Daniel Menaker

Al Capone at Laytner’s Linens (A Holiday Break from Malignancies)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

ME: Here’s the receipt, and here are the lights. When you plug them in half go on and the other half don’t.
CLERK: OK, everything is in order. Now all I need is your credit card to make sure to I put the refund on it, and then your name, address, and phone number.
ME: Here’s the card. Why do you need that other information?
CLERK: Store policy.
ME: But that makes no sense–the defective lights are here, the credit card is the right one, I can show you picture ID, and I have the receipt.
CLERK: Store policy. I’m sorry.
ME: Um, OK, well, I don’t think so.
CLERK: Your name?
ME: Um …, let’s see. OK–Al Capone
CLERK (smiling): OK, Mr. Capone. May I call you Al? You can call me Betty.
ME: No, Betty. I like ‘Mr. Capone.’
CLERK: Laughing. OK, Mr. Capone–address?
ME:  One-forty-five Fake Street, District Nine, Kamchatka Island..
CLERK: Oh, my goodness, Mr Capone. That’s a bad neighborhood.
ME: Because I live there.
CLERK: Phone number. Just go ahead and make it up again.
ME: 845 seventy-twelve times pi.
CLERK:  You’re too much.
ME: Has anyone else had trouble with these lights?
CLERK: (whispers) Only about two out of every three customers who buy them.
Uh-oh–here comes the manager.  He has to approve.  I have a return for credit here, Mr. Chen.
MR. CHEN: How much?
CLERK: $12.99.
MR. CHEN: Let me see receipt…. All in order. Sorry lights don’t work, Mr. … [glances at computer screen] Kaypone.
ME: It’s ‘Ka-pone.’

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Onconversations XLI

Monday, November 26, 2012

(In the CT place for my third follow-up scan after Star Wars radiation treatment a year or so ago. )

TECHNICIAN: Please take off your sweater and shirt.
ME: I’m getting to know the drill.
TECH: You don’t have anything around your neck, right?
ME: Nope. Well, nothing physical.
TECH  (laughs, half-heartedly, but then says): Yeah, I asked a guy the same question earlier this week and he said, “Nah–I left my wife at home.”

(I climb on the slab, extend my arms over my head, getting ready to ride the ferry into the doughnut hole of the CT machine.  “Don’t breathe,” the mechanical voice says, sternly, and a green, Pac-Man-esque face appears on the narrow display over my head with his mouth closed, as whatever it is whirls around me. “Breathe”–just as sternly, and the little round face appears with its mouth open, looking very cheerful. The ceiling of this room has a kind of trellis of leaves and flowers painted on it.  It’s less cheerful than bizarre.

Then, I have to go to  another building to meet the radiologist and get the test results. I am not wildly anxious, but I melt a couple mgs. of Valium in my mouth, just to take the edge off the one-hour interval. My wife joins me in the second waiting room. After a while a nurse comes in to fetch us into the examination room.)

NURSE: How do you feel?
ME: Good. Except for this pain and skin sensitivity on my back and lower chest.
NURSE: That’s the radiation. How about your weight?
ME: I’ve put on a few pounds, if anything.
NURSE: Good.
ME: A rale or two from time to time.
NURSE: The radiation. Any difficulty swallowing?
ME: A little from time to time, but no more than I’ve had for some years–a side-effect of blood-pressure medication, I’ve been told.
NURSE: Right. Heartburn?
ME: As a matter of fact. yes, a little.
NURSE: That’s the radiation.  Your last bowel movement?
ME: This morning.
NURSE: OK. Please get up on the scale.
(I do.)
ME: Take six pounds off–I have a lot of junk in my pockets.
NURSE: _______
NURSE: OK, it will just be a few minutes and Dr. ______ will be in to see you to discuss the scan.
(Discuss the scan? I don’t like the sound of that. A few minutes pass.)

