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GP 12 August 2009: Far From The Madding Crowd Where Silence Shouts

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.
                ---from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard,” 1750

Blue Highways.In 1978, having lost his wife and his teaching job, William Least Heat-Moon set out to see America, best done, he found, by sticking to the minor roads (the blue linesonroadmaps) where one can strike up aconversation with  travelers and with other countrymen living in this vale of tears.  He saw the things we never see on monotonous interstate highways or in air-befouled jet airplanes; his 13,000 miles are recounted as a thicket of small tales about America in a best selling book Blue Highways, written after his journey. As fine an adventure and as fine a book is his River-Horse, in which he used our almost-forgotten network of inlandwaterways to go from coast-to-coast over a four-month period.

Life reveals its full complexity and sundry hues if one gets off the beaten path and sorts through the multi-colored lives of gnarled people who can stand their ground and comfortably inhabit America the Spacious, rather than America the urbane Sardine Factory. Fast highways and enervating impatience has shrunk and diminished America, turning its many dimensions into pixels on digital maps.

Cloistered Retreats. All of us have a need to get away from our cramped lives, our obsessive activities, and our facsimile thinking.  But, as well, it’s good to be going somewhere.  At times like these that means finding places with little hubbub that not only afford peace but probably harbor truths that are eluding us in everyday life. The writer William Vollmann has spent enough time at the magnetic North Pole to experience frostbite, and slowly worked his way around the Imperial Valley in order to understand its vastness, its people, its corruption, and the compelling significance of its precious, misused water. The New York Times has recently called him “An Author Without Borders,” picturing as well the lonely spots and haunted faces that inhabit the worlds where he finds truth:

“Mr. Vollmann, who just turned 50, is a loner, a bit of a recluse, despite being married and the father of a daughter, and a throwback: a wandering, try-anything writer-journalist in the tradition of Steinbeck or Jack London. Some people think he’s a little nuts.”
“To research “The Rifles,” a novel partly about the 1845 Franklin expedition to the Arctic, Mr. Vollmann spent two weeks alone at the magnetic North Pole, where he suffered frostbite and permanently burned off his eyebrows when he accidentally set his sleeping bag on fire. But being eyebrowless has its advantages, he discovered more recently, while experimenting with cross-dressing to research a novel he’s now writing about the transgendered. He didn’t have to pluck his brows when getting made up.”

The modern pilgrim, eschewing Jerusalem or Mecca or Lourdes, must walk out to where nobody goes if he is to gather up truths that are not self evident in our over-urbanized, copycat civilization.  What is extraordinary, we find, is that there are gems, oases, sanctuaries ignored by practically everybody across the country and around the world.  Now, at this moment, when everything seems to be in turmoil and when our leaders are offering old remedies for new kinds of problems, it would even seem incumbent upon us, like Heat-Moon and Vollmann, to experience such silent byways where we can achieve a whole different take on human affairs.  In this letter we peek at few of the places where worthies might retreat. But, and it is a big “but,” we don’t think the hideaways have to be forlorn as in Vollmann, tired as in Heat-Moon, stripped bare as in Melville.  There’s as much or more to be learned from splendid, hopeful, unusual people and from verdant patches of the earth inhabited by great beauty as can be gleaned from the horrid corners of the earth onto which troubled writers project their own unhappiness.

Norumbega in Camden, Maine.  Norumbega is the most interesting place in town, and, as near as we can see, nobody goes there.  It has considerable history to it, although Camden itself is yet another spot on the trail where the past is being washed away.  The hotel on top of Mount Battie is nowhere to be found, and the silences we enjoyed in Camden 30 years ago have been consumed by time. New money summers here, flocking in from Connecticut, and Texas, and California, and all the other places where trust funds accumulate. This special mansion, now a bed and breakfast, not doing much business as near as we can see, was the imaginative creation of Joseph Stearns, a Maineliner who had made a pile from his “duplex telegraphy system.” The castle takes its name from a mythic 16th century settlement in the Penobscot area, and it has had a succession of owners, as recounted in Barbara Dyer’s Remembering Camden.  Nobody will point you this way:  the Camden garden tour will take you to much lesser homesteads and instantly created, embryonic, mildly pathetic gardens quickly installed to help realtors merchandise houses.   You will see Norumbega out of the corner of your eye and wonder what it is and why nobody is there. We knew we had to stop there for a bit after passing it by 6 or 7 times. It’s a quiet spot in a deserted state. Maine’s population is 1.25 million:  Camden’s permanent residents number about 5,200.  In fact, the whole state is a little haunted, mainly inhabited by myths of its past and the temporary swarm of summer tourists.

