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Mining a Vein

February 23, 2004

A friend was in the midst of mining a vein during heart surgery when a vision popped into his head of the 1938 Army-Navy football game, “in black and white like the newsreels of the time.”

“The stadium was filled to overcrowding,” he said, such that the bitter cold air was warmed by the crowd’s collective cloud of breath.

“All were dressed in overcoats and Stetsons.” He mused about how so many people came to this Philadelphia field long ago. He imagined them coming by train from NYC, filling the bustling station, arriving with but one thought.

This was the crux of the matter for him: People had time to spend a Saturday at a football game in another city. It was a comforting thought, although it quickly disintegrated as he foresaw the war ahead and the decline of the mass transit system.

He suffered a strange sense of loss as he turned back to “whatever tissue/red job I was doing.” He had written to me on the heels of an unpleasant surgery (which went fine for the patient) during which the surgeon had botched something involving the Left Anterior Descending coronary artery — evidently important — and the entire surgical team bore the brunt of his fear.

No more tunneling with the high-tech “Vas-O-View” Endoscopic Vessel Harvesting System, my friend had to revert to the equivalent of strip mining. Find a vein, and fast.

The vision interested me as a reflexive fantasy of simplicity and peace. Not necessarily, but inevitably, such fantasies evoke a simpler time from the past. Individual human capacity remains unchanged, I believe, but individual human experience is different now from 1938 — for Americans, anyway.

I recently read a book called “Doing our own thing: the degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care,” by linguist John McWhorter, in which he laments … actually, I came away unsure about his real feelings on the matter, since his writing style made me think he was trying to prove his point by example.

While reading the book, I speculated that the degradation in personal expression has much to do with lifetimes passed in a flood of meaningless words and commercial stimuli.

I imagined with some jealousy that the days of an American in 1900 were filled more with live conversation, live singing and music, and far more quiet than that of a modern American — not least for living a rural life.

In 1900, 60 percent of Americans lived rural lives. In 1960, only 37 percent. Today, it’s less than a quarter.

My Mom thinks I’m one in a million, but in fact I’m only one in four.

I just watched a documentary that in the end is about someone who is one in 9 million. “Spellbound” is not Hitchcockian, but it is suspenseful. It follows eight students to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

The film is a delightful profile of both America and this quaint and uniquely American pursuit. A spelling bee would be no contest in some languages, but English spelling can be so arcane and unpredictable, with influences from many languages, that contests are inevitable, if only as bar bets.

(The library has helped with a few of those over the years.)

The library has “Spellbound” on DVD. I’d hoped to announce the arrival of classic films on DVD, but our chosen purveyors suffered a complete loss of their website last week.

I’ll bet they’re longing for the simpler past.

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