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Fins ’82 Delivers Phi Beta Kappa Address

Joseph Fins '82 spoke to members of Phi Beta Kappa.

Joseph Fins '82 spoke to members of Phi Beta Kappa.

Joseph J. Fins ’82, M.D., chair of the Alumni Association, spoke to members of the Wesleyan Gamma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa during Reunion & Commencement Weekend. His speech was titled “Minding Time.” Membership for Phi Beta Kappa is conferred for high scholastic achievement.

It is a delight to be here with you today to celebrate your induction into Phi Beta Kappa. Let me add my congratulations to those of The Faculty, President Roth and your friends and family. This is a memorable day in your life and it is good that you savour this accomplishment. A former professor of mine once told me we should, “Cultivate resting points of satisfaction.”

And this is one of those resting points. A moment that seems to encapsulate all that has happened to you at this marvelous university. It is an occasion when time seems to stand still. Memory is flooded with images of your first academic success, the hard work, and the epiphanies when you figured something out and, as importantly, the failures, which really led to intellectual growth.

As I think about how you must feel, I am reminded of a distant College of Letters class with Professor Howard Needler. We were reading St. Augustine’s Confessions and I remember stumbling upon Augustine’s notion of the “eternal present.” Referring to God, Augustine wrote the following:

In your “today” you will make all that is to exist tomorrow and thereafter, and in “your today” you have made all that existed yesterday and for ever before.

When I was a student here, I sometimes felt there was a coalescence of past, present and future — certainly not on the Celestial scale envisioned by Augustine — but on a personal one. These were formative moments.

And in many ways, that is how it must seem to you now, as you sit back and reflect in this moment about the distance you have come and the paths you are yet to take.

But the cultivation of resting points of satisfaction is not so simple. It is not about the eternal present, about this moment. Instead, what is implicit in the message is that sense of evolution, of progress of moving on. We are not talking about early retirement here. Rest should be temporary.

This is but a resting point. The line of a life is made up of such points, but it remains a line facing forward. Soon it will be time to leave here, move on, and make continued progress.

Your lives will continue, you will refine your passions, settle into careers and make the contributions to society that we expect of you. I was reminded of this forward march when I found my copy of Augustine’s Confessions in my library, circa 1980 margin notes and all.

Not only did my “Penguin Classic” edition cost $2.95, I also realized that while that volume had not changed, as I read it, I certainly had. When I first read it 30 years ago, it was an older man’s reminiscences and making sense and even atoning for an errant youth. To put it bluntly, Augustine wasn’t always a saint.

When I was twenty, I was interested in his tales of youth, wondering how did this start of a life end up as accomplished and saintly as it did. Perhaps naively, I wrote in the margins that Augustine, “did not appreciate when young the gift of life that God gave him. He did not realize that his study of rhetoric was shallow and useless because it was the use of words without substance. He tries here to atone and retrospectively judge afresh his old deeds.”

If I were to judge my notations three decades later, I am struck by the sense that my marginalia precisely did what I accused young Augustine of doing. My words were true, but as yet I did not understand them. My rhetoric was shallow and I wrote of things I did not yet understand, and could not know. It remained the stuff of platitude.

My margin notes were written absent the lived experiences that tests ideas, challenge theories and temper stances. Over the decades, I have gained a deeper insight into what I wrote through life experience, or as the American Pragmatist, John Dewey succinctly put it, “learning by doing.”

As a physician and a parent, I have since come to understand that when I wrote of young Augustine’s inability to appreciate the “gift of life” given to him, I too had yet to fully appreciate life and loss and how precious each life is.

Sadly, this is a lesson that each of you learned prematurely when this community was touched by unspeakable tragedy weeks ago. This too is now part of this moment, this shared present, as you reflect upon your past and contemplate your future. A future that is made all the more precious because of the pain that comes when it is irretrievably lost.

We prize the future for the potential that each of you embody and for the ways it will manifest the unfolding of the education you have received here. At this point your knowledge and skills remain mostly latent, still unapplied to the great works and good deeds that you will undertake. And in realizing those accomplishments, none of us knows which aspects of your education will be relevant decades later, when the future becomes present.

