Archive for October, 2016

Confronting November

With its dark shadows airborne,
a coven of witches has
silently taken to the midnight sky.
If only they would honk,
dispel the chill that has been cast.

Having dispensed with costumes,
the night now defines us.
Intently, the stars stare and judge.
In their ancient presence
voices are humbled to a whisper.

Time has lost track of our steps.
In the distance between
streetlights we turn into specters.
Confronted by winter’s
enormity, its epoch consumes us.

Breath now an evaporating cloud,
futilely, we bury hands in
the dark corners of our pockets.
Ungloved, November’s
iron fist manifests its dominance.


Reticence in
those final weeks
gave way
to reminiscence,
a rambling
history of him
before us.

When breath’s
dearness stilled
his tongue,
what remained
unsaid was
expressed in eyes
still aware.

With silence
claiming the space
between exhalations,
turned inward again,
he vanished.

When Breath Becomes Air / Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi is thirty-six years old and nearing the end of his training as a neurosurgeon when he receives devastating news. He is diagnosed as having stage IV lung cancer. Instantly, he goes from being a skilled surgeon with the prospect of a successful career to being a hapless patient, confronted with his own mortality.

In When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi addresses not only the effect the news had upon his life and career, he tackles a much larger question: what makes life worth living in the face of death. He does so with eloquence and important insights into what truly matters when time has become a limited resource. While this sounds grim, his story is one that focuses on hope and appreciation of the gifts life has presented him. Despite his serious illness, his wife and he decide to have the child they have long wanted.

The first half of the book deals with the reasons he chose to become a neurosurgeon and the satisfaction he found in helping others. But he also shows how his medical training has made him somewhat callous to the problems his patients face. When ill himself, he realizes that doctors often concentrate solely on the disease itself, rather than the emotional toll the diagnosis has caused. With his unique perspective as both a physician and a patient, he is able to show what takes place on both sides of the clinical interaction.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015 while still racing to complete this book. This was shortly after his wife gave birth to their daughter. The book’s epilogue, written by his wife Lucy, supplies an intimate account of his final days. There is no doubt that her husband had the talent to be an author who could well write numerous articles and books on the relationship between patients and physicians, as well as the meaning of life itself. Unfortunately, confronted with such a devastating diagnosis, this book at times felt rushed and incomplete to me. But then, one considers that time was not on his side and how ill he was while writing it. One has to appreciate what he does accomplish in this slim documentation of his battle against cancer, showing how he rose above the disease to live his remaining days with hope’s positivity.

Ultimately, it is a story that most readers will find both heartbreaking and inspirational. If nothing else, it is a book that should be assigned to every aspiring medical student. It serves as an important reminder against hubris, and the necessity of seeing the person behind the designation of patient. Paul Kalanithi may have died tragically young, but as his book shows, he lived a full life nonetheless. It represents a gift not only to his wife and daughter, but to every patient confronted with a life-threatening illness.

Dear American Airlines / Jonathan Miles

Life has not gone quite as Bennie Ford has expected.  At age fifty-three, divorced and caregiving for his mother following her stroke, he finds himself stranded in the purgatory of O’Hare International Airport, with his flight to California cancelled.  This is of especial importance since he is traveling to his estranged daughter’s wedding that will take place the next day.  Stuck with thousands of other fuming travelers, there is little likelihood that he will make it to the ceremony since all flights have been grounded for the night.

A failed poet turned Polish book translator, Bennie does what he does best when confronted by this gridlock; he begins to write an angry letter to American Airlines to vent his frustration and to demand a refund.  What begins as a rant ultimately becomes a lament for a life gone awry, a personal history of missed opportunities.  In the course of his rambling letter, he shares both the highlights and remorse he feels looking back over the trajectory of his adulthood.

Fortunately, Bennie is a character most people will be thrilled to spend time with.  A chain smoking recovering alcoholic, he has the ability to strike up interesting conversations with complete strangers.  And blessed with a lacerating wit, he has a writer’s keen eye in observing the world around him.  This novel blends humor, outrage, regret, and the humbleness of a man who is not so much a reformed sinner as a person simply hoping he might have a chance to do the right thing for once in his life.

