Sunday, January 26, 2020

Eulogy for my father, David I. Drout, MD

The eulogy I gave for my father on Saturday.

David I. Drout, MD

When my daughter Rhys was about six years old, we took her to a faculty party at Wheaton. She was talking to one of my colleagues and told him how excited she was that her grandfather was coming to visit. “He’s a doctor,” she said. My colleague, trying to be nice, said “Well, both of your parents are doctors, also.” Rhys gave him this withering look, sighed, and said “No, my grandpop is the kind of doctor who can do something for you.”

I can’t say she’s wrong. Indeed, because I’m not in medicine, if my students call me “Doctor” I say: “Doctor Drout is my father, dude.” (Those of you with kids will get the reference).

I’m just a teacher, not a doctor. My dad was both. And since almost everyone here already knows what a great doctor he was, I am going to talk about what a great teacher and father he was.

You know someone is a great teacher when they teach things that other people say can’t be taught. Among the many things Dad taught us was the supposedly impossible skill of creativity. There was never some kind of formal lesson, but he taught us all the same: by letting us be creative, by almost never shooting down even the craziest ideas, but instead supporting us in developing them, believing that if anyone could pull it off, it would be us, and showing us how much fun there was in trying. And even if you failed—and boy, did we fail—he at least got a good story out of it.

Examples: at some point in the 1970s, I read an article about ecology and how we needed to compost to save the planet, and so I insisted that we not throw out all the carcasses of the fish we’d caught on our favorite Belmar party boat—the Captain Bill Van—but instead put the fish in the compost pile I’d made in my grandmother’s back yard. Well, it wasn’t the most well-constructed compost pile, and it was the middle of July and about 100 degrees out, and there were a lot of cats in the neighborhood—or at least it sounded that way when in the middle of the night they decided to fight over the fish heads, which started to really smell bad after the cats had dragged them all over the yard, and so my dad had to go out at 3:00 in the morning and bury stinking fish carcasses by flashlight. But he didn’t shoot down my idea and he helped me come up with better execution of it (without fish heads).

Then there was the time I had read, in one of his books on big-game fishing, how to rig a squid bait. So I insisted that Dad buy a whole squid from the bait shop and bring it home with us. I carefully slit it open, put multiple huge hooks inside, sewed it up with black thread and kept it overnight in the fridge, so it would stay supple. And the next morning we went down to the breakwater in Asbury Park to fish. Now, this squid bait was about ten inches long and probably weighed close to a pound, so I could not really cast it very far. But I’ll tell you, if a blue marlin had happened to swim within five feet of the breakwater, that fish would have been mine! Dad didn’t make fun of me about this until 20 years later.

When we lived in New York, my father took me to the Museum of Natural History every Saturday he had off, and he never let on how exhausting that must have been, back when interns and residents worked every day, and then every other night as well—I remember how happy I was when he was “just” working every day and every third night. Luxury! But on Saturday mornings we’d go all the way from New York Hospital to Central Park West and head straight to the 4th floor of the Museum so we could start with the dinosaurs. Then we’d explore. We did this so many times that I still know the entire museum by heart.

When I wanted to build a darkroom in a two-bedroom apartment, we did. When it seemed like a good idea to try to cryogenically freeze and revive beetles in Dad’s refrigerator, we did that. When my brother and I wanted to set plastic models on fire—indoors—in order to make a realistic diorama of the Iranian Rescue Mission crash, he helped us (and made sure we didn’t burn the house down). When we wanted to make candles, we made many, many candles of many colors and scents. For some reason, Dad always joked about the color Chartreuse, which, in retrospect, was not an attractive color for candles.

One day I showed up with twenty-two frozen mackerel in a hefty bag. I’d caught the fish the day before and didn’t know how to clean them, so I froze them and brought them to Dad, who drove us over to my grandparents’ house so we could try to clean them (we were not successful, and he had to dispose of 22 frozen mackerel). Another time he came home from Sunday dinner with Grandmom and Grandpop to find me, back early from a Boy Scout fishing trip, sitting at the front door with a bag full of albacore and bonito I'd caught (I’m just noticing how many of these stories involve dead fish...). So we drove back to Neptune and cleaned them under the streetlight.

The only time my Dad balked at a crazy plan was after I talked him into signing me up for the Cornell Ornithology correspondence course, and chapter one said I should get a dead pigeon and keep it in the refrigerator to study avian anatomy. (However, when I showed up with a live pigeon that I’d caught at the beach, he let me keep it—though I don’t think he was terribly upset when Menelaus the pigeon flew away and stopped crapping all over the apartment).

