace, were gunned down execution-style in a school the existence of which was mandated by the state. We did not leave them alone. We cannot leave them alone. Because we cannot stop hurting ourselves.

What do I mean by this? That the culture outside the Amish world is sick and bloated with violence. And much of that violence, oddly enough, appears in the form of entertainment. Violence as entertainment; brutality as diversion; killing as fun: these are the very kinds of values which the Amish seek to exile from their lives, and from which they struggle against great odds to protect their children.

But it is not enough to isolate yourself, not enough to withdraw from the general culture, not enough to put your faith in God. The bogey men of popular culture will hunt you down and find you and devour you as surely as Michael Meyers does, even after he has been killed and burned and buried. On he comes, in movie after movie, and not even death can stop him. For he is more than death, greater than death – he is entertainment.

For this I feel ashamed, and for my part in it, as a screenwriter, I feel a brine of guilt adhering to my flanks as it would to a rivet in a cruise ship hull. For I am one of the fastenings in the ironplate of popular culture that enables the vast engine to steam on. I am helping to make this sort of thing possible, by modeling violence and cruelty and unkindness in my work. I and the industry for which I write are debasing the behavior of Americans just as surely as the penitentiary hardens criminals.

The captive audience of popular culture emerges from years of media brutality believing in the efficacy of violence, and accepting the inevitability of it in their lives. The capacity for shock is beaten out of us on our screens; the dismay reflex is blunted; shame becomes as quaint to us as an Amish buggy. The only real emotion that we feel is relief when we reflect that we have not yet been mugged, we have not yet been murdered. We do not expect to be safe in this society; we hope only to be lucky. And when that luck runs out, as it usually does, we are not in the least surprised.

In entertainment, the gun is portrayed as the solution, if not in the long run, then certainly in the short. It has become our nickel-plated God, the final arbiter of all discord, the one friend upon whom we can always rely. In violence we trust, and as a result, we are changed. To be human means to act inhumanely. To be a man means to become an animal. To be alive means to kill.

In the days of the temperance movement, early in the last century, when our culture awakened from its habitual daze long enough to understand that alcohol was the most dangerous drug of all precisely because it was so commonplace and so widely accepted, it was popular for people to ‘take the pledge.’ That meant making a solemn promise to refrain forever from its use, for the sake of oneself, one’s family, and the larger society. And people did take the pledge, and wore symbols to show it to others, and to encourage them to do likewise.

I want to take the pledge now: That in my work, I will not model or glorify inhuman behavior so far as it is possible to do so. Granted, we must write violence, even grave violence, when the subject matter calls for it. Neither ‘Hamlet’ nor ‘War and Peace’ could exist otherwise. But I want solemnly to pledge that I will not seek out violence and inhumanity for the sake of their impact alone, and that I will never display them in my work simply to make a buck. And I want to ask my colleagues in the entertainment business to do likewise.

I want those people who make films like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ and ‘Saw,’ and ‘Hostel' to stop doing what they are doing, because they are doing it to the culture, and, worse, they are doing it to our children. They are teaching a lesson about the validity of violence for its entertainment value, about the fun aspects of inhumanity, about the primacy of death, which is degrading our way of life, and endangering us all. For if even Amish children are not immune from its effects, then who among us can put a head on a pillow at night, or tuck in our little ones, with anything like tranquility of heart?

A Thought at 5 AM

I wrote earlier to an old friend who says she has no religious faith, and who boasts of her disbelief (as so many do nowadays) that it is a mark, indeed a necessity, of being sophisticated and enlightened and mature. And she takes comfort in the fact that everyone she knows shares her views.

It seems to me that she is like a person who lives next to some horrid chemical plant, breathing in its putrid fumes, subsisting on a fraction of the oxygen she needs, while commenting on the quaint, even lovely color of the haze, and the way the sunlight shines through it at certain times of day. Or she is like a longtime smoker who compares the taste and fragrance of the tobacco she uses with that of her friends who are also addicted. Or she is like a patient in a cancer ward deriving comfort from the fact that everyone around her is equally ill, equally doomed, and decaying at the same pace as she.

We have lost our innocence, yes, but through a long process of life and loss and longing we come at last to see that it can be replaced with the source of innocence itself, which contains us and beckons to us, and holds out the hope that we may once again become that which we were before the corrosive influence of life brought tears to our eyes. We have become used to seeing the world through those tears, thinking that everything is dim and blurred and fluid, and forgetting what we once were and are and will be again: children of wonder.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Signing on

I have finally decided to take the plunge and start my own web page. I did this, in part, because my computer-genius son thinks it is 'quaint' that I do not have one, and after I discovered that my cleaning lady does have one.

And so I will begin posting here my thoughts, about Hollywood and writing, about life, religion, politics and parenting. All are invited to contribute and to comment. I will also publish some of my own work here, as well as that of young people whom I think are talented and deserve attention. Because, as I often have occasion to say, nothing is more important to me than talent, and especially the talent of young people.

I have also decided, after much rumination, to offer strangers the opportunity to send me their screenplays, and, for a fee, to read and comment on them. I do this somewhat reluctantly, since, for the past five years or so, I have had a standing offer to read the screenplay of any young person who sends it to me, and to give my reaction. Because of this, I receive about a hundred screenplays a year, all of which I read, comment on and return (in self-addressed envelopes). My offer includes the pledge that if I think the work is talented, I will pass it along to the agency that represents me, CAA, and if I think it is brilliant, I will option it through my production company, Anomaly Entertainment, and try to get it produced. In the years that I have been making good on my offer, I have read hundreds of screenplays. I have passed six on to CAA, and, only recently, I have optioned two.

Now, reading, critiquing and returning comments on all those screenplays has taken up a great deal of my time. To date I have given that time for free, but I simply cannot afford to do so any longer. And so, I will read and critique a screenplay and make suggestions for its future, for a fee, on the grounds that my time is, indeed, worth something. A procedure for submitting work to me is contained in this web page.

Apart from that, this page will be a place for me to vent, reflect, and experiment with ideas, and for others to respond. In the hope that this little forum will be of some use to those who take the time to read it, I will begin...'

Friday, February 20, 2009

Moving from old blog

Hi all,
I've tried to move all of my father's old works here now in what I hope is a proper structure. I hope everyone enjoys the new site. You may see some metadata encoded in the older posts; if my father is feeling particularly tenacious he may go back through and prune out the bad code and errant characters.


Themes and Variations

This morning I was listening to the Schubert opus posthumous piano sonatas on the car stereo as I made my way along the 134 Freeway to work. I should mention, by the way, that I have only recently come to appreciate this drive, though I make it almost every day. But it takes me through the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, which can be quite lovely in the morning sun, glowing purple and russet, and sometimes I see deer grazing on the lower slopes just above the freeway. It is so unlike my morning commutes when I lived back East or in Paris or London, and I have decided never again to take it for granted.

