Category Archives: Biography

All men shall be sailors…

Sailing and freedom

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

“All men shall be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them…” — Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

I’ve been listening to a lot of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen lately. I’m not alone in this; he’s experiencing an (in my mind deserved) groundswell of popularity in the 14 months since he died.

His themes are universal and serious: the inevitability of loss, imperfectability of human nature, the ephemeral transcendence of love.

His fundamental stance is religious, but while it’s rooted in his native Jewish tradition (he remained devout all his life), it draws from a broad set of perspectives, with a pragmatic bent. He once told the New Yorker:  “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works.”

He wasn’t joking. Over the years, he studied Scientology, became an ordained Buddhist monk, and studied at an Indian ashram—along with pursuing various intoxicants (from acid to alcohol) and ascetic practices (particularly fasting). His goal was less the abstract pursuit of enlightenment than to ameliorate the bouts of depression that struck him throughout much of his life.

Sylvie Simmons wrote a wonderful biography of Cohen in 2012, “I’m Your Man,” One of the interesting paradoxes of Cohen’s life is that although he was deeply embedded in the contemporary cultural matrix  to a degree that’s almost Zelig-like, his essential formality was fundamentally out of step with the “anything goes” ethos of the times.

The Jewish magazine Forward has an insightful obituary that highlights this: “The “absence of the casual” may well be one of the singular characteristics setting Cohen’s work apart from his so-called contemporaries,” writes Seth Rogovoy.

And it paid off in the long run—Cohen is one of the rare artists who pursued his craft with intensity and diligence all his life, and  peaked as a performer in his 70s.

In a surprising twist that serves as a hopeful beacon to us late bloomers, after his business manager embezzled his money and left him broke early in the 2000s, he decided to go on tour to support his ex-wife and children. Although he had previously hated performing, he put together a stellar backup band and collaborated with them to develop innovative arrangements of his work.

The result was almost a decade of some of the best live performances in popular music history (you can find many of them in YouTube). Cohen not only accomplished his goal of earning back a fortune, he left a shining legacy that touches millions.

That “absence of the casual” is perhaps the most appropriate response to the inevitable tragedies of life, which may be one of the reasons Cohen’s work is experiencing a renaissance.

The lines above (“until the sea shall free them”) particularly resonated with me because the sea has always been associated in my mind with freedom. Towards the end of his life, my father (who was a naval officer)  turned to me and said, “The open ocean is closer than they led us to believe.”

He was referring, of course, to his imminent death, but what struck me was that he associated it with the open ocean—and freedom.

 

 

All Roads Lead Home

Wooden house in North Carolina

By Johna Till Johnson

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong…
—John Denver

It was almost as if my apps were in collusion to bring me home.

It started when I turned on the Pandora station in the car last spring.

The trip ahead was long: 1200 miles, from New York to Florida, where I hoped to pick up my boat and spend a few days camping and paddling. Music would keep me from getting bored.

The Pandora algorithm isn’t complex—in fact, I could probably write the code myself. The app starts by playing the music you’ve asked for (a particular artist or genre). Then for maybe 10% of the songs, it gradually inserts other artists that are “sort of like” the artist you selected. As you indicate your likes and dislikes of the material by clicking the thumbs up/thumbs down button, it adjusts the selection it plays.

So after a while, the station reflects your favorites.

I’d expected that.

What I hadn’t expected was the way the algorithm had mixed favorites from all different times of my life, creating a kaleidoscope of memories as I drove.

While the endless gray-and-green strips of landscape unfurled outside the car, references and long-forgotten images flashed through my brain.

There was the song I played repeatedly when I went out running on the hot autumn nights in Texas when my father lay dying.

Then there was the song I associated with falling in love with Vlad. And the song that comforted me in the shattered weeks after his death.

But there were songs from earlier times, as well.