DR (enters and says immediately, as he bustles into the room, and with out really looking at me): The scan is good.  (So much for discussion.)
DR: Now about this pain …
ME: It just went away.
DR: What?
ME: It’s really strange, but the pain just disappeared.
DR (getting it, although in fact the pain really did suddenly subside): Ah, the psyche is an extremely powerful organ. But seriously, tell me about the pain.
ME: It’s not a big deal. It’s right below my ribs on the left side, and you can feel a little swelling there. The only time it really bothers me is at night.
DR: Would you lift up your T-shirt?
(I do. Doctor examines my chest and stomach.)
DR: I don’t see or feel anything.
ME: It’s there– it really is. (I try to show him.)
DR (palpating the left and right sides of my lower chest): I can’t feel anything different.
ME: It doesn’t matter to me, now that I know the scan results. Nothing matters except that. But there is swelling there. But really, never mind.
(My wife suggests some possible remedies–a pillow like the one she uses for her back and some medication that she takes. Dr. ________ is skeptical.)
DR: What we can do is try some Lidocaine patches.  I’ll give you a prescription.
ME: If I keep feeling this way, I won’t need anything.
DR: Yes–I’m very pleased too.

(I keep hoping for a truly funny or otherwise bloggable moment, but it doesn’t happen.  Unless you count the fact that on the way home, the crowded crosstown bus–creeping along 66th Street toward Central Park and then Lincoln Center, this bus which would usually drive me nuts with New Yorker-type impatience [the wheelchairs, the walkers, the cell-phone conversations, the sanitation trucks blocking the way, the bulky clothes too early for the season, and so on]–this bus seems to me all jollity and energy and, well, life.)

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Onconversations XL

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

(With a couple of weeks to go before my next follow-up CT scan, I notice a slight swelling at the bottom of my rib cage on the left, and I have continuing pain in the middle of my back–both are sites where the stereotactic body radiation therapy beams were zapped through eight or nine months ago. The swelling is sore. I am on about four Advil/day, so this pain–which is expected and normal (if anything is normal in the cancer world)– is not severe, but the swelling is new, and I don’t like it. It feels like there’s a little cylindrical sponge under there. So I write an email about this development to my thoracic oncologist. He usually responds to emails, and I use this courtesy as sparingly as I can. I realize that it might be better to call my radiology oncologist, but sometimes when I call his number and the lovely-voiced assistant isn’t there to answer, the phone rings four or five times and then this voice comes on the phone and practically shouts out “Radiology!” The first two or maybe even three times I called that number, I thought it was a real if somewhat impatient human being. But it was Radiology’s version of an answering-machine message, and it left me a bit flummoxed. But guess what: My thoracic guy is out of the office, it seems, because I get no reply. So I call the Radiation number.)

PHONE (after four rings): Radiology!
ME: Um, hello? Oh. Yeah. Message. Well this message is for Dr. ________ This is Robert Menaker calling, You know, Dan Menaker. Robert Daniel Menaker. Well, Menaker is all I need to say, probably. Anyway, I have this sore swelling right under my rib cage and I wanted to ask Dr. ________ about it. Maybe he could call me back. (I give phone number.) Thank you.

(Later that afternoon, the thoracic guy’s nurse calls me back.)

TG’S NURSE: This is ________ from Dr. ________’s office. You emailed earlier today?
ME: Yes–thanks for calling back.
TG’S NURSE: Dr. ________ is out of town. Maybe I can help you.
ME: Well, I have this swelling at the bottom of my rib cage, and then there’s the pain in my chest and back, which I understand is normal.
TG’S NURSE: Can you describe the swelling?
ME: Yes, it’s like a little skinny mole or vole under my skin–soft and rounded.
TG’S NURSE: A mole or a what?
ME: Let’s just stick with “mole.”
TG’SNURSE: When did you notice it?
ME: A week or so ago. I finished my radiation treatments about eight months ago, and was told then that there would probably be pain, though it’s a little worse now. But it’s the swelling that’s new.
TG’S NURSE: Eight months ago?
ME: Yes–I think that’s a normal time lapse for the pain part.
TG’S NURSE: Really?
ME: Yes.
TG’S NURSE: Have you thought about calling Radoiology?
ME: Yes, I called and left a message.
TG’S NURSE: Well I know Dr. ________ will want to talk to you when he gets back, but in the meantime, I’m sure Radiology will call you back.
ME: OK, well, I’ll just wait.  I probably shouldn’t have bothered you. It’s just that their answering-machine message is sort of like a drill sergeant–a little daunting.
ME: Nothing. I’ll just wait.