You get the point. My Dad developed creativity in me and my brother by not shutting things down too soon, by letting us explore and make mistakes without fear, and by laughing rather than getting angry when things went wrong.

When the baboons at Great Adventure ripped the all the rubber molding off of his Honda Civic and pooped on the front window, or when we tried to pull a bush out of the front yard with the Pathfinder but really only succeeded in putting tire tracks across the lawn, or when he and Jonathan had the adventure of a lifetime trying to get a stuffed sailfish through customs and then out of a giant wooden crate... (Jonathan can tell you that story), Dad didn't get angry. He laughed.
Making a career about writing about The Lord of the Rings was a crazy idea, but my dad said “Who in the world knows more about that than you?” And he was right, and that’s how the books that he read to me again and again—so that I still only hear them in his voice—turned into a part of my career.

Learning to skate when I was a senior in college and then trying to walk on to the hockey team at Stanford was a crazy idea. But Dad got me started in hockey by taking me to Devils’ games, bought me my first hockey equipment, and didn’t tell me I’d probably embarrass myself trying to play varsity college hockey with no previous experience. And you know what happened: I ended up on the intramural team, where I met Raquel. So the best thing that ever happened to me started as a crazy idea that Dad facilitated.

Dad’s sense of humor helped him teach more serious lessons as well. One night in the summer after my freshman year at college, I had a long, drawn-out phone argument with an ex-girlfriend, during which I took, perhaps, one or two drinks of rum from a bottle that I shouldn’t have been touching. Dad didn’t say anything about it—though I must have been pretty loud—but he did wake me up at 7:00 in the morning the next day to help him dig post-holes in the back yard. It was the middle of August, the humidity was 100% and the temperature was around 90, and I dug post-holes for about three hours. I was as quiet as I could be each time I threw up into the stream, and he pretended not to notice and never said a word about drinking or taking stuff that didn’t belong to me or being loud and obnoxious when he and Roberta were trying to sleep. I learned.

Dad also showed me how to be a good father by putting his sons in front of even long-cherished dreams. Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream was one of my dad’s favorite books, and catching a big game fish like a sailfish or a marlin or the broadbill swordfish was one of my dad’s lifetime goals, what we’d now call a “bucket list” item. But when he finally had a chance to catch a billfish, when he took us fishing in Mexico, he let me sit in the fighting chair first and have a shot at a big fish, which I lost, and then he let Jonathan sit in the chair and catch a small mahi-mahi. Only after he’d given both of us our chances, and the fishing day was nearly over, did he take his turn in the chair. I’ll never forget the look of happiness on his face when he caught his sailfish, and I’ll never forget that he was willing to sacrifice that joy for his sons.

There is no precise moment I can point to in which I learned the single most important lesson my Dad taught me, because he taught it by example every single day. That lesson was: “the individual patient is God.” He believed that the person sitting right in front of him, the person who had come to him for help, deserved—and from him, always received—all of his attention, all of his effort, all of his skill, and his knowledge and his art. No matter if Dad was tired or hungry or worried or not feeling well, he treated that patient in front of him as if God Himself was sitting there. And that’s how he treated us, also: when my father was talking to us, teaching us, loving us, nothing was more important than the person in front of him. And if I have had any success as a professor, as a teacher, and as a father, it is because I try to emulate him and perhaps occasionally succeed in doing so.

I’ll end with this: one of my most treasured memories is of playing catch with my dad in the backyard at his house in Tinton Falls. The sun is going down, it’s getting cooler, and the ball is harder to see, but neither of us wants the game to end. Every time you throw the ball, it comes back, just right, just perfect; it smacks right into the glove, right into the pocket, and you throw the ball again, and it smacks into the glove, and it comes back, and you catch it perfectly, and you throw it and it comes back and the sun sinks further and the sky gets darker and your father, who loves you, keeps catching the ball and throwing it back and you understand, you truly understand, the promise of eternal life in the arms of the Father.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Anglo-Saxon Medicine

By now you may have heard about the team from Nottingham that tested an Anglo-Saxon remedy for an eye-stye and found that it killed methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. There's an article in New Scientist about the research here .

Some readers may remember that ten years ago our Anglo-Saxon Medicine research group at Wheaton tested the same remedy. The article is on Google Books at this URL. Full cite is: Barbara Brennessel, Michael D.C. Drout and Robyn Gravel. “A Re-Assessment of the Efficacy of Anglo-Saxon Medicine,” Anglo-Saxon England 34 (2005): 183-95.