Perhaps an illustration will make my point clearer. When I was an undergraduate and read about Augustine’s “eternal present,” I never thought I would have an occasion to invoke this conceptualization decades later this afternoon or in connection to medical research considering how the brain recovers from injuries severe enough to cause a disorders of consciousness, like coma or the vegetative state.

Most would see that as a purely scientific quest and reasonably ask, what could a 4th century theologian, much less a Saint, add to scientific studies exploring the natural history of brain injury and mechanisms of brain repair? And truth be told, if the question were narrowly cast, the answer would be, “not much.”

But if the broader dimensions of the injured self are invoked, Augustine and the humanities would have a lot to add. His Confessions became relevant again when my colleagues and I found a brain-injured patient who was physiologically — and I dare say — metaphorically stuck in the eternal present.

You may of heard of the case, the remarkable tale of a patient named Terry Wallis who sustained a severe brain injury in 1984 when he was in a car accident. For nearly two decades he lay in a nursing home bed diagnosed as being in the vegetative state. He came to international media attention six years ago, when he began to speak spontaneously.

Like Karen Ann Quinlan or Terri Schiavo, Terry Wallis carried the diagnosis of being in the permanent vegetative state. As the years rolled by and he ceased to improve, he and his family were ignored by the medical community. He was marooned in a nursing home bed. His parents who visited him regularly asked that he be seen by a neurologist or have another scan of his brain. They were told that he was immutably injured, that he would never recover from his vegetative state and that further assessment was futile and too expensive.

The medical system had written him off as forever gone in a vegetative state of “wakeful unresponsiveness” in which his eyes were sometimes open but there was no awareness of himself, others or his environment. He had been relegated to what is euphemistically called “custodial care.” And there he lay, day after day, minding time.

But his parents thought they saw glimmers of awareness, only to be told that they were in denial or overly hopeful. Sometimes he would follow them with his eyes when they came into the room. At other times he seemed to follow an isolated command or nod his head. But these signs of awareness, of minimal consciousness, were not reproducible when the occasional doctor visited.

All of this changed in the summer of 2003 when Terry began to speak spontaneously. His first words were “Mom” and “Pepsi” and over time he gained greater fluency. But what was really interesting was that for Terry, it was still 1984. Ronald Reagan was still president. Like Rip Van Winkle he was locked in time.
Terry has continued to live in an eternal present since then, although his speech has become more fluent and he is laying down new memory. For example, he now knows the song “Bad Boys, Bad Boys, what you gonna do?” — which may or may not be an improvement. But it is important because his brain is learning and it seems, also changing structurally.

Neuroimaging studies using advanced MRI techniques at Weill Cornell showed what was described as new axonal sprouting or new connections between existing neurons in his brain. Over an 18-month interval two scans revealed dynamic changes in his brain with both axonal sprouting and pruning.

We don’t know if these neuroimaging changes were responsible for his ability to speak but they are suggestive. In tandem with his improved functional status, the neuroimaging findings show that while Terry was temporally locked in an eternal present, his brain injury was not immutable. Some degree of recovery was possible, even decades after injury.

But despite this forward progress it remained 1984. A couple years ago, Terry and his family watched President George W. Bush deliver the State of the Union Address at their home. Terry turned to his mother and asked, “Mama, who’s that?”

Mrs. Wallis said, “That’s President Bush.”

Terry responded, “What happened to Reagan?”

In preparation for this talk, I called the Walllis family last week to check in with them and to secure their on-going permission to share their story. They graciously have allowed me to continue to talk about Terry and his progress.

In our conversation, Terry’s mother, Mrs. Wallis told me that Terry’s daughter, Amber had graduated from college the night before. Since 2003, Terry has had difficulty reconciling that Amber was his daughter and not his ex-wife. Amber had been born after his accident and resembled her mother. Terry confused her with his former wife because in 1984, he was still married and had no children.

