I had read a few of Oliver Sacks’ books about psychology and patient case studies, and assumed he was a mild mannered gray haired doctor. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. This book is a memoir about his escapades on motorcycles, weight lifting, international adventures, drugs and more. A delight.
When I was twelve, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote in his report, Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far, and this was often the case. As a boy, I often went too far in my chemical experiments, filling the house with noxious gases; luckily, I never burned the place down.
We think of science as discovery, art as invention, but is there a third world of mathematics, which is somehow, mysteriously, both? Do numbers - primes, for example - exist in some eternal Platonic realm? Or were they invented, as Aristotle thought? What is one to make of irrational numbers, like i Or imaginary numbers, like the square root of 2? Such questions exercised me, fruitlessly, from time to time, but they were almost a life-and-death matter for Kalman.
As medical students, we were not overloaded with lectures or formal instruction; the essential teaching was done at a patients bedside, and the essential lesson was to listen, to get the history of the present condition from the patient and ask the right questions to fill in the details. We were taught to use our eyes and ears, to touch, to feel, even to smell. Listening to a heartbeat, percussing the chest, feeling the abdomen, and other forms of physical contact were no less important than listening and talking. They could establish a bond of a deep, physical sort; ones hands could themselves become therapeutic tools.
IF I STAY in Canada, I will have a reasonably generous salary and time off. I should be able to save, and even to return something of the money which you have lavished on my life for twenty-seven years. As for the other intangible and incalculable things you have given me, I can only repay these by leading a fairly happy and useful life, keeping in touch with you, and seeing you when I can.
In England, one was classified (working class, middle class, upper class, whatever) as soon as one opened ones mouth; one did not mix, one was not at ease, with people of a different class - a system which, if implicit, was nonetheless as rigid, as uncrossable, as the caste system in India. America, I imagined, was a classless society, a place where everyone, irrespective of birth, color, religion, education, or profession, could meet each other as fellow humans, brother animals, a place where a professor could talk to a truck driver, without the categories coming between them.
I sometimes wonder why I have spent more than fifty years in New York, when it was the West, and especially the Southwest, which so enthralled me. I now have many ties in New York - to my patients, my students, my friends, and my analyst - but I have never felt it move me the way California did. I suspect my nostalgia may be not only for the place itself but for youth, and a very different time, and being in love, and being able to say, The future is before me.
I used to carry a video camera with me when I went to see patients, and Jonathan was intrigued by the uses of video recording and instant playback; video recording was rather new in those days and rarely used in hospitals. He was fascinated to see how patients with parkinsonism, for example, unaware of their tendency to accelerate or to lean to one side, could become aware of it through viewing their own postures or gait on video - and learn measures to correct these.
Life at Lake Jeff was healthy and monastic. I gave up my motorcycle in the early 1970sI had started to find the traffic in New York City too dangerous, and motorcycling was no longer a pleasurebut I always had a bicycle rack on my car, and in the long summer days I would cycle for hours. I would often stop at the old cider mill near the hotel and get two half-gallon jugs of hard cider, which I would hang on the handlebars. I love cider, and the half gallons, sipped gradually and symmetrically - a mouthful from this jug, a mouthful from that - would keep me hydrated and slightly tipsy through a long day of cycling.
That is the walk of a genius, a monomaniac, I thought to myself. He is like a man possessed. I had a sense of awe and envy - how I should like such a ferocious power of concentration! But then I thought that life might not be entirely easy with such a brain; indeed, Edelman, I was to find, took no holidays, slept little, and was driven, almost bullied, by nonstop thinking; he would often phone Rosenfield in the middle of the night. Perhaps I was better off with my own, more modest endowment.
Header photo © medium.com
Body photo © amazon.com