Three Cups of Tea

“Three Cups of Tea.” Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.Penguin Books, 2006. 331 pages.

Greg Mortenson was just hours away from reaching the summit of K2, the second highest peak in the world, when a fellow climber encountered severe altitude sickness and had to be carried down the mountain. With a long yearning glance backward, Mortenson volunteered to help carry the man to safety, giving up his own dream of mastering the mountain. That’s the kind of man Mortenson is; a nurse by training, he will stop at nothing to help someone in need.

Exhausted after the grueling rescue, Mortenson rested at base camp and then lagged behind his group as they headed down the mountain, ending up lost and disoriented. By luck he stumbled into the small village of Korphe, where he was welcomed, warmed, fed, and befriended. Spending several weeks with the villagers as he recuperated, he came to respect and appreciate his Pakistani hosts. When he saw that their children gathered in circles with sticks to draw multiplication tables in the mud, he vowed to return and build them a school.

Many mountaineers vow to return and “do something” about the poverty in the villages where their sherpas live; to the surprise of the Korpheans, Mortenson actually did. The Korphe villagers told him, “Here we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family. And for our family we are prepared to do anything–even die.”

Mortenson has drunk those three cups of tea with the Pakistanis. In the past 15 years he has risked his life to help them build over a hundred schools in remote villages, raising the funds and doing much of the work himself. It is a remarkable achievement.

What makes his school-building campaign even more remarkable is that Mortenson was in Pakistan while al Qaeda terrorists were preparing their attacks on New York and Washington. He describes the disgruntled Islamic fundamentalists who were slipping across the border from Pakistan to training camps in Afghanistan where they formed the Taliban. He was there in September, 2001, when the planes hit the Towers and the Pentagon.

In the days after the attacks, he sat near the journalists holed up in the safety of the Marriott Hotel, far away from the actual conflict, writing their stories based on hearsay and rumors that filtered up from the outlying villages. Meanwhile, he met personally with leaders of the various groups, speaking their language and respecting their culture as he deftly convinced them not to shut down his schools.  He offers a unique, first-hand report of the complex situation.

One of the reasons for Mortenson’s success is that he stays focused on education. Twice he has been the subject of a “fatwa,” condemned by zealous tribal leaders who believe he has an ulterior motive to teach Christianity in his schools.  Each time he has been vindicated by Islamic leaders who recognize his sincerity in simply wanting Pakistani children, both boys and girls, to be educated. “Dr. Greg,” as they call him, has become a quiet hero throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Three Cups of Tea” is, in the words of Tom Brokaw, “thrilling…proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world.” The book details the problems of sending humanitarian aid to developing countries, where graft, corruption, and mafia-like protection rackets prevent the money from arriving at its intended purpose. Mortenson often met teachers in the government schools who had not been paid their meager $40 a month in a year or more. Mortenson would pay them out of his own funds. When village women came to Mortenson asking for vocational training so they could earn a living, Mortenson added technical wings to his primary schools, similar to the micro loans popularized by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus of the Grameen Bank. He also set up training sessions for the sherpas.

Juxtaposed against the military campaign in Iraq, Greg Mortenson has been making friends and building schools in Pakistan, and now in Afghanistan, during the entire “war on terror.” I think he has found a better way to solve the problem. As one of his contacts, Brigadier General Bashir Baz, told him, “You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fighting will go on forever.”

Building relationships is precisely what Greg Mortenson has been doing for the past 15 years, one village and one school at a time. He has overcome tribal barriers and aggression by appealing to the universal desire of all people: to provide a better life for our children. He is living proof that Muslims and “infidels” can be friends when they work together for a common cause, drinking “three cups of tea” to seal the bond.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Max Tivoli

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” David Fincher, director. Kennedy/ Marshall, producers. 159 minutes.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, ” F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli,” Andrew Sean Greer, Picador, 2004.

“It’s a pity that the best parts of life come at the beginning, the worst parts at the end.” –Mark Twain.

“Youth is wasted on the young” — George Bernard Shaw.

In 1921 F. Scott Fitzgerald, musing on the above quotation from Mark Twain, wrote a short story called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” exploring the idea of aging backward–of starting out old, and then becoming young. Director David Fincher credits the Fitzgerald novel as the source for his remarkable, Oscar nominated  film. But several works have examined the prospect of aging backward, and each focuses on a different effect of the condition.

In Fitzgerald’s short story, the unfortunate man is born nearly full sized, with normal speech, reading skills, and wisdom. As he devolves in age, his mind devolves too; as a 60-year-old in a 20-year-old body he can discuss philosophy, but by the age of 3 he is unable to count. Most interesting about this version of the story is the father’s insistence on raising his son “by the rules.” The old man must drink milk when he would prefer to smoke a cigar and play with a rattle when he would prefer to read the newspaper, simply because he is, chronologically, a baby.

I like this approach, as it demonstrates the absurdity of categorizing people by such arbitrary measures as age or gender. “There’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way, ” Benjamin is scolded in the Fitzgerald story. “If you’ve made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don’t suppose I can stop you, but I really don’t think it’s very considerate”–as though he has any choice in the way he was born.

