Jonathan Spence

he "Penguin Lives" series lists twenty-four biographies including James Joyce, St. Augustine, Proust, Mozart, Churchill and Darwin. But lest you think they are being too snooty, just below Buddha you'll find Marlon Brando, just above Robert E. Lee there's Andy Warhol, and cheek-by-jowl with Virginia Woolf we have Elvis Presley.

We can't yet vouch for the important historical details, psychological background, and aesthetic influences on Mr. Presley, but we have, through the eminent presentation of Jonathan Spence, found out a great deal about Mao Zedong or --- as the Library of Congress and some of the rest of us prefer to spell it, for sentimental reasons --- Mao T'se-tung.

Spence convinces us that Mao's surviving and coming to power is an astonishing fact, something that seems more appropriate to 19th Century USA than 20th Century China. It's a rise in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln popped up out of the Illinois countryside and was considered a rube. Ditto for Mao (he came from the backwards state of Hunan). Lincoln was largely self-taught (remember those schoolbook tales of him writing out his mathematics on the back of a scuttle, with a piece of coal). Mao grew up with little formal education, but availed himself of the new libraries in Changsha, and read books inspired by the new Western values and philosophy of progressivism.

Both grew up in relative poverty; both could be charming; both were impressive in their learning. Both were ambitious enough to win against all odds; both presided over wars that damn near destroyed the countries that created them.

The Qing dynasty, which had ruled China for almost 250 years, was tottering. Amidst the confusion of change, numerous radical student groups sprouted up, along with radical newspapers and magazines. New Youth, was one of the first, and was the first that Mao wrote for. In his writings, he was most certainly not a lover of The People: Spence has found essays and writings from Mao's student and early journalist days in which he announced that his fellow Chinese were "stupid" and "ignorant."

By the time he was twenty-three, he was issuing manifestos, organizing strikes, writing for the mainstream newspapers, raising general hell, and creating reading clubs like "The Cultural Book Society." As he was slowly moving towards Communism --- he discusses the Russian Revolution as early as 1920 --- he was proving himself to be an even more astute businessman, running the Book Society at a profit, showing an profound interest in details.

At one point, working with the Goumindang --- which was later to hunt him out and try to destroy him --- he was sent back to Hunan to check on the peasant movement. According to Spence, his report showed an "amazing grasp of detail:"

    in assessing a peasant family budget he calculated not only land acreage and usury rates but also the price and use of lard, salt, lamp oil, tea, seed, and fertilizer, as well as costs and maintenance of draft animals and farm tools (he subdivided hoes into three categories according to their weight and cost.)

Mao was a country boy who made good as well as a detail man who learned from his enemies. He wrote, Chiang Kai-shek, "rose by grasping the gun. Now was the time for the Communist Party to do the same."

    From now on, we should pay the greatest attention to military affairs. We must know that political power is obtained from the barrel of the gun.

When war erupted between Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists, Mao and his band were forced to retreat into the mountains of Qinghai. There, they had to fight not only the Goumindang, but sickness, desperate hunger and the local tribesmen. What had once been an army of 86,000 was reduced to 7,000 or so.

It was the Japanese that saved Mao. Under the banner of the Greater Asia CoProsperity Sphere, the Japanese were making deep inroads into China by way of Manchuria. The Communists and Chiang agreed to join in a truce, so that China would survive.

Mao is an excellent 180 page summary of things that you and I have heard about all these years and never really understood: The Great Leap Forward, The 100 Flowers, The Cultural Revolution, The State is a Stork that Flies in the Dark, and the famous reading from the I Ching, "Without the Lotus, No Blame." I just made up the last two to see if you were paying attention.

Mao paid attention enough to end up as ruler of 600,000,000 people, but Spence suggests that the last twenty years of his rule were a disaster. He used guerrilla warfare straight out of the mountains to fight the well-funded armies of Chiang and later the Americans --- but ultimately, like Louis XIV, Salazar, Hitler, Stalin and Franco, he fell into the ruinous isolation that haunts all totalitarian political leaders. Since there was no countervailing force of election and change, the political system stagnated, and his decisions turned arbitrary and destructive.

