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Sunday, 13 September 2015


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One of the great privileges of being a physician is the opportunity it offers to meet all sorts of different people and (if you take the time to listen) hear their stories. This falls into two general categories: The first is shutting up long enough to let the patient tell you the story of their illness and how they have experienced it. When teaching a med student I always asked them to introduce themself to the patient, ask why the patient had come in and consciously make themself not ask another question but simply listen to the patient for 5 minutes before interjecting. This is very difficult for students, and doctors for that matter, to do--everyone feels they are under tremendous time pressure. Studies have shown that on average doctors interupt the patient in 13 seconds. However, if you do listen carefully the patient will frequently "tell you" in so many words what is wrong with them--lead you to the diagnosis. Sadly, due to time pressure and having to deal with computers in the exam room we are losing these stories. It's hard to point and click them into an electronic health record.

Secondly, I have taken care of many elderly folks over my 30 years of practice. Many of us tend to view old people as kind of a uniform type--we tend to largely ignore them in one way or another. However, they have all led long lives that have paralleled incredible historical events--and most have fascinating stories to tell. Early on I started noting their birthdate, and adding 10, 20, 30, 40 years to the date to place the phases of their life in historical context, and then I would ask them about it. One guy who was admitted from a nursing home had participated in the discovery and translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most had fought in the war, or had other war or depression related personal stories. Years ago I took care of a very old lady with gray-blue hair. I deduced that she has been in her teens and 20's during the roaring 20's I asked her if she had been a flapper. She developed a twinkle in her eye, brought her hand up to her hair and said, "I sure was! I wore my hair in a bob. I still wear my hair short, you know!" and told me about gin soaked dance parties. These interactions always made my day.

Read Rick Bragg. I'd start with "It's All Over But The Shoutin'" but his book of stories from the New York Times, "Somebody Told Me" is worth a read.
My favorite story teller, is and probably always will be, Charles Kurault, whose stories will probably last forever in some dusty CBS video vault.

Interesting Sunday OT. I am a huge fan of Storycorps: http://www.npr.org/series/4516989/storycorps

Let sleeping dogs lie; especially if it is an Irish Setter.

Yes, it's sad when stories die, just as it is when people die, but if this weren't the way of things there be no room on the planet for new people and no room in our collective memory for new stories.

Like sadness itself —and joy— it's part of the human condition.

It surprises me that you have not been able to enjoy the Iliad. It took me three times to realize that the book must be read with a certain rhythm. It is poetry, after all....Not a novel. Oddly enough, it may be the greatest existing example of the survival, through the ages, of the very thing you lament in this writing.

Funnily enough: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/sep/12/michael-palin-diary

Regarding the 'Iliad', I read it twice. Not to try to make some sense of it, but because I felt I needed to keep my memory of that epic poem alive. (Well, at least it's supposed to be a poem, though for some reason the translation I read presented it in the form of prose.)
It's probably because I live in an old country that shares a Mediterranean tradition and history, but although I was 33 the first time I read 'Iliad', I was as marvelled as a child. It was so vivid, so grandiose! And the characters are so insightfully depicted in both their glory and vileness, with all their weaknesses and strengths. (Especially Hector and Achilles, of course.) It's all about how human beings behave under the testing conditions of war, which brings out their best and their worst. In that regard 'Iliad' is fascinating.
One aside is that I learned a lot about ancient Greece's costumes, down to the way they roasted meat and drunk their wine, which made for a very interesting read.
All in all it is an absolutely compelling read, much more so than 'Odyssey'. All European mediterranean countries have their epics: ancient Rome had 'Aeneid', and Portugal produced 'Os Lusíadas' (albeit some twenty-four centuries later). It's something of a collective celebration of our peoples' deeds. Is it true? Is it historically accurate? Certainly not. But it's wonderful nonetheless.

[I am always more moved by thoughtful praise than by careless disparagement, in this case by your take on the Iliad over my own. --Mike]

Just to support Don Craig's citation of http://spitalfieldslife.com/ which has wonderful stories. It is the only blog other than TOP that I read every day. Since TOP is really a dog blog ;-) I would recommend http://spitalfieldslife.com/2015/01/13/libby-halls-dogs-of-old-london/

First this

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/10/t-magazine/1970s-new-york-history.html. Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?

