Catch Me When I Fall by Patricia Westerhof. The Dutch were better than their theology, good people looking after one another.

It is the Family Day long weekend in Ontario, a fitting time to chat about Catch Me When I Fall by Patricia Westerhof. Westerhof, now there’s a Dutch name, like all the others in this book. There’s the “Van” crew of course, like Van Dyk. There’s an abundance of Frisians, the Northerners, all ending with the letter “a”: Boersma, Dykstra, Veenstra, Zylstra. I am a Miedema and grew up with people just like them. There are many immigrant stories in Canadian literature, but few Dutch ones. Dutch immigrants were a quiet, practical lot, quick to assimilate. Westerhof’s collection of eleven loosely related short stories is a rare treat.

The immigrant story is not a new one but the Dutch perspective is unique. The church was the core of this community. Religion was heavy-handed and the book’s title was well chosen. The “fall of man” is central to Dutch theology. Of course there was doubt. In “Unfailing Mercies”, Sarah stands in front of the church for the ritual Profession of Faith. She ponders, “How casually she had drifted into the faith, agreeing to believe.” When Reverend Post asks her to commit her life to Christ, she feels an urge to laugh then panics. Personally, I declined to undertake the ritual. It was my point of departure from the church. Still, in general, the Dutch were better than their theology, good people looking after one another. I still love to sing the old hymns.

The stories touch on all the memorable points, the difficult ones and the beautiful. There was the Dutch school with all those young blond heads and blue eyes. These immigrants were not so much victims as bearers of prejudice — against the Catholics, blacks, gays, you name it. Still, in the war many Dutch people risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis who occupied their country. There was the food! Meat and potatoes, soup with maggi, boterkoek with butter, apple pie and ice cream. My diet has changed considerably too since those days, but fond memories.

Westerhof’s stories are often sentimental and this works because the Dutch are sentimental. That, and stubborn. Wooden-shoed and wooden-headed. In “Probability”, Ellie is never as confident as her aptly named friend, Will. “Maybe the certain answers of his faith made him feel there should be certain answers for everything.” Westerhof nails it there. Belief in a grand design has a way of programming you to see the world in a structured way. Now Will is dead. What will she write for a eulogy? Well, Westerhof’s book is a eulogy of sorts, a testament to a past time that still echoes with love in me. Thank you Patricia.

Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman. Human relations trump the thrills of technology.

Close to the machineTen years ago I took my first real job as a computer programmer. Perhaps three weeks later I picked up a book, The Philosophical Programmer by Daniel Kohanski. Title notwithstanding, it is not a very philosophical book. Today I work as an IT Architect for a multinational IT corporation. There is still something that draws me toward technology, just as there is still discontent which I seek to understand. In 2002, I read a better book, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman. Written in 1997, it is a better book because Ullman tells a personal story of her seduction to technology, the swoon of power, the impact on her relationships, and her eventual disillusionment.

Computers offer a cool alternate reality. Programming takes one into a transcendental zone like mathematics, where reality is symbolic and gritty human particulars don’t matter. Programmers are seduced by complete creative control of their little worlds. Others admire and reward their activity. Occupying this virtual reality is not just tempting but probable since software systems require constant attention. A system is never finished.

When I first started programming, I worried that it was putting people out of jobs. I was wrong. It changes their jobs. It is equally worrisome. Everyone winds up making concessions to the bugs and the system. Soon it becomes tautological — a new bigger system is required. The logic of the system is self-sustaining, sucking everyone in, changing them to suit its needs. “Our accommodations begin simply with small workarounds, just to avoid the bugs: ‘We just don’t put in those dates!'” (90).” We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We must be more orderly, more logical. Answer the question, Yes or No, OK or Cancel” (90).

It is in Ullman’s account of users that I know she gets my angst. “The world as humans understand it and the world as it must be explained to computers come together in the programmer in a strange state of disjunction” (21). Every twist a user’s mind might invent must be anticipated. Other kinds of design, e.g., elevator design, must also anticipate user actions, but not for the purpose of replacing human thought. People want software so they don’t have to think through data processing tasks. The coder is building technology to replace human thought, and with little to no room for uncertainty. Where a user might generalize a concept or fudge the numbers, the code is exacting and demands precise resolution. Design analysis forces users to understand their thinking, perhaps for the first time. It is a painstaking process. Most often, the design documents blur over the difficult ideas, and it is finally up to the programmer to resolve human thought.

Computer programming in a standard business application context has about five years of juice in it. There are many interesting nuances, but in the end it just comes down to data and rules for processing it. The technology keeps getting repackaged in new forms, and it is not a trivial matter to keep up with it. “It had to happen to me sometime: sooner or later I would have to lose sight of the cutting edge. That moment every technical person fears — the fall into knowledge exhaustion, obsolescence, techno-fuddy-duddyism — there was no reason to think I could escape it forever” (95). The fact that I cannot write code forever brings a smile to my face. To stay in the business one has to find new juice: the intellectual challenge of the problems, the intimacy of analyzing thought, the desire to make life genuinely better for others. As always, human relations trump the thrills of technology.

