Friday, November 2, 2018

THE IRISH

James Joyce was one of the greatest Irish writers. His novels Ulysses, the Dubiners and Finnegan’s Wake won him wide acclaim.  Other outstanding Irish writers are Frank Delaney, who’s Ireland, Tipperary and Shannon and Frank McCourt’s  Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis are widely read. I have read and enjoyed most of the above.  W. B. Yeats is my favorite poet. When I read their lines I can hear the characters speaking. I like to listen to Irish being spoken, whether a brogue or just a slight blarney. As a matter of fact, I like the Irish culture.

What is remarkable is how such a rich culture developed under adverse conditions. Ireland was invaded and occupied centuries ago by the English. The Irish were basically an agricultural people speaking Gaelic. The occupation was often severe and brutal.

The Rebellion of 1798 failed, but a Rebellion in 1916 established the Irish Republic.

Irish Music is diverse with songs like Danny Boy and the wonderful pub music of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers as well as The Chieftains. Some songs of failed uprisings are sad like Gavin Bury. There are many humorous ones like Meg Flaherty’s Drake, and others extolling whiskey like Whiskey You’re the Devil. (Irish whiskey is unique, but ale and Porter are also popular.)

I have always wanted to visit Ireland, but I don’t think that will happen. However, there is a small Irish enclave just down the street from where I live.  Mr. Michael Maher is one of its occupants. Michael is one of my faithful readers, and I treasure his comments. Perhaps sometime he will walk over for a visit. I happen to have an unopened bottle of Jameson’s, which I would be delighted to explore with him.


Friday, October 19, 2018

TAIWAN ADVENTURE

In 1982 I was still a professor at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, yet on the night of August 20th, I sat on a jet bound for Taiwan, the Island Nation contested by China. Sitting along side of me was Dr. George Chang, my last post-doctoral fellow. After completing his 2 year fellowship with me, Dr. Chang was able to get the Government of Taiwan to invite me to give a series of lectures at National Taiwan University Hospital known as Taida. We landed in Taipei in the early morning hours, and after clearing customs, we were led to a waiting limo. We arrived at Taida, the largest hospital in Taipei with 2400 beds. The hospital director greeted us and showed us to our guest rooms in the VIP suite. We were left for the rest of the day to recover from jet lag. 

That evening George and I were guests at a welcome banquet. The dining room had two large round tables, each with six waiting diners and an empty chair. George was seated at one of the tables and I at the other. After a welcoming speech by the director, the meal began. I noticed a small glass at my place filled with Chinese brandy. One of my fellow diners addressed me. “Dr. Ellner, Ganbey! (Cheers!)” He drank his brandy in one gulp, laid the glass on its side on his outstretched palm to show me. I responded with “Ganbey”, drank the brandy, and laid the glass in my palm. Within the next hour, each of my fellow diners toasted me in the same manner, and I responded to each one. When the meal was half over, George and I were obliged to switch seats. The toasting routine started again and when the meal ended, I was not quite drunk, but so impaired that I had to be helped to my room. This made our host very happy. 

The following Monday I gave my first lecture to about one hundred doctors all of whom understood English. I tried, in vain, to convince them to be discriminating in their use of antibiotics. I explained that each antibiotic had unique properties and the patient’s “bug” had to be isolated and tested. I lectured to this group every day for the next two weeks, but I don’t believe I converted any of them. When their patients failed to recover, they just chose another doctor. 

George and I wanted to visit the ancient Chinese garden at the summit of Alishan, the Dragon Mountain, to experience the sight of the sun rising above the clouds. We found the railway and boarded a narrow –gauge rickety train that ran to the summit. The trip took five hours. 

As we climbed, we left the rice paddies and entered the terrace with thousands of tea plants. We entered a jungle landscape. As the train continued its steep climb the landscape changed to pine trees, entering the cloud layer, finally emerging into the sunshine at the summit where there was a Buddhist monastery and a small hotel. We dined on a simple meal of rice and vegetables and shared a tiny bedroom. 

We were awakened at 5 am, drank hot tea, and a guide led us along a path to a clearing, on one side of which was a steep precipice. We waited shivering as it gradually grew lighter, and we could see a solid deck of clouds far below us. Suddenly, the sun emerged and rose over the clouds, a truly spectacular sight. After the sunrise, we returned to the hotel for breakfast, and then we were free to explore the very unique landscape that is Alishan. We spent the day wondering through the mostly wooded garden. One of the trees we saw was said to be a thousand years old. This was a trip worth remembering. 