So it was all the more remarkable when Mrs. Wallis told Terry about his daughter’s graduation and he responded, “Amber’s graduating college? She’s not a kid anymore. She’s a young lady.”

Although Mrs. Wallis tells me that it’s “still 1984, most of the time”, Terry’s appreciation that Amber is getting older suggests the return of a temporal sense, at least on an inconsistent basis, now 25 years after he was injured.

Terry is not alone in his temporal dislocation and the slow march of recovery. The brain injury literature recounts other cases. In one case, a psychologist described his own disorientation after regaining consciousness:

During this period, I had no awareness of time. I existed in a world of the here and now. I was not even aware that such a concept of “time” existed. I knew who “I” was but did not think of myself as being a child, a boy, or a man…One day, however, my “mental clock” began ticking again and the concept of time began to become significant. (Cited by W. Winslade, Confronting Traumatic Brain Injury. New Haven: Yale U, Press, 1998. pp 78-79.)

Cases like these raise perplexing questions about time and personhood. Can you fully be you stuck in an eternal present, not knowing whether you are “a child, a boy or a man”? Imagine the thought experiment of self-awareness devoid of temporal reference points.

Although neuroscience may be on the way to answering this age-old question, the humanities have already weighed in on the issue over the course of millennia. Augustine saw the eternal present as that which divided us from the deity.

Deities aside, humans are not meant to reside in an eternal present — or as the psychologist put it, “a world of the here and now.” We are destined, instead, for a temporal grid with a past, present and future.
And in more modern times, Martin Heidegger would write in his aptly titled masterwork, “Being and Time” that we achieve our potentiality as Beings only after fully assuming a temporality and appreciating their broader place in History. Fundamentally, we need to be aware of the march of time for an authentic understanding of our Being.

Milestones like the one we mark this afternoon — and on Sunday — are reminders that the passage of time is inextricably linked to the realization of one’s potentiality and to the cultivation of a perspective on personal growth.

As the Wisdom of the Ages and newer insights from the Neurosciences show us, though we might savor these resting points of satisfaction, they do not define what we are but rather who we are in the process of becoming. It is the stringing together of these moments that make for a reflective life. So as we celebrate your accomplishments, let us also mark the passage of time, which allows us to appreciate such moments, knowing that they are singular and fleeting, and indispensable to the trajectories of each of our lives.

Waldman ’86, Miranda ’02 Perform at White House Arts Evening

Two Wesleyan alumni performed May 12 for President Obama, his family and others at the White House. The event was titled “An Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word.” Ayelet Waldman ’86 and her husband Michael Chabon, both writers, were among the speakers. An NPR story about the event included Waldman discussing the power of the written word: “To harness the power of language you have to be able to put yourself in the position of the person you are speaking to—to imagine what they are thinking, what they’re feeling. That’s hard.”

Also at the White House was Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, creator of the award-winning Broadway show “In the Heights.” In her blog, Waldman says he won over the audience “with a hip hop song about Alexander Hamilton, as sung by Aaron Burr.” She credited Miranda with being “one of those performers who comes along every once in a rare while who’s just got magic about him.”

Study by Hill ’91 Explores the History of U.S. Radical Politics

Book by Rebecca Hill '91.

Book by Rebecca Hill '91.

Rebecca N. Hill ’91 is the author of Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History (Duke University Press) in which she compares two seemingly unrelated types of leftist protest campaigns: those intended to defend labor organizers from prosecution and those seeking to memorialize lynching victims and stop the practice of lynching. Her incisive new study suggests that these forms of protest are related and have considerably influenced one another. She recognizes that both campaigns worked to build alliances through appeals to public opinion in the media, by defining the American state as a force of terror, and by creating a heroic identity for their movements.

Hill focuses on the narratives produced during the abolitionist John Brown’s trials and execution, analyzes the defense of the Chicago anarchists of the Haymarket affair, and compares Ida B. Wells’s and the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaigns to the Industrial Workers of the World’s early 20th-century defense campaigns. She also examines conflicts within the campaign to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, chronicles the history of the Communist Party’s International Labor Defense, and explores the Black Panther Party’s defense of George Jackson.

