The Breakfast Table

Eugene O’Neill’s Misbegotten Diagnosis

Northumberland cranberry, perhaps?

I didn’t see Reno at noon. I almost never watch news events unfold on TV, because I don’t have one in my office. This makes me totally unqualified to comment on the meta-reality of news events, of course, since I absorb them in their Precambrian manifestations. But I do sometimes look at bulletins on the Web. Which reminds me: You should read Myra McPherson’s scathing Salon piece today on why Elián’s Miami relatives are more dysfunctional than the Sopranos. I found it weirdly comforting.

Speaking of family dysfunction, I commend to you today’s New York Times story, based on a New England Journal of Medicine report, about the death of Eugene O’Neill. The playwright himself believed that his youthful drinking was the cause of the Parkinson’s-like brain disease that disabled and eventually killed him; but doctors (including the doctor who performed the actual autopsy on O’Neill in 1953) who recently reviewed all the medical records and the autopsy report concluded that it was the result of a rare genetic disorder. So O’Neill tormented himself in vain about his debauched youth. It’s staggering to imagine how O’Neill’s plays, so full of the dark lure of alcohol and addiction, might have been different had he not carried this conviction that he had doomed himself. For the rest of us, the report is a bit like finding out, after all these years, that Ernest Hemingway really died from a slip in the bathtub.

And did you see the story about the hundreds of Massachusetts 10th-graders who boycotted their standardized statewide essay test? You’ve got to love this one: You take a population of students that has been drilled since elementary school in the new truisms of education (up with diversity! Up with different learning styles! No one model fits all students!) and suddenly, in a fit of “standards” zeal, decide to administer a one-size-fits-all test. And now administrators and school bureaucrats are shocked–shocked!--that these students should presume to question authority. (Another, related subject we missed: Now that your children are getting into the real school years, don’t you just love the jargon? My first-grader is “de-coding” nicely, which means he can read. I met a guy once who taught middle-school math in Prince George’s County, and he shared with me his absolute favorite bit of academic-speak: When he used dice in the classroom to teach lessons about probability, he said, he was told to refer to them as “random number generators.”)

Well, gotta run and tell my broker to get me into cornbread futures. The week has flown by. Be well.