"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Swimming–From John Cheever To Bangladesh

One of my favorite short stories is The Swimmer by John Cheever, made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster.  In it Neddy Merrill swims across a suburban New York county, swimming pool by swimming pool.  He stops to drink with his friends who sympathetically refer to his misfortunes and tell him of their own problems which he only vaguely remembers. He is turned away by his ex-mistress, and as he makes his way he is greeted with suspicion and pity. He swims every pool and finally loops back to his own house.

Neddy starts crying for the first time since childhood, feeling cold and confused. He thinks that he has just been swimming too long and needs a drink and dry clothes. He swims weakly across a few more pools. Finally, he reaches his own house. The lights are all off, and Neddy doesn’t know where everyone could be. Every door is locked, and no one answers when he knocks. He looks in the windows and sees that his house is empty.(Sparknotes)

It is a compelling, frightening story about madness, isolation, the maddening confines of suburbia, expectations, dreams, and disappointment.

I read today that drowning is the leading cause of child mortality in Bangladesh, outpacing the classic illnesses of the developing world, diarrheas and upper respiratory infections.  Bangladesh is a low-lying country on the Bay of Bengal and water is everywhere.  Silting of the Ganges upstream in India fills the river’s channel and during monsoon the water overflows its banks and floods much of the country.  Powerful cyclones swamp the lowest-lying areas on the Chittagong delta, and thousands are killed yearly. 

Yet over 40 percent of drowning deaths are not in times of flood or cyclone, but in the course of a normal day, and children drown in ditches, ponds, and rivers.  Bangladeshi children never learn how to swim.

This is understandable and common in most developing countries where swimming lessons, summer vacations, and leisurely afternoons by the pool are only dimly imagined American activities.  Even in countries like Bangladesh where fishing is common, neither crewmen nor wading net fishermen can swim.

The Center for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB) has initiated a program to teach Bangladeshi children to swim, but in a country of 158 million with nearly 50 million children under the age of 14, the task is daunting indeed.

Growing up I never knew anyone who couldn’t swim.  We all swam at summer camp, the country club pool, off Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Rhode Island beaches. Swimming was second nature.  We had no fear of the water, no matter how deep.  We had learned how to swim the crawl when we wanted speed and distance, the backstroke when we needed a rest, and the breaststroke and sidestroke in calm waters. We could body surf, catching the curl of the wave at its high point and being swept into shore.  I learned to row, canoe, and sail and knew that no matter what, I could always swim back to the boat or to shore.  I swam well in lakes, oceans, and pools, and had I wanted to put in the work, I might have made the Yale swimming team.

I had only one chastening experience.  A kayaking friend of mine suggested that we go down to the Jersey Shore and kayak the surf that had been kicked up by a hurricane that had just passed.  The surf off of Neptune Beach was high and rough, and I quickly got upended.  The water was shallow, my head was in the sand, and the weight of the water and the kayak pinned me down.  When I finally righted myself and tried to swim to shore, I realized that I was being sucked out to sea by a powerful undertow. After fifteen minutes of effort, I finally made it to land.

My parents-in-law lived on a suburban lake not far from Washington, DC, and we swam all summer.  My children learned how to swim there and soon became as at home in the water as I had ever been.  One day we invited the Chinese exchange student who was staying with us to come to the lake.  Although he said he could swim, I could tell by his flailing strokes that he could not.  Before I could wave him back to the dock, he was going under.  I swam out and pulled him in. He was from a solid middle class family, one of status and privilege, and I had assumed that he could swim. He, however, had more in common with a Bangladeshi than an American.  Within a day, Cheng Wang’s near drowning was a cause celebre in the Washington Chinese community.  The son of the Honorable Vice Minister for Education almost lost his life in a capitalist lake.

I spent many years in India and never saw Indians swimming.  Ladies in their saris waded out a few feet into the Arabian Sea off Juhu Beach near Bombay, but never went in. Sophisticated Indians sat around the Oberoi pool in Delhi and watched the Lufthansa pilots do triple flips off the high-dive but never swam.  I watched fishermen in Goa, thousands of pilgrims doing ablutions along the Ganges at Benares, holy men sipping the waters at the source of the river in Hardwar, but I never saw anyone swim.