(No more than half an hour later, the Radiation Oncology nurse calls me.)

RO NURSE (briskly): Is this, er, Menaker?
ME: Yes–Robert Menaker. Daniel, you know–
RO NURSE: Date of birth?
(I give it)
RO NURSE: Dr. ________ asked me to call you. What seems to be the problem?
ME: I have this new swelling right at the bottom of my rib cage, and this pain.
RO NURSE: The pain is normal–do you need anything stronger than OTC meds?
ME (tinily but still ludicrously proud of knowing what “OTC” means): No–just taking three or four Advil a day.
RO NURSE: That’s not so bad, considering how close the nodules were to the chest wall.
ME: But the swelling is new–it seems like a little soft roll under–
RO NURSE: Normal also.
ME (relieved): Really?
ME: This late?
RO NURSE: Perfectly normal.
ME: Well, good. I mean, not good that I have the swelling, but–
RO NURSE: Yes, I know. Your next scan is on November __th.
ME: Right. Thank you.
RO NURSE: So don’t worry, OK?
ME: Easy for you to say.
RO NURSE (laughs): Right.

(The following Monday, the thoracic oncologist calls me.)

TO: So I hear you called about some swelling.
ME: Yes, but Dr. ________’s nurse got back to me and said it wasn’t anything to worry about.
TO: Right.
ME: I probably should have just called that office in the first place. But not to be a wuss or anything, but their answering-machine message is scary. Some autocrat yells out, “Radiology!”
TO (laughs hard): They’re more about protons than personality.
ME: You didn’t need to call back, but thank you.
TO: Don’t worry–I like to know what’s going on.
ME: I don’t want to be one of those patients who– Well, you know.
TO: You’re not. You’re an ideal patient.
ME (pleasantly taken aback): Really?
TO: Yes.
ME: Jeez, I’d like to put that in my blog, but how can I do it modestly?
TO: You can’t.

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Onconversations XXXIX

Sunday, November 04, 2012

FRIEND 1:  You know, my mother filled out all these DNR forms, but a lot of times in a hospital they don’t follow them.
ME: Doctors just take care of it all the time. They just do it.
1:  Not necessarily in hospitals. There are all these protocols and procedures.
ME: I think they just quietly usher the person out quite often.
FRIEND 2: It’s the nurses, a lot of times.  They’re the ones who make it harder. Especially if they’re very religious.
FRIEND 3:  My father died at home, and when he was going, the assistant nurse was new and she didn’t really know what she was doing. So somehow she gave him only ten percent of the morphine he should have been given.
ALL: (Groan, say “Oh, no,” then are silent, thinking of the unnecessary suffering.)
ME: I am determined to take care of this myself while I still can, or get the best, um, facilitator I can find.
2: Everybody says that, and most people end up having a harder time than they should.
3. I read somewhere–I think it was Philip Roth writing about his father–that dying is always hard work.
ME:  You know, you hear that about just about everything. Work is work, play often involves work, pets are work, kids are work, friendship is work, and you have to work on your marriage. It doesn’t seem fair that marriage is work.  Too much work. And now dying is work. Probably you have to work in Heaven too. Singing praise is probably work.  Hell might be better–you don’t really have to work on anything.
1 (looking at me, contritely): Oh, no, Dan. I hope we haven’t depressed you with all this talk.
ME: Why? Not at all. I like deathy conversations.
1: Well, you know–I was just thinking of your…situation…and I was thinking that this kind of talk might get you down, considering…you know. I’m sorry.
ME: Well, until this moment, it hadn’t occurred to me at all, but now I am depressed because you thought it would depress me.
1: Well, I’m sorry.
ME: I was joking. Sort of.