Kuznechny Market, St. Petersburg.  The guides in St. Petersburg, many of whom worked under the Soviets for the official Intourist travel agency, will tell you that Kuznechny Market is off limits or unsafe. None of it is true. A physicist friend led us to it from the Astoria Hotel, through hidden gardens followed by a ride on the streetcar. In both St. Petersburg and Moscow, the authorities are driving away the central Asians who make such grocery bazaars interesting, but a visit to this district is still a wonderful excursion where you can pick up the fixings for the day’s picnic lunch. Next door is Our Lady of Vladimir Church, a sainted beautiful structure where Dostoevsky worshipped and whose yellowish hues and polite dimensions recall the spiritual dimension of Czarist Russia, ever lost after the Revolution. This market is quite a bit greener, quite a bit fresher, than its counterparts in the United States, the so-called local green markets where the fare is not as lush, nor quite as varied, produced by newly minted farmers who charge rather too much..

Tonali, Durham North Carolina. Tonali is simply the best Mexican (not Tex-Mex) restaurant in North Carolina and maybe the South.  Its owner and chef Andre Macias has been in the States since adolescence but constantly visits family all over Mexico whence he picks up new accents to incorporate into his food.  Yet, most times, no more than 4 or 5 tables are filled, as locals flock to restaurants where the Johnson- and- Wales -trained proprietors are better at hawking their wares.  Macias even paints as a hobby, more than one of his abstractions adorning the walls. Quietly he symbolizes the deeper change in North Carolina.  Latinos are the backbone of the hard labor force. Curiously only 7% of the population is Hispanic, far below the U.S. average, in this the 11th largest state.  Yet studies show the impact of Latinos to be far greater than their numbers might warrant.  The most sophisticated food in the Carolinas comes from new immigrants to the region—moles from the Mexicans, pho soups from the Vietnamese, breads from the Germans. Immigrants are the next hope for the Carolina economy, which has plateau-ed—traditional sectors such as textiles or banking either dying or faltering, the economy blighted by mediocre governance and outdated, protectionist laws that restrict competition.

Museo de Sorolla, Madrid.  The hue and cry when one goes to the capital of Spain is about the Prado, a museum that certainly houses great Spanish masters, but for all its greatness is a little depressing.  A very persuasive Texan from Fort Worth points all his friends to the Sorolla. This museum was the home of Joaquin Sorolla, a charming late 19th century painter, and today many portraits of his family hang on its walls.  The elegant dining room attests to the domestic bliss that anointed this painter.  The pleasing garden is as much of a delight as the museum itself, and we have chatted with Spaniards who repair there with some regularity. Madrid’s gardens show Spain to be a very green country in spite of its awesome sun and fearful droughts. In more than one instance, the Spanish have taken the home of a painter and turned it into a memorial of his life and work—often the houses of portrait painters who have had a rich and close connection to the society in which they flourished.  A contemporaneous figure—Julio Romero de Torres—created a large body of work, much of which is now housed at his onetime residence in Cordoba.  There’s something terribly revealing about seeing how a painter’s work grows out of his milieu and family. Often Spain’s artists, such as Picasso and Lorca, have achieved more celebrity in the world than its politicians or business magnates.

Christian Science Church, Berkeley. Not many people even know about Maybeck, and only a handful think about him anymore, since Northern California has set aside the distinctive progressivism that colored it so strongly during the first half of the 20th century to become the land of trends and taxes thereafter.  At one point only the warm-hearted residential architect Bernard Maybeck and the grandiose Frank Lloyd Wright had been honored with gold medals by the American Institute of Architects.  Along with Sorolla and Torres, the Californian’s period of greatest productivity was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ironically, according to the late Walter Rostow, this was the take-off period for the American economy as well, and it was clearly a fruitful era for the Western world.

