Monday, August 30, 2010

Around the Horn

If I were to write a book about my adventures as a biochemist ("Twenty Years Before the Microscope") then you might read sentences like this: "I raised up the pipetteman and delivered the restriction enzyme into the Eppendorf tube. I knew that after vortexing, and a stay in the 37C water bath, there would be agarose gel electrophoresis." If you haven't been trained in molecular biology, then that quote probably sounds like gibberish. Which is why I would laugh in "Two Years Before the Mast" when confronted with passages like this:
The wind was now due southwest and blowing a gale to which a vessel close-hauled could have shown no more than a single close-reefed sail, but as we were going before it, we could carry on. Accordingly, hands were sent aloft and a reef shaken out of the topsails and the reefed foresail set...We sprang aloft into the top, lowered a girtline down by which we hauled up the rigging, rove the tacks and halyards, ran out the boom and lashed it fast, and sent down the lower halyards as a preventer.
Excuse me, but WTF? Sounds like sailors were climbing up into the sails and doing all sorts of things, but exactly what I'm not sure. Still, does it really matter? The language is all crazy nautical, and makes me feel like I'm being sprayed by waves breaking over the bow, so finally I decided maybe I just needed to go along with it and that's what I did. I'll never be a sailor shipping out before the mast, but at least now after having finished the book I can talk like one. "Man the jib and reef up those tackles and halyards men! Ahoy maties! Don't be a soger!" See, I'm pretty convincing, right?

In the latter part of this book, the author describes the voyage home to Boston from California, two years after he shipped out. The eventful part is sailing around Cape Horn at the tip of South America in June, which is winter down there. Needless to say, it's tough going...lots of storms and snow and ice and rain and days that are five hours long before the sun sets. Frostbite was a real threat, but the sailors couldn't wear gloves because they couldn't hold on to the ropes very well when wearing them. And the author describes how their clothes were basically wet for a couple of months straight. It sounds pretty miserable, and it certainly was. It's kind of amazing that anyone survived these journeys. It makes one thankful for the Panama Canal.

Once around the Horn, several of the sailors get scurvy. This was in 1838, and it wasn't until 1932 that Vitamin C was discovered and the cause of scurvy (the lack of Vitamin C) was known. At the time of this voyage all that was known was that "fresh food" could cure scurvy (which meant plants, which contain Vitamin C). Meals on board the ship consisted of a piece of salted meat and some biscuit. Every meal, every day. Mmmmm. Fortunately, right before one of the sailors was about to die, they came across another sailing ship, who gave them onions and potatoes. Every sailor was given these daily, and all were cured. The author describes how they would just eat the onions like apples, and I'm thinking that that must have been one smelly ship.

Finally the ship makes it home to Boston, the sailors leave the boat, and the author goes back to Harvard to get his degree. The end. But wait...there's more! For the second to last chapter, the author goes into lawyer mode (he got a law degree) and starts going on and on about the rights of sailors, and the legal limits to a captain's authority, etc. And I have to say this was a pretty dull chapter, and out of character with the rest of the book. But then, there's one final chapter, added as a postscript 24 years after the book was initially published. This chapter tells of the author's trip, made in his mid-40s, back to California 24 years after his sailing days. He is blown away by what he sees...especially in San Francisco. When he was there in the 1830s there was no town, just an old broken down Mission. When he returns it's thriving metropolis, and there are other cities along the bay as well (Oakland, San Jose, Santa Clara), not to mention cities inland like Sacramento. The author is treated as a celebrity in San Francisco, his arrival being announced in the papers, because his was the only account of California written by an American before the Gold Rush days, so all the original pioneers read his book to get an idea of what it was like. He hangs out in San Francisco for awhile, no doubt going to dance clubs and cocktail lounges....maybe checking out the Museum of Modern Art He then takes a steamship down the California coast, visiting Santa Barbara and San Diego, before coming back to San Francisco and then heading to Hawaii. This chapter, written 24 years after the rest of the book is much more sentimental. He meets a lot of his old shipmates and acquaintances from his shipping days, and he's obviously very nostalgic for the past as are the people he meets. And I get the feeling it's not just the 24 years of time, but also the massive changes that occurred in California during that time that probably makes the past seem even more distant than it was, enriching and enhancing the nostalgia. At any rate it's a very moving chapter, and a fitting and poignant end to the book. This book is an American classic, and while it might not be for everyone, if you're interested in what the early 19th century sailing life was like, or if you're interested in California history, then this is well worth reading.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Book #37 - Two Years Before the Mast (Richard Henry Dana)

Aye, maties! Tonight I'm drinking a Mexican beer (Modelo) with lime, which seems appropriate for the book I'm currently reading. Leaving behind the 1848 France in "A Sentimental Education" I decided to step back 16 years earlier, and to another continent. I also left behind dithering young French people who talk a lot but never really do anything, in exchange for hard working, manly sea-faring men.

I'm about half way through "Two Years Before the Mast" by Richard Henry Dana. It's another American autobiography, of which I've read three others so far for this project (by Ben Franklin, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass). This book is about a two year period on the author's life. He was an undergraduate at Harvard when he contracted measles, which caused his eyesight to weaken so that he could not continue his studies. He decided that "hard work, plain food, and open air", and a lack of books, could possibly cure him, so he shipped out of Boston on a merchant sailing vessel bound for the California coast. The vessel carried goods for the white settlers in California, which they would both sell and trade for cow hides which they would then transport back to Boston. The whole trip was to take an estimated 2-3 years. You have to admit, this guy had some balls...his eyesight sucks so this young, seemingly well-to-do guy signs up for a couple of hard years as a sailor, which he seems to have had absolutely no experience in, instead of traveling to France and lounging around with the characters in "A Sentimental Education".

So he sets sail. Interestingly we never hear anything else about his eyesight, so he seems to have done alright on that score. They leave Boston and sail down the coast of North and South America (remember it's 1834 so there's no Panama Canal yet). At one point they're chased by what seems to be a pirate ship (it's painted black and has no flags, and pursues them relentlessly) but they manage to escape. Then they sail through Cape Horn at the foot of South America, enduring its terrible storms and weather, and then sail northward for California.

Once they reach California, they then start to endlessly sail up and down the coast, from San Diego to Santa Barbara to Monterey to San Francisco, and back and forth from one port to another, each time trading goods and stocking up on cow hides to take back. California at that time was owned by Mexico, and the small settlements were all built around a Catholic Mission and a Presidio (fort). The white population was mostly Spanish and very sparse. Numerous Indians lived in the towns, and these people tended to work for the white people. As someone who has lived in California for almost 20 years now, it's fascinating to read the author's descriptions of the small towns and settlements that grew up to be the major cities of this state. He describes sailing into San Francisco Bay and stopping in San Francisco, which was only a few shanties at the time, apart from the Mission Dolores, which is still standing and is about a mile from where I'm writing this. It's incredible that this state has become what it currently is in just 175 years after this was written. Keep in mind too that the author sailed to California 15 years before the gold rush and it's influx of people.

The book is also interesting as a description of the life of a common sailor. However, Dana really gets in to describing some of the details of sailing, and some of this is almost incomprehensible to a landlubber like me. For example, here's a sentence about a time they were sailing in a storm:

"All hands were now employed in setting up the lee rigging, fishing the spritsail yard, lashing the galley, and getting tackles upon the martingale to bowse it to windward."

Uh, say what? Or this one:

"At this instant the chief mate, who was standing on the top of the windlass, at the foot of the spenser mast, called out "Lay out there and furl the jib!""

Clearly this is dangerous and complicated work, and the writing conveys a sense of action and movement, but it would be nice to find an annotated version with diagrams or something so I had at least a faint idea of what was going on.

Dana is very good at depicting how hard the sailors' lives were back then. They basically shipped out on these merchant vessels with only a vague idea of when they were returning. In Dana's case his boat must collect a certain number of cow hides to bring back, and they can't return until they've collected this amount (he actually ends up changing ships because his original ship was going to stay way to long in California). There's only one day off, Sunday, and this is at the mercy of the captain, who can decide that they need to keep working. And the captain has total rule in every other way over these men's lives. There's one striking (no pun intended) episode where the captain is in a bad mood, and ends up brutally flogging two men for the flimsiest of reasons. The crew is not happy about this, but they can't do anything. Even if they mutinied they'd be hunted down, and could never work as sailer again. Ah, the good old days.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Unsentimentally Uneducated

When I finished up graduate school and my postdoc, and actually started working at a real job, I began to have a 401(K). When learning about how to invest the money in my 401(K) I would read in financial magazines and articles that stocks were the best investment for the long term, because over the long haul they had a return of 10% a year. And every time I read that it blew me away. Not because I thought that stocks must be pretty amazing things, but because I thought these guys writing these articles must be total idiots. Is there some law of science that says stocks must return 10% a year? Can one write an equation that proves that stock returns always revert to the mean, and that mean is 10% a year? No, of course not. Whoever came up with the "stocks return 10% a year" maxim had decided that historical events and trends of the 20th century would continue forever, and there would never be any sort of instabilities in our economic and/or political systems that would change the way businesses operate and prevent stocks from returning any more or less than 10% a year, over the long run. Reading "A Sentimental Education" should remind the reader that things are not always as stable over the long run as we would like to believe. Because as I see it, and I am an expert in 19th century French literature because I have a PhD in biochemistry, there are two main themes in this book. The first is a very cynical view of how trivial, irrational, unthoughtful, and downright ridiculous many peoples' lives are. And the second is how peoples' lives are affected by, and caught up in history. It's easy for us today, I think, to lose sight of that second theme, as our government and society have been relatively stable, at least in my lifetime. But this was not the case in France around the year 1848, when the novel takes place. In 1848 the monarchy of King Louis-Philippe was overthrown, and the Second Republic was formed. The year was full of all types of rebellion and political turmoil, and at the end of the year Louis Napoleon was elected president. A couple of years later he ended the republic in a coup and became Emperor Napoleon III. It is against all this turmoil that the action (if it can be called that) of the novel takes place, and the characters' lives are all impacted by current events. Indeed, I was fortunate that my edition of the book had footnotes explaining what all the historical references were about, since events of the French revolution of 1848 are not all that well known to most modern readers, myself included.

Anyway, it is against this backdrop that the main character of this novel, Frederic Moreau, lives his dithering life. This guy, the novel's hero, is someone you want to meet in person so you can kick him in the pants. He doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, and frankly never seems to quite figure it out. He starts out as a law student, then wants to be an artist, and later on a politician, etc. etc. but he doesn't seem to have much ambition or aptitude for anything. He manages to inherit a fortune, but blows a big chunk of it on his romantic affairs, and at the end of the novel is solidly middle class. He hangs out with people who have strong convictions about the political events, and he listens to all of them rant and rave, but he seems to comprehend little of it, and really doesn't care all that much when it comes down to it. Of course, his friends who espouse their ideas are all pretty much buffoons anyway, and many of them don't really know what they're talking about. Here's a passage which perfectly illustrates Frederic's interest in politics. He decides that he will try to run to be a member of the Constituent Assembly (the legislature):

"It was time to hurl oneself into the fray and perhaps help events along; he was also greatly attracted to the clothes which, it was said, the Deputies would be having. He could already see himself wearing a tricolour sash and a waistcoat with lapels."

That characterization is both darkly cynical and hilariously funny, and this dichotomy pervades the novel. The characters lives and motivations are all trivial, banal, and/or venal.

But the centerpiece of the novel is not just the revolution and the politics, it's the love life of Frederic Moreau. At the beginning of the novel Frederic falls in love with Madame Arnoux, the wife of a man who runs an art magazine. Of course, he doesn't have the balls to act on this. He befriends the husband, and gets to know Madame after being invited to their house and insinuating himself into their lives. But it takes a long time before he can profess his love to Mrs. Arnoux, and when he does they don't get very far. She loves him too, but is a God-fearing woman and doesn't pursue the affair, although one has the feeling that if Frederic pressed the issue he would have gotten into bed with her. But he doesn't because he's always indecisive, fearful, and dithering. He starts an affair with Arnoux's mistress, a woman named Rosanette. They become more attached, and Frederic seems to love her, at times, but then gets distracted again by Madame Arnoux. Near the end of the novel he has an affair with a third woman, Madame Dambreuse, a high-society figure married to a very wealthy man. After the husband dies, he agrees to marry her, even though he's still seeing Rosanette, who has just had his baby. Oh, and then there's the daughter of the man who lives next to his mother in his rural hometown, and that daughter is obsessed with Frederic. He thinks about marrying her too. So there's lots of intrigue, and jumping from bed to bed, and stringing people along, and betraying people, and tiring of lovers, etc. And in the end Frederic misplays all of his hands and ends up alone. I guess that's a hazard of juggling...all the balls can come crashing to the floor. In a way he seeks an idealized romance, and can't deal with the faults of real of human beings. And most importantly he can't even see how his own faults affect his relationships and their outcomes. It never even occurs to him to think about this. Too bad for him that therapy hadn't been invented yet.

In the movie "Manhattan", Woody Allen's character famously compiles a list of things that make life worth living. One of them is Flaubert's "A Sentimental Education". Is this book really that good? Upon finishing it my impression was that it is both hilariously funny and deeply disturbing and cynical in the way it points out the foibles and shallowness of most peoples' lives. People don't end up living happily ever after in this book, but you can see that coming from the beginning. Everyone is ridiculous. Everyone is flawed. Everyone is doomed. Which reminds me of a line from They Might be Giants: "Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful". Maybe they, and Woody, were right.