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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Staying Abreast. By John von Daler

               My older friend had been born in Copenhagen, but had moved to the provinces to become a general practitioner in a medium-sized town on a medium-sized island. Here he learned to know the whole little society and it him. He had saved the lives of the people there, heard their troubles, kept their secrets and could walk in anywhere and be greeted with both respect and familiarity.

                I used to visit him on the island and he would take me with him on whatever emergency house calls happened to come. Sometimes he would have to commandeer a little ferry to sail to an even smaller island to see to a little old lady who had fainted or a child that had fallen from a roof.
                The doctor let himself be colored by the place, as we all do in our places, in shades of the provincialism of that chosen spot. Of course he had his own opinions, but the prevailing culture altered his unspoken or unconscious thoughts. In the sea of time his vessel, fast and streamlined as it was, had slowed down and he wandered the deck, watching the other more mundane ships pass by as he commented on their passage with a mixture of wisdom and unconscious conservatism.
                Stopping time in that way can be a dangerous business. Having established a good and viable world view the doctor often failed to see the small changes in his and our world - and this could get him in bad trouble. I visited him once at his summer house. To save heat his grown children had had a glass door put in between the enclosed veranda and the inner sitting room. This new fixture somehow did not get established in his inner map. The first morning after it had been set up and closed, he strode through the warm room and with his wooden shoes took a giant step right through the glass, cutting his forehead and fueling enumerous jokes among his children.
                But things were even worse when he visited his birthplace, Copenhagen. This capital, like any other large, vibrant city, thrived on change. Among other things its traffic lights and signs had been rearranged a great deal in the three decades he had spent in the country. But some inner stubbornness kept him from recognizing these improvements.
                When I drove with him in his car in Copenhagen I always tried to find an excuse to ride in the back, "I'll just sit here and hold on to the groceries" or " this seat is sooo comfortable" or some other clever ruse. Then he would proceed to blast his way through one red light after another. Traffic would swerve, honk, curse and call on the gods as he barged through one intersection after another, his right foot heavy on the gas and light on the brake.
                My friend continued to be an enlightened and interesting person and I continued with pleasure to exchange visits with him. Maybe his example helped me to understand how little even the most astute of us knows about our own placement in the cultural landscape. So sometimes we cruise through obviously red lights. We often survive just through the generosity and understanding of our contemporaries, who throw on their brakes or run for their lives. 


My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) will be published on January 28. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Please feel free to write a short review of "Pieces" in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!

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