Spence tends to hurry over Mao's astonishing accomplishments --- ones that ended centuries of grueling poverty and built the industrial might of a country that had come out of WWII and the civil war in ruins. That, and Mao's amazing willingness to come to terms with the United States twenty-five years later are impressive legacies of an astonishing man, one who lost almost all of his family (including six children) in a struggle that was as much personal as political.

It is easy enough to mock the demands of the cultural revolution, which included forbidding "blue jeans, tight pants, weird women's outfits;" where one could not have "slick hairdos or wear rocket shoes;" where "pet fish, cats, or dogs, or fighting crickets" were prohibited; where

    All those identified by the masses as landlords, hooligans, rightists, and capitalists had to wear a plaque identifying themselves whenever they went out....Hospital service would be simplified, and "complicated treatment must be abolished;" doctors had to write their prescriptions legibly and not use English words.

Whew! We might agree with that stuff about doctors writing prescriptions legibly; and we like the idea of our piggy landlords wearing badges when they venture out on the street. But give up our wet pets, fighting crickets and rocket shoes? Never!

--- C. K. Chan

<How Two Lost Boys
Rode the Internet out of Idaho

Jon Katz
Jon Katz writes for Rolling Stone, and in the process of investigating geeks, those guys who get married to computers, he found two in Idaho who were of enough interest for him to write an article about them --- which then grew into this book.

Jesse and Eric are two nineteen-year-olds trapped in their small town, but the Internet offers a way out. They live on their own, having left their families and their schools behind. Katz describes their living conditions there as "an airless two-bedroom apartment in a dank stucco-and-brick complex on the outskirts of Caldewell." You and I have been in what we used to call "bachelor apartments:" dirty clothes strewn around, hamburger wrappers, crumpled newspapers, empty cans of soda pop, dirty plates moldering in the sink, mattresses strewn on the floor, bathrooms a scandal. It embodies everything our mothers told us not to do when we went off in the world.

Katz is at his best when he is describing them in terms of their computers:

    He wasn't just a kid at a computer, but something more, something new, an impresario and an Information Age CEO, transfixed and concentrated, almost part of the machinery, conducting the digital ensemble that controlled his life. Anyone could have come into the apartment and carted away everything in it, except for the computer, and Jesse wouldn't have noticed or perhaps cared that much. He was playing, working, networking, visiting, strategizing --- all without skipping a function, getting confused, or stopping to think...It was evidently second nature by now, which explained why he looked as if he hadn't been out in the sun for years.

Katz is describing for us a whole new phenomena, namely Net and Web addicts. They are here presented through the characters of Jesse and Eric. The story is that there is a new kind of citizen floating about, one like many who can't stand athletics, who loathe authority, who aren't dummies --- yet can't quite figure out how to fit into the world. Sounds familiar. In my salad years, we geeky types either carried slide-rules pegged to our belts or hung out in the library reading everything we could get our hands on. There was no internet for us.

But, I must admit, after reading the story of these two, I'm thinking that our lives were not so bad by comparison, and that our substitute pleasures were a bit more interesting that what these guys --- and their amanuensis --- have come up with.

At Katz' suggestion, Jesse and Eric decide to move to Chicago. In truth, in their first few weeks there, little in their lives changed. They stayed in the new apartment, copied music and games from the net, and communicated with like-minded geeks. The main difference was that their talents with computers could be translated into jobs, and within a couple of months, these two nineteen-year-olds were pulling down $35,000 a year in 1990's dollars.

Even so, their lives are appallingly drab:

    Apart from movies, weekends were constructed around some new Net or Web project --- trying out a just-purchased game, downloading new software, collecting and listening to music, installing a new operating system...The Net filled in all the blanks in their lives.