Hill is an associate professor in the department of social science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York.

Angels and Demons, with Screenplay by Goldsman ’83, Opens at Number One at the Box Office

Angels and Demons is number one at the box office.

Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer in Angels and Demons (Photo by Zade Rosenthal/Sony Pictures)

Oscar-winner Akiva Goldsman ’83 (with David Koepp) co-wrote the screenplay of Angels and Demons, directed by Ron Howard, which was number one at the box office at $48 million during its first weekend.

The film opened nationwide at at 3,527 theaters on Friday, May 15. Based on the novel by Dan Brown, Angels and Demons is a prequel to the best-selling thriller The Da Vinci Code which follows the adventures of Harvard University symbologist and theology sleuth Robert Langdon.

The movie version of The Da Vinci Code, which also had a screenplay by Goldsman, was a hugely popular film internationally, opening worldwide in its first weekend at $232.1 million. Both Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code feature Tom Hanks as Robert Landon with Ron Howard as a director.

New Poetry Collection by Middletown Resident Allison ’85

Susan Allison

Susan Allison

Susan Allison ’85 has just published a poetry collection, Down by the Riverside Ways (Antrim Books).

Allison returned to Middletown a few years after graduating from Wesleyan and has lived here since.

Most of the poems in this collection have been written in Middletown over the last 20 years.

Allison comments: “I like the word concatenation, meaning: to link in a chain, to describe some of the poems. Many of the poems are concatenations of ideas based in experience. The book as a whole is a concatenation, and strives to make sense through random strings of devotion. I owe much to Rennie McQuilken who collaborated with me on the book.”

Poetry Collection by Susan Allison.

Poetry Collection by Susan Allison

A Tune for Harmonica
by Susan Allison
for Thomas Moses

Ladder ladder I descend
down where cocktail parties end.
Landscaped vistas, rarified air—
it’s too freezing cold up there.
Moribund hostesses make me shiver.
I am climbing a ladder down to the river.

Rippled current ocean-bound,
only here do I bow down,
sink my toes in fish-rank muck
soft and warm and full of suck.
My harp sings to the blessing giver.
I am climbing her ladder down by the river.

Connecticut Gallery Features Sculptures by Stern ’80

Recent sculptures by Melissa Stern ’80 will be shown with work by four other artists at the Bachelier Cardonsky Gallery Open House in Kent, Conn. from May 23 through July 5. The opening is from 4 to 6 p.m. on May 23.

Stern’s work reflects both non-Western and outsider art influences. Her drawings, collages, and figurative sculptures are characterized by their richly drawn and deeply layered surfaces. She uses a wide range of materials from encaustic to clay, pastel to steel.

“All of my pieces share a thematic thread,” Stern says. “Childlike and goofy my figures live in a dream world, cower in relationships or stand tall in the face of adversity. They are at once dark and funny, expressive of the absurd world around them. Gender, relationships and broader social dynamics are subtly intertwined. The personal is the political.”

Stern, of New York, N.Y., considers herself a handyman cobbling together drawings and sculptures from elements found, borrowed and imagined.

The Bachelier Cardonsky Gallery is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and by appointment. For more information call 860-927-3129. Its address is 10 North Main Street.

Oracle Acquires Sun, Headed by Jonathan Schwartz ’87

Jonathan Schwartz '87 (Photo by Bill Burkhart)

Jonathan Schwartz '87 (Photo by Bill Burkhart)

On April 20, Oracle Corp. announced it would acquire Sun Microsystems, whose chief executive officer is Jonathan Schwartz ’87. The deal, valued at $7.4 billion, promises to make Oracle a more potent competitor against I.B.M., Sun’s previous suitor, according to The New York Times.

“With Sun, Oracle will more directly compete against I.B.M., H.P. and other giants selling products and services used in corporate data centers by big corporations,””said the Times. “The move by Oracle is part of the trend of the largest technology companies to assemble more offerings — hardware, software and services — for corporate customers, often through acquisitions, as I.B.M., H.P., Cisco and Oracle have all done in recent years.”