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Onconversations XXXVIII

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

(In Pokhara, Nepal, on a speaker’s tour for the U. S. State Department. Having dinner with my wife and the two young people–I will call them Amood and Laksmi–who have organized our schedule and who, among other things, run a library/cultural center in Kathmandu. We have been here for six or seven days, and have been going around to universities and receptions and dinners, and it is all fascinating but also exhausting. Now the official part of the trip is over. We are eating outside at a Thakkali restaurant–the ethnicities in Nepal are so varied and numerous that they’re hard to keep track of, but…well, but nothing. Except that everyone is very friendly and quite shy, generally. Often people want to ask me what it was like to work with Salman Rushdie–as I did, on his novel “Shalimar the Clown,” when I was at Random House. I tell them that Mr. Rushdie is a wonderful writer and was very sure about what he wanted and didn’t want in the way of editing, at one point telling me–about a modest suggestion or two for omitting certain passages–“Thanks, Dan, but my British editor thinks the book is fine just as it is.” So as we’re talking about Indian writers I tell them the following story.)

ME (in answer to Amood’s question, I think): Yes, I met Naipaul once, at some party at Columbia, I think, but only very briefly. I was told by a friend that earlier at that same party someone my friend knew–drunk, a troublemaker–said that Ved Mehta, another Indian writer, blind, was standing nearby. The troublemaker said, “I don’t believe he’s blind. I think he’s just making up. It’s just a way to be different. Watch this–I’m going to prove it.” He went over and made a sudden lunge forward and put out both hands toward the man’s face. The man didn’t move or respond in any way. Then the jerk did the same thing again, and someone else pulled him away and said, “What do you think you’re doing!” The drunken guy said, “That’s Ved Mehta and I wanted to prove that he’s not blind.” The other guy said, “That’s not Ved Mehta, you idiot–that’s V.S. Naipaul.” A little later that evening I talked to Naipaul briefly, and he was very grouchy. No wonder. Though I understand he’s generally pretty grouchy.

Amood and Laksmi: (laugh)

ME: So besides all those lectures and workshops and everything, is there anything else I can tell you about? I think maybe I’m talked out.

LAKSMI: Well, I’ve been reading your blog.  Um, about … cancer.

ME: Yes, well.

LAKSMI: But you are OK.

ME:  For the time being, it looks like.

LAKSMI: I have a … condition too.

ME: Sorry to hear it. I hope you’re OK.

LAKSMI (as I recall): Yes, it’s just something I have to watch.

ME: Good luck to us all. My next scan is in November. You know, I was reading in the paper that this guy from M. D. Anderson, the leading cancer center in the world, said that very soon many cancers will be much more treatable, because they are learning to target the molecular structure of an individual’s particular kind of cancer. It will be like going to a tailor for a suit—height, weight, inseam, arm length, shoulder width, and so on. Each person will have a different treatment. Or each group of cancer patients will have a custom-made treatment.  Maybe I can hang on long enough for that. One thing is for sure. In twenty-five years, the cancer treatments of today will look primitive.

MY WIFE: You know, Dan was told that this one particular drug, a very effective one, wouldn’t work for him, and then they did more molecular analysis and the doctor said it would be very effective for him after all.

ME: Yeah, he said, “By the way, Tarceva would be a good treatment for you after all.” And I said, “By the way”? And we both laughed. I keep telling this story, because the “by the way” was like finding a surprise present somewhere.


(Later, going through security at the Pokhara airport, to fly back to Kathmandu, the security officer–with very little English–looks through my tote bag and finds a plastic bag with quite a few bottles of prescription drugs. I am at that age. Or at least at that age with certain …. conditions.  Some pills for non-insulin-dependent diabetes, for nausea, a thyroid supplement, a beta blocker.  None have anything to do with cancer treatment. He opens one and shakes its contents a little. He seems concerned.)

ME: Yes—there are a lot of pills. I have some … conditions.

OFFICER: What for are these?

ME: Non-insulin-dependent diabetes. Diabetes. Do you know?

OFFICER (to older officer beside him): [Nepalese]  Dyerbits?

