Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Bus Book

Coming back from my Mom's, I had an 8 hour bus ride. This gave me a chance to read a book I have had on my shelf for a couple of years but hadn't had a chance to get to before now. Michael Paterniti's Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain is a "road book", a subgenre of travelogue that I have sometimes written, but seldom read. In this case, the external journey across America is paralleled by Paterniti's internal search for the meaning of life. Paterniti's midlife crisis manifests itself as a generalized restlessness, culminating in his offer to drive Thomas Harvey, the man who autopsied Einstein and kept his brain, across America to show the brain to Einstein's grand daughter. Paterniti intersperses analysis of Einstein's life (the genius); Harvey's life (keeper of the relic / reflected glory); and his own (search for purpose) with set pieces in various locales as they cross the nation. It is a fascinating read, alternately hilarious and profound; sociological and psychological; biographical and reflective; American and universal.

The book came at an excellent time for me as I dealt with my own mini-midlife crisis, as Mary and I strive to cope with Kasia’s ongoing health issues, problems with Tigana’s school, and various other family stressors. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Paterniti provided any answers for me, but I did find that my reactions to the various character biographies provided an excellent backdrop against which I could formulate, and to some extent resolve, my own issues. Coming to grips with the fact that I am a minor academic (no Einstein! – but no Thomas Harvey, either…) approaching the final years of his career, I find myself taking much more meaning and satisfaction from my family life than from my academia. I still love my job and gain great satisfaction from it, but I find my self image as ‘academic’ increasingly taking second place to my role as ‘Dad’ and ‘husband’. When Mary wasn’t sure she would get a permanent position at the UofL, I started to apply elsewhere just in case, and was surprised to discover that I was not only okay with moving to support Mary’s career, I was actually starting to look forward to the change. Mary made the comment the other day that a common fantasy for people like us is to be able to ‘start over’ without making any of the mistakes that we made getting to here. The “if only I knew then what I know now” syndrome, but of course it doesn’t actually work out that way – there are always new mistakes one can invent. [I actually did try starting over once, recreating myself in my subculture by using a (still undiscovered) pseudonym, determined not to make the errors that had brought the real me so much unnecessary controversy, but quickly discovered that my new persona, although the antithesis of the old, garnered just as many detractors – I came to see that conflict is to some extent unavoidable, and that it says as much about the others’ issues, as about me.] But all things considered, I have a great life and have nothing to complain about. Reading Paterniti helped me see my own journey in perspective, and be content.

All that aside, I really liked Driving Mr. Albert as literature, and highly recommend it.

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