In an e-mail to Sun employees, reported by the Wall Street Journal, Schwartz spoke about the acquisition:

“This is one of the toughest emails I’ve ever had to write. It’s also one of the most hopeful about Sun’s future in the industry. To me, this proposed acquisition totally redefines the industry, resetting the competitive landscape by creating a company with great reach, expertise and innovation. A combined Oracle/Sun will be capable of cultivating one of the world’s most vibrant and far reaching developer communities, accelerating the convergence of storage, networking and computing, and delivering one of the world’s most powerful and complete portfolios of business and technical software.”

Kurtzman ’95 Re-Imagines Star Trek for a New Generation

From left, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, Chris Pine as Kirk, Simon Pegg as Scotty, Karl Urban as McCoy, John Cho as Sulu and Zoë Saldana as Uhura. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

From left, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, Chris Pine as Kirk, Simon Pegg as Scotty, Karl Urban as McCoy, John Cho as Sulu and Zoë Saldana as Uhura. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

Alex Kurtzman ’95 and Roberto Orci are the screenwriters for a new version of Star Trek, directed by J. J. Abrams, which premieres in the theaters May 8. The eagerly awaited movie has already received a large amount of advance publicity in the media, everywhere from Entertainment Weekly to the Wall Street Journal to sci-fi web sites, and advance word has been positive.

The New York Times devoted a feature by Dave Itzkoff on April 26 on the upcoming film. The new version delves into the series’ mythology and takes the viewer to the origins of James Kirk and Spock as young men and the beginning of the U. S. S. Enterprise.

According to the Times: “For the ‘Trek” faithful there are plenty of nods to past television episodes and movies, familiar catchphrases and Kirk’s notorious solution to a supposedly unwinnable mission simulation. But there is also a conscious effort to inscribe this “Trek” in the storytelling traditions popularized by Joseph Campbell, in which heroes must suffer loss and abandonment before they rise to the occasion.”

In a recent review in Variety, Todd McCarthy says that “the new and improved Star Trek will transport fans to sci-fi nirvana.” He adds that the film “rockets along like a beautifully engineered vehicle you can’t help but admire for its design and performance. It shifts gears often but always smoothly, and accelerates again and yet again when you suspect it might be tempted to ease up for good.”

Memorable Tales of a Mill Town by Winn ’75

Tracy Winn '75

Tracy Winn '75

Tracy Winn ’75 is the author of Mrs. Somebody Somebody (Southern Methodist University Press), a vibrant new collection of interwoven tales about the inhabitants of Lowell, Mass., a dying mill town.

Her affecting and unsentimental stories, set from the 1940s to the present, cover a range of fascinating characters, including mill workers, a doctor, a hairdresser, a bookie, a restless wife, and several insightful children.

In his review of the book in the Boston Globe, Steve Almond ’88 praises Winn’s book as “a testament to the power of the short form.” He adds that her stories “carefully expose the universal desires for love and security that live within all of us — and the ways in which well-meaning but damaged people thwart these desires.”

Winn chose Lowell as her setting because it reminded her of Holyoke, the town where husband grew up. In a recent interview in the Republican (Mass.), Winn said: “You can’t protect your characters from bad things. That was hard for me to learn.”

Tower ’96 Makes Remarkable Fiction Debut

Wells Tower '96

Wells Tower '96 (Photo by Suzanne Bennett)

Author Wells Tower ’96 recently garnered rave reviews across the country for his first short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Farrar Straus Giroux) which was published in March. The book received two fine reviews in the same week in The New York Times and was the cover review for The New York Times Sunday Book Review.

For the Sunday Times, acclaimed writer Edmund White wrote: “Every one of the stories .., is polished and distinctive. Though he’s intrigued by the painful experiences of men much older than he is, Tower can write with equal power about young women and boys; about hell-­raising, skull-bashing ancient Vikings and an observant housebound old man of the 21st century … His range is wide and his language impeccable.”