So Schubert kept me company, and though I had heard the sonatas, published after his untimely death at the age of 31, many times, and had come to love them, I did not realize until this morning that one of the movements I enjoy the most is in the form of a theme and variations. (One of the curses of listening to music in the car is that I cannot look at the album cover or the liner notes, and so I cannot at this moment tell you which sonata it is.) The theme is quite austere, so simple in fact that it scarcely exists as a theme, just a few chords repeated and embellished, and laced together with a charming and moving melody. Schubert then explores the possibilities, both harmonic and intellectual, of this theme, which is, I think, the attraction that the form has held for so many great composers.

Now, last week I had been listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations, which is perhaps the greatest example of the theme and variation form. I had nearly forgotten how wonderful and beautiful it is, and I played it over and over. That, together with the Schubert this morning, and the second movement of the Beethoven piano sonata opus 111 (which is one of my favorite pieces of music) got me thinking about the theme-and-variation as an artistic genre, and how very differently those three composers had had used it.

First, as a general note, I think that the appeal of the theme and variation form is the opportunity it affords the composer to work with the possibilities and intricacies inherent in the motive idea. In this sense, it is a quintessentially artistic form, offering intellectual challenges as well as aesthetic ones. Certainly this is what Bach was doing in the Goldberg Variations – exploring the pure melodic and ideational implications of his beautiful and complex theme, and developing them to the highest level of virtuosity imaginable.

In the Goldberg Variations, Bach begins with a theme borrowed from the Anna Magdalena Notebook, which he assembled as an exercise for a student (who would become his second wife) in order to improve her keyboard skills. The theme, which is quite short though very complex, is, I think, one of the loveliest melodies ever written. Bach then develops and explores this musical idea through thirty variations of surpassing beauty, complexity and diversity. He then repeats the original theme which, since we have lived through every possible permutation and elaboration it suggests, now seems to us to be a completely different musical idea than when we first heard it. It is as though we were introduced to a lovely and intriguing person, then heard her life story with all of its shadings, colors, tragedy, comedy, meditations, heartaches and triumphs, and then met the same person again. Our appreciation for and understanding of her would be immensely broadened and deepened, and she would appear almost to be an entirely different being.

Schubert, in his theme and variations, begins with a more austere and understated theme and, while developing it through a series of variations, he returns to it periodically, restating it in the very process of exploring its possibilities. This creates a spiral effect, rather than the linear effect of the Goldberg Variations. It is a very interesting approach. Even as we are learning more about the idea and being opened to its implications both aesthetic and intellectual, we are continually reminded of its essential nature. The effect of this reminding is almost hypnotic. Whereas in Bach we leave the theme in its pure form behind and embark on a journey of discovery and creation, in Schubert we are continually recalled to the original idea, almost as a sort of reality check. Schubert seems to be saying 'Don't forget what we are dealing with here, don't get lost in the adventure, keep looking at the material from which I am creating and remember it as we move on.' Thus our appreciation for the depth and beauty of the idea grows and deepens alongside our exploration of it, rather like the photo album of our children which remains a reminder of their infancy as they grow up. Schubert then returns to the theme a final time, more in a gesture of satisfaction and completion than of revelation. The effect of the theme and variations in his hands is one of beauty and insight rather than, as in Bach, of sheer virtuoso brilliance and exposition.

Beethoven, as usual, takes an entirely different course. In the second movement of the Op. 111 sonata, he begins with a dense and powerful theme and then launches into a series of variations which explore not only the melodic and intellectual possibilities of the theme, but more importantly, which probe for and expose its spiritual implications as well. The variations rend and transform the theme to the point where it is almost unrecognizable (at least to my ear), and then they blossom into one of the most intense and sublime spiritual statements Beethoven ever made. (Only the last string quartets surpass this gesture in spiritual purity.) In the section which has been called ‘the divine trills’ Beethoven apotheosizes the theme to the point where it becomes other worldly and, indeed, in the end, it does seem to leave the Earth and ascend to heaven. The effect here is of a reaching upward to touch the divine spirit which animates man, and a leaving of life and the material realm, and even the world of ideas, behind.

Three different composers using the same form with three very different intentions and results. Bach was drawn to the form, I think, for the sheer artistic and intellectual challenge and joy which it presented, and in the process, produced one of the greatest artistic achievements of Western music. Schubert was drawn to the form, perhaps, as an opportunity to meditate and to deepen and heighten the sense of melodic beauty which lay at the heart of his sensibilities. But Beethoven, at a very late stage of his life, saw in the form, in its abstractness, in the purity of its artistic approach and the potential for intellectual complexity, an opportunity to enunciate that spiritual insight which was so absorbing and dominating his life and work. While Bach’s variations are formally perfect, and Schubert’s, aesthetically deep and beautiful, Beethoven’s are, characteristically, intense, driving, and transcendent. But all are great jewels in the artistic life of our civilization.

Leo and Feo

While walking yesterday morning, I found myself thinking about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Their work could not be more different stylistically (though not thematically), and though both were very Russian writers, I think Dostoevsky was the more Russian of the two. While Tolstoy was essentially a man of the 18th century European Enlightenment, Dostoevsky always looked to the East, to ancient Rus and to Slavophilism. (I suppose a spell in a Siberian penal camp will do that to you.) I have read all of Dostoevsky's work - including Netotchka Nyesvanovna and the Notebooks - and while I admire him enormously and consider him one of the greatest novelists who ever lived, I never developed the love for him that I did for Tolstoy. I think that George Steiner, that remarkable man, was correct when he argued that one inevitably chooses either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky but not both, largely according to one's temperament.

Though the two were contemporaries, they never met, which is exceedingly odd considering that they sometimes lived in the same city, and were regarded as the most important writers in Russia at that time. This was so, I think, because Tolstoy deliberately avoided Dostoevsky's company, perhaps out of jealousy or fear or both, and because Dostoevsky was an ailing and reclusive sort who avoided everyone's company. They did have, I believe, a brief correspondence, and one is tantalized to wonder what the result of their meeting might have been. (I am certain that some young and ambitious playwright will one day latch onto this idea as a subject for a pretentious one-act.) But I think that nothing much would have come of it, knowing Tolstoy as I do, and I offer as evidence his single meeting with Tchaikovsky, from which, apparently, he fled in horror, never to repeat the mistake.

When Dostoevsky died, Tolstoy claimed to have been inconsolable. He wrote a remembrance of Dostoevsky in which he stated that he had re-read all of the man's work (an impossibility, given the interval of time) and that he would miss no other writer as much as he. And yet, during their lifetimes, he never found the occasion to meet the man, and spoke very little about him subsequently, except to criticize the excesses in his work.