OLDER OFFICER: (Says what is obviously “No” in Nepalese.)

OFFICER: (Picks up another bottle, opens it, peers inside for five seconds, as if the bottle held deep secrets.)

ME: Blood pressure. (I put my hand around my wrist, like a blood-pressure cuff–or so I would like to think.)

OFFICER (clearly baffled by my gesture, consults with older officer, surveying the bottles of pills in general, with what looks like growing suspicion):  [Something in Nepalese.]

ME (growing a little desperate, wondering what the food is like in Nepal’s jails; drug laws and punishment for breaking them are draconian in Nepal): There are no bad drugs here. (Unless, I say to myself, you count a little Valium, for a fourteen-hour flight over the North Pole.)

OFFICER: Bad drugs.

ME: No—no bad drugs. I promise.

OFFICER (confers with older officer; they look as if they are going to take this matter further, because the older one puts his hand toward me as if to say “stay here” and turns away, maybe to get the police or something)

ME: I have cancer.

(Everything changes—the older officer turns back, the younger officer looks upset.)

OFFICER (in clear English): Cancer?

ME: Yes, cancer.

OFFICER: Very sorry.

ME: It’s OK. I am OK. For now, anyway. But thank you.

(The officer seals the bag with the bottles in it, gives a cursory look at the rest of my tote bag, zips it up for me when I go to zip it up.)

OFFICER: Luck to you, Sir. Namaste.

ME: (Pressing my hands together): Namaste. Thank you.

(So cancer, like a surprise present, may very occasionally be just what you need. God forbid.)

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Onconversations XXXVII

Thursday, August 16, 2012

(I talk to a friend a couple of weeks after a  CT scan showed good results six months after the completion of fancy radiation therapy)

FRIEND:  Well, that’s fantastic news!  I’m so glad to hear it. (With a little indignation) How come you didn’t tell me right away?
ME: I’m sorry. I tried to tell everyone who might care with a group email. I just went through the alphabet in the address bar and chose the names of people who I thought might not want to know.
FRIEND: What? “Might not want to know”?
ME: I mean, who I thought might want to know. Not “might not.” Sorry.
FRIEND: Interesting mistake.
ME: Oh, please.  Anyway, of course I should have included you. It’s not my fault if you have some weird email address that has nothing to do with your name.  Isn’t that for adolescents and stalkers and ranters and serial killers? I guess I just didn’t recognize it when it was autofilled.
FRIEND: It’s OK–I’m just having you on a little.  Now that you have good news, I feel like it’s easier to kid you. What’s next?
ME: Another scan in November. The guy says every three months for two years, then every six months.
ME: They must have some kind of statistical reason.
FRIEND:  I wonder. I mean, does it make sense that survival rates in a case like yours, say, would be significantly worse if it was like every four months?
ME: Hmm. That does seem pretty unlikely. Especially since my case is a little unusual, and since my guy put this second one off for almost three weeks because he was on vacation. It was nice to have a few  more weeks not to have to think about it, except insofar as you naturally have to think about it at least a little.
FRIEND: What does the guy think is going to happen?
ME: He hasn’t said. I haven’t asked. What’s the point?
FRIEND: Planning.
ME:  I’ll just go on trying to do what I want to do until I have to stop. Isn’t that what we all do anyway?
FRIEND: Not all of us have a life-threatening illness.  Well, except life itself.  I said that because I knew you were going to say it. Or something like it.
ME: Right– I would have.  It’s amazing how well the cliches serve you when you’re in situation that really calls for them. Make the most of every day. None of us get out of here alive. Stop and smell the roses.  They actually turn out to be useful and comforting.  And besides, I have actually done some planning–some financial
stuff–and I think it’s pretty much taken care of.
FRIEND: You mean, like your will.
ME: Among other things, yes. It’s interesting–in an earlier will I left a thousand dollars to a pretty random friend just to enjoy while I was alive thinking about the postmortem surprise he would experience.
FRIEND: That’s very weird.
ME: But this time everything was serious, befitting my age and condition, probably.
FRIEND: What are you leaving to me?
ME: A grown-up email address.

