Skip to content →

A clash of illness and intellect

The season’s been warm. A few cold snaps smacked the city. But other than a few days of really cold weather, the kind winter usually brings us, winter has hardly left a mark.

Unfortunately, the warmth and sunshine didn’t prevent illness. Virginia caught a severe cold a few weeks ago. The poor woman works three night shifts at the hospital in the oncology unit. A simple cold will keep her from work, as chemotherapy and the advance of cancer strike the patients’ immune systems. She laid at home, muscles in pain and head stuffed for three days straight. When she could finally sit upright, the best she could muster was television and hot tea.

Then, Nick got it. I can’t remember the last time the kid got sick. He is almost always healthy, even when his school mates drop one after the other to flu and cold. The illness bothered him only a little. A persistent cough and stuffed sinuses plagued him for a few days. But being 14, hearty, and of good cheer, the cold that so laid Virginia low only sent him to bed with a box of tissues.

When it seemed that the plague had passed our house, the cold that got them got me. I felt it coming on last Wednesday. It wasn’t bad, I thought. I will make it through just fine. No problem. Thursday morning, however, it was full on me. Sinuses, headache. I was punchy and wobbling. The secretary at school heard me on the phone and asked if I should check in with a doctor.

Friday I felt better. Wow! This thing is going to touch me hardly at all. But the malaise, depression, and muddled thinking lurked behind the feeling that things were getting better. I didn’t write. I could hardly keep my head in a book. I felt restless and guilty. After all, I have the time and the place to write, why can’t I just get in there and crank something, anything out.

Thursday and Friday, I somehow made it through Robert Kaplan’s Earning the Rockies. I was so looking forward to the book. Kaplan’s fine writing and insight make his travel narratives engaging and insight prescient. I raced through the pages and finished the book in just a couple of sittings—that is, between sleeping and moaning.

But after having read some incredible works, Earning the Rockies turned out a disappointment. Kaplan’s writing was no less lucid than before. What disappointed me most is that Kaplan’s thesis, that American geography destined the nation to lead the world, relies too much on American Exceptionalism, the bad kind: The United States is a unique nation, built on notions of democracy, individualism, and personal liberty. The rich resources of the continent worked allowed unrestricted social mobility and diffusion of power. While seemingly benign on the surface, with a whiff of patriotic aplomb, this view of the nation overlooks weak points—the nation’s tendency toward jingoism, authoritarianism, and subjugation of other people and cultures, not to mention that democracy and personal liberty are not exclusive American possessions. Slavery and racism are tragic exceptions to the great American story, and even then, the abolition of slavery partially redeems the nation from its possible mistakes.

Kaplan freely admits that Americans slaughtered natives and enslaved Africans. But he maintains that even these were inevitable (even necessary) for Americans to take their place at the table of nations and lead. The world is a more moral place because Americans are involved in it. He argues that American retrenchment would cause greater instability in international affairs, leading to problems that individual nations will not be able to solve.

There’s an odor of Samuel Huntington’s notion that cultural and religious identities set the stage for conflict in the post-Cold War world. Huntington proposed in 1992 that different civilizations inhabit the globe. The clash of these civilizations will always lead to bloody and devastating wars. Fortunately, Kaplan has studied enough Middle Eastern culture that he sidesteps the most pernicious of Huntington’s ideas—that American civilization will somehow be sullied and bastardized if infiltrated by other civilizations, a theory that sits in the White House right now with Steve Bannon.

As I pondered these ideas as best I could through the stuffy jumble of the illness, I found myself wondering what I had missed in Kaplan’s other books. Democracies around the world contain pluralistic and multicultural aspects. The silliness of breaking humanity into civilization types falls apart when I think of cultures blending in a modern world. Multiculturalism and pluralism, while on the outs with Donald Trump supporters, still dominates our democracy. They make modern America the interesting. They strengthen the democracy. They make the culture stronger. The world of my parents is not the world I live in, and I’m grateful for it.

Saturday and Sunday, the worst symptoms of the cold were on me in force. The most I could muster was endless episodes of Shameless. I tried to read and I nibbled away at Simon Schama’s Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, a book of selected essays he wrote for art exhibitions and magazines. They make fascinating reading. As soon as I get to thinking I’m smart in some way, all I need to do is stick my head into a Schama book and be humbled.

Schama’s intellect and observational acuity are unparalleled. Whether he’s writing about a Barack Obama speech, an essay on the painting and vision of James Ensor, or a celebrity profile of Charlotte Rampling, Schama has a style that’s challenging and insightful without being overwrought or impenetrable. Fortunately, it was just the right kind of book for the infirm. The essays, a miscellany, provide plenty for the mind to rove around in, no matter how handicapped it is from disease and the despair that comes with it. Some are quite short and the longer ones only take about an hour to get through. It was brain food for a starvling in need of attention and nutrition.

Finally, Sunday night, I began to feel more myself. Sunday evenings find me at my friend Calvin’s apartment. We take a walk and watch a show, whatever series happens to take us. The last bits of disease slowed the walk, if not to a crawl, then into the Crown Center Panera for a wild blueberry scone. We made it up to Penn Valley Park near the Federal Reserve building, where I recounted my family’s relationship with the now erased St. Mary’s Hospital, which once stood on the present Federal Reserve’s lawn. We couldn’t go to Trinity, I told Calvin, they were Lutherans. St. Luke’s belonged to the Episcopalians and Presbyterians. St. Mary’s was Catholic and that was all the reason we needed to do all hospital stays and doctor’s appointments there.

We descended down Main toward Union Station, my feet and legs coming back to me in turns. By the time we got to Calvin’s at the Western Auto buildings, I felt my health had returned.

Published in Uncategorized

Comments

Leave a Reply