It is sure to be a book that resonates with anyone who has faced the frustration of being stuck in an airport, held captive by a bureaucracy that is politely indifferent to the upset they have caused.  I found myself from the opening page identifying with Bennie’s situation and cheering on his efforts to rectify it.  What starts out as an irreverent rant turns into a humorous, eloquent portrayal of a man coming to terms with life’s reality.  Honest to the bone, Bennie makes for a fascinating companion, no matter how long the journey takes to complete.


For miles, it is the only light on.
Lost, tired of driving in circles, as a moth
drawn to a flame, he pulls over.
He has not seen one of these in years.
Why was it placed here, in
the middle of nowhere, and for whom?
He has not encountered
another car since midnight’s arrival.
When he turns off his engine,
he is surprised to find how conversant
the dark suddenly seems.
Squeezing himself into its glass walls,
he unfolds the door shut,
a child again in the confessional box.
Beneath a bare bulb’s glare,
he feels exposed to a gossiping wind.
Slightly claustrophobic,
he finds himself fumbling for change,
but before he can even lift
the receiver to dial, the phone rings,
a loud, incessant sound.
Startled, his heart pounds to get out.
Tumbling back into the dark,
he races for the safety of his vehicle,
dropping coins along the way.
Pursued by a voice he’ll never hear,
an accusation unanswered,
his rear view mirror remains haunted.
For miles, it is the only light on.

Winter’s Astronauts

How slim and tanned
we looked in summer’s photographs,
even though it took
an inhale to camouflage the bulges.

October’s sudden cool
found us heavier, yet presentable,
not so much overweight
as snug wearing additional layers.

Now, startled by
snow’s accumulation, assuming
a closet’s added pounds,
its wadding makes us shapeless.

Lumbering astronauts,
we venture forth on space walks,
a pale approximation of
the bodies that winter has encased.

Clouds Of Glory : The Life And Legend Of Robert E. Lee / Michael Korda

Back in August, I read a fascinating three volume history on the Civil War. Civil War, by Bruce Catton, followed the battle campaigns of the Army of the Potomac from 1861 into 1865. It described the engagements from the perspective of the North. Thinking I should examine the same ground from the Confederate viewpoint, I decided to read Clouds of Glory, a biography of Robert E. Lee. After all, he was the general who led the Army of Northern Virginia, the force opposing the Army of the Potomac, and which came close to winning the war a number of times.

Robert E. Lee was an individual much admired by friends and foes alike. As Korda shows, Lee was indeed a person worthy of the praise he has received during and after the Civil War. He was a devoted family man, a compassionate Christian, a person who so loved his home state of Virginia that he gave up his commission in the United States Army to defend the notion of states’ rights. Without a doubt, he was the preeminent military leader in the War Between the States. Despite having a much smaller and poorly equipped army, thanks to his leadership, the Army of Northern Virginia won numerous battles and stymied the Union forces for four years.

By today’s standards, Lee was no saint. While troubled by the issue of slavery, he did not actively oppose it. Rather, he hoped that with time the institution would fade away and the Black population in the South would be freed and sent back to Africa. To his credit, he did treat the slaves inherited from his father-in-law kindly and freed them in 1862. And while he had a love for the troops under his command, he seemed untroubled sending them into contests where he knew they stood a good chance of being slaughtered.

What was surprising to me was Lee’s accomplishments before the Civil War when serving in the United States Army. A graduate of West Point, he was an officer in the Corps of Engineers. Over the years, he served on major projects in Virginia, St. Louis, and New York City, as well as serving for a period as the Superintendent of West Point. In his various roles, he was in charge of rebuilding a military fortress, changed the course of the Mississippi River to insure St. Louis’s survival as a trading hub, and made important improvements to the harbor in New York City. He also won acclaim in the Mexican War, serving under the command of General Winfield Scott, where he proved his courage and skill on the battlefield.