I was the only one who swam at Juhu Beach, mindless of the sewage outfalls, abattoir refuse, and foul runoff from the potter’s colony close by.  I did get stung by a large Portuguese Man ‘o War, a venomous lashing across my arms and chest which took months to heal.  I decided to join everyone else spending leisurely hours over lobster and grilled pomfret.

I was the only foreigner swimming at Batu Ferenghi  until an Australian warned warned me. “Watch out”, he said, “Sea snoikes ‘ll get ya.” Sea snakes are the deadliest creatures in the ocean, capable of killing an elephant, and one of the most dangerous of all vipers.  They can easily match the krait, known in India as panch pad – a viper whose venom is so potent that if bitten, you will die after five steps. 

I have swum in the most beautiful waters on earth – on the Samana Peninsula in the Dominican Republic; in the waters of Jacmel in Haiti; in isolated lagoons in Galle on the southern tip of Sri Lanka; in the Atlantic off the Corniche in Dakar; off unspoiled beaches in Mayotte and Phuket. I have swum in Fairy Lake in the Gallatin Range,  Lake Champlain, Lake Mashpee. 

I spent summers on Cape Cod and swam the waters of the bay and the ocean. Every winter my family took long winter vacations in Florida and I swam the Atlantic and the Gulf.  Today I swim off of St. George’s Island in Florida and Jekyll Island in Georgia.

I have always taken swimming for granted, but the article on Bangladesh made me realize that most of the world doesn’t swim; and a recent re-read of The Swimmer reminded me of the iconic nature of the American pool. Cheever understood how the pool was a symbol of Post-War wealth and suburban status, how swimming is vigorously healthy and quintessentially American, and how it is a feature of solid, middle-class American life.  Cheever wrote long before Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer, but both works are about American image.  While Brown’s vision was elegiac and strengthened if not created the California brand, Cheever’s was dark and brooding. 

The older I get the colder the water seems to be.  I will only go in if the temperature is over 80F.  The warm Gulf waters off of Apalachicola or off the coast of South Carolina where the Gulf Stream comes close to shore are perfect.  I can float and loll for hours.

Whenever I think vacation, I think of water.  There is something confining and threatening about mountains.  I like the brightness of beaches, and the powerful serenity of rivers.  Lakes are peaceful. Ponds are quiet.  When I was younger, all I wanted to do was swim in them.  Now I am happy just to be close to the water. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Surrogacy And The Free Market

Dr. Nayna Patel is the Director of the Akanksha Infertility Clinic in India, an institution which sponsors surrogacy.  She selects Indian women to act as surrogate mothers for Western infertile couples.

The surrogate mothers are extremely well paid ($10,000) for bringing a baby to term plus room, board, medical supervision and attention, medicine and supplements, and social care.  The stipend is three times what a woman would make in Bihar and almost double that in more prosperous states.  In an extensive interview with the BBC (Hard Talk 12.30.13), Dr. Patel explained the procedures put in place at her clinic to assure legal protection for both parties, state-of-the art medical services, and a comfortable, open, and accommodating home environment for the surrogate mother.

Dr. Patel spoke of the surrogacy in terms of a business model.  Surrogate mothers ‘work’ for their pay just as any other Indian would, and compensation has been determined by an assessment of supply and demand, comparative values of labor, attendant costs, reasonable profit, and market prices.  Her costs are very low compared to surrogacy services in the United States which at current prices is approximately $100,000.  Western couples can be assured that their baby (and the surrogate mother) will receive top-quality, international-standard OB/GYN care since India has raised its medical standards high enough to become an international center for elective surgical procedures.

In short, says Dr. Patel, everyone is happy.  The surrogate mother has received a generous stipend which can be used to provide for her family, giving her children the opportunity for an education and the chance to rise far above their current socio-economic status; to be used as seed money for small business; or, at the least, to provide a level of comfort and security they have never enjoyed.