Tolstoy seems to have picked his artistic companionships carefully. One of his closest was Gorky (if we can believe his accounts). This was so, I think, because Gorky posed little or no threat to Tolstoy, being a writer more passionate and political than artful. Another was Chekhov, who, though a writer of true talent and a man of personal charm and warmth, worked for the most part on a scale much smaller than Tolstoy's. Gorky remarked that Tolstoy seemed to treat Chekhov as if Chekhov were a girl, and I can believe this easily, since Chekhov by all accounts was a gentle, tender, solicitous soul, whom Tolstoy would have found amusing and endearing. Tolstoy was, of course brutal in his criticism of Chekhov's plays, in the way, I suppose, that a rich and domineering husband might be of a lower-born wife who dresses - to his mind - in bad taste.

Indeed, one of my favorite Tolstoy anecdotes involved Chekhov the dramatist. When Tolstoy was ill in the Crimea near the end of his life, he sent for Chekhov, who made the long journey to Gaspara on the Black Sea to hear what he thought might be the master's last words to him. When Chekhov approached the bedside, Tolstoy motioned him to bring his ear close to his lips. "Anton," Tolstoy whispered, "your plays are terrible. Only Shakespeare's are worse."

It was, of course, a wonderful complement as well as a naughty put-down. And Tolstoy, true to form, went on living after it for several more years. But that was Tolstoy, who was an example of what was once said of Mark Twain: He was perfect.... in his strengths and in his weaknesses.

Art and Entertainment

I was thinking today about Mozart, and that, even among classical composers, he is unique. His work, it seems to me, is the highest form of artistic entertainment. By that I mean that, to my mind at least, it lacks a spiritual dimension, and exists solely as art to entertain. Now before you all go running for your keyboards, let me elaborate.

I make a distinction here between entertainment, entertainment that rises to the level of art, and art that rises to the level of spirituality. Most of what passes for art is, in fact, merely entertainment, including almost all of the films ever made. (Very rarely does film rise to the level of art, in my estimation. The films of F. W. Murnau, for example, or of Andrei Tarkovsky, are among the few exceptions.) In such work, entertainment is the essence and intention; it is the nature of the work and the reason for which it was created.

Beyond entertainment is art as entertainment - that is, works the essence and intention of which are artistic - and the highest expression of this is the music of Mozart. And it is a very lofty expression indeed. But, try as I might, I have never been able to find in Mozart's music that sublime spiritual dimension that I find in the work of Beethoven, for example, or in the late work of Bach, or in the later fiction of Tolstoy. Art as entertainment remains on the level of artistic expression, lacking the spiritual dimension that would otherwise be its essence and intention.

Another example of high art as entertainment (though not as high as Mozart) is the music of Tchaikovsky. I was listening today to the Serenade for Strings and thinking how lovely it was, and how much beautiful music Tchaikovsky produced. This is also a very high level of art as entertainment. But only in the Sixth Symphony did Tchaikovsky begin to explore that realm of spirituality which characterizes the greatest forms of art. He did so, I think, through the sheer force of his aesthetic practiced over many years of composition, and in the face of his mortality. He was thus driven to spiritual art through an accretion of forces both within and without. Mozart, too, I suppose, in the Requiem, began to enter this realm for much the same reasons. But Beethoven seems to have been drawn to it, and to have dwelt in it, for most of his life. It appears to have been embedded in his nature both as a man and as an artist, as it was in Tolstoy's. Both men moved irresistibly into the arena of spiritual art and remained there, although in their earlier years they produced a very high level of art as entertainment. But ultimately and most importantly, the essence and intention of their greatest works was spiritual.

Still, Mozart remains for me a puzzle - a very wonderful puzzle - in that he produced mostly secular art, much as Shakespeare did, and as we know, Shakespeare was for Tolstoy also an inscrutable and frustrating puzzle. I love Mozart's work, and find it as close to formal perfection in art as anyone ever came, but to my ear it lacks that aspect which has always drawn me to art: the spiritual essence. I may be wrong, and do suspect that I am wrong. The deficiency is probably not in Mozart, but in me.

On Poetry

Many years ago when I was in college, a professor of mine was struggling to define poetry; that is, to identify those characteristics that all good poems have in common. After several unsuccessful attempts at a definition, she finally declared, in frustration, that poetry is where the writer tells the editor how to arrange the words on the page.

Now, while there is some truth to this characterization, it struck me then, and still does now, that it is more glib than enlightening. And so I have been thinking lately about what characterizes good poetry; that is, what are the bare essentials of a good poem.

(I specify 'good poetry' because there are few things that annoy me more than bad poetry. Bad poetry cannot be excused. It is possible to excuse bad singing, or bad dancing or bad drawing because all of us do these things more or less poorly. But few people attempt poetry, and when they do so unsuccessfully, it is embarrassing.)

I would say that there are three, or perhaps four, characteristics of all good poetry. These are, to begin with, Intensity, Imagery, and Rhythm. Poetic language must be intense, that is, it must convey a great deal of meaning in very few words; the more meaning and the fewer words the better. Poetry is the most intensive form of language, and the very best poetry challenges our ability to grasp all at once the meaning of the poet. When G. M. Hopkins says in talking about the relation of body to soul, 'Self-yeast of spirit a dull dough sours' or 'As tumbled over rim in roundy wells stones ring' he is packing the phrases with a density of meaning and a beauty of expression that would be impossible in prose.

Above all, poetry is metaphoric in nature. Poetic language must invoke images or sensory perceptions in the mind of the reader. More so than any other form of literature, poetry moves on a suspension bridge-work of metaphor in conveying meaning from the mind and soul of the poet to those of the reader. And the more unusual, unexpected, yet telling the imagery, the more effective the poetry. When e.e. cummings says of his beloved, 'No one, not even the rain, has such small hands,' he is being at once tender and vividly unexpected in his choice of words and image. Hands and raindrops have nothing in common, are never taken together, yet in overlapping them as he does, he creates an impression that is at once original, clear, and moving. And John Donne (one of the greatest poets in English) gives us perhaps the most unusual yet precise and lovely image for two lovers when he compares them to 'the stiff twin compasses' which engineers and geometers use to draw circles. 'Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show to move, but doth if th'other do.' The lovers are joined at the pinnacle of their beings, yet they move, seemingly independently of one another. But the separation is only seeming: the foot of the compass that runs and describes the circle is held firm by the fixed foot, which 'leans and harkens after it', keeping its 'circle just' and inevitably drawing it home.

Thirdly, poetry is characterized by the deliberate use of rhythm. Poetic language is always rhythmical, because poetry is the closest of all the linguistic arts to music, which is the greatest of all the arts. Whether formal and rigid, as in the Elizabethan sonnet, or loose and suggested as in some twentieth century poetry, rhythm is always a component of good verse, giving its language cohesion, momentum and intrinsic structure and beauty. In Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen tells us that the true eulogy for the slaughtered boys of World War I lies not in official declamations but, 'Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds/ And each slow dusk, a drawing-down of blinds.' This careful and solemn use of rhythm is itself a suitable funeral dirge for the dead.