Like all good fantasies, Fitzgerald’s story is meant to be read metaphorically rather than literally. Many people do things backward–or at least differently from the norm. When I met my husband, he was the right man at the wrong time. I was 18, a freshman in college, and he was completing his master’s degree and leaving for a career in Washington D.C. I chose to go with the man rather than the age and virtually skipped a decade, moving into his world and leaving mine behind. I raised children in my 20s, went to college in my 30s, took up figure skating in my 40s and began a career in my 50s. I understand a character who lives life backward.

However, Fitzgerald’s “Curious Case of Benjamin Button” bears very little resemblance to the film of the same name, other than the protagonist who ages backward.  In the film, Benjamin is born the size of a baby, but with the wrinkled skin and arthritic bones of an old man. Now everyone knows that babies are born with wrinkled skin, absurdly shaped heads, wispy hair, and rickety curved legs, so this alone should not terrify the father. But it does. This Benjamin cries like a baby and suckles like a baby. Fitzgerald’s idea of the baby spilling out of the bassinet and asking for a cigar is much more shockingly satisfying.

What is shockingly satisfying about the film is watching Brad Pitt age and then grow young. We’ve come to expect actors to age believably through skillfully applied makeup and prosthetic wrinkles. Pitt adds to the effect with a marvelous ability to blend the physicality of an old man with the exuberance and wonder of youth. His body and his facial expressions work perfectly against each other. But to see him continue regressing past his current (and handsome) 45 to the breathtakingly gorgeous youth we saw 16 years ago in “A River Runs Through it” and even younger, to a lanky, carefree youth of 17, is nothing short of amazing. It was worth the nearly 3-hour movie just to see the beefcake–er, I mean, to observe the computer technology.

The film is also a beautiful work of cinematography. The lighting is exquisitely natural, the costumes perfect for the time and financial status of the characters, and the minor characters are well cast. The setting envelops you, and the story moves surprisingly fast.  In this version, Benjamin is abandoned by his horrified father on the steps of an old-folks home where he is rescued, like Moses from the bulrushes, and raised by a childless woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Benjamin fits right in at the home, where “death and old age felt normal.”

Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the love of his life, is the granddaughter of one of the residents. She comes and goes in his life until that magical moment when they “meet in the middle” and both of them are the precise age to fall in love with each other. But this is Hollywood, where relationships only last as long as they are mutually satisfying. When Benjamin grows too young and Daisy grows too old, Benjamin leaves, “for the sake of their daughter,” telling Daisy to find another man to marry and become a father figure to their child. (!) He narrates in voice over: “We’re meant to lose the people we love. How else are we supposed to know how important they are to us?” (Huh?)

The film version focuses more on the cycle of aging than on the stages of life. “We start out in diapers and we end up in diapers,” Queenie says pragmatically. Benjamin starts out in an old folks home, and he ends up there as well. As Benjamin becomes younger and younger, he loses his memory, very much like a victim of Alzheimer’s. It’s a sad thought, losing a loved one to dementia, and I have heard more than one caretaker of a parent stricken with Alzheimer’s describe it as “caring for a baby.”  In that respect, the film is philosophically sound and emotionally moving.

The storyline of the movie is more closely linked to Andrew Sean Greer’s bestselling novel, “The Confession of Max Tivoli” (2004) than to Fitzgerald’s “Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” In Greer’s story, an age-reversing man meets the love of his life three different times, at three different ages, just as the film character does. And like the movie, which unfolds as a diary written to Benjamin’s daughter, “Max Tivoli” is a memoir written to Max’s son.

Greer’s book uses the story indirectly to examine the Oedipus/Electra complex. Max meets his Alice first when she is a young teen turning to him for fatherly comfort, then as a woman who marries him, and finally as a mother who adopts him. At each stage she loves him, but in a different way. Max, however, loves her the same way every time–as an old man he wants to kiss her, and as a young boy he wants to zip her dress. Kind of creepy, actually, when seen from her point of view.

Interesting though each version is, none of these stories allows the protagonist to take advantage of the wisdom of age. There are so many things I have wished that I could redo in childhood and especially adolescence, using the wisdom I have gained over five decades.  Benjamin has that chance. I wanted to see the early Benjamin make a bad choice in his aged body and then use that wisdom to make the right choice in his youth. But he doesn’t. In fact, the later Benjamin’s decisions are as shallow and self-serving as any teenager I’ve ever met. Daisy, by contrast, develops a much clearer understanding of love and devotion as she ages.

Twain and Shaw both jokingly remarked that youth is wasted on the young. But as Henry David Thoreau observed in “Walden,” “Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.” Each of these stories about reversed aging ends in a profound sense of loss. They meet loved ones in the middle of their lives, but then they veer off into different directions. If anything is learned from these stories, it is the importance of staying on the same path with those we love, and walking hand in hand into the distance.

Ease on Down “The Road”

“The Road.” Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 241 pages.

