Archive for May 17, 2009

The Grant Study

May 17, 2009 Leave a comment
George Vaillant

George Vaillant

In a post three days ago, I made reference to an article by Joshua Wolf Shenk in the new June issue of The Atlantic, but didn’t focus on the content of the article, intending to come back to it in a separate post. Let me do so briefly here. If you haven’t seen the article, you may have read about it in David Brooks’ column earlier in the week in the NYT.

Shenk’s article describes the famous longitudinal study of the lives and health of over 200 men that began when they were students at Harvard in the late 1930s and continues to this day. Officially called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, it was begun by Arlie Bock, a doctor at Harvard’s health services, with funding by W.T. Grant. The study has evolved over the decades, as the article details, and it has been shaped most significantly by George Vaillant, the doctor who ran the study for decades and has written and lectured on it extensively.

Vaillant is still involved in the study as co-director, but it is largely run now by fellow co-director Robert Waldinger, who happens to be a college classmate of mine. I had the good fortune at our 35th reunion last June to hear Bob talk about the study as part of a panel of doctors in the class who are experts on various aspects of aging. (The topic was “How to Age Gracefully to 100.”) As well as having their health monitored regularly, the men respond to questionnaires and have extensive in-person oral interviews every few years. The picture that emerges is rich, complex, and endlessly fascinating, and the Atlantic article, in its short space, gives a good sense of this richness. The men have had all imaginable levels of success and failure in their careers and personal lives. More to the point, they have typically experienced both. How they look back on this as they age is yet another facet of life that the study has begun to illuminate.

The article interweaves a discussion of the study, Vaillant’s thoughts on it, and Vaillant’s own life with glimpses at the lives of some of the study participants, leaving one wanting to know more. Here’s one excerpt, which may be a bit over-stated, but does give a taste of the issues raised by the study.

Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way? At times, Vaillant wears his lab coat and lays out his findings matter-of-factly. (“As a means of uncovering truth,” he wrote in Adaptation to Life, “the experimental method is superior to intuition.”) More often, he speaks from a literary and philosophical perspective. (In the same chapter, he wrote of the men, “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.) In one of my early conversations with him, he described the study files as hundreds of Brothers Karamazovs. Later, after taking a stab at answering several Big Questions I had asked him—Do people change? What does the study teach us about the good life?—he said to me, “Why don’t you tell me when you have time to come up to Boston and read one of these Russian novels?”

Indeed, the lives themselves—dramatic, pathetic, inspiring, exhausting—resonate on a frequency that no data set could tune to. … Secrets come out. One man did not acknowledge to himself until he reached his late 70s that he was gay. With this level of intimacy and depth, the lives do become worthy of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.

Categories: Life

Holy War

May 17, 2009 Leave a comment


GQ has a feature article by Robert Draper about Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq War that I’m only part way through, but that is worth a look. (I was tipped off to it by several bloggers, including in particular hilzoy here and here.) The most notable item so far is Rumsfeld’s use of cover sheets with Biblical quotes in the daily briefings on the war provided to George Bush. One example is above.

From Draper’s article:
Read more…

Categories: Government, Politics, Religion

Thanks Hillary

May 17, 2009 Leave a comment


The State Department appears to be operating efficiently. Gail’s passport was due to expire this week, mine next month. Our plan was to renew them once Gail returned from Scotland in early April, but weeks later, our expiring passports were still in the house. So a week ago Friday we took the time to get new passport photos, fill out the forms, and mail in our passport applications.

I don’t like being without my passport for long, even if I have no specific travel plans. You never know when you might need it. And in my case, with my sister and her family in France, it’s good to know I can just get on a plane and go there if I need to. We therefore chose the expedited renewal option. The passport renewal is $75. The expediting fee is an additional $60. The guidelines are that normal renewal takes six weeks, where as expedited renewal takes three. It’s also recommended that you do next day mail delivery in sending the application to the address in Philadelphia, along with writing a check for $14.85 to cover next day return delivery. That’s what we did.

It all went out two Fridays ago and arrived in Philadelphia last Monday. The checks were cashed that very day, a good sign. And two days ago, Friday, exactly one week after we sent everything in, our new passports arrived. One week exactly. Pretty impressive.

The new passports look like the one above. The symbol near the bottom of the front cover is the Electronic Passport Logo. We received pamphlets explaining the Electronic Passport Security Features. Each “passport contains a small integrated circuit (or ‘chip’) that conforms to the latest international passport standards. This Electronic passport provides: Automated photo verification; Faster & more accurate immigration inspections; and Greater border Protection and Security.” The passport won’t need to be swiped. Instead, the information “can be read by special chip readers from a close distance.” And best of all, we can “[p]roceed to the special immigration lanes displaying the Electronic Passport Logo to be assured of the fastest and most efficient processing.”

Our first opportunity to use the new passports will be next month, when we head to Vancouver just before Father’s Day. I don’t imagine there are special Electronic Passport Logo lanes on I-5 at the border crossing in Blaine. We won’t get to test that feature for a while.

By the way, it’s a bit disappointing to realize how little I used my last passport. I got it in June 1999, having somehow let the previous one expire two years earlier. Gail, Joel, and I all got new passports then in preparation for our trip to Scotland and France in August. Then in 2004 we went back to Scotland, with a short stop in London on the way back. Other than multiple trips to Canada, that may be about it. The new passport is sure to see a lot more action.

Categories: Government, Travel