Perhaps Maybeck’s best creation is his most ignored—the Christian Science Church he designed in Berkeley, inspired by ladies who had a clarity and reverence about them.  On the one hand, it is very simple and charming as with all Maybeck:  on the other, it incorporates some European motifs, reflecting his Beaux Arts training and also the exalted hopes and dreams Californians had in its early days as a state.  A website, Verlang Language North, beautifully records the works of Maybeck and his contemporaries, all of which speak of the hopefulness of their time and of a society in which artists, and educators, and politicians all knew one another and strove to work together. Verlang tells the story of this church very well.  Maybeck went on to do a whole college—Principia—for the Christian Scientists in the Midwest. His church is an anachronism in a town whose current religions are politics and trendy food.  But, in its day, it symbolized what California was all about.

Anthony Rao, Lexington, Massachusetts.  The musketry that set off the American Revolution started up in Lexington and Concord. Ralph Waldo Emerson commemorated  the events of April 19,1775, in the Concord Hymn where he recalls the gunfire on the Old North Bridge in Concord, celebrating the “shot heard ‘round the world.”  Actually the first shots had been fired earlier next-door in Lexington.  But then, Emerson was a poet and philosopher, so we grant him all sorts of license.

If Emerson was an armchair revolutionary, Henry David Thoreau, a fellow Transcendentalist, was the real McCoy, who camped out beside Walden Pond to experience the heavens and get away from the predations of man, and who suffered jail in order to protest what he perceived to be an unjust Mexican War. Since he stood apart from his countrymen and practiced while he preached, he has some pertinence to the present day when stand pat leaders wax eloquent about transformation and then cling to the past.  A walk around his Walden Pond might get us to march in a different direction.

On a side street in Lexington, close to the heart of town, those seeking reasoned treatment and dialogue for their children will find Behavioral Solutions, founded and headed by Tony Rao, a down-to-earth behavioral psychologist.  On August 25, he will fire his first cannon with the publication of his book, The Way of Boys: Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex WorldThe title is rather cumbersome, obscuring perhaps both its very powerful message and the huge body of practical experience the upbeat Dr. Rao has in dealing with the developmental problems of growing children.  For us, it could have simply been called Lighten Up.  That is, Rao deftly admonishes quick fix psychiatrists and anxious parents to more patiently deal with children’s growth and problems even if their youngsters are not developing at the speed of light.  All too often psychiatrists are tempted to offer facile labels for mere growing pains—pasting bipolar disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and ADHD labels on the foreheads of adolescents who are unruly or slow to connect the dots.  Medications, too, may be slapped on them, the over-use of which may actually retard development.  In fact, to our knowledge, over-medication of adults and children alike has long been a predilection of the Boston psychiatric community.  Parents are all too-willing co-conspirators, unable to deal with the fact their children are not now in the first quintile of everything. Together parents and pop-a-pill shrinks are laying a heavy burden on growing children.  Society, it could be said, is radioactive for the growing adolescent.

A devotion to practicality, of course, is what separates everyday clinical psychologists from psychiatrists. So many psychologists avoid armchair theories in order to get their patients through today and tomorrow. Treating the patient is only the half of it:  they must reckon with a society which is quite at odds with the growing adolescent and which we must all strive to transcend. Rao’s practical book is filled, in fact, with case by case examples of children trying to find their way, skirting the interesting but somewhat useless hypotheses about human development and emotional disabilities put forward by academics.  He’s more Thoreau than Emerson.  He would urge parents to tone down the huge expectations they lay on their children.  To psychiatrists he would say to look at the process of child development and the nature of the individual in all its complexity, avoiding simplistic analyses and shotgun fixes.  Who would think that a counterweight to compulsive parenting and doctor-driven drug addiction would come from Muzzy Street in Lexington?

Oddly enough the grand theorists of child development would side with Rao.  Both      Erik Erikson, the granddaddy of child development at both Massachusetts General and Harvard Medical, and the great Jean Piaget concluded that “that children should not be rushed in their development; that each developmental phase was vastly important and should be allowed time to fully unfold. While Piaget emphasized that cognitive development could not be rushed (without sacrificing full intellectual potential), Erikson emphasized that a child's development must not be rushed, or dire emotional harm would be done, harm that would seriously undermine a child’s ability to succeed in life.”   Not to be rushed.  We would assume that successful growing up, then, occurs in a slow-paced atmosphere, the kind that adheres to Sorolla, Norumbega, Tonilla, or a Christian Science Church in Berkley.  Human development cannot follow the clock, but must move with the seasons. 

