Saturday, January 30, 2010

Stories We Tell

Every culture has stories. So does every age. The Ancient Greeks, who I suspect did not think of themselves as ancient, had stories about an age ancient to them, of battle in and then voyage from Turkey, which they kept adumbrating with new meanings, and illuminating with focus on minor characters – Ajax comes from the wings of Homer’s stage to the center of Euripides’. Kids tell great stories that we pediatricians will ascertain as “age appropriate,” and as adults we keep telling them, maybe or maybe not age appropriate.

My friend Fred Gardner recounted the course of a love affair years ago, saying “And then I was telling her the story of my life. You do that, right?” Yeah, I had never thought about that, that’s what we do. Sometimes it's accepted and sometimes not. In my own case, I get correctives from my wife who puts her own interpretations on things - all stories are interpretations - and makes me think. Often I think, hmmm, I look at things the way my parents did, and sometimes I adjust, and sometimes not, or sometimes I change and then change back.

I thought of Fred’s story, from Horace Mann in New York, or before that, his mother comparing little Fred to Lenin – now there’s a recipe for psychological disaster. Somebody should tell Fred’s story – not Fred. So much ability, so much there, and so much water under the bridge. Anyway, Fred was right, we tell our life stories to those closest to us, differently to different people, trimming to fit. How much bravado, how much triumph, how much Rodney Dangerfield – the art of the story. I catch myself doing it. If it’s bravado, we have to look and see how much we can get away with. Or sometimes if I'm self critical, someone will say, why do you do that to yourself?

I like it when guys trade stories. It’s simpler. John King is my physical therapist – I tried five others until I found John – and we trade stories of the past and present as he pushes and stretches me. Yesterday I told him the story of my Harvard junior year JV basketball team that went 23-0 – 23-0!! What a year! And the first game, before our coach appreciated how good I was, and it was tied with about 2 minutes to go, and he had to put me in, finally, and I scored five points and had an assist and we won by five. The whole team came out to meet me as we walked off the court. I especially remember John Raezer, my high school classmate and four year Harvard roommate, smiling as he came, so pleased and proud, even though he had been the high school hero and me not. A basically generous and nurturing guy. Then last year at my 50 year high school reunion, John said to me, remember that game? John King said, so you said, “What game? I think so. How did that go?” We just laughed. Guys together. I said, if I were talking to Ann I’d have to say the highlight of my life was the day we got married – and John King added, or the day the kids were born – but we know, guys know, that that game was really the highlight of my life.

Which prompted John to talk about the high school football game where he was a free safety and stepped in front of a receiver, intercepted and took off for a touchdown. Then, at the end of the half his team took over with two minutes to go and the coach signaled for time out, and John as quarterback ignored the coach, told the team that taking time out would only give time for the defense to get set and “we knew what we wanted to run,” and they scored. That’s 14 points for John, and they won by two. John and I just smiled at each other. Guy stories, nothing like it.

So, I’m reading “A Traitor to His Class,” a biography of Franklin Roosevelt by H. W. Brands. Brands is a good biographer, not as great as Walter Isaacson, but more than serviceable. I know the story of FDR, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time” is one of the best books I’ve read. There was a great PBS biography a few years ago – just great. The PBS story showed the centrality of FDR’s polio, how in those days you took a cripple and put him in a back room to hide the shame, but FDR tried and tried to walk, then took himself to Warm Springs Georgia where he met the local people, ordinary people whom he wouldn’t know in Hyde Part or Washington or New York, how he made his hotel into a haven for the afflicted, like him. From encouraging himself he went to encouraging others. He was a true hero then, really. That’s when he knew that we all have a common maker. And from this book I learned that he almost exhausted himself financially to do it, until he was rescued by a rich friend who wanted him in politics.

So then he went back to politics and greatness. Without polio he still probably would have been terrific, but no polio, no hero, probably. Maybe. Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, our panoply.

I came across this speech extract on page 512:

“Storms from abroad directly challenge three institutions indispensable to Americans, now as always. The first is religion. It is the source of the other two – democracy and international good faith. Religion, by teaching man his relationship to God, gives the individual a sense of his own dignity and teaches him to respect himself by respecting his neighbors. Democracy, the practice of self-government, is a covenant among free men to respect the rights and liberties of their fellows. International good faith, a sister of democracy, springs from the will of civilized nations of men to respect the rights and liberties of other nations of men. In a modern civilization, all three – religion, democracy and international good faith – complement and support each other.”

I hadn’t put it together just this way, certainly not the religion part, but boy, does it make sense. Hitler was a huge bully, and didn’t have any of the three characteristics of what we see as a better-than-natural order. Of course there is huge culture boundedness in what FDR saw as good and desirable. But what of it? The underlying sense is, let’s get along, let’s respect each other, and let’s try to make things good for everyone. It’s not cynical, it’s very English, just expanding it to the heathen.

If you read what he had to do with Congress, and the isolationists, and the Wall Street crowd, you see how he came to understood how one has to deal with people as their minds and situations evolve. He was just ahead of events more than they were, and had a high-mindedness that probably was very Episcopalian, but I’ll take it.

Now today, we are again (or still) faced with a new challenge abroad, testing whether this nation, or any other nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. The non-Western nations are certainly not so conceived and so dedicated. Maybe they will be like Hitler – it always surprises me, after my Jewish upbringing, to think that Hitler wasn’t Catholic, but was non-religious – and conceive themselves not with a common creator, a good father, and not with a directive to get along and help each other. Maybe they will nurse grievances and dare us to stop them from spoiling our common Earth, while they don't desist. The nature of man is not pacific. But even with as low as Congress has sunk, the Congress of the 30’s can’t have been much better. It seems like a similar struggle.

But what a leader we had! FDR! My mother really loved him.

Budd Shenkin

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