A few podcasts back, we put ourselves on a deserted island — just us, three movies we love and one book. Then we returned to the island a few podcasts later and chose three songs. In this podcast, paradise calls again. But, with a twist!
Here’s a thought experiment the whole family can play: picture the island. You’re on it for who knows how long. Could be forever. The good news? It’s Eden! Every creature comfort is there (except the annoying talking snake). Even better? You get to choose two people to be with you. Living or dead. It’s a thought experiment after all. One exception: it can’t be Jesus (or any religious figure of that stature — that would kind of be cheating on the experiment). Aside from that? It’s wide open.
Now, remember — as part of the experiment, you will have to spend considerable time with these people. Ghengis Khan was probably a fascinating guy once you got to know him. But, he might be a little too “alpha male” to share an island with. It might help to know a little about your island mates beyond what you already like about them. When the subject turns toward the more mundane, will you still be able to keep the conversation going? And, don’t forget, there will be three of you. The last thing you want on your blissful desert island is a triangle where two sides are always ganging up against one.
Who would you choose? Who would be endlessly fascinating? Who would be as interested in what you have to say as you are in what they have to say? Whose unexplored depths would you love to explore, given all that time?
Or, if you’d prefer to watch…
Quick Note: please excuse my mid-podcast befuddlement re the starting date of WWI. I’m keenly aware the war began in 1914, not 1916. This is what happens when one multi-tasks — looking at three things while trying to focus on two — while being at best minimally qualified to do one thing at a time. Apologies… AK.
Who would I choose?
I would be afraid to choose some people I admire because, honestly, I am afraid I might learn that I don’t like them as much as I want to like them. But I also need to think about the character qualities that would be key to the experience.
Smarts … Humor… Faith… Adaptability.
I guess the same character qualities I regard highly in my friendships on this island of Los Angeles as well. So, two people:
- G.K. Chesterton
First of all, he has an essay entitled, “Cheese” that begins in this way: (read from book)
Now this is just one of 4,000 essays he wrote as a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer.
A Defense of Skeletons
A Piece of Chalk
and probably the best title of an essay I have ever read, “What I Found in My Pocket”. Wonderful!
He wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, and several plays as well as his 4,000 essays (mostly newspaper columns).
He also wrote a biography of William Blake which, to my mind, is the most interesting biography one could possibly write.
Here is how it begins:
William Blake would be the first to understand that the biography of anybody should really begin with the words, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” If we were telling the story of Mr. Jones of Kentish Town we should need all the centuries to explain it.
He is probably best known for the “Father Brown” character in a series of detective short stories that has been made into a TV series by BBC One. The main character belies his Christian faith.
He wrote some books on the subject. But my favorite of his Christian works is an essay called “The Book of Job” which is one of the best commentaries on any book of the Bible and on life in general, that I have ever read. Here is an excerpt:
When you deal with any ancient artistic creation do not suppose that it is anything against it that it grew gradually. The Book of Job may have grown gradually just as Westminster Abbey grew gradually. But the people who made the old folk poetry, like the people who made Westminster Abbey, did not attach that importance to the actual date and the actual author, that importance is entirely the creation of the almost insane individualism of our modern times.
Wow and Wow!
So, if I were stranded on a desert island, I would like to be stranded with GK Chesterton because of his:
- and his incredible ability to express all of this to writing.
I wish we could have him on The Faitheism Podcast!
A period of agnosticism. Then he focused on existence. Existence, compared to “nothing”. The fact that he existed was in itself exciting.
His hope grew from there. Listen to this:
You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
I can only aspire to such heights, but I would be happy to spend some time with him on a desert island. I can’t imagine him ever getting boring.
The second person would be, without a doubt, my wife Cheryl.
My marriage to her was actually confirmed in a spiritual experience on an island. Not a desert island, but a deforested island with a dormant volcano in the center. La Isla Del Tigre or Amapala. (photo)
(She actually visited me there one day, but my host served her iguana and she got sick)
She is the glue that has held, not only my family, but my life together with a rock solid consistency (when she agrees to something, she is committed and that is all there is to it, a great thing especially in the early years of a marriage.) I needed that to make a marriage work having become insecure about my ability to hold a marriage together after my parent’s divorce.
I met her after college, when I was working to assist Mexican and Honduran churches. She had graduated from Stanford and from there moved to Mexico and lived with a family with 6 kids, 5 boys, one bathroom and 2 bedrooms. (one of the lounges and the laundry room were converted into a bedroom)
She could adapt and make our time on the island the best that it could be.
She really caught my heart when she teared up about having to leave her Mexican family in Neza, a very tough part of Mexico City at the time, to be a leader in our group. I found that kind of cross-cultural commitment and love very attractive.
She is also super smart and quite quirky. And she makes friends with anyone who looks upright but under the surface is a “rascal”. (Friend at ORU)
She also loves mysteries. So, I imagine she and GK would get along quite well.
If I could have those two with me, I am pretty sure I could handle two years (or more!) on a desert island.
If I could really, REALLY do this, there’d be one person — my dad. Now that my head is clear, there’s so much I’d like to learn from him — and so much, I think I could offer in return. But, that’s too hard to actually talk about, so I’ll leave it here.