The Man Who Forgot How To Read by Howard Engel. It is a fierce addiction, reading, and from there it is a slippery slope to writing.

The man who forgot how to readThey hook you early, the pushers, even in pre-school. Maybe some of us have a greater weakness for it than others. It is a fierce addiction, reading, and from there it is a slippery slope to writing. Howard Engel was hooked young. Blame his parents; they read in the house. Soon he was picking his own library books and writing puppet shows. He could not be found without a two or more books on hand. As an adult, he wrote for radio then published a dozen detective novels. He was an addict of the printed word when he forgot how to read.

The Man Who Forgot How to Read is memoir by Engel of a stroke that robbed him of his ability to read. Alexia sine agraphia is a rare condition in which the victim maintains the ability to write, but not read. A frustrating condition, indeed. He could write, but not read what he had just written. Stroke cuts into memory, threatening one’s sense of self; but Engel’s identity was fixed in reading: “I was still a reader. The blast to my brain could not make me otherwise. Reading was hard-wired into me. I could no more stop reading than I could stop my heart. Reading was bone and marrow, lymph and blood to me.” (41)

Step by step, with the help of skilled therapists and dedicated family and friends, Engel learned to read from the beginning again. Once the reading skills were working again, the writing came naturally, first another detective novel in which his protagonist suffers a blow to the head, then this memoir. Engel’s refusal to accept the status of a “former reader”, and his victory over a stroke and brain damage to achieve it, should be a siren call to those who have not yet discovered a passion for reading. Unlike other addictions, the reading vice may take some effort to acquire, but then pays off in lifelong pleasure without regret. Want a fix?

Zen and Now by Mark Richardson. If you liked ZAMM but didn’t finish it, this book may be your way forward.

Zen and nowZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Robert Pirsig is a classic, a modern Walden with its inquiry into values and its journey off the beaten path. Many readers begin ZAMM, fewer finish it, but it is the kind of book to which you can return and finish later. I first read ZAMM in my twenties, then reread it in my thirties with a new kind of satisfaction. Another decade later, I am rereading it through Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Mark Richardson.

One of the compelling things about ZAMM is that the essence of the book is fact, both Pirsig’s motorcycle trip and his philosophical pursuit into the meaning of quality. Richardson follows Pirsig’s route on his own motorcycle, laptop and GPS along, aiming to reach the final destination of San Francisco by his 42nd birthday. As Richardson observes, 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It also happens to be my current age, and perhaps explains some of why the book worked for me.

Richardson does ZAMM readers a big favour with his carefully researched details about the real-life characters in the book. Richardson’s correspondence with Pirsig was met with helpful replies, but no opportunity for a meeting. Pirsig told him “the best place to meet an author is on the pages of his book”. Readers learn about Pirsig’s wife, Nancy; his son, Chris, who was murdered a few years after the book was published; and his other son, Ted, who was never mentioned in the book. Richardson meets John Sutherland, who helps set the record straight about himself and his wife Sylvia, and later dines with the DeWeeses.

Zen and Now does not attempt to delve into the philosophical depths of ZAMM. Richardson tactfully describes the real life schizophrenia suffered by Pirsig, which ZAMM frames as a sort of climax to his philosophical investigations. Personally, I do not subscribe to correlations of genius and madness. Pirsig managed to pull things together and write a second book, Lila, his preferred work, a coherent statement of his philosophy, though never as hot a bestseller as the first.

Richardson’s trip has many parallels with the original. Like Pirsig, Richardson is in a state of estrangement from his wife and two children, and is using the trip to help sort it out. Richardson’s storytelling has the same sleepy quality, with mindful observations about the road, and lessons about motorcycle maintenance that are really about caring for oneself and finding quality in life. If you are one of those who liked ZAMM but didn’t finish it, this book may be your way forward.

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Safe Haven by Larry Gaudet. “Sanctuary porn”, fantasies of a simpler place to retreat from the pressures of modern life.

Safe HavenLarry Gaudet has a dream of sanctuary. He takes his family to a quiet seaside village in Nova Scotia and builds a “barn” home with an ocean view.

Gaudet says we all have a dream of sanctuary, and I do not disagree, but is “sanctuary” the right term? Sanctuary has historic associations with churches and cathedrals but my thoughts of comfort are more base, simple rougher habitations like a log cabin, a cottage, a quiet apartment, even a tent. It’s all “sanctuary porn”, fantasies of a simpler place to retreat from the pressures of modern life. Of course, reality is somewhat different. Run from your outer demons and you will start hearing the voices of your inner ghosts. Despite the idyllic setting, Gaudet has difficulty staying emotionally at home with his wife and sons. He mentally revisits places and situations, always trying to get a grip on the meaning of sanctuary. Gaudet is not a religious man, but he recognizes that at the heart of sanctuary is something sacred, something more important than our daily hurry-burry, and for most of us that is our loved ones and a feeling of home.

Safe Haven is timely given the issue of safety on the world scene. Gaudet is a fine guide on this psychological journey, though his wife and boys remain disappointingly peripheral to the end. Perhaps sanctuary is always elusive.