When I was a child, growing up in Fairfield Connecticut, I was always surprised by the fact that my Father, who was a voracious reader and amateur historian, only had one bookcase full of books. And those books, for the most part, were rather uninteresting, and I rarely saw him read them. Instead, he went to the library and borrowed books. His reading universe became unlimited.
Often, he read the classics, Plato, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Tacitus. Though a metallurgical engineer by trade, he seemed to be looking for answers to the rise and fall of the ancient Greek and Roman empires. He seemed to want to understand how the were World Wars came about. It seemed to me he was looking for the and understanding of the forces that caused one nation to try to impose its will on another. But, as the books came and went regularly, and he only discussed his ideas when asked, I was unable to form any meaningful understanding of just what motivated this quest.
I, on the other hand, spent a good deal of my childhood being ‘sent to my room’ (this was before the concept of ‘grounding’ became accepted). My Mother, it seemed, took offense at just about everything I did, so I quickly found an alternative in the books I found in my room — in the headstands of the twin beds there, full of the Farley and other horse books — that I realized that just about any negative set of circumstances could be significantly improved by turning one’s attention away from the problem and into a book! The library soon became my haven, and I regularly read a book a day. Eventually I began to purchase books that I loved, and so my personal library began, and has continued to this day.
However, during the days when I was a single parent raising my three incredible children I worried about my Father and his lack of books. By now my parents had left Connecticut for Flemington, New Jersey. Their beautiful new home contained — you guessed it — only one bookcase. Then I discovered the “Classics Club” — tan volumes with a red band and gold-embossed titles across the top. I was delighted. I decided I would save up and give my father these books, one at a time. So, for birthdays and Christmas, and at other times as well, I would budget and purchase one of these books and send them to him. I loved the thought that he would not have to think about borrowing them again. As my Father later became ill, and then passed away, it comforted me to think that he had copies of these volumes at his fingertips.
And so these Classics Club volumes stayed on the bookshelf in the Flemington house, until my Mother decided to move. She asked me what of theirs I wanted. Of course, I said, “The Books!” Oh no, I was told, they needed to be sold at auction, along with many other items considered to be of value. To me those rather insignificant-looking books were not of much worldly value, but they were, in their way, irreplaceable. No matter — off they went.
I spent such a long time feeling discouraged by this set of circumstances that I can hardly recall when I first had the bright idea of tracking down other copies of the Classics Club books. And so I did, hunting them down in used bookstores and on Ebay, and putting them right near the living room window, at the top of one of my bookshelves, so that the sun hit them first thing in the morning. Gradually, I added onto this collection. And then, quite by chance, my Gardner cousin Mark (not from my Father’s McElwain side) came to my house one day and said, “I have the exact same set of books. I’m going to be moving. I’ll give them to you!” And so he did, and now I have had to move some of my Mozart books down a shelf to make room for all of the Classics Club volumes. Thank you, Mark. 🙂
John Forbes Nash was one of the most eccentric and troubled people ever to make significant contributions. Despite a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, characterized by hallucinations and terror, he, with the help of his wife, Alicia, managed to come to grips with his issues and live by all accounts an odd, but in many ways successful, life.
Nash was a mathematician — a codebreaker of the highest order, by his own estimation initially, and then by others. Burdened with a big ego and a sarcastic wit, he frequently found himself excluded from jovial and productive environments. He charted his own course — one which could have led to an early death or even suicide.
Per the interesting movie about his life, “A Beautiful Mind”, (which ignores significant aspects of his life and paints a more attractive picture of his circumstances than was probably was the reality)and the book it was based on by Sylvia Nasar, Nash seems obsessed with a compulsion to find an ‘original idea’ that would give him the prestige he sought, and allow him to make a significant contribution to mathematics. He did that on more than one occasion, earning the Nobel Prize in 1994. In fact, when he and his wife were killed in an automobile crash on the New Jersey Turnpike (in a cab, it was not their fault) a year ago they were returning from one of many more award ceremonies, where his contributions were gratefully acknowledged by his peers.
Yet there may be at least one more contribution that John Nash made to the human family. It comes, not in the field of mathematics, per se, but in his character as a human being. In his own way, with help from his wife, doctors, and at times medication and even shock therapy, he managed to confront the particular characteristics of his own illness and deal with them in a constructive manner. Although voices apparently remained in his head, he decided to stop listening to them. He managed to starve their power to terrify him or direct his life simply by being able to sidestep them. John Nash broke the code of his own illness, and in doing so may have paved the way for a new generation of understanding of what constitutes mental illness and how it can best be treated.
When the person I call ‘Monostatos’ came into our lives, it was a very puzzling time. What possible interest could this person have in us, I frequently wondered. Something seemed not quite right, but I could not put my finger on it. I grabbed a hint the first time I was asked to play the flute for him — he played accompaniment to a movement of a Bach sonata. He kept looking up at me from under his prominent eyebrows. He seemed to be lying in wait. But why? As soon as I flipped a page, he pounced, claiming I had ‘missed a beat’. What is going on here, I wondered? Why do I have the impression that it is either him or me?
In hindsight, of course, I wish that I had trusted that impression, for it defined the reality of the following 666 or so days. Stealth, deception, hidden ill-intent were the norm. Early-on, they were so far hidden as to be almost invisible.
And so, with helpful and gentle smiles, he enticed me to practice on the stage at Orchestra Hall after rehearsals, which I was invited to attend. How could anyone resist? So out came the Mozart flute concertos, and two of the Mozart violin concertos. The Khat, the Nielsen, Bach, whatever I was working on, soared through the hall and, so he said, through the rest of the building, as i practiced on the darkened stage.
We were the oddity of the orchestra at the time — the concert master called us “Beauty and the Beast” — the gangly young man with the flute player and her three adorable children. It seemed that everyone knew what was going on except me.
Well, that is not entirely true, as I had been studying with the Pricipal Flute player for a while before that. This argumentative little man, in addition to sandbagging my practice, practically accused me of being responsible for the name change of the orchestra. At the time, that seemed completely bizarre. But again, he knew more than I did. So I did have a heads-up — I just didn’t understand it.
But Monostatos agenda seemed to run afoul one day, after a very simple event. On the stage, once again, he asked me to play the Mozart D Major Concerto. He would accompany me (in a general way, as he was not a keyboard player).One of my favorite pieces. The first one I had performed, in fact, when I was in High School. It was, of course, astonishingly lovely to hear the flute in the acoustics of the hall. Afterword, he seemed nonchalant as usual, but there was a glint in his eye that meant trouble. I had done something again that had upset him. I waited for a verbal attack to come — or worse. But there was none.
Subsequent to that he slipped into a profound depression, spending his days in the darkened room I had long before abandoned, knees to his chest, clutching the sheets. I tried to help, but was pushed away. One day he walked into a psych ward and admitted himself. A few days later he left. Then he admitted himself to an in-patient treatment program (though he did not drink) and then left about a week later. I felt helpless and bewildered. I began to accept that nothing might ever work again, and that I had to prepare to take care of my children.
He would not talk, would not share. But, one evening, after going out for a bite to eat, leaving the children with a sitter, we drove to a new construction area on a street called Smetana Drive. I parked the VW beetle and tried to talk with him. What is going on, I pleaded. And then he whispered, in the dark — “I don’t know if you are an amateur or the most exciting musician since Mozart.” I was baffled, and stunned. What possible connecting thread could there be to all of this?
From that moment on, there was nothing but emotional and spiritual war in the house. He ended up running out one night, never to return. I was so relieved that the war was over I didn’t bother to ask what had motivated his becoming involved with us in the first place, much less the traumatic events that followed…