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points.  For solace and for wisdom we are looking for people and places that are outside the mainstream. In investing and in business, too, we look for contrarians who are willing to swim upstream, when the whole world is on its back, floating downstream, about to go over a waterfall.  They’re off to one side; they’re ignored; they’re one of a kind; they’re out of tune with the times.  They have absolutely no truck with the 24-hour news cycle.

Livings things have their own geometry.  For them a straight line is never the shortest distance between two points. They must amble and ramble.  They must stop awhile in the spots where nobody goes. 

Somewhere along the way the novelist John Steinbeck described vacillando.  It is an idiosyncratic journey to the post office or the tackle shop, only a mile away, though it took one hours to get there.  For the point of the journey were all the stops along the way, the twisting in and out of streets around town where one can run head on into something that would either amuse or illuminate.  Never before have we been so in need of magic idylls.  Never before have we needed to look for the successful idlers in our midst.

Best regards,   GPS

P.S. Any top-level project manager understands that a project is defined by three constraints—schedule, cost, and quality.  If you fiddle with one, you are affecting the others.  Despite the fact that several half-baked management consultants have said that quality is free, it ain’t.  If you want absolutely top quality, you have to have a liberal schedule and appreciable costs. The same rules applied to organizations, societies, and to life itself.  Those who are in a rush simply don’t enjoy quality.  Since the late ’80s, companies have tried to take huge costs out of their products and to condense delivery schedules: as a result, it is hard to find a quality product or service these days.  Likewise, your neighbor proudly jams new things into his daily schedule, freeing himself forever of the chance for a quality life.  Quality requires slow baking.

P.P.S.  Despite huge R&D budgets, our major pharmaceutical companies have been terribly unproductive for a decade or so. They have had to buy drugs invented by other companies, because of their own failed efforts.  Pfizer, for instance, is only a going concern, because it did an unfriendly takeover of Warner Lambert in order to steal its heart drug.  Today people call Pfizer “the Lipitor Company.”  One might conclude that many of our companies and institutions do not understand the nature of inquiry and discovery which require scientists who are willing to wander around the bush, and companies that will let them stray.

P.P.P.S.  Frederick Jackson Turner wrote about The Significance of the Frontier in American History, but noted, of course, that we no longer had a frontier. Our challenge perhaps is to figure out how to re-invent some sort of frontier, a freewheeling territory where wonderful accidents can happen.  Silicon Valley, once a bit lively, has now become calcified. Newton did all of his great work as something of a mystic and occult explorer off in the countryside. When he moved to London, he was more social, even something of a fop, and blessedly unproductive.

P.P.P.P.S. Some of the most extraordinary gardens throughout the world offer mazes in which one can enjoy the amiable thrill of losing and finding oneself.  This is a slow sport with lots of false starts.  But, inserted into the total experience of a garden, it heightens the enjoyment, overcoming the tedium of normal walkways.  Presumably the lives of our youngsters can either be amusing mazes or frightful labyrinths.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Nicholas Kristof writes about “How to Recharge Your Soul,”  in The New York Times.  He counsels us to take ourselves and our children away from the computer and out into the woods, by taking a hike.  Apparently he puts all sorts of backpacking and camping advice on his blog. “So before the summer ends, try overcoming nature deficit syndrome and recharging your soul—and happy trails!” Like all urbanities, he makes it all sound rather complicated:  we have met obdurate hikers like him out on the woods, the folks who insist on telling you how wonderful it all is.  We find that this kind of advice is all about escaping the daily grind, rather than getting to something and somewhere magical.  No matter where you go, even in the city, the goal is to get somewhere magical.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  Rao’s very constructive book reminds us that modern parenting has a built-in flaw. Children’s tutelage is largely up to an overwhelmed mom and pop, instead of the extended family that often prevailed when those first shots were fired at Lexington.  Thoughtful parents should draw on uncles and aunts and kind neighbors in rearing their children, since no nuclear family can make all the right moves.  Companies suffer from the same dilemma, since not even gifted bosses can make employees reach their potential.  As we are now fond of saying, “the intelligence is in the network.”

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  In Analyze This, Billy Crystal, playing a psychiatrist, suggests to the crime boss (Robert DeNiro) that his emotional problems might be treated with medication.  DeNiro quickly retorts, “I don’t do drugs.”  A good Mafioso knows that drugs just are not the thing.

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