In the century after this nation was born, families headed west along paths with names like the Oregon Trail, carrying their meager belongings in wagons or handcarts. In the century that followed, those dirt trails gave way to tarmac and the roads became Highways 70 and 80, transporting families and trucking goods from sea to shining sea.

Although it is never identified by name, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is most assuredly one of these two highways, broken up and sometimes still steaming from apocalyptic fires in a not too distant future. An unnamed father and son now trudge along this same road, pushing their meager belongings in a shopping cart and carrying their most important belongings in knapsacks in case they have to run from other survivors who roam the same road, looking for food. While their ancestors had moved westward with hope and handcarts, these survivors move eastward with futility and a rusty shopping cart.

They carry a road map with them and inspect it frequently, opening and refolding it so many times that it has fallen into pieces. It’s a map to nowhere, really, the towns abandoned or obliterated. But the father holds onto it with the reverence of a scriptural guide, describing for his son the world that used to be.

This cautionary tale of survival in a gray, post-apocalyptic world is unlike any futuristic novel you’ve read. Yes, you’ll find the usual elements one expects in a dystopian novel—the threatening bands of scavengers, the barren wasteland, the futile vestiges of technology, the desperate attempt to reestablish order out of chaos, the ultimate conflict between good and evil.

But unlike, say, David Brin’s dense “The Postman,” you won’t find long detailed descriptions or philosophy or explanations of what has happened in this book. “The Road” stands out for its spare writing style, its haunting imagery, and its focus on the gentle, intense relationship between an unnamed father and his son as they journey on to escape the gray snow of winter and inevitable death.

“A long shear of light and then a series of concussions” is all that McCarthy tells us about what has caused the calamity a few years earlier, but a thick cloud of ash still covers the sky, blocking the sun and moon, suggesting that the disaster has been world wide. Their only food is what they can scavenge from abandoned homes or stores, while always on the alert for other scavengers who would surely kill and eat them if they were caught.

Yes, eat them, though it isn’t said in so many words. The language in this book is not just spare, but sparse, the sentences fragmented, the contractions written without apostrophes, signaling to the reader on the very first page that this is a society in which normal structures have broken down. In a world without renewable food, no energy can be wasted, not even for place-holding subjects, verbs and quotation marks. Details are seen, but not explained.  In fact, most of what does happen occurs offstage, just out of sight, they way the best horror films were made.  At one point the father turns his son’s head away from a grisly scene, with this exchange:

The things you put into your head are there forever.

It’s okay Papa.

It’s okay?

Theyre already there.

I don’t want you to look.

They’ll still be there.

This book is like that. It stays in your head a long time, the unwritten images recurring with such clarity that you swear you have seen it on a movie screen, even though McCarthy has given you only the barest of details. The father and son hide in the woods as a group of marauders passes by, leading “a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars.” You know their fate, even though you never see them again. On a mattress “darkly stained” they find “a man [who] lay with his legs gone to the hips and the stumps of them blackened and burnt,” and you know what has happened, and worse, what is going to happen, without being told. The pictures visit your dreams and wake you before dawn. It stays in your head. I hope not forever.

And yet there is such beauty in McCarthy’s poetic prose! “Lying there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth,” he writes. “By day the banished sun circles the world like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

He creates an almost allegorical relationship between father and son as they journey inexorably toward the ocean: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” Their all-encompassing love is revealed through simple conversations as the father tries to shield his son from their inevitable outcome, conversations that often resolve into the gentle reassurance, “Its okay. Okay? Okay,” even when it’s not okay.

In the midst of this grayness, the boy offers a shining light of hope. He has never seen goodness, having been born a few weeks after the holocaust, and yet when they see people in the distance or meet a stranger dying on the road, his reaction is always the same: “Can we help him? Papa? Cant we help him Papa?” He hasn’t learned this by example. No one has ever given anything to them, nor has his father taught him to share with others. His goodness is innate, imprinted in his DNA somehow. What is its source?

That seems to be the point of this novel. Much has been made by critics and fans of the cryptic final paragraph of the book, which I can reveal without giving away the story. McCarthy writes: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current wher the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow….On their backs were the vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

Some say this paragraph lends the story a message of hope for the future, that fish are returning to the streams, while others focus on the bleakness of the words “not be made right again.”

I think the answer is found earlier in the book. Juxtaposed against the “limp and rotting” map detailing the boundaries of a dying manmade world, McCartney hints of a different kind of map, one found in nature, “the vermiculate patterns….of the world in its becoming,” that lie inside the earliest form of a fish, when life sprang out of the sea containing the DNA that would eventually produce all animal life. But this is not a Darwinian paradise. On the other side of that paragraph the boy learns that “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” More than DNA swirls inside man. And though “a thing … could not be put back,” it can be started again, a spiritual thing that is “older than man [and humming] of mystery.”

You may find something entirely different when you journey down “The Road.” That’s the magic of McCarthy’s poetic style with its multiple layers of potential meaning. The book is being made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son. But I recommend you read the book first–it is a journey well worth taking.

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