Indeed, one of the bleakest sagas in Geeks is the description of Thanksgiving dinner the three --- reporter and subjects --- had together:

    The table, usually reserved for CDs and programming manuals, was cleared and was as close as it would every get to groaning, with a plate of turkey slabs, a bowl filled with instant herbal mashed potatoes, some microwaved corn, and boiled stuffing. And real Coke.

They eat this meal sitting on the floor, "between the computer and the TV."

Katz turns the lives of Jesse and Eric around, and Geeks becomes an example of the interventionist journalist, one who becomes so intertwined with his subjects that all are changed thereby. This is thus less a tale of two weird kids from the sticks finally getting a life in the big city than one of three geeks, two younger, one older and more experienced, getting together, and all being changed in the process, although not necessarily for the better. It well could be titled "How I met two self-defined outcasts and showed them, at least one of them, how to be part of the game." In this way, it is a shadowy reprise of In Cold Blood. Truman Capote came to interview two mid-west murderers --- essentially prison geeks --- and ended up, according to reports, passionately involved with them. Katz becomes father to Jesse, and Geeks becomes a cautionary tale of a writer in love with his power to change others, even though the outcome might be tainted thereby.

At first, there's the traditional journalistic distance. As he told Jesse, "while I would certainly be friendly, that didn't necessarily mean I was his friend." When the Jesse and Eric decide to dump everything and go off to the big city role was to keep my mouth shut and take notes, to observe but not interfere...I couldn't say or do anything that would affect the outcome of the story.

But he repeatedly involves himself in their lives. The very fact that a Rolling Stone reporter is practically living with these two affects them deeply. It's a classic example of the Heisenberg Principle: the very act of observing a phenomena tends to change it. It was Katz who told them they didn't have to stay in Caldwell. It was Katz who drums up some money for them to move from a desultory apartment in the suburbs to the center of town. It was Katz who gets deeply involved in helping Jesse get into college --- even going out to interview the Dean of Admissions. And when Jesse gets accepted to the University of Chicago --- he and Katz are ecstatic.

In effect this event is the end of our story; the book dribbles off at that point. Katz gets involved in the controversy of the shooting at Columbine, mainly the question of whether the participants were acting out, using morbid internet games as their inspiration. As the author's dispassion fades (even though one editor told him to cool it), we get less journalism and more didactic posturing,

    But the stories of physical, verbal, emotional and administrative abuse that came pouring were stunning, a scandal for an educational system that makes much noise about wholesomeness and safety, but has turned a blind eye for years to the persecution of individualistic and vulnerable students.

And when he talks of Jesse, it is not journalism but gush,

    I love his pluck, his humor, his bravery, his passion for technology ... Jesse is a pioneer ... He is building a new culture, and in the geek tradition.

Well, maybe. Those of us who can view the story in a more dispassionate fashion see here a kid who had the stunning good fortune to come to the attention of a man with no small vigorish, one who was capable of turning his life around.

As always, there is a tragic remainder: the not-so-interesting Eric. At the end of our story, he is left, like so many geeks, in a dead-end job, with little hope, overshadowed by the tragedy of watching his best and only friend being spirited away from him into a new and fascinating life. Eric is the real geek of this story. And like most geeks, he is the odd man out.

--- Carlos Amantea


My Unexpected
Journey from
Doctor to Patient

David Biro
PNH is med-speak for "paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria." It's a leukemia-type illness that destroys the immune system. It can kill you.

David Biro graduated from medical school, went through his residency, then joined his father in dermatology practice in New York. In 1995, he developed a thromboses in his right eye. It was the beginning of his descent, to quote from Susan Sontag, into the "kingdom of the sick."

PNH can kill. Or can it? We get to see the education of Doctor Biro as patient as two specialists take on his case and quickly disagree as to what should be done, and what the outcome will be. Lucio Luzzatto, a specialist from Italy, thinks a conservative course --- observation, drug treatments --- will save Biro's life.

Dr. Hugo Castro-Malaspina at Sloan-Kettering says that Biro's life is in the balance, he should consider --- while he is still healthy --- a bone marrow transplant. By means of drugs and radiation, he wants to bring Biro's immunity down to zero, then --- borrowing it from a compatible family member --- insert fresh bone marrow.