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Onconversations XXXVI

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

(Another follow-up CT scan, six months after the completion of two courses of stereotactic body radiation therapy–SBRT (http://radonc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=61).  Preceding the test, the usual nerves.  “Scan-to-scan anxiety is real,” my thoracic oncologist has written to me in an email. Thanks, Doc, I say to myself. The appointment for the scan is at 2:30 in the afternoon, for the consultation about the scan at 4.  Owing to amazing downtown-and-crosstown-bus luck, I get to the hospital at about 2. They take me in for the scan very quickly, and the scan itself is also very quick. The technician gives nothing away.  You try to read something into their “Have a good day”s and “Take care”s when the test is over, but they have become expert at hiding their knowledge of what the scan has or hasn’t shown. So I’m done with the scan before 3.  Will I have to wait until 4 to see the young radiation oncologist? No.  I’m taken into an exam room almost immediately.  There a nurse comes in with one of those rolling vitals poles and takes my vitals–white-coat effect pretty apparent.  Blood pressure 160/60 (weird!), pulse 110, but blood-oxygen level–the little clip they put on your finger; how does it know anything?–very good: 98%.  Weight 174 with clothes on–which is great because it means my weight is around 170.  It’s  great because I have spent the past week at the Southampton Writers Conference eating everything in sight and thought I must have put on five pounds but haven’t.  Then in comes a handsome young resident–they rotate through radiation oncology; this is the third one I’ve seen over the past year of chemotherapy and SBRT. [Don’t forget that my wife and I are still waiting for the results of a crucial CT scan all this while.]  He is thorough but very fast–heartstethosocopebreathingstethoscopechesttappingbacktappingunderarmlymphnodepalpitationnecklymphnodepalpitationmusclestrengthtestingreflextestingeyemovementtestingandsoforth, and as he’s being thorough and quick, we talk.  He says something about having lived in Boston for seven years.)

ME: You went to school there?
DR: Yes.
ME: Harvard? [What an idiot!]
DR: Boston University.
ME: Undergraduate and medical school?
DR:  Yes.
ME:  And you’re rotating through radiation oncology right now?
DR:  Yes. You’re in good shape.
ME: Thanks.
DR: Well, Dr. ________ is looking at the scan right now. I took a brief look before I came in to see you.
ME:  (Thinking, “And …?”)
DR:  He’ll be in to see you soon. We just have the preliminary report now.
ME:  (Thinking “AND …?”)
DR: Uh, he’ll tell you all about it. We won’t have the full report until a little later.
DR: Do you work out?
ME: Yes–four or five times a week.
DR: What do you do?
ME: I do exercises for half an hour and then run for half an hour. Shuffle is more like it.  (A standard small joke. Very small.)
DR:  Very good.
ME: And do you work out?
DR: I wish.
ME: Your work here doesn’t allow it.
DR: Not usually.
ME: Well, that’s unfortunate.

(Here I make a comparison between the speed with which the resident went through the tests and the way our dog sort of does all his tricks in an efficient hurry in order to get his treats as soon as possible. The confession of this moronic and insulting comparison is bad enough–I wanted to bite my tongue in half even as I continued to slog through it.  But I can’t bear to set down the details.  The resident wore a look of indigestion while I went on.)

DR:  Hmm. Interesting. Well, good luck. It was good to meet you.

(A few minutes later the oncologist comes in to see me.)

DR: Well, the scan looks very good.
ME: Excellent!
DR: (seems very pleased with himself, more pleased than with the actual result–as he should be, since this whole course of treatment has been something of a gamble that we took together and he has been at least temporarily vindicated.) Yes—it’s just what we hoped.  The nodules appear to be gone. There are no new ones, and your lymph nodes show no evidence of spread.
ME: Excellent.
DR: This is just a preliminary finding. Someone else who is expert at reading scans will be looking the scan over very, very carefully soon, and we will let you know what he says.  Probably we’ll call you.
ME:  How annoying! Tell him not to bother.
DR: What?
ME: The expert–tell him he doesn’t need to look very carefully. I’m satisfied right now.
DR: (gravely)  I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to do that.
ME: I’m kidding. Just happy to hear this news.
DR: (faint smile) There is some scarring from the radiation, and it could be that the scarring is obscuring something, but I don’t think so.
ME: Well, this is great.
DR: I’d like to do another scan in another three months.
ME: Or four, maybe.
DR: (nods his head, not in agreement but in comprehension of my deranged mood)  Three months.