The Western couple is happy because they finally can have a child, and know that with the clinic’s rigorous screening, they can be as assured as anyone of a normal, healthy, baby.

Dr. Patel is satisfied because she has created a successful business and at the same time provided invaluable rewards to both ‘genetic parents’ and surrogate mothers.

So why should there be any debate?  Stephen Sackur, the BBC Hard Talk interviewer, suggested that Dr. Patel was being disingenuous at best and misleading at worst because she was dressing an exploitative practice in pretty clothes. Women who become surrogate mothers have no freedom of choice in the matter and cannot refuse this staggeringly lucrative opportunity. Furthermore, they are illiterate peasants who cannot understand the nature of the contract.

This is, of course, nonsense. Freedom of choice means exactly that. No woman is forced to become a surrogate mother, and if the choice is made perfectly clear – that is, if the woman understands exactly what she will be contracted to do – then there is no question of unethical coercion. No one has suggested that the Akanksha Clinic has done otherwise. Although some religious critics might share the sentiment that motherhood is sacred, and that God’s intentions should never be ignored or his laws violated, most economists would agree that children have economic value and that surrogacy is but one expression of this valuation.

Children have always been first and foremost economic units. Children have provided the additional labor required to sustain the family, to provide for the welfare of aged parents, to add status and privilege. 

Only in today’s modern developed societies have the costs of raising children exceeded the benefits.  There is no logical reason why families should continue to have children. The countries of Western Europe, faced with severe drops in fertility rates among native-born citizens, have offered bonuses and other benefits for each additional child.  In other words, they have acknowledged the economic nature of children and have intervened in the market by way of subsidy.

A negative expression of this valuation of children is the high abortion rates in the developing world, especially for girls. When the number of children exceeds their economic value, women abort; and in male-centered cultures, abortion becomes gender-specific.  Abortion is no less common in industrialized countries where well-off women abort because a child would interfere with their professional careers and increasing income.

Unless one is mystical, religious or both, procreation is essentially an economic matter. While the value of each individual child may vary, their fungibility does not – every child is a commodity to be managed for the greatest return.  The value of a surrogate child in India is $10,000.  In the US it is $100,000. The incremental value of an additional child decreases as family income rises. White children have more value than black ones on the adoption market. The eggs donated by Harvard students have more value than those from West Appalachia Community College.

In other words, without the supernatural overlay, surrogacy is a perfectly legitimate and logical human activity and should be encouraged.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Beauty is Not In The Eye Of The Beholder

There are some people who think Richard Serra is the finest artist of his generation, if not many generations.  He is the foremost interpreter of modern life depicting its harsh reality with a naked simplicity that speaks to the more noble aspects of the human condition. The installation below is perhaps the most poignant statement of Serra’s vision. The metal container is disturbing because of its incomplete closure.  Our eyes ‘fill in’ the separation, for it is human to want completeness and security. The installation unsettles us because it is reminiscent of society’s detritus, derelict homelessness, and callous indifference, but its starkness and rectangularity, although broken, suggest strength and individuality.

Many other observers think Serra is a pretentious ass, and anyone who pays to see his work are crazy. The metal container installation belongs in a scrap heap.

Rubens has been recognized as a master of substantiality.  His nudes celebrate the female form, not for classic beauty but for feminine fertile beauty, for the rounds and folds that make women sensuous and fulfilling.

Some observers, on the other hand, are disgusted by this display of exuberant and shameless lesbian sex.

Mark Rothko was considered a genius of the Modern Art movement.  His uncompromising presentation of color as substance forced us to reexamine our perceptions.  He demanded us to see red, not just to look at it. The elegant simplicity of his works transcend time and place.  They are universal representations.  The color is never luminescent but dark and solid.  It has mass and gravitas.

Most people, however, react very differently. One day I was viewing a Rothko retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and was standing in front of the above painting along with two young women.

“You know what that reminds me of?”, asked one. 

“No, what?”, replied the other. “To me it looks like that old-fashioned modeling clay we used to play with in second grade”.

“I can see that; but its more like the test paint section at Walmart – you know, so you can decide what color living room you really want.”