Book by Wells Tower '96

Book by Wells Tower '96

In her weekday review for the Times, Michiko Kakutani, one of the paper’s toughest literary critics, praised Tower’s “masterly conjuring of his people’s daily existence, his understanding of their emotional dilemmas, his controlled but dazzling language and his effortless ability to turn snapshots of misfits and malcontents into a panoramic cavalcade of American life.”

Tower majored in anthropology and sociology at Wesleyan. He received an MFA from Columbia University, and two stories he wrote there were published by The Paris Review. Tower has also written nonfiction articles for the past five years for The Washington Post and Harper’s. Besides following his dream of working as a writer, he also played in a punk band for six years.

In a recent interview in The New York Observer, Tower said: “I think what people really want is fiction that in some tiny way makes their life more meaningful and makes the world seem like a richer place. The world is awfully short on joy and richness, and I think to some extent it’s the fiction writer’s job to salvage some of that and to give it to us in ways that we can believe in.”

Link to the New York Times Sunday Book Review article:


Link to weekday New York Times review:


New York Observer interview:



Dick Rohfritch ’66 Finds Unusual Route to Book Selling

“Book-lover Dick Rohfritch didn’t set out to buy 12,000 modern first editions once owned by an eccentric lawyer-collector found murdered in his rural Missouri home. It’s just that he doesn’t like to play golf. And thereby hangs the tale of how The Woodlands got Good Books in the Woods, a new secondhand bookstore full of remarkable finds.”

The Houston Chronicle recounts this story about Rohfritch ’66, an English major who works in chemical sales but has always loved reading and enjoys collecting books.

The dead man, 70-year-old Rolland Comstock, was an avid bibliophile who acquired signed first editions by 20th-century British and American authors. In July 2007 he was found shot dead in his home, and the case remains unsolved. Many of the books in his collection were in superb condition, signed and encased in acetate wrappers.

Rohfritch discovered the collection in a warehouse owned by Second Story Books of Washington, D.C. According to the Chronicle, he soon became “the proud owner of a 40-foot trailer’s worth of modern firsts plus hard-to-find literary magazines.”

The idea of opening a bookstore emerged gradually. In The Woodlands, a planned community in the Houston metropolitan area, Rohfritch found a house that could be renovated as a bookstore and installed his son, Jay, as general manager. They expect to do sell most of their first editions over the Internet at prices ranging from $12 to $300.

Jazz Artists Bynum ’98 and Halvorson ’02 on the Rise

Taylor Ho Bynum

Recording by Taylor Ho Bynum '98

A recent March article by Nate Chinen in The New York Times focused on Firehouse 12, a New Haven state-of-the-art recording studio and home to a jazz record label of the same name. Firehouse 12 Records is co-owned by cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum ’98 and Nick Lloyd, who owns the recording studio.

The Times article pointed out that the Firehouse 12 studio in a renovated 1905 firehouse in New Haven’s Ninth Square Neighborhood has also become a venue for performances by some of today’s most talented young avant-garde jazz artists. At the same time, Firehouse 12 records has already released several well-reviewed recordings by a number of up-and-coming musicians, including drummer Tyshawn Sorey, trumpeter Peter Evans, and guitarist Mary Halvorson ’02. Halvorson’s Dragon Head album went into a second printing.

Bynum, who was interviewed by the Times, studied with Wesleyan music professor and jazz legend Anthony Braxton. He mentions in the article that Firehouse 12 had an initial success with their first release of a boxed set of Braxton recordings, priced at $100.

Recording by Mary Halvorson '02

Recording by Mary Halvorson '02

Bynum and Halvorson also were singled out with two of their musician friends in April in The Wall Street Journal as “among the most exciting new jazz musicians to emerge on the New York scene.” The WSJ article called Bynum’s sextet recording Asphalt Flowers/Forking Paths (Hat Hut) “one of the best recordings of the past year. It’s a broad, sprawling disc brimming with unique harmonies and pithy solos.” The article noted that Halvorson’s Firehouse 12 album Dragon Head was named the finest debut recording in the Village Voice’s annual jazz critics’ poll.

Link to New York Times article on Firehouse 12:


Link to Wall Street Journal article: