Kudos to David James Duncan for his moving essay “Cherish This Ecstasy” [July 2008]. If only we could all learn to appreciate the divinity of nature as he does, then we might have a chance of saving ourselves and what’s left of this precious planet.
My annoyance with Louis E. Bourgeois’s twenty-five-year-old self in his essay “Baton Rouge” [July 2008] is surpassed only by my annoyance with the writer in the present, who seems not to have moved past his nihilistic, self-indulgent youth. I can understand how losing his arm in an accident could make the young Bourgeois angry at the world, but does he still feel contempt for places he’s never visited, consider his few friends “detestable,” or see himself as “a boorish asshole”? A narrative doesn’t have to be “nice or pretty,” but it has to take us somewhere.
At least “Baton Rouge” reminded me of a hot summer day when I was twenty-five. I’d spent the morning writing and erasing and was still looking at a blank page. Giving up, I dragged myself and a basket of tennis balls to a local court to practice my serve. But I was serving as badly as I had been writing. On the next court two guys were playing a set. Something odd about one of the players caught my eye, and I turned to watch him serve. He held both racket and ball in the same hand, his first three fingers wrapped around the grip, index finger and thumb securing the ball. Then he tossed the ball high, brought the racket behind his head, and lunged upward, sending a powerful serve toward his opponent. The player wasn’t serving one-handed out of choice, I realized: he had only one arm.
In his essay “Baton Rouge” Louis E. Bourgeois does a poor job of posing as an existentialist. Existentialists believe that it is our task — our responsibility — to be the creator of our own life and to give to it whatever meaning we choose. It’s sad that Bourgeois chose meaninglessness as his meaning.
Louis E. Bourgeois responds:
To Les Brady: I’m sorry that my miserable narrative annoyed you. I’m not at all a charismatic person. I live in utter poverty and loneliness, and nothing good (except perhaps publishing in The Sun) has ever happened to me. Some lives are like that: they never get better, only worse. I make no apologies for what I’ve written because the whole thing was true and I did the best I could to convey this truth.
To Wallace Condon: I’m not sure that one can pose as an existentialist; one can fail as an existentialist, and perhaps this is what I’ve done in my essay. It’s all the same to me and does nothing to lessen the pain I feel.
Chris Bursk’s poem “In with the New, Out with the Old” [July 2008] gives me hope that I am not the only bibliophile left on the planet. I am having floor-to-ceiling bookcases installed in my home, despite having been told by realtors that it might reduce the value of the property because “buyers will be intimidated by all that bookshelf space.” I cannot imagine ceding the physical presence of books to technology. I love seeing them there, stalwart on their shelves, waiting to be picked up and read again or for the first time. The feel and smell of them are intoxicating, especially the old ones — some of which my great-great-grandfather held and read.
At first read I thought I would e-mail this letter, but I decided it needed to be written out with a pencil — a Papermate #2. No erasures, just cross-outs and arrows. I had forgotten how good it feels to write this way.
Chris Bursk’s “In with the New, Out with the Old” reminded me of a conversation that took place thirty-four years ago between my mother and my then-ten-year-old son. My son, in awe of new technology, said that someday collections of books on microfiche would replace traditional libraries.
“Never,” his grandmother replied. “People will always want the feel of a book in their hands.”
More than three decades later microfiche is obsolete. My son, who went on to major in computer science, has his own small publishing company, producing hold-them-in-your-hand-and-turn-the-pages books. He is banking on his grandmother’s prediction that they will never be obsolete.
I was moved by the overall structure of your July 2008 issue: It started with the Wendell Berry interview [“Digging In,” by Jeff Fearnside], then continued the themes of writing and farming through the next piece, Doug Crandell’s essay “Foreclosure.” The one-two punch of the cynical, narcissistic “Baton Rouge,” by Louis E. Bourgeois, followed by David James Duncan’s “Cherish This Ecstasy” just floored me. And it kept going from there. At the end I read the Sunbeams several times. This is what makes your magazine so special to me. By orchestrating these pieces, you create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
In response to Lynn Margulis’s Sunbeam regarding stewardship [July 2008]: I agree that stewardship is an arrogant and unfounded idea borne out of a fundamental misconception of humanity’s place in the world. It is we who belong to the world, not the other way around. We have about as much business being stewards of the world as infants have being stewards of the nursery.
As a family physician, I am disappointed that you chose to publish the letter by Ruth Lambert [Correspondence, June 2008] in response to Krista Bremer’s essay about the decision to circumcise her son [“The First Cut,” February 2008]. Lambert made numerous inaccurate, unsupported, or controversial medical claims about circumcision.
Regarding urinary-tract infections: Circumcision does reduce the rate of UTIs in newborn boys, but approximately two hundred circumcisions are needed to prevent one UTI, which is almost always a benign and easily treated infection; more than 2,500 circumcisions are needed to prevent one case affecting the kidneys.
Regarding STDs: It is wildly inappropriate to claim that “Circumcision is a first defense against the transmission of several STDs.” The first defenses are safe-sex practices, such as using condoms and limiting one’s number of partners. Most studies that suggest a protective effect of circumcision were done in high-risk populations. There has never been a well-designed study proving that newborn circumcision in average-risk populations provides significant benefit, and some studies suggest an increased risk of certain STDs, such as chlamydia, with circumcision.
Regarding uterine cancer: There is no connection between uterine cancer and circumcision. There have been several studies of cervical cancer and circumcision, which is probably what Lambert intended to say. But women who sleep with only circumcised men are not at all immune to cervical cancer, as the significant rate of cervical cancer in the U.S. demonstrates.
Regarding penile cancer: It is a myth that only intact men get the disease, which is exceedingly rare even in countries where circumcision is not practiced. Penile cancer is even rarer in circumcised men, but it’s nonsensical to amputate healthy genital tissue in newborns to prevent a rare cancer in elderly men.
Regarding the pain and risks of the procedure: Having now performed or witnessed more than a hundred circumcisions, I can report that, even with the use of local anesthesia (which has only recently become routine), it is often traumatic. Studies show newborns have marked physiological changes after circumcision, including abnormal sleep-wave patterns, increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and abnormal vital signs. And circumcision trauma interferes with breast-feeding in some cases.
As a physician I don’t believe circumcision should be performed on infants when it is not medically indicated. Adult men can choose to be circumcised if they are concerned about the preferences of women, are planning to be sexually promiscuous in an HIV-endemic country, or feel it is necessary for their religious beliefs.
Five months ago my unit in Iraq was the beneficiary of a care package that included three issues of The Sun. From the moment I laid eyes on the captivating cover photographs, I realized that this magazine is special.
Unlike in most cases, my intuition proved to be correct. The interviews, memoirs, poems, short stories, and overarching thematic elements in each issue were a breath of fresh air in that stagnant war-zone climate. Even though I will never meet the authors who have contributed to the magazine, I was able to establish a unique companionship with them, which was especially important to me in those circumstances. The raw, unadulterated humanity in The Sun not only enabled me to understand other people’s predicaments but also gave me valuable insights into my own experience as well.
This magazine is a life preserver that prevents a person from drowning in a sea of irrelevance. (Screw WMDs. Irrelevance is the real threat of our times.) You have had a positive impact on my life.