Songs from the time, years past, that I played on the car radio during my late-night and early-morning commute between New York and Connecticut to my job as a hotshot technology executive at an engineering company…

Songs from my arrival in New York, years earlier, with ripped jeans and a meager budget, in the time when I still skateboarded in Union Square, and a female skateboarder was still a novelty: “Look! It’s a chick skater!” someone yelled once…

And songs from the years before that, in Florida. As the wife of a young professor, a freelance writer, and a new homeowner, I lived out a kind of delayed adolescence, hanging out with a group of bright underachieving perennial undergraduates at punk clubs and science fiction conventions…

There were the songs I listened to at those clubs, and also the songs I played on my headphones in those years as I ran, lithe and tan, near my house on the trail through the green-and-grey Florida woods (since paved over for a shopping mall).

And farther back still, during my college and graduate school years, the songs I listened to on an aging boom box, songs that were simultaneously upbeat and cynical, or preternaturally moody and depressed.

Yes, I was prepared for the mix of favorites—but I wasn’t quite prepared for the memories they’d summon.

And it wasn’t just Pandora. Google Maps appeared to be in on the plot, because for some reason, it  ingeniously routed me past nearly every place I’d ever lived in the continental US.

Yes, it helps that many of the places I’d lived were along the I-95 corridor.  But Google went out of its way to take me right by former homes.  Instead of zooming down the relatively straight line between Baltimore (where I’d lived for my college years) and Richmond, for instance, it took me on the spur towards Annapolis, where I’d lived between the years of eight and 11.

And then past the suburban Maryland enclave, where a few years later, I’d spent time as a surly, sullen adolescent. (Apparently my parents didn’t understand me. What a surprise! )

There was also the Virginia suburb where I lived as a very young child, and the exit where my then-husband and I had lived for one of the summers he worked at NASA.

Over the hours, I realized again and again how many places I called “home”.

It got to be almost a joke: I’d get out of the car somewhere—say the rest stop just outside Baltimore where I’d stopped on trips to, from, and past that city—breathe deeply, and say out loud: “I’m home!”

And I really meant it. I was home. These were all the places I’d lived, to which my memories were attached.

Those of us—like me and like Vlad—who have lived in many places don’t have the same experience of those who have grown up in a single place, imbued and invested with all our emotions and memories.

Yes, Vlad spoke of his home in Prague—which I visited (sadly, solo) the year before his death.

But he’d left there at the age of ten, and between then and when I’d met him in New York, “home” for him had been Libya, Iraq, Scotland, London, Heidelberg, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

Just as for me there had been California, South Carolina, Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland, Rochester, New Jersey, Florida, and New York City—not to mention Norway and Italy.

I can close my eyes and summon all the “homes” where I’ve lived: The garden in Naples. The terrace in Rome. The dark trees by the house in Oslo. The majestic four-story white house on the grounds of the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

And on this trip, it seemed like the Universe was working to visit almost all of them, through memory and proximity.

The place I was traveling to—St Petersburg, Florida—was also home. Although I’ve never lived there, one of my boats now does. And it had served as the center of my kayaking existence outside New York for nearly a decade.

It was there that, much to my surprise, I managed to pass the challenging British Canoe Union (BCU) test to become a three-star paddler, as part of the Sweetwater Kayak symposium.

And it was there that served as the launch point for the Everglades Challenge Vlad and I completed in 2014, and for which we conducted multiple “shakedown” (practice) trips. Not by pure coincidence, it was also there that my company had elected to hold its annual conference for the past several years.
So when I arrived at long last at Fort De Soto campground, I stepped out of the car, took a deep breath and said (once again): “Ahh. I’m home!”

And then I had to smile at the number of times I’d said that on this trip.

Immortal Beauty

By Johna Till Johnson

Maria Radner

Maria Radner, 1981-Eternity

Among the victims of Germanwings Flight 9525 was Maria Radner, a German opera singer. She was a 33-year old contralto who specialized in Wagner.  I hadn’t heard of her before—no surprise since I’m new to opera, and have yet to warm to Wagner’s music.

But a commentator on one of the news stories posted the video below. Maria Radner sings “Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”) from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection Symphony.

It’s just under five minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite so lovely. Looking into her serene blue-gray eyes and insouciant half smile, and listening to that soaring voice, all I can think of is that although a deranged man was able to take away her life, the beauty she brought into this world is immortal.