Back in Taipei, George and I had a few days to ourselves. I was invited to a hospital out in the country to give another lecture. Following my lecture, George and I were taken by the hospital’s doctors and nurses for a thank you banquet. We sat at the usual round table where I was seated next to the Chief Doctor. He confided me “Dr. Ellner, we have a big surprise for you.” During the meal, I became aware of a pretty young woman who stood behind my seat during the meal and helped me by cutting my food. When the meal was over, the Chief Doctor turned to me, smiled, and said “And now, Dr.Ellner, the surprise.”  He indicated the young woman. I soon realized that I was expected to go off with her and enjoy her favors while the rest of the group waited. I said to George, “You’ve got to help me.” George replied “No problem, Dr. Ellner, they pay.” I protested that I was too tired so the disappointed Chief Doctor told the young woman to sing for us. After she sang a few songs, the Chief Doctor then demanded that I sing. Stunned, the best I could do was “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. 

The next day, George and I headed back to New York.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

MEMOIRS

I believe that memoirs are the most popular of all the various forms of non-fiction including biographies and essays.  Memoirs are the thoughts and recollections of the writer. They are usually associated with an emotional experience or feeling. Autobiographies are the complete story of the writer’s life.

I recently read a terrific memoir, one of the best I ever read. It was recommended by President Obama and called Educated by Tara Westover.  The protagonist is Tara, a young woman who writes about her life growing up in a family of survivalist Mormons. Survivalist refers to their belief that they will be the only people left after the “end of days”. Tara was born in the small family home in the mountains of Idaho and like her siblings was home schooled and forced to work in her father’s scrap business. Despite these hardships, she was able to graduate from BYU, earn a Master’s degree form Harvard and a Ph.D. from Cambridge.

There are numerous lists on line of memoirs considered to be essential reads. The memoirs described below are those that I have read and really enjoyed. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot is the intriguing story of two Irish veterinarians and their patients. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen describes an aristocratic woman’s experience on a coffee plantation in darkest Africa. Deserted by her husband, she falls in love with a white hunter and becomes involved in schooling the natives and a war. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is filled with the author’s anecdotes of his early life in poverty stricken Limerick, Ireland and living in New York City with an alcoholic father. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom recounts the touching visits of a former student with his dying professor. Walden by Henry David Thoreau is the classic story of a non-conformist philosopher who abandons city life to camp alone for a year near Walden Lake in Massachusetts. One of his oft repeated thoughts are “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away . . .”

One of my memoirs is called Thursday Nights at Bloomies describing humorous experiences during my visits as a divorced professor to a famous New York department store. It can be found in my collection of short stories Bright Figures, Sinister Shadows.

I would welcome questions or comments from my readers who may remain anonymous if they wish. I promise to respond.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

VAMPIRES AND EROTICA


      A few years ago I accosted a young woman customer in Barnes & Noble.
“You look to be about the same age as my granddaughters, recent college graduates,” I said. “I want to buy them books for their birthday. What are you guys reading these days?”
She brightened immediately and with a laugh said, “Twillight by Stephanie Meyer.”
“What is it about?” I asked her.
“It’s a fantasy romance about a girl who falls in love with a vampire. It’s a trilogy. It’s a popular book among young women right now.”
I thanked her and bought two of the books. My granddaughters loved them.
This brief encounter piqued my curiosity. I remember seeing the Dracula movie based on Bram Stoker’s book. The Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi played the vampire, Count Dracula.
I assumed that vampire stories were just an offshoot of the horror tales by H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King I used to read in pulp mags, but I was wrong. Vampires first appeared in 18th century poetry before becoming a stock figure in Gothic fiction.  The first vampire story in English, The Vampire by John Polidori, appeared in 1819.  Many short stories and novels about vampires followed, leading to the Twilight books my granddaughters enjoyed.
What is it about vampires that attract young girls and even mature women? Vampires are usually depicted as grisly creatures who spend their days in coffins, emerging at night to kill their victims by drinking their blood. Vampire lore usually includes descriptions of them as powerful, pale men who don’t reflect in a mirror and are repelled by crucifixes and garlic.
Author Anne Rice wrote a series of novels whose vampires ranged from gentle and shy to vicious and savage.  Her novels are often erotic, stimulating sexual feelings without the need for pornography. Psychologists suggest that women are drawn to vampires because they are super beings, powerful and often wealthy.  Go figure.
  So vampire stories are just another form of fantasy that adults and children enjoy. They range from Superman, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Star Trek.  I feel a debt of gratitude to those authors whose imagination and skill have provided us with escapes from the monotony of every day life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

AMERICAN READERS


As a writer I thought it might be interesting to get an overview of what my fellow Americans are reading. The first statistic is that 24% of Americans haven’t read a book or play in a year. Most of these folks are low-income workers, high school equivalent or less, or immigrant Latinos who can’t afford the money or the time for books. Gutenberg must be writhing in his grave. Of the remainder, only 30% buy their books from brick-and-mortar bookstores. Older classics like Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers are seldom seen in bookstores. These tomes are well over 1,000 pages and take up too much space on bookstore shelves. The rest of us buy our books online. Electronic books are popular, and 28% of us own an e-reader device, although the demand for print books is coming back.
Most Americans don’t read fiction, but younger people and women do. The Holy Bible has always been a best seller, but no one dares to classify it as either fiction or not. Men tend to read non-fiction and biographies, tales of travel or discovery are popular.
Fiction, primarily novels, is characterized by genre or sub-genre such as Chicklit, Westerns, and at least seventeen others. The most popular are Fantasy e.g. J.R. Tolkian’s Lord of the Rings, Sci-fi e.g. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling, Children’s Fiction e.g. other Harry Potter books, Suspense-Thriller e.g. The Davinci Code by Dan Brown, and Romance e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer is popular with young women.
Poetry is not a big seller, however a surprising number of small presses offer volumes of verse.
Having considered all of the above, I might decide to take up rock climbing or skydiving.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

GUIDE DOG

         
I want to tell you about Ray, my guide dog. About fifteen years ago when we moved to the condo community in the Litchfield Hills, I experienced a major change in my life. I became blind. Something called Macular Degeneration. I still had some peripheral vision, but I could not see the food on my plate or the toothpaste on the brush. 
         I had led an active life, marketing, cooking, writing fiction, flying airplanes, gardening, fishing, and succeeding in a second career as an expert witness in microbiology and infectious disease. Suddenly, all that changed, and I became dependant upon others for basic functions and getting around. I could only write by dictating to a typist.
         Guide dog organizations in Connecticut and New Jersey rejected me because of my age, but Guiding Eyes in New York State accepted me after a year of tests. 
         Connie drove me to their Yorktown Heights campus. An instructor showed me to my room. The next day, she entered my room carrying a container of dog food accompanied by a handsome, black Lab on a leash. 
         “We think this is the best dog for you,” she said. “He is three, a little older than the others, but then,” she said with a smile, “so are you.” 
         How do they know he’s the best dog for me?
         “Let us know how you make out. His name is Ray.” She dropped the leash, turned and left me alone with the dog. 
         Ray walked over to where I was sitting, dragging the leash and wagging his tail tentatively. I detached the leash and patted him on the head. He sat and looked at me staring into my eyes. Was I getting a message? He was telling me something. If you want me I’ll take good care of you. 
         “Yes, I want you. I need you,” I told him. He thumped his tail rapidly on the floor and lay down at my feet. For the rest of the day, he and I interacted, each growing more trusting. 
         In the days and weeks that followed, Ray and I worked with the instructor. She showed me how to put on his harness and pick up his poop. We rode in vehicles together, worked on city streets learning when to cross, on country roads, in department stores with escalators, and in restaurants. Ray seemed to know all of the commands and responded as if he had done this before. When graduation day finally came, my family proudly watched as Ray and I sat for a photo. 
         At home, Ray quickly became a family member, but he was really my dog. He makes it possible for me to get around, leading me to the post office and on walks through woodland trails. Ray became familiar with the six miles of roads and three miles of trails of our community. After two years my vision worsened, and I am now almost completely blind. Ray sensed this change. I no longer need to use verbal commands for direction when we walk. I am still able to write by dictation to a typist. 
         Ray accompanies me into restaurants, doctor’s offices, ER’s and hospital rooms. He is infinitely patient. 
         Ray and I are very close. Although he has his own bed, he sleeps on the floor next to mine and wakes me gently in the morning with his nose against my neck. He loves when I massage him, rolling on his back with his legs in the air. He understands more than 200 words and phrases of English, responding with body language and his tail. Ray and I have grown closer than two humans. I love him like I love my children, and he loves me. Labs generally live seven to twelve years, and I hope that he will survive me. 
         
         

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

PUBLISHING TODAY

Why do writers write? A few in every generation decide early on they want to be writers, get a Masters in English or Creative Writing and hunt for a do-anything job in a publishing house. Many begin to write in the evening and, after a year or so, complete a novel or a memoir. Some are fortunate to have their effort read. However, only a few may actually get published. One of these writers may become the darling of a publisher, write a book every year, make the N.Y.Times Best Seller list, and live happily ever after. 

At the beginning of the 21stcentury the publishing industry experienced significant changes. Technology like e-books and Print on Demand became available, bookstores changed ownership, publishing personnel changed jobs, and new presses appeared. Men and women of all occupations with computers and printers decided they had a story to tell and wanted readers. Manuscripts from butchers and bakers, doctors and lawyers and even a professor proliferated like dandelions on a summer lawn, and thousands of unsolicited ones unread filled publisher’s waste paper baskets to overflowing.
            Surely, among those myriads of manuscripts awaiting the shredder, there must be a few gems, which will never be published. I think of a verse from Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyardthat goes,

            “Full many a gem of purest ray serene, 
             The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear: 
             Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen, 
            And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
            
  Literary agents increased in number and self-publishing presses offered frustrated writers the opportunity to “publish” their work. For a healthy sum, such presses will accept a manuscript and produce printed copies of books for the author. Marketing of these books is left to the author who can use them to distribute to friends and family to satisfy his desire for readers. As my wife would say, “It is what it is”.