(At home, an hour later, the resident whose examination of me I compared to a dog doing tricks, calls.  “The final report confirms the good findings,” he says, hastily.  “Congratulations!” He gets off the phone as quickly as possible.)

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

(This question references my recent New York Times book review of Free Will by Sam Harris, found here.)

You wrote that the book “is generally prosaic, As most such intellectual treatises perforce tend to be.”

In what sense are you using “prosaic”?

And if these types of treaties have a proclivity to be so, are being critical of Harris for being true to the form he chose to present his argument?

Duane Skelton

Dear Mr. Skelton,

I was using “prosaic” in what I think of as being one of its most common meanings, when applied to writing–ordinary, undistinguished.  I didn’t mean to be critical of Harris for his “prosaic” style–though I do believe such treatises can occasionally have a more stylish presentation–see Milton’s “Areopagitica,” any of George Orwell’s essays. (But both of those  examples are almost as exhortative as they are logical arguments.)  I was just trying to let the reader know what general kind of writing he or she would encounter in “Free Will.”

“Free Will” is, for the most part, closely reasoned and, to me, persuasive.  That it isn’t thrilling writing may be in some ways a good thing. Harris is trying to make his case in a straightforward, no-frills way.  When he does attempt to be “literary,” or ironic, or rhetorical,  the effort often falls a little flat.

Thank you for writing–your question is a good one.  It’s true that we shouldn’t  criticize, say, a grocery list for being nothing more than a grocery list.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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More About Free Will

Monday, July 16, 2012

(This question references my recent New York Times book review of Free Will by Sam Harris, found here.)

If the physics of the universe is deterministic–as people used to believe prior to the advent of quantum mechanics–then the absence of free will is a corollary.

But how does Sam Harris address the–apparently–non-deterministic physics that quantum mechanics implies? (Or does he avoid that issue altogether?)

Michael Pace

Dear Mr. Pace,

This blog is supposedly about ordinary conversation, but it’s great to widen the definition of “conversation” in this way–heaven knows that the subject of free will has produced a huge amount of written and spoken conversation, a lot of it heated and angry.  So let’s have at it, peacefully:

Mr. Pace, your question, insofar as I understand quantum mechanics–which is, sadly, for my car, about as far as I understand auto mechanics–is a good and prevalent one. The short answer is that Harris says very little if anything about the role of quantum mechanics in the functioning of the human brain/mind. The slightly longer answer is, according to what I’ve read, that if somehow the randomness of quantum mechanics underlies human brain function and thus decision-making, then our decisions are even less the products of our “will” than they would be if they were neurologically caused by activity that overrides quantum randomness.  Do you see what I mean? Do I? I think so but am not sure. I’m not a professional philosopher or neuroscientist–or physicist–but it does seem sensible to say that if our brain functions and choice-making result from random, or at least unpredictable, subatomic processes, then the amount of our minds’ agency in such matters appears to be reduced to zero.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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(This question references my recent New York Times book review of Free Will by Sam Harris, found here.)

Dear Dan,

In response to your ridiculous review of a ridiculous book by Sam Harris:


Just turn your head slightly and you’ll see.

Michael Fox

Dear Professor Fox,

I don’t actually like Harris’s book much, especially not as any sort of literature, even though I agree with its basic position on this matter.  The Opinionator piece you link to is excellent, but it seems to me to beg a lot of questions.  It might be interesting for us to discuss that piece and this whole issue further, but if possible with a little more civility than your comment displays. Still, I appreciate your response to the review.  Hackles-raising is not the worst thing that can happen to a writer.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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