The lyrics translate as follows:

I am from God and want to return to God!
The loving God will give me a little of the light,
will illuminate me into the eternal blessed life!

She got that wish.

I only wish that it hadn’t happened quite so soon.

The Power of Art

By Johna Till Johnson

Washington Square Park 1

It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother. In the margin of the letter, he scribbled a quick sketch of what was so beautiful: a streetlamp at twilight.

I’ve never considered myself much of an artist. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to say I don’t understand the artistic impulse: I don’t know where it comes from, or how artists know what to create, even though I respect and admire the life-changing power of art.

But one of my favorite explanations is from a book written in 1938: “Art is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something… in a direct, simple, passionate, and true way you try to show this beauty in things to others.”

That’s exactly what I felt walking home through Washington Square Park a few nights ago. As twilight fell, and the streetlights cast their rosy glow over the snow, the quote above popped into my head. It was so beautiful I had to share it. With Vlad’s editing assistance, I was able to capture and convey some of the magic.

Washington Square Park 2

That unexpected surge of artistic sentiment made me remember how much I loved the book, and its author. The book is If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland.

When I first read it, many years ago, I found it inspirational, but a bit cloying. I have to admit that my perception was colored by “time bias”—that sneaking suspicion that everything in the past was quainter and less sophisticated than today. I mean, 1938? They didn’t even have iPhones! What could someone from that distant era have to say that’s meaningful about art in the 21st century?

Washington Square Park 3

And I’ll also admit that I found the persona of the author a bit, well, twee: A little-old-lady writing teacher out in Minnesota. (Never mind that in 1938 she was a vibrant and passionate woman of 47—the photo on the book jacket was a spry, but wizened lady in 1983, so that’s how I imagined her.)

Really, weren’t all women in 1938 conventional, domestic, and limited? Not the sort of person who truly understood the bold, transformative, and terrifying power of art.

Boy, did I get that wrong! If anyone understood life, and art, it was Brenda Ueland. She lived in Greenwhich Village for many years, married, divorced (back when one “didn’t do that”), and moved back to Minnesota to raise her daughter. She supported them both with her writing, which included journalism and essays. As her Wikipedia entry says, “She lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to.”

She was a paragon of physical fitness: well into what people would call her old age, she was turning handstands, climbing mountains, and swimming long distances. (And as for that “out in Minnesota”—it’s not only intellectually vibrant but physically challenging. )

Ueland’s personal life was bold and unconventional as well. The Wikipedia entry politely notes: “By her own account, Ueland had many lovers.”

That doesn’t even begin to tell the half of it. The love of her life was Norwegian adventurer and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen, with whom she had a passionate affair in the late 1920s.

Brenda, My DarlingThe affair came to light a few years back when Eric Utne (her grandson and the founder of the Utne Reader) published Nansen’s letters to Ueland in the form of a book called Brenda My Darling. Her letters to him have been lost, but his to her were surprisingly poetic.

Nansen writes:

“Here from my window in my tower, I see the maidenly birches in their bridal veils against the dark pine wood — there is nothing like the birch in the spring. I do not exactly know why, but it is like you, to me you have the same maidenliness – and the sun is laughing, and the fjord out there is glittering, and existence is beauty!”

And that’s not all. He also sent his maiden several tasteful, but explicit, nude photographs of himself. The photographs turned the book into a minor sensation, with some—including Utne himself—questioning the decision to publish them.  The deciding opinion, as Utne relates, was the Norwegian publisher of the book, Ole Rikard Høisæther, who wrote to him that “Norwegians insist on the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

That book thoroughly exploded any delusions I’d held. Ueland was clearly no quaint, conventional lady writer—she was a strong, powerful artist in her own right. And forget the notion that age necessarily means decrepitude—Nansen was one hot guy even in his late 60s!

Moreover, though he was known for exploration and adventure, that same sentiment enabled him to write beautifully. My takeaway from all this: Art is powerful and inspiring. Showing the beauty in things can be transformative.

And as I’ve written before, there’s a strong connection between the desire to explore and the artistic sentiment: Both have life-changing power—both for the artist/explorer, and for everyone who encounters their work.

That power is available to all of us, if we only stop and listen to that inner voice calling out: “It’s so beautiful that I must show you how it looks.”

Two MacArthur Geniuses

By Johna Till Johnson

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the MacArthur Genius awards. The name alone annoys me, because it’s simultaneously elitist and undefined.  What makes artist X a “genius” while her peers are merely “talented”? And how can we be sure that out of all the talented people in the universe, the committee has miraculously selected the 12, or 20, that are talented enough to be considered geniuses?

But I do like the notion of awarding creative people a big chunk of change—this year, it was $625,000 over a period of five years—with no constraints. And I also think it’s cool that the awards are so broad-ranging. They go to poets, activists, artists, musicians… and even the occasional scientist, mathematician, or engineer.

Which brings me to this year’s awards. I was overjoyed to see the award given to two people in particular.  One was Craig Gentry, a cryptography researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson research center, who’s done groundbreaking work in the area of homomorphic encryption.

Craig Gentry

Craig Gentry

Homomorphic encryption is, in some respects, the holy grail of encryption, because it enables machines to process encrypted data without ever decrypting it. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider: Today, if your email is stored on Google’s servers, it’s fully accessible to Google (which has been known to turn it over to the NSA).

It’s fully accessible because you need Google to do useful things for you (like sort the mail into folders). With homomorphic encryption, you could keep your mail entirely encrypted without giving up any of the functionality (such as folder-sorting). But Google would have no idea what you named your folders, or what was in your email—and the NSA couldn’t read it, either.

Now imagine that instead of ordinary email, we’re talking about medical or financial records—and you can see the benefit.

The issue at the moment is that the computational horsepower required to make homomorphic encryption is immense, so only starting to become practical in real-world applications. But Craig was among the first to show it was theoretically possible. And he did it incredibly elegantly, using a Zeno’s-paradox-like approach that started with “somewhat homomorphic” encryption that iteratively refined itself to become “fully homomorphic”.

And there’s one other thing I like about Craig: He writes really, really well. His Stanford University PhD thesis, which you can find here, is a joy to read. I don’t mind ploughing through dense scientific papers—but I really appreciate it when someone writes gracefully and well.

Yitang Zhang

Yitang Zhang

Another one of this year’s “geniuses” is Yitang Zhang, who is a number theorist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Yitang (who I’ve read goes by “Tom”) recently proved the “bounded gaps” conjecture about prime numbers.

Slate’s Jordan Ellenberg (who’s a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin) does a much better job explaining what this is and why it matters than I could do. I urge you to read his writeup here.

Suffice it to say that Tom cracked a really, really hard problem in one of the most demanding areas of mathematics. And he’s apparently a really nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, as described in this University of New Hampshire Magazine article.

But that’s not all: Tom is 57—and has done much of his most creative work in the past 10 years (ie from his late 40s onwards).

Mathematics is a field as notorious as gymnastics or ballet for having a youthful peak–the joke among mathematicians is that anyone over 30 is washed up. Gauss, one of the most famous mathematicians ever, did his most significant work by the age of 22—a fact pointed out by my overly gleeful number theory professor when I was 21 or so.

So it’s great to see someone not only doing great things, but doing them at the relatively “advanced” age of 57.

I’m sure the other 19 MacArthur Fellows have done equally great work in their fields. But seeing the awards go to these two made me happy—and I wanted to share my joy with you!

Halsey: The Unstoppable

By Johna Till Johnson

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Admiral Halsey in a WWII poster (from Naval History & Heritage Command)

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There are no extraordinary men, just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.

—Admiral William (“Bull”) Frederick Halsey, Jr.

This sketch is one of several inspired by the book, The Admirals: The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea, by Walter R. Borneman. It’s about Admirals Halsey, Nimitz, King, and Leahy, each of whom played critical roles in World War II, and were the only admirals to earn five stars in all of American history. (For the other sketches in the series, see Triptych: Three Admirals.)