We, however, found that the compounded recipe did not kill bacteria. Although the ingredients (garlic, leeks, ox gall, wine and leached copper) were efficacious on their own, when we let them sit in the copper vessel for nine days, as the recipe says, they turned into a loathsome slime that did not inhibit bacterial growth. We used the Kirby-Bauer method of growing "bacterial lawns" of Staphyloccus aureus in petri dishes and then placing filter-paper disks impregnated with the remedy to see if they produced a zone of inhibition greater than 10 mm. They did not.

So why are our results at such variance with that of the Nottingham team?

One major possibility is that they tested the efficacy of the remedy in vivo on strips of infected mouse skin, while all of our testing was in vitro.

(For the first and probably the last time in my life, I am wishing that there had been some infected mouse skin lying around the lab).

It also may be that some small variable turned out to be important. Perhaps we had microbial contamination of the remedy where they did not (or vice versa). I'm very excited to read their paper.

And to the question that a few people have asked: if I'm upset that this group got the glory of finding something that is about as effective as Vancomycin on MRSA. I can honestly say "no", that rather, I'm excited to see follow up and improvement in human knowledge (though, honestly, that's probably because the team was led by a good friend of mine, Christina Lee -- if it had been someone I don't like....)

More importantly, this research demonstrates quite forcefully one of the major points of the 2005 paper: that there's an enormous amount of tacit information that is absolutely essential to the cultural practice but is not found in any recipe book. The things that go without saying, because any intelligent Anglo-Saxon læce would have known them, are those most likely to be lost over the centuries. It's very exciting when we can use scientific methods--or any approaches, really--to recover that lost knowledge.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stare at it long enough, and you can see through a brick wall

The data has been staring me in the face for a year or more and it just didn't sink in until today:

The rolling window analysis of thorn and eth shows that lines 1924-2138 of the Anglo-Saxon poem Genesis A had a written, Old English source.

It has long been known that at least lines 1982-2005 and perhaps 2039-2095 are not drawn from the Latin Bible like the rest of Genesis A. But I hadn't realized the implications of my own data: that only a written source in Old English could account for the anomaly in the thorn/eth ratio at that part of the poem.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Many variants of the story Sigurd the Völsung survive from the Middle Ages, and all of them are not quite right. Taking the texts and references all together, you can piece together the general idea of the story, but it seems as if none of the poets were really familiar with what they were writing about. They knew the characters' names and that there was something going on with Sinfjotli and poison, and that the two queens had a dispute that led to death and destruction, and that the hero killed a dragon and took its treasure, but they weren't entirely clear on how all the pieces should fit together. 

Peter Jackson's Hobbit films give the same impression. It's as if he and screenwriter Philippa Boyens had heard an oral traditional version of the story of Bilbo Baggins, which they supplemented with information from some partially burned leaves of the text in a museum and a few chapters of a very old Chinese translation, but had never actually read The Hobbit for themselves. 

And maybe that's the best way to think about The Battle of the Five Armies, not as an adaptation of Tolkien's book, but as a reconstruction of someone's recollection of a lost text for which no original exists. Because that if this were the case, the immense flaws in the film, flaws which are not present in Tolkien's text, would at least be understandable. 

Now, before I become too much of a curmudgeon, let me say that I don't object in principle to converting a somewhat light-hearted story into a full-on epic more in the tone of The Lord of the Rings than The Hobbit as it is written. Tolkien himself thought to revise The Hobbit in the style of the later book, and the "Quest of Erebor" shows that he had thought about the geopolitical implications (in Middle-earth) of the dragon, the mountain, the exiled dwarves and the ruined town of Dale. Adding the War of the Dwarves and Orcs and the assault of the White Council upon Dol Guldur was a good idea, as these events provide context. Nor do I have a problem with side stories, the development of additional characters or the conversion of formal speeches into more colloquial character interaction. Every one of these changes could have been incorporated into an effective film that extended beyond the journey of Thorin and Company to the Lonely Mountain. 

And I'll also excuse Jackson for being trapped on the Hollywood escalator. George Lucas faced the same problem of needing to make each film's action sequences be bigger, faster, brighter and louder than the previous film's. Even though the Battle of the Five Armies was never intended to be larger than the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Jackson had to continue to escalate, and so we we get even more elaborate set-pieces, choreography and cgi. 

Nevertheless, it was frustrating to watch these films because they could have been better. 

Some of the failures in the Hobbit film are the same as those in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and spring from the same root problem: Middle-earth is much too small, physically, temporally and demographically. 

Physically, Middle-earth seems to be not a continent, but a theme park, the size of Disney World, or maybe, if we're generous, Rhode Island. Legolas and Tauriel make a (completely useless) journey to Mt Gundabad, about 300 miles from Erebor, in what seems like, maybe, a half hour of traveling. They return even more quickly to warn everyone of the army that is 10 minutes behind them. Dain arrives on his Armored War Pig (which is awesome) seemingly less than an hour after Thorin sends a raven message. 

Time-wise, everything from the death of Smaug to the final battle is compressed into 2 or maybe 3 days. Since there are many cinematic methods for passing rapidly through days, weeks or months, I don't understand the rush. Armies on the march can be terrifying. They don't have to be running faster than Usain Bolt the whole way. 

And everybody knows everyone else -- even people who aren't on screen. My favorite example was that Thranduil knows that Arathorn's son Aragorn is likely to be an important leader some day (at first I thought it was just a lucky guess by the Elvenking, but then I realized that Thranduil probably just had copies of the books). Having the characters already know each other and thus be able to give a quick disquisition on background does speed up the pace--so that there was more time for slow-motion shots of flying rocks, I guess--but it also serves to make Middle-earth seem to have about the same size population as a large high school. You might not know everybody, but all the cool kids know each other. 

However, these flaws were baked into the original cake of the films, and some, at least, are probably the result of Hollywood playing to the lowest common denominator of audience--people who are watching distractedly and do not want to figure anything out. That's unfortunate but explainable. 

But what was incomprehensible to me were the times that a perfectly good scene in the book was replaced by a really dreadful one in the script. For example, the immensely touching and powerful scene at the end of The Hobbit where the Elvenking lays Thorin's sword on his tomb and Bard places the Arkenstone on his breast, saying "there let it lie til the mountain falls" is replaced by an awkward exchange between Thranduil and Legolas that accomplishes nothing more than the Aragorn name-drop. Thorin's dragon-sickness isn't just overpowering greed, but outright insanity, and so the sadness of his fury at Bilbo is lost in an unconvincing scene in which he orders the other dwarves to throw the hobbit over the wall. The audience never for a moment believes that this will actually happen, so there's no drama the way there would be if the scene in the book had been followed. There are many more examples: having Thorin die on some frozen waterfall away from the main battle undercuts the emotional power of the scene (which is acted extremely well by both Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage). No one will ever care about Lake Town politics and so all of the screen time spent developing it, putting Inigo Montoya Bard in prison, etc. is wasted: Tolkien's version, where no one believes Bard until it is too late is quite enough drama when you also have a fire-breathing dragon. The confusing geopolitics of the kingdom of Angmar, Mt. Gundobad, Sauron's plans, etc., are much worse when made up in unconvincing fashion than if Tolkien's points had simply been followed. The side plot of the multiple threats to Bard's children wasted screen time that could have been spend on the main characters or simply used to shorten the film. 

The nicest thing I can say about the script is that it demonstrates very clearly how remarkably tight, sophisticated and effective Tolkien's original story is. 

But I don't want to end on such a negative note, because there are many good things about the films as well: 

  • The landscape, the architecture, the artifacts and the attention to detail is even more superb than in the original films. 
  • The actors are, for the most part, excellent and in fact their performances save a number of poorly written scenes.
  • Smaug's attack on Lake Town is far more horrifying than in the book. The suffering of the people in the face of the aerial assault is emotionally powerful. 
  • There aren't a lot of lore Easter Eggs, but those I noticed were nice, especially Gandalf wearing the red ring at the Dol Guldur fight, the use of the term "were-worms" (though they themselves were superfluous), the mention of the Cold Drake in film two...
  • Although I don't think what we see in the film is what Tolkien envisioned when the White Council expels Sauron from Dol Guldur, I enjoyed Galadriel going all scary. 
  • Armored Battle Pig, War Elk, Military Goats. 
  • And to me the best lore-related element: Thranduil is a Silmarillion elf. Arrogant, contemptuous of mere mortals, emotionally incomprehensible, deeply scarred and flawed: he's not Thingol (Tolkien's very early idea for the identity of the Elvenking), he's Curfin or Celegorm, one of the sons of Feanor in all their power, beauty and total jerkitude. I give Jackson for credit for making an elf different than those we have seen before. 

It was good to see Middle-earth again. The price paid in terms of story was high, but if that's what it took to rebuild the world and let us have another glimpse, it was probably worth it. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A major source of problems on campus

Resolved: That treating college students as children rather than adults is the cause of many significant problems in contemporary higher education.

Over the past three decades student freedom and autonomy has been steadily eroded, as an administrative superstructure has steadily increased in size and power.

This reduction of freedom and expansion of administration has been justified in terms of alleviating campus social pathologies, but problems associated with alcohol and drug use, sexual assault, cheating and poor academic performance, student disengagement and dissatisfaction have, at best, remained unchanged.

The evolution of campuses from self-governing, non-coercive intellectual communities towards regimented "complete and austere institutions" has also been correlated with a massive increase in costs.

There is no evidence that these increased costs or the increased surveillance and regulation of student life have generated higher intellectual achievement or greater student satisfaction. In fact, the reverse appears to be true.

Therefore: the experiment of increasing the size and power of the administrative apparatus and reducing the freedom of students to organize and govern themselves has failed to produce its promised results. Current problems will not be solved by making colleges more like high schools, but instead by respecting students as adults with all the freedom and responsibility that should attend that status.

Monday, May 26, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf Translation

Some quick thoughts (more to come as I think more about the volume):

The translation itself is not a great piece of art. It is not poetic (although in some places it is rhythmical), and the still-unpublished alliterative translation is much better, quite similar to the "Mounds of Mundburg" poem in The Return of the King.  You can get a feel for that translation in the short bits that have been published in Sigurd and Gudrún, "On Translating Beowulf" and Beowulf and the Critics. But there were only about 600 lines of translation made, which is why I originally proposed presenting it synoptically with the prose translation (i.e., poetry on the left leaf, prose on the right, shifting to prose on both where there existed no poetic translation). I can only hope that the poetic translation is scheduled to be published some day, perhaps with all of Tolkien's early poems, the Trumpets of Faerie collection that has been rumored for many years. The prose translation is valuable for two reasons: (1) It lets us figure out more of what Tolkien thought about Beowulf, the subject of his lifelong study; (2) It probably brings us in terms of content closer to what the Beowulf poet intended than any other translation.

The Commentary materials are straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism. I can't tell if they will shape the field, but they should. Tolkien had incredible insight into the poem because he could combine his philological acumen with his creative abilities. At times I worry that he is inventing something that isn't there (his treatment of the thief entering the dragon's barrow is extremely good, but I'm just not certain it is supported by the fragmentary evidence). But other times he shows that the words in the manuscript, rather than being clumsy or cliched, are in fact precisely perfect to describe a scene.

To me the best example is Tolkien's interpretation of the scene of Beowulf's swimming contest with Breca. After the swimming match itself, a sea-monster seizes the hero and:

     Me to grunde teah
fah feondscaða,      fæste hæfde
grim on grape;     hwæþre me gyfeþe wearð,
þæt ic aglæcan     orde geræhte,
hildebille;     heaþoræs fornam
mihtig meredeor     þurh mine hand.

"Fast the grim thing had me in its grip. Nonetheless it was granted to me to find that fell slayer with the point of warlike sword; the battle's onset destroyed that strong beast of the sea through my hand" (JRRT trans.)

Most translations (and most teachers) treat "orde" [with the point] as just a metonymic reference for "sword" and move along. Tolkien, on the other hand, gets inside the scene and shows that in fact the language isn't a repetitive, dead metaphor but is instead technically precise. You are not just supposed to read the line as "Beowulf killed the monster with his sword," but instead to imagine Beowulf struggling against the coils of the beast to bring the point around to where he could pierce the creature through with a pressing motion; the resistance of the water would have prevented swinging the sword:

"We are, or at any rate I am, not familiar, as actor or onlooker, with savage infighting with the sword. Nor indeed with swords in their variety. But it does not take a great effort of imagination to get some idea of Beowulf's predicament. He was seized by a sea-beast of great strength, and no doubt held close. It took great strength to resist the grip sufficiently to prevent himself being gored or bitten; he he had only one hand; the other held a naked sword. That is a weapon at least two feet long. Only by a great effort could he retract this so as to level the point at his enemy; there would be little if any striking-distance, and to thrust this through the tough hide would require very great strength of hand and arm" (255). 

Now, it may be that Tolkien is here creating a scene rather than interpreting one, that the poet meant no more than "he killed it with his sword." But if this be invention, let us have more of it. Either the poet's lost artistry is recovered or new artistry is born. Either way, the world is richer.