As for who I’d choose… This is one that starts with a huge list that whittles down quickly.
Two names passed every “either-or” test. When I tried to think of reasons to exclude them, I couldn’t. The thought of hanging with them seemed even more appealing, in fact. In both cases, I’m fascinated as much by what they’re known for as the process they use to do it. I share their skewed, skeptical views of humanity.
- Groucho Marx
To begin with, “Groucho” was the guy with the greasepaint eyebrows and mustache. That guy’s interesting. But it’s Julius — out of makeup — that I’d be sharing the island with.
There’s plenty Julius and I have in common just for starters. There’s the whole Jewish thing. There’s show biz. A love of language and wordplay.
But, I also identify with one of Julius’ more famous quotable quotes: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member”. There’s something so profoundly spot on in that statement… we could spend a decade just going over that fine point all by itself.
- Barbara Tuchman
Barbara Tuchman was an historian. She wasn’t an academic though she wrote with an academic’s authority. Instead, as she wrote herself, she was “liberated” by not being an academic historian. It made her a better storyteller.
Her personal dets make her even MORE interesting (from Wikipedia)…
She was born Barbara Wertheim January 30, 1912, the daughter of the banker Maurice Wertheim and his first wife Alma Morgenthau. Her father was an individual of wealth and prestige, the owner of The Nation magazine, president of the American Jewish Congress, prominent art collector, and a founder of the Theatre Guild. Her mother was the daughter of Henry Morgenthau, Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Although she never received a formal graduate degree in history, Tuchman was the recipient of a number of honorary degrees from leading American universities, including Yale University, Harvard University, New York University, Columbia University, Boston University, and Smith College, among others.
Good stories rely on perspective. The better a story understands and uses the environment in which it’s taking place, the better a story it’ll be.
Barbara Tuchman opened my eyes to the ways getting the widest possible perspective on a subject can reveal the most remarkable, telling details. Or give the details you can see remarkable perspective.
I yakked a few podcasts back about my dramatic literature professor at Vassar — Everett Sprinchorn — and how his lecture on Ibsen’s “Ghosts” genuinely opened my eyes to how storytelling works. Tuchman had a similar impact. I’d always had this odd fascination with the middle ages — with the Black Death in particular. Couldn’t tell ya why other than, as a storytelling environment, it’s incredibly compelling.
Tuchman’s book “A Distant Mirror”, her history of “The Calamitous 14th Century” tells the story of the Black Death but in the entire context of its time. During roughly the same patch of time — the 1300’s — not only did bubonic plague ravage Europe, but so did the 100 Year War (which ran for 112 years actually) and the Papal schism that set Christian upon Christian even before the Protestant Reformation made that kind of thing de rigeur. Human history is the ultimate storytelling challenge. How do we frame such an expansive story? How do we tame it?
Typical of Tuchman’s approach. The second of her WWI histories — the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Guns Of August” — she opens with the story of the funeral of Edward VII of the UK in May 1910.
Nine of the crowned heads of Europe are there including Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Most of European royalty was related in one way or another to a handful of families — the dynasties that had ruled Europe for hundreds of years.
The family dynamics that she describes at this funeral are at once remarkable for their commonness and for their outrageousness. Tuchman describes these crowned heads of state as the petulant man-babies they all were. And cousin Willy’s petulance was going to drag the whole rest of the family into war before the decade would be over.
It’s that wonderful ability to frame history from a human point of view that struck something in me. Even a story as grand as History relies on the quality of its characters if it’s going to be any good. You gotta get the characters right. You gotta see em warts & all — in fact, you gotta see em warts first.
The Tuchman book I think Randy would relate to and, in fact love is her “The March Of Folly”.
The book is about “one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” It details four major instances of government folly in human history: the Trojans’ decision to move the Greek horse into their city, the failure of the Renaissance popes to address the factors that would lead to the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century, England’s policies relating to American colonies under King George III, and the United States’ mishandling of the conflict in Vietnam.
Other Great (highly recommended) books by Barbara Tuchman —
“Stillwell And The American Experience In China” — Pulitzer Prize-winning account of American general Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, the military attache to China in 1935 to 1939 and commander of United States forces and allied chief of staff to Chiang Kai-shek in 1942 to 1944. While exploring China’s history from the 1911 Revolution to WWII, Tuchman asks a big question: in backing Chiang Kai-Shek over Mao Tse Tung (because he was Communist), did America make a preventable error? Stillwell argued forcefully to America’s leadership that backing Chiang was a mistake — that he was corrupt and that America’s long-term interests would be far better served working with Mao.
“The Zimmerman Telegram” — The least well-known of Tuchman’s WWI trilogy, The Zimmerman Telegram focuses on the forgotten reason WHY America entered the war. We’ve gotten it into our heads that a u-boat sinking the Lusitania was the trigger; it may be been the event that gave Wilson the public reason, but the real reason we declared war on Germany had to do with the Zimmerman Telegram. It turned out that the German government was using OUR undersea cables to transmit communications (some as literal telegrams) wherein they attempted to induce the Mexican government to declare war on America so that we’d be diverted away from entering the war in Europe.