The point is, no two people will agree on what makes a great painting, sculpture, photograph, or drawing. 

Along comes Denis Dutton, an art philosopher/anthropologist who claims that beauty is by no means in the eye of the beholder, but hardwired in all of us.  Not only do we agree on beauty across cultures, but there is one particular artistic representation that touches us down deep in the amygdala – a painting of meadows, streams, flowers, and birds. While that proposition seems ridiculous since we can buy schlocky versions of this in any drug store, Dutton persists.

Consider landscape painting and calendar art. Studies of landscape preferences repeatedly show a human liking for alternating copses of trees and open spaces, often hilly land, with animals, water, and a path or river bank that winds into an inviting yet mysterious, bluish distance. This preference for the landscapes of the Pleistocene era, which has been experimentally verified as a cross-cultural constant today, shows up in the painting of early European artists, such as Albrecht Altdorfer and Salvador Rosa… It is very marked in 19th century Australian landscape painting, the result of European artists taming their new vistas.

This rather tired pastoral scene indirectly depicts our primitive instincts for survival. From early humans to the early 20th century, we have looked for a well-watered, fertile patch of land to raise our families; one with abundant game, insects to pollinate plants, herbs and plants to provide medicinal cures and essential nutrients.

Dutton provides no real proof of his theory other than the fact that all peoples in the world have preferred the same scene.  If everybody likes something, preference for it must be hardwired.

Of course this is nonsense. Cavemen painted pastoral scenes because there was nothing else to look at. Animals held particular interest for them because they were hard to catch and very tasty.

Painters paint what they know, and art is a reflection of culture and environment, so it is not surprising that landscape painting has been popular throughout most of history. 

The persistence of pastoral art into the late 20th century can be explained differently.  Most of us who reside in urban areas – 80 percent in fact – live a stressful life of crowds, noise, traffic, and pollution. We are bombarded by media, advertising, and endless viral and guerilla promotions. Smartphones, tablets, and computers rule our world.  It is no wonder that we want to get away for the weekend – a trip to the Chesapeake, the Shenandoahs, Southampton, or the Adirondacks. 

Most modern urbanites at one time or another have mused about a simpler, uncomplicated 19th century life.  Only cows, pigs, chickens, and corn to think about. There we would respond to the rhythms of nature, wake to the sound of songbirds and retire with the setting sun. It is no wonder then, that we linger in front of the English landscape paintings of the 18th century rather than the distorted, disturbing images of modernism and contemporary art.

Dutton thought that the works of Frederick Church best expressed this native, innate human sentiment for a benign, fertile, temperate, and well-watered landscape.

It is hard to say whether or not anyone in the Museum of American Art in Washington actually likes the Church paintings displayed there.  They really are corny and a bit lame for modern tastes; and it is more likely that the landscape calendar in the kitchen is enough to remind most people of their summer vacations.

I don’t buy the Dutton theory, and even he admits that “Darwinian aesthetics have hardly got off the ground, and much work remains to be done”, which means that deep down he must have sensed the New Age flakiness of his theories. 

I don’t doubt the appreciation of landscape art over the centuries and across cultures; but it seems rather fanciful – given the very reasonable cultural and social determinants of artistic creation and viewer preference – to assume that we are hardwired for it.

In fact, I wouldn’t call landscapes art at all.  Any genre which inserts people into the frame only to establish perspective and dimension is not worth much.  Personally, the greatest artists are the ones for whom people are the focus of their art – Sargent, Whistler, Leonardo, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and David; but that’s just me. I know many people who whiz by what they call the static, posed, and formulaic paintings at the National Portrait Gallery just as fast as others zip by Church’s.

A more interesting question is “What constitutes art?”.  Most academics dismiss the glass-blower Chihuly as a craftsman. How does his art address the human condition, they ask. Even a brief glance at his fanciful works seems to confirm this view, but thousands of tourists flock the Renwick Gallery in Washington just to ogle his sculptures.


In any case, I have filed the Dutton Darwinian Art Theory in with Gaya, crystals, channeling, fairies, and pyramid power.