More than that, the book is about leadership, character, and how a flawed individual can rise to greatness—not in spite of, but often even precisely because of, those flaws.

Halsey was a pugnacious fighter, wisecracking and hotheaded, whose passion was winning the game (or battle). His courage and determination helped re-energize and inspire a Navy demoralized and depleted by the hideous surprise of Pearl Harbor. Yet his appetite for the fight paradoxically cost him participation in some of the defining battles of the Pacific, and could have cost the war. But anything he did, he did wholeheartedly—and there was never any question of stopping him.

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Triptych: Three Admirals

By Johna Till Johnson

Sailors preparing for the funeral

Sailors preparing for the funeral, May 2014 (photo provided by Steve Hannifin)

Medicine, the ministry, and the military. Those were the “three Ms” that—according to my mother—defined the callings of our family, dating back to before the American Revolution. Each is characterized by a commitment to a greater good than self, or even family: Healing, God, country.

That sense of commitment is likely one reason my mother came to marry my father, a naval officer, and it permeated my life growing up.

When we uprooted ourselves to move across the country or around the world for the fifth (or the seventeenth) time, it wasn’t for personal gain. It was because the Navy needed us there to protect our country. That’s what my parents said, and that’s what we believed. When our country called, we came—particularly my father, who spent years underwater in a nuclear submarine.

Some day I’ll write about my father. But meantime, this is enough to explain how I came to spend a recent Friday in Annapolis, at the Naval Academy cemetery, where the ashes of my father’s former commanding officer, Vice Admiral Patrick J. Hannifin, were laid to rest.

It was an uncharacteristically gray, cold, and drizzly day in late spring. I’d gotten up at 3:30 AM to make the four-hour drive to Annapolis. I arrived an hour and a half early, giving me plenty of time to think, and to remember.

As I sat in the white marble open-air “columbarium” overlooking the gray-green water of College Creek, the memories came flooding back. I’d spent three years living on the Naval Academy grounds from ages 8 to 11, while my father was head of the division of Math and Science.

Like many children, I was oblivious to the weight of history. To me, the Academy was a delightful, safe, and well-tended park. I never thought about the fact that the green torpedoes I loved to play on (just the size for an 8-year-old to ride!) were taken from Japan during World War II. Or that I practiced gymnastics, fencing, and swimming in MacDonough Hall (named after a remote ancestor on my mother’s side, Admiral Thomas MacDonough). Though from time to time I passed by Nimitz Library, the Halsey Field House, and the King Hall dining facility, these were all just names to me.

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Nimitz Library from the air (photo by United States Naval Academy)

Even this May, as I looked out at the flowing water and the campus beyond, I didn’t think about history. I thought about my father, who died in 2008. I thought about Admiral Hannifin. I thought about all the men I’d known who shared my father’s commitment—and what they had exemplified as leaders, and as human beings.

The AdmiralsMaybe that’s why, walking through an airport on a business trip a few days later, I was inspired to pick up a book called “The Admirals”, by Walter R. Borneman.

It’s subtitled, “The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea”, which pretty much says it all. It’s about Admirals Nimitz, Halsey, King, and Leahy, each of whom played critical roles in World War II (and who were the only admirals to earn five stars in all of American history).

The book is fantastic. It’s about more than just the people, or the events. It’s about leadership. And it’s about character, and how a flawed individual can rise to greatness—not in spite of, but often even precisely because of, those flaws.

Of the four men profiled by Borneman, three really resonated with me: Nimitz, Halsey, and King.

Nimitz was even-tempered and genial, a consummate engineer who threw himself into every project that was handed to him, and whose supreme satisfaction was a job well done. Halsey was a pugnacious fighter, wisecracking and hotheaded, whose passion was winning the game (or battle). And King was a brilliant careerist, convinced (usually correctly) that he was smarter than anyone else, and determined to win the accolades to which he felt entitled.

Their individual responses to learning of the war’s end sum each up perfectly. In each case, an aide burst into the Admiral’s office with the news