A fourth characteristic of poetry, which is neither inevitable nor even necessary, is rhyme. Yet rhyme is the first thing that comes to mind when most people are asked what makes poetry poetic. But modern verse has made it clear that rhyme is dispensable, and many poets and many poems do without it altogether. (Though as a practical mater, the loss of rhyme must be accounted for by a careful attention to rhythm. Rhythm, when well executed, can take the place of rhyme as an effect in verse.)

Nonetheless, rhyme was a constant in early poetry, and remains a popular device in the making of a poem. Shakespeare even found it useful to use rhyme in the course of the prose in his plays, either to denote the end of a speech or scene, or to create a ringing effect, as when Hamlet says, 'The play's the thing in which I'll catch the conscience of the king.' Or when Cladius, at the end of his prayer, laments, 'My words fly up, my thoughts remain below/ Words without thoughts never to heaven go.'

I suggest that Shakespeare knew full well that by rhyming, he would leave the audience with the strong impression of a pithy and quotable phrase, as indeed, he did. And even T.S. Eliot, for whom rhyme was far from indispensable, felt compelled to use it in order to nail down, as it were, certain salient ideas. At the end of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, for example, in a wonderful example of imagery, rhythm and rhyme, he has Prufrock say of the mermaids, 'I have seen them riding seaward on the waves/ Combing the white hair of the waves blown back/ When the wind blows the water white and black./ We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/ By sea girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/ Til human voices wake us, and we drown.'

Beyond these three or four qualities, I can think of no constants in good poetry, except perhaps for that of meaning. A poem that does not convey a clear and profound meaning from poet to reader is not worth the writing, let alone the reading. And this is why so much bad poetry rhymes - because, bereft of meaning, the poet nonetheless wishes to make it clear that he is writing poetry, and not mere prose. But for all the rhyme in the world, bad poetry is just drivel, and no amount of rhyme can make it anything other than that.

Good poetry, rhyming or not, has a soul. Like music, it is something akin to a direct communication of feelings or ideas or insights from the writer to the audience, but as in music, it cannot be said to conform to no fixed rules; that it is merely an arrangement of words on the page. When that is attempted, chaos ensues, as we too often see in contemporary classical music, wherein composers seem to be writing only for the edification of other composers. Poets, true poets, write because they cannot not write, because they cannot keep silent. And the form in which they write is the most rarefied, the most sonorous, and the most ardent in all of literature. Good poets and good poems are linguistic treasures, and as with most treasures, they are extremely rare.

Moving from old blog

Hi all, this is Eli (the elder son who is somewhat tech-savvy). I'm moving my father's works from the old blog here as the last one was built on an open-source framework which has been somewhat abandoned and is not as easy to navigate as google's blogging system. I hope you all enjoy the new format!


Heart aches 10

As I move farther away from the surgery, and the recovery drags on and on, I begin to realize the psychological and spiritual effects it has had on me. I intuited that they would occur, but I did not anticipate how deep or lasting they would be. I woke up this morning thinking that I was like Frankenstein, a creature stitched together that does not really work and resents its condition; or that I was like Humpty Dumpty - they can cut you open, but they cannot necessarily put you back together.

I have said before that the whole idea of heart surgery is posited on the prejudice that the human being is a mechanism and that the heart is its pump. Therefore, it should be possible to open up that mechanism and repair that pump, and expect the whole to resume functioning as before. But this is simply not the truth. The human being is a unique kind of creature - unique in all creation - in that we have minds and souls, memories and emotions, hopes and fears and dreams, all of which contribute to our image of ourselves as conscious beings. This precludes the possibility that we can be treated as if we were something else, something mechanical and merely functioning, yet this idea is what all of modern medical science is founded on.

Now, I think that for some people who approach their lives mechanistically, and for whom the desire for the prolongation of life at any cost is inherent, perhaps such things as heart surgery do work, quite blandly and efficiently. Such people live as though their lives were mechanical; unreflecting, bereft of deeper instincts, incapable of or unwilling to contemplate the higher, transcendent purpose of life or of its meaning. I do not disdain these people; in fact, in my current circumstances, I rather envy them. Their recovery must be as mechanical as their approach to life and to their surgery. 'I'm broken, so fix me and I'll go back to the way I was.'

But for others, heart surgery (and perhaps brain surgery) is a different matter. For such as these, surgery of the heart is a turning point, both physically and psychically. It forces you to question who and what you were beforehand, and who and what you will be after. It makes you wonder at yourself: at the complex amalgam of body and affect, mind and soul, that you are. And it leaves you panting before the prospect that, if you were not really broken before the surgery, you certainly are now. Because your entire being keeps telling you so, in terms that you cannot ignore. 'Self-yeast of spirit a dull dough sours,' Hopkins said, and finally, after years of struggling with that concept, I understand what he meant. I feel it in my heart.

Lincoln and the left

In observance of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, I have begun re-reading his collected papers. I ended tonight by reading the second inaugural address, which I have read many times, and parts of which I have memorized. It is the yardstick by which all other such addresses must be measured (and in comparison to which Obama's failed miserably). And it must have taken him no more than five minutes to deliver it.

What is stunning about this speech is not only Lincoln's flat assessment that slavery brought about the civil war, but, more so, his categorical assertion that God gave us the war. He states unequivocally that God permitted slavery to exist in this country, and that he now chooses to end it through the civil war. And he concludes that the war will go on as long as God wills it to go on, even if that means that 250 years' worth of wealth accumulated by slavery will be sunk, and that every drop of blood drawn by the bondsman's lash will be paid by another drawn by the sword. And if this is so, he tells us, then who can challenge the idea that the judgments of the Lord are just and righteous altogether?

Now the point I want to make here is a simple one. If any modern American president dared to make such an assertion about the direct intervention of God in the nation's affairs, he would be ridiculed, reviled, perhaps called insane or a fanatic, and driven from office. And yet we consider Lincoln to have been our greatest president. But he was our greatest president, not despite his belief in divine intervention in the affairs of men, but because of it. It was his belief in the intimate relationship between God and man, between God and national destiny that made him our greatest president.

Today the secular left would pillory him for making even a shadow of such statements, and in righteous indignation demand that he be banned from the public sphere, even as they demand that religion be banned from the public sphere. Yet in another of Lincoln's writings that I read tonight, a proclamation calling for a day of fasting and national confession of sin, he begins by stating his belief, and that of Congress, and that of the Founders, that it is God who governs the affairs of this nation. A man who held such beliefs could not be elected to any high office in this country today, and that is a terrible commentary on the spiritual state of our nation, and the scabrous effect which the purveyors of secular liberalism have had on our national consciousness.

Heart aches 9

It has now been nearly six weeks since the surgery, and odd things are happening. I write them, and all of these notes, to let people who are contemplating heart surgery know what my experience has been. Not what theirs will be, nor even what most people's are, but only mine.

The incision is healing at last, but the lump at the top, which I was told to expect and which had disappeared recently, returned last night with a vengeance. It was suddenly so large and so tight that it woke me several times during the night. Why fluid should be accumulating at the top of the incision at this late date is a puzzle to me. I should have thought that period was past.

Beyond that is the chest pain. It is a sparking, electric pain that radiates from one shoulder and arm pit across my chest to the other. And it is always there. It never subsides, never stops, so that now I know what it is like for those who live with chronic pain. It is your inevitable companion, present when you go to sleep, present when you wake (if it allows you to sleep), bland, unconquerable and gnawing. I have stopped taking the vicodin they gave me to control pain for two reasons: first, because it is a very powerful drug which I do not want in my system, and second, because it now has less effect than before, an invitation to take more, which I find frightening.

But I think the worst of it is that I cannot do the things I am so used to doing and, though I did not realize until now, which helped define me as a person. Simple household maintenance, for example, and larger projects, such as repairing the garden gate, replacing an electrical outlet in the back yard, and building things with my son. Owning a house means continual maintenance and improvements, and these were important and pleasurable to me, and I am no longer capable of them. At least, I am not now. People assure me that I will return to such pursuits, and in the near future at that, but frankly I do not see it. This operation has, as I have said, made me old, added years to my life, worn me out.

My youth, which was never far from me, is now a distant memory. I am a different person than I was, stripped of so much that had meaning for me -- or, perhaps not stripped, but placed as it were on the far side of a barrier. And that barrier was the surgery, to which I submitted, and from which the recovery has more to do with the mind and spirit than it does with mended cartilage.


If Karl Marx were alive today, I think he would argue that, not religion, but professional sports are the opiate of the masses. It is certainly true in this country, where so much time and attention (i.e. money) is channeled into sports. And there is no better day than today - Super Bowl Sunday - on which to reflect upon these matters.

I watch with a numbed fascination the parade of commentators on television acting as if the Super Bowl has any real meaning. It does not - it is a game. As a game, it is meant to provide passing entertainment, but, in fact, its purpose has come to be more than that. What such events do in our society, more and more, is to provide a distraction from our truly pressing concerns. At this point, of course, the chief of those concerns is the threatened collapse of the American economy.

In face of such a terrifying possibility, we are all too happy to embrace the Super Bowl, or the World Series, or the NBA championships or the NCAA Final Four, using them to dull our consciousness and to distract ourselves from the fact that there is little we, or our so-called leaders, can do about it. The economic stimulus package currently being contemplated by Congress has shown itself to be nothing more than a hide-bound liberal boondoggle, stuffed with more pork than a po' boy sandwich. And this is possible only because no one - no one - actually knows what will drag us from this recession, which has now encircled the globe.

And so we can retreat for a day or so at least, into the insignificance of the Super Bowl, and treat its every detail, no matter how minute, as if it were of great moment. Such welcome diversions explain why so much weight and fortune are accorded to professional sports in this country - they distract the citizens from the realities, among which are the malfeasance of our economic planners, the corruption and self-interest of our politicians, the steady erosion of our liberties, the waning of initiative, and our dying spiral into a materialism so pervasive, pointless and crass as to verge on insanity.

Today at the Super Bowl we will, no doubt, be subjected to a spectacle of materialism, patriotism, militarism and popular culture which should shame any society that considers itself to be Christian. But the truth is that our materialism and our militarism are two faces of the same coin. We fight to preserve our material wealth and we use that wealth, in largest proportion, to create weapons of warfare. And all of this is sanctioned, indeed, sanctified, by mainstream religion (and by a shallow and tendentious media), which also participates in the profits from this vicious cycle.

In this way, religion has devolved into the same malaise as the rest of society, selling itself for profit every bit as much as our politicians and sportsmen, which puts the purveyors of mainstream religion into the same ignoble company as they. It is all about the money - sports, politics, religion - and now that that money is in short supply, our society feels cut adrift, and our leaders scramble for some solution, not to save our way of life but theirs.

But they cannot. They do not possess new answers, because they persist in asking the old questions. In the face of catastrophic failure, they insist on looking backwards, or looking to an increasingly irrelevant concept of God, or or looking for ways to spend more of our money, or looking at the Super Bowl and insisting that it has meaning. Anything but look the truth in the eyes. And that truth is that religion and recovery and meaning all reside where they have always done - in the individual human spirit, which, if freed from the shackles of government and conventional religion, would not only pull us from this morass, but propel us into a future that does possess meaning.

Enjoy the game.

Heart aches 7

Nearly a month from the surgery and I seem to make no progress. I remain in atrial fibrillation (my heart is fluttering, not beating), the shortness of breath continues, and the pain persists. I did not shower yesterday, both because no one came by, and because I cannot bear to take off my shirt even when I am alone. The incision remains a hideous reminder of what I can only conclude has been an unnecessary failure.

There are some small positive signs. Last night I slept from 10:30 to 3:00, then from 4:00 to 6:00, then from 6:30 to 7:30; the closest to a decent night's sleep I have come in months. And when I am not so nauseated that the idea of food is repulsive to me, my appetite is returning. I can walk slightly farther than I could last week, though only with the help of a cane, and pauses to catch my breath.

What I want to say by all this is that my condition, while largely genetic (heart disease killed every man in my family by the age of 62, as far as I am aware), is not inevitable. It is possible for many to avoid this nightmare: Change the way you eat and exercise. Stop eating the junk food and the fast food and the fatty food with which our society is flooded, and which inundates us in our advertising. And don't claim you don't know what foods to avoid - you do. Eat sensibly and healthfully - fish and chicken, fruit and vegetables - and make exercise as regular a part of your routine as working and resting.

Be mindful of your heart, which works even when you do not, and which must be nourished and strengthened like any other muscle in the body. But unlike any other muscle, when it tears or breaks or atrophies, all the other muscles, and organs, die. So be mindful of your heart above all.

I dearly wish that I could say that my recovery is going quickly and smoothly, but I cannot. (The man whose web site profits from his surgery is a self-deluding fool.) The recovery, if you can call it that, is slow and painful, revealing and tedious, frustrating and depressing. But its aspect that troubles me the most is that I cannot even say I am trying to return to my old self. As I have noted here, I do not believe that is possible - that it is possible for strangers to slice open your flesh, saw through your breastbone, expose your viscera to the sterile light of an operating room, divert your life's blood and breath to a machine, stop your heart and manipulate it, then reverse the entire process and expect you to return to who and what you were before they left upon your flesh the skater's line imprint of their passage. But since I cannot return to my old self, where am I expected to go?

Perhaps if I knew the answer to that, my recovery could begin in earnest. But it is as hidden from me, though operative in me, as the pig's valve which was implanted in my heart. I have, at heart, become a porcine freak of nature in desperate search of the humanity that, like a stray sponge, was left behind somewhere in the operating room.