And now this post. Perhaps I ought to get back to work on a couple projects.

Somewhat serendipitously, Monday's post on Signaland is about my great grandfather. It's the first in an intermittent series of photographs of artifacts that have been passed down, passed along, and passed on, losing their stories and pasts over the years, but acquiring the patina of history--that is to say, mystery:

Past Lives: Clyde Doley's Notebook

It seems to me that the truth of events is lost as soon as they occur. What people remember and believe happened is almost always wrong or incomplete, just ask any crime investigator trying to make sense of witness statements. I suppose that is also a pseudo-Poseidon effect - we assume a lot and then remember it as truth, and base the next part of our factual-story on our fiction, because we have nothing else. The memories we live by may - or may not - be formed accidentally, but parts of them never happened. I suppose one could ponder Plato's cave, instead of re-reading Homer. . .

I came to feel just that same aching sense of loss when I found myself in the midst of a long research project trying to trace the doings and feelings of those bearing a religious tradition further and further back, into the Nineteenth Century and beyond. The trail grew colder until it vanished. This was in Sri Lanka, where the written record is eaten by termites, or just molders away. We can never know.

Later I experienced that same pathos of distant loss in the disappearance of my own parents' stories.

But still later I came to think this pathos, which gripped me for years, was indulgent. What is born passes away. And there is enough more intimate and immediate grief to deal with.

Perhaps you need to read the Iliad just one more time (go back to Lattimore's peerless transation, please). The story is about anger. Specifically, Achilles's anger towards Agamemnon. He gets so angry, that his anger destroys one of the only things he loves unambiguously, his cousin Patroclus.

The gods, I thought, were more like Hepburn and Tracy nattering away in the background.

It's a pretty good story.

I wouldn't strictly call it off topic. Sit down with someone and their family photo album and wait for the stories that each one brings forth. I've learnt quite a few golden nuggets of family history from my otherwise reticent father this way. I'm even planning on doing my own (limited) pictorial autobiography using photos from the time of each story.

Autobiography? Isn't that what Facebook is for? I thought they were saving all my posts for my ancestors.

I don't think you're approaching Homer right. For me, the pleasure of his stories is that society is so different—the customs are nearly incomprehensible in some ways—but people are very nearly the same.

It also helps to remember that this work was composed orally and written down later. I'm currently reading the Lombardo translation to my son. It's definitely different from reading it to myself.

I treasure the snippets of stories told by my parents about themselves so now I try to do the same for my own children. I know they may not appear to be that interested but hope that after I'm gone they too will treasure their old mans ramblings.


I've also told the I want no polished eulogy at my funeral. Tell it like it was. He was a crabbed bad tempered old b*****d.

If you want classical stories, try Herodotus rather than Homer. Much more fun and some of them are at least partially true.

The Odyssey is much more interesting than the Iliad, but surprisingly the chapters about Odysseus travels are the least interesting (maybe except the cyclop episode). The Samuel Butler translation is very good for both (but better for the Iliad). He somehow keeps the poetic rhythm in his prose.
You can find it free on the net.
In Hebrew we were lucky to have a great poet do a masterpiece of translation to Homer.

Great piece of writing, and it touched something deep inside me.

I have done some autobiographical writing, and it has been illuminating. However, for me, I came to see that writing was not the answer. My real autobiography is connected with how I FEEL, and how one feels cannot be put into words.

It's also connected with how I take photographs. I have to be in the moment, connected with the inside and the outside world, to take a photo that I end up keeping. It's a moment of consciousness and feeling translated (more or less) into a visual image.

Thanks for thoughtful piece.

Speaks to value of the mundane in photography as opposed to the rock star who shall remain unnamed. 😀😀

Regarding the Iliad, have you read Julian Jaynes' book, 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind'?

Or, from another side, Christopher Logue's 'War Music'?

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