What enriches this biography is the author’s portrayal of Lee’s interactions with the other generals under his command, such as James Longstreet and Andrew Jackson. Catton did a better job in his book of fully visualizing the actual battles in the War. While describing them briefly, Korda keeps the focus on Lee during these contests. The author’s major contention was that Lee hated confrontation with other generals under his command, and in the case of Gettysburg and other key battles, this fact led to the defeat of the army he led.

Clouds of Glory is an engaging read. With such a fascinating main character, how could it not be. Korda is not a historian, and that fact occasionally is a detriment. He chooses not to bog down his biography with frequent footnotes to validate his point of view. I found myself troubled when he occasionally cited Wikipedia as his source. Despite this, I found that most of what he presented as fact rang true to me. While I might not agree with most of Robert E. Lee’s political and cultural beliefs, I came away admiring the man himself.

How Long The Night

Later, that insult delivered unwittingly,
carelessly said, will sing in
sleep’s silence to announce its presence.

An unchanged loop on constant replay,
how long the night, with regrets
whispered in a bed of my own making.

Contrition is a moon composed of iron,
its spotlight’s intensity wasted
when barred by her curtained window.

Entangled in its phosphorescence,
having succumbed to dream,
remorse wakes me gasping for breath.

Off To First Grade

What I remember is a gray
indifferent sky, with the morning not sure
if night had finally given way.
Hectoring crows, a loud Greek chorus.
Father’s vegetable garden,
overrun with tangled vines, exuding
a damp organic scent.
The heavy weight of a shoulder satchel.
How choked I felt with
my shirt buttoned to accommodate
a clip-on plastic bow tie.
Told to smile when posed with a cousin
there on the front steps,
teary eyes betraying my feeble attempt.
Prodded into a march,
Mother’s hand clasped like a lifeline.
When daring to look back,
in daylight’s glare, how I doubted I’d
find my way home again.

Room / Emma Donoghue

In Room, a novel by Emma Donoghue, Jack is a five year old living in a single-room outbuilding with his mother. What makes this room special is the fact that his mother and he are being held captive there by “Old Nick”, ever since he kidnapped her when she was a college student. Even more telling, he also happens to be Jack’s father. To Jack, this room, containing a small kitchen, a wardrobe, a bed, and a TV set, is the real world as he knows it. To him, what he sees on that TV is a “make believe” world existing only in the box he witnesses it on.

Jack tells this story in first person, and Donoghue is to be commended for presenting it from the vantage point of a child this young. For any writer, it would be a challenge to capture such a tiny world as seen through his innocent eyes. To the author’s credit, she mostly succeeds in accurately recreating this harrowing situation using his voice alone. That said, there are times when she stumbles in the attempt. Jack occasionally comes across as being far wiser than his years, a child who does not always rings true on the page. Despite this, I was impressed with Donoghue’s skill of not only making Jack a believable character, but also a representation of the inner child that we all carry inside ourselves and can identify with.

For me, the most interesting part of the novel was the first section in which Jack and his “Ma” were held captive in the narrow confines of the room. And yet to my surprise, this portion was only forty percent of the book. The rest deals with the difficulty of their assimilation into the the greater world after his Ma concocts a daring escape using her young son as a supposedly dead corpse to lead to their rescue.

While I did not expect such a large portion of the book to deal with their life outside the room, Donoghue ably shows the difficulty for these former captives to find firm ground in a world that has much different rules than what governed life in that single room outbuilding for so many years. Jack, who has never been exposed to real life before, views its complexity much differently than does his Ma. But she too is left feeling overwhelmed by its immensity. To complicate this supposedly happy ending, Jack is left feeling conflicted by his mother’s growing independence, with a strong desire to return to the safety of the room where a population of two was all he needed to fill his life with a sense of security.

By presenting the novel from Jack’s viewpoint, Donoghue is able to soften the horror of the the events taking place. His innocent perspective records the joys of their secluded life together without any understanding of the greater picture. The story he presents is certainly poignant, but in the telling it represents a detailed account of unconquerable love overcoming the evil in the world. It is a novel that is sure to elicit the reader’s interest and sympathy from beginning to end.