The view from inside

Since I have been ill and confined to the house, I have had to decide what to do about my time. The medications I take make it difficult for me to concentrate, and so I find that any serious work is out of the question. I can no more write or research heavy subject matter in my current state of mind than I could operate heavy machinery.

And so, in addition to reading - mostly World War I flying memoirs and books on the history of mountaineering; two subjects that have engaged me since I was a boy - I have watched a good deal of television. Now, formerly I rarely watched television, and have done so recently purely to pass the empty hours. And what I have seen has given me pause.

Most of what is on television is worthless, time-wasting nonsense. I am shocked by both the quality and content of contemporary TV. And this extends from the so-called entertainment programs to the so-called news programs. Indeed, I find, there is rather little to distinguish them from one another. I watched, for example, the KTLA morning 'news' in the hope of seeing my younger girl interviewed. As a result, I had to watch the entire sorry spectacle. The people who host this program, like the ones who host the Good Day LA show on Channel 11 at the same time, are silly, vapid, puerile purveyors of what they try to pass off as news and local interest. Instead, they expose themselves at every opportunity as buffoons who have nothing to say and a shocking amount of time in which to say it.

I have been scandalized, too, at what passes for serious news reporting. As one flips from one news show to another, one cannot help but be struck by the political agendas that dominate these outlets. The news readers - for they cannot be called journalists - and the commentators are so heavily and unashamedly biased in favor of one side or the other as to make one wonder whether one is, in fact, watching the reporting of the same news stories, so slanted are their presentations. What has happened to the integrity of television journalism? It is, as far as I can see, non-existent, and the concept of objectivity has disappeared without a trace.

The entertainment shows are crass, stupid, pointless, vulgar and insulting in their content and in their presentation. I am amazed at the trash, the violence and the human degradation that is broadcast in the name of popular entertainment. Thirty years ago, even twenty years ago, much of this would not have been allowed on the public airwaves, and fifty years ago, when I was a boy, none of it could have been aired. And yet, I note that any effort to stem this tide of dehumanizing filth and vulgarity meets with scorn in the left-wing circles which appear to have taken over the airwaves.

There are some exceptions, of course. I have found programs on the history and science channels which are both entertaining and informative. The occasional classic movie is a rare treat. But the cable movie channels seem to have cornered the market on human degradation and moral depravity. It has been enlightening, this forced march into the world of television, in what it has revealed to me about the state of popular culture. It is no wonder that our children - too many of them - are out of control, and that our society drifts toward bankruptcy, of the purse and the spirit.

Television is leading the way to the demise of our culture, and big corporations, in pursuit of the commerce of mind-numbed and morally bereft consumers, are paying for the process of our spiritual suicide. Everyone involved should feel ashamed, and that they apparently do not is, in itself, a sad commentary on our times.

Heart aches 8

I apologize, but tonight is the worst night since I came home from the hospital. The cardiologist told me today that the atrial fibrillation which I evince is coming from a part of the heart not affected by the surgery. Thus, the surgery seems to have crated a new problem: a part of my heart that functioned normally before no longer functions normally. I am so exhausted, nauseated and short of breath that I can barely stand. I even considered driving myself to the emergency room, but I was too ill to drive.

But I will not go back into the hospital. I will stick this out, and go wherever it takes me, in the hope that I may learn something of value from it. I pulled down off the shelf my collection of English verse and began reading poets whose work I had never read before. It is amazing, the effect that poetry has on my spirit - much like that of music. My younger niece stopped by briefly to discuss with me a term paper she has due in English - the analysis of the major themes of a poet of her choice. I asked which poet she would choose, and she replied, "I don't know many poets." How sad a statement coming from a bright, well-educated girl. Of course she has been required to read the gender-themed and politically correct books, but virtually no Shakespeare, no Donne, no Milton, no Blake, no Eliot. I tell you, our society is performing a lobotomy on itself even in our better schools.

I recommended G. M. Hopkins, both because he is my favorite poet and because he wrote little verse, which contained a few carefully defined themes: God, nature, despair. His so-called desperate sonnets are the voiced agony of a truly profound and sensitive spirit, and at times I have found them almost too painful to read. His verse on nature, such as Spring and Fall and 'Nothing is so beautiful as Spring' are exquisite, and his poems about the existence of God are some of the deepest reflections on the subject I know. But it is when he synthesizes these themes, as in Pied Beauty, God's Grandeur, or The Windhover, or as in his magnificent sonnet 'As kingfishers catch fire,' that he truly rises to greatness. Spiritual greatness, linguistic greatness, for Hopkins was both a mystic and a pioneer of language. Like Beethoven in the Late String Quartets, he felt compelled to create a new language in order to be able to express his spiritual insights. And that he was able to do so, in almost compete isolation, indeed, in secret (his cloister as a Jesuit priest was analogous to Beethoven's deafness, and none of his poetry was published in his lifetime) is one of the true triumphs of the human spirit.

Let those who deny that man is essentially a spiritual being - those poor, pathetic disbelievers in anything they cannot see or touch or count - come to Hopkins, and let them, having delved his depths, come away still with disbelief, and we can say with Hamlet that their souls are black and damned as hell whereto they go.

Heart aches 5

Let me say something about the scars. Like most people who face open heart surgery, I was anxious about having the evidence of it carved into my flesh for the rest of my life. I read a good deal about post-op scars, what they looked like, how they healed, and what might be done to ameliorate them. And, once again, I found a good deal of nonsense on the Net, some of it pernicious, some well-intentioned. But I think that anyone contemplating the surgery ought to know my experience so far, at least.

In the site of the man who seems to make a living of his surgery, there is a photo of his week-old post-op scar. It is a neat line down the center of his chest, as if some mischievous child had taken a Sharpie pen and ruler to him in his sleep. Then, some months later, we see him on the beach with no sign of the operation visible. Some people actually suggest that one should be proud of one's scar and put it on display as a testament to the years of life which one has gained through the surgery. I find this idea morbid, and I have already expressed my attitude on this point.

In my case, the incision is not a trim vertical line, but a rather jagged one, stretching from the level of my collar bones to the top of my abdomen. Why it was not possible for the doctor who made the incision to cut a straight line I cannot tell. I do it every time my son and I build a wooden ship model and we have to cut the sails. Their edges must be perfectly straight for appearance sake, and so we have devised means and adopted tools to accomplish this. Perhaps modern heart surgery could benefit from the ancient art of model ship building.

The incision is sewn shut subcutaneously, for which I am grateful since there will be no attendant signs of the stitching (like the eyelets on your boots through which the laces pass) to give me a truly Frankenstein allure. Then the incision was slathered over with a kind of glue that helps bond it together. Derma-bond I think it is called. Now for this much I was prepared, both by my research and by my doctors.

What I was not prepared for is the fact that I have not one, but seven incisions on my person, meaning, eventually, seven scars. In addition to the chest incision, there are three punctual defects below the chest incision and at right angles to it, from which the drainage tubes in my chest cavity protruded. These are nasty, roundish holes, still bearing their sutures.

(I should mention also that the wires used to close my sternum, which was bisected by a circular saw, are still there and will remain for the rest of my life. In addition, the wires implanted in my heart to monitor its behavior, which were snipped off at the level of the skin, will also remain inside me til death, and, in fact, will long outlast my decay.)

In addition to these, there are, of course, three incisions on my left leg, where the donor vein was 'harvested' as they quaintly put it. I was told quite solemnly that I ought to be grateful for these, since in the not-too-distant past, the vein was removed through a single incision running almost the entire length of the leg. In my case, this would have meant a three-foot-long scar stretching from just below the groin to just above the ankle. And I am grateful that this was not necessary, though no one prepared me for the fact that the incision on the inside of my knee, though which the vein was removed endoscopically, is practically a mirror-image of the one on my right knee, a jagged, ugly wound which I received years ago from a broken piece of glass. The other two are much smaller and I think they should heal with little or no scarring.

(The one real anomaly in all of this is the continual nagging irritation in my ankle where, I can only assume, the vein was cauterized after it was cut. I can actually feel the truncated stump of it moving beneath my skin, and it causes me a good deal of unfamiliar discomfort. I cannot cross my ankles, nor can I allow the bedclothes to rest upon it. I feel as though I want to wear a rubber band around my ankle to keep the vein from moving, but all this begs the question: What are the implications of losing this vein and its blood supply? When I asked the surgeon's assistant this question, he glibly responded that I don't really need it since nature gives us a spare. I replied that, from my passing acquaintance with nature, I do not believe that this is how it works; in its hard-bitten drive for efficiency, nature rarely gives us a spare anything. Thus, my question remains unanswered.)

And so, in my case at least, the surgery leaves, not a neat, ten-inch incision on the chest, but a jagged, foot-long trough, at the base of which are three more incisions. Those, together with the three in my leg, make seven cuts in all. I would make some ironic reference here to the seven wounds of Christ, but those were inflicted as punishment, while mine were inflicted 'for my own good.'

I note all this not in complaint (it is too late for that to have any meaning), but so that those who face a similar ordeal may have some honest and specific account of the implications. I mentioned to a friend that my chest now looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. While this was intended as hyperbole, the fact is that my flesh will remain a landscape the lines and contours of which will forever remind me both of the surgery, and of the misleading assurances of those who, while doubtless expert in the cutting of the heart, nonetheless lack understanding of how the heart, the mind and the soul all function together in the course of our humanity. We are not collections of organs mechanically interlinked; we are organisms, the integrity of which bends from the merely mechanical to the eternal.

Back and forth

Once you have allowed yourself to be treated like a thing, there is no going back. This has been driven home to me both by the surgery, and by the behavior of an acquaintance of mine. Out of desperation and the need to survive, she turned to prostitution. I thought that I had convinced her to leave that life, to get a job and go back to school, but after the surgery I learned that she had begun hooking again. It broke my heart, which, ironically, had just been fixed.

There are lines one does not cross in this life - not if one wishes to retain one's integrity and any hope of a meaningful future. There are prices that one does not pay if one wishes one's life to have value. I think that, like this woman, I have crossed the line and paid the price, and there is no going back now. Back to the life I used to know, back to the prospect of dignity and control, back to a sense of integrity and self-respect. Once you have given those up, as both she and I did, there is no going back.

I had the follow-up with the surgeon today, and I was told that there is still fluid in my lungs, which accounts for my shortness of breath, and that my heart is beating fifty percent faster than it should. In other words, I may have slipped back into atrial fibrillation, which was the problem that triggered all this and which the surgery was meant to solve. I had been promised that, with the new valve and the maze procedure, going back into a-fib as they call it would be impossible. But, as it does occasionally in this life, the impossible has triumphed again.

Despite all the assurances of my doctors and my friends, despite the urgings and bullyings, I knew in my gut that this surgery was the wrong choice for me. In the same way, the woman must have known that prostitution was the wrong choice for her. But we both agreed to lie down and let others have their way with us in the hope of survival. As I have said elsewhere here: survival purchased at any price is not survival, but a form of living death.

I urge others who are contemplating having open heart surgery to consider whether your circumstances may be similar to mine - whether it may not be the right choice for you. I am not saying that you should not have it - I would never counsel anyone this way - but merely that you should consult with your deepest sense of who you are and ask whether the procedure and all of its attendant indignities and its loss of control, may not alter your life in ways that make the prolongation of your life an empty purchase. I believe it was Henry Miller who said that once you have given up the ghost, everything else follows. I never understood what he meant until now.

Heart aches 6

It has now been three weeks since the operation, and I thought I ought to update you on the current situation. For some odd reason, three weeks after the fact, I am in more pain in my upper body than at any time since the first awful night. Why this should be so I cannot imagine. I would have thought that the natural progression of the recovery would have been significant pain at the beginning, subsiding over the following weeks into insignificance. The reverse is true. After the immediate onslaught of pain, which, of course, is to be expected, the pain subsided for a time, and then recommenced, rising again almost to its initial level.

Now I think part of this may be due to the fact that I had been in the habit of working out heavily at the gym five or six days a week. I did a lot of lifting in the chest area to prepare myself for the surgery (doing 100 to 150 flies and presses with dumbbells each session), and it now appears that this was a mistake. What I suspect has happened is that, having conditioned my body to do such hard work in the chest, and then having, in effect, stopped cold, I set myself up for this kind of rebellion. I find that stretching and doing very light upper body exercises loosens up the muscles and relieves the pain a good deal.

It now appears that I have reverted to atrial fibrillation, which all this was meant to cure, which means shortness of breath and fatigue after even the most mundane of activities. It may be necessary to do another cardioversion, a procedure in which the heart is subjected to electric shocks to restore its normal rhythm. I had one of these back in August, and it did buy me some time to arrange the surgery. But what thousands of volts of electricity will do to the new valve and the bypasses I can only guess. I dread it as I have dreaded everything else in this process, but I am resigned to it, as I have resigned myself to everything else.

You may be asking whether anything good has come out of this experience. The answer is: very little. The defective valve has been replaced (with tissue taken from a pig, I note in some horror) and the arteries, which I was solemnly promised were blocked, have been bypassed. But the maze procedure seems to have failed, and, as I have noted repeatedly, many of my core values have been violated.

I will say that the experience of being in a major university hospital was revealing. It was a very cosmopolitan place, staffed for the most part by people from around the world. Needless to say, most of the nurses were Filipino (they seem to be acquiring a monopoly on the nursing profession), and as for the doctors, technicians, trainees, therapists and other employees, I think that among them I met only a very small number who were white Americans whose first language was English. Among those who who attended me were people from China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Mexico, Honduras, Peru, Armenia, Serbia and Russia. As someone who has always been intrigued by and drawn to foreigners, I found this enjoyable, and I am glad that our society still welcomes professionals of every nationality who are willing to come here and work hard. This, I suppose, was the best part of the experience.

Beyond that, the experience continues to be a form of waking nightmare. It has added a good five years to my age (which accounts for about half of the longevity I was promised), and has debilitated me to the point where I remain dependent on others for the simplest tasks, like putting out the trash cans and changing a ceiling light bulb. I am simply not used to being so dependent, and I caution anyone who is contemplating the procedure to reflect upon the fact that, in the first month or so at least, you will not be able to do much of anything that you formerly took for granted.

I never realized how many physical activities put pressure on the breast bone. Opening a jar, for example, or putting on a shirt, or turning a steering wheel or a screwdriver, or lifting a bag of cat food. All are painful once the sternum has been severed; and turning over in bed or finding a comfortable position in a recliner are practical impossibilities. When attempted, they produce the keen sensation of the breastbone shifting, of its two wired halves rubbing against each other like tectonic plates beneath the earth. And as with such subterranean movements, the effect is felt on the surface - a kind of electric shock of tingling pain across the chest which sparks and shimmers from one side to the other.

Three weeks out, coughing remains an ordeal, and I still have to press against my chest when I feel that I am going to cough, to prevent the sensation that my sternum is unhinging again. The incision, while not so livid as before, remains a hideous reminder of the experience, and I can only hope that the regrowth of chest hair will help to hide it. The three holes where the tubes were inserted seem to be healing, and I hope that they will leave no more trace than would have occurred if I had suffered some accidental injury. The scabs on my legs show no sign of abating.

These are the realities as I am experiencing them, but the worst of it, I continue to say, is the mental, moral, emotional and spiritual toll that has been taken by the opening of my chest, and the handling of my heart by strangers, no matter how good were their intentions. Yes, it is wonderful, even miraculous, what medicine can do, and what the skills of surgeons can achieve. And if we were merely machines the parts of which could be repaired of exchanged without cumulative effect, this would be unqualifiedly true. But we are not, and it is not, and the wounds incurred in those misty realms of our humanity may never be healed.

Heart aches 2

Progress in recovery is very slow and inconsistent. There are good days and there are very bad ones. Were it not for my son, who adjusted his work schedule to help me, I think there would be none at all.

I was reminded the other day of a quip of Mark Twain, about the man who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. Asked how he felt about it, he said, "If it weren't for the honor of the thing, I'd have just as soon skipped it." I can say categorically that if I had known it would be like this, I would not have chosen the surgery. I went into it as a man who was enjoying the process of aging, and I came out an old man. I know now why old people act old: you are dependent on others for everything, no matter how trivial, and no one ever does anything right. And so you become irritable at them and angry at yourself, and resigned to your own helplessness. Two days before the operation I worked out at the gym; today I hobble about, barely able to breathe.

The medications I take make me so nauseated so often that I have difficulty eating. The scar is so hideous that I can scarcely look at it - I feel truly disfigured. Yesterday I tried to clean it in the shower, only to have it begin to bleed, fully two weeks after the operation. The pain from the incision and my split sternum comes in long, dank waves, like some filthy tide in a sluggish harbor, choked with memories, and with remorse at the knowledge that I have done this to myself. Yet the vicodin they gave me to manage the pain is even worse. It dissociates my mind, uncoupling my consciousness into two estranged parts that regard each other with a dull curiosity. I hate it and try not to take it; I would rather have the pain, which at least is mine.

A friend asked me about my pain - Which was the worst of it? - and I heard myself reply: the loss of dignity. She laughed, and I assured her that I was not joking. I feel violated and dehumanized. Added to that is the fact that, of all those whom I have tried to help over the years, all those whose suffering I have tried in some small measure to relieve, none is here. From the time my son leaves in the morning until he returns at night, I am alone. Nearly everyone has excuses for not being here - laundry, traffic, meetings, dinners; in one case, simply the fact that I sounded so ill on the phone. The other day I searched my memory to see if I had ever done that to anyone with whom I was close who needed my companionship; I honestly could not think of a soul. That, in some ways, is the worst pain of all: learning who is and is not truly close to you.

I was told that if I did not have the surgery, I would be dead in two years. And yet, I would rather live for two years without this debilitation and the knowledge of this self-betrayal than for the ten or fifteen I was promised with it. I feel as though life has played some terrible practical joke on me, making me a near-invalid like this, stripped of dignity and the illusion of caring, but it was I who made the decision. And the reminder of that choice, fraught with reluctance and false hope, is always there, nagging and tugging at me just beneath my chin.

Heart aches 3

I realize that I must sound terribly ungrateful for the 'gift' I have been given. As a friend of mine said: At least what's wrong with you can be fixed. And she, as so many have, then begins a catalog of incurable diseases from which people suffer and die. Oddly, while I empathize, I take no comfort in the knowledge that my state could be worse.

The truth is that whenever one purchases life, one takes a risk. There is an inverse relation here: If the price is too high, the life is not worth living. Only if the price is manageably low is the value attainable. What I am struggling with now is the idea that I have paid too high a price.

Placed in this position - whether or not to have heart surgery - you are inundated with cliches (and anyone in this position should be ready for them): Do it for others, do it for your children, do it for your health, do it for your work. Ultimately, however, you do it for yourself, though with those things in the perspective. I did not want to do it for myself, but was pressured and bullied into it by well-meaning others, who attempted to make me feel guilty and who threatened their estrangement if I did not. Yet that is not sufficient reason to undergo such a change, as I now see. You have to want it for yourself, as well as for others; otherwise it is not worth doing. Only one person advised me that I did not have to have the surgery, and suggested, in fact, that I not, and to him I will forever be grateful. For a moment in the process at least, I felt I was being given a choice.

And this matter of choice is crucial to the experience. Things that are done in the absence of choice, no matter how apparently laudable, are not necessarily desirable. Desire depends on choice, and the worth of any significant act is measured against the options one had in choosing it. From the moment I was told that I had, in effect, no choice but to have this surgery, I doubted that it was the right thing for me. Time seems to be bearing out my suspicion. I do not feel better; in fact, on a moral, emotional and spiritual level, I feel much worse. This so much true that there are days when I feel that it all has been for nothing - that I may have purchased a few years of life at too high a price.

That price, of course, consists of my dignity, my integrity and my sense that I was in control of my life. The proddings, probings and handlings by strangers which you undergo in the process are humiliating - the experience of being treated like meat, like a broken potter's vessel, like a nonentity. When I complained about this to a friend, she replied indignantly, "What do you think the doctors and nurses are for?"

"To destroy me," I replied.

A doctor friend of mine is fond of saying that if you don't have your health, you have nothing. Formerly I agreed, but now I think that if you don't have your dignity and an inviolate sense of personal integrity, then health, and indeed nothing else, is worth having.