The catch: while the immune system is compromised, there are dozens of infections that can set in, each of them possibly fatal, organisms in all our bodies "that don't bother healthy people...CMV, Epstein-Barr, Pneumocystis carinii."

    When the immune system becomes compromised, as a result of the AIDS virus or the toxicity associated with a transplant conditioning regimen, these harmless bugs proliferate and wreak havoc.

Biro --- in the parlance of the trade --- is a zebra: a patient with a rare disease, one that is of fascination to those in the medical profession, one that can be written up in the medical textbooks. He's caught in an especially vicious tangle --- one of his own making. If you or I came down with PNH --- god forbid --- we'd find a doctor and probably do what he told us to. Most of us wouldn't bother with a second opinion; or, if we did, it would be a colleague of the doctor who did the diagnosis. Thus we would be swept easily into the system, we would do what is told, and pray that we survive.

Biro is a doctor, so he is more knowledgeable about the profession, is able to research on his own, can call on the masters. He does just that, and --- in the process --- he finds two opposing opinions about what to do. Like Oedipus --- he has asked too many questions. Either approach may kill him. It's what they call --- in the psychological world --- a double bind. Because of the nature of it (he will die if he makes the wrong choice about what to do with his sickness, his body) this one is a killer of a double bind.

Ah, poor Dr. Biro. Except...he gets something that you and I don't get. Like the police, doctors take care of their own. When he goes in for surgery --- he chooses Dr. Castro's more radical treatment --- he gets the best room in the house, at Sloan-Kettering. There are close colleagues of his on the scene. He is getting the kind of treatment that the rest of us can only dream of. We don't have the connections.

It's no democracy in the world of medicine, its more of an autarky. So he is doubly blessed --- for he has many contacts in the profession, and he has the money for the best help possible. We call it an "autarky," for underneath the whole tale is the feeling that he is obviously an important investment for the medical community to protect: he probably has thirty-five or forty more years of practice left in him.

The last half of One Hundred Days deals intimately --- perhaps too intimately --- with the horror of a body at war with itself, and being subject to a treatment that might kill it off. We watch Biro spiral down into a morass of self-pity and depression, though at the back of our minds we have to be thinking: "Here's someone who is getting the best treatment that money and influence can buy. The odds of his survival are much higher than for the rest of us. He is in the middle of a craft establishment, the most advanced medical care in the world. And he's bitching about having to use urinals."

Mind you, Biro's sickness is for real. The loss of the immune system (which many of us are familiar with, having lost friends to AIDS) is a hideous experience. But there is something askew in his tale, with his family always hovering about, with his "best room in Sloan" being filled with doctors, and friends, and sisters, mother and father.

Here is a man who has been cursed like Job, but has no need, as Job did, to sit in the dust, covered with boils, have all his friends tell him that it was his own damn fault, that he had offended god. Hell, maybe it was his fault --- for Biro chose the treatment that was, after all, the most invasive. Still, he has it all, and, despite the hideousness of it, he will be allowed to keep it all after his 100 days of penitence.

He's not necessarily your ideal patient. Before PNH, he led a charmed life, had that touch of arrogance of one who has a family rich enough to send him to the best schools, even allowing him a year at Oxford. He is a crabby, often sulky patient. His description of the others around him suffering with the same or similar diseases makes them almost angels compared to him.

After having gone through the agony of his 100 days, we can only hope he'll be a better doctor, purged of that arrogance of which so many in the medical profession seem to be cursed, of not seeming to know what sickness can do to the spirit, and not understanding how valuable a caring practitioner can be. Our guess is that he has learned this, in spades.

Biro is a good writer (he once wanted to give up medical school and become an English teacher). He knows how to sweep us along. But he needs a good editor for his next opus --- one who can purge the self-dramatization. No matter how awful life, worthy men, as Erik Erikson said, "must strive to become their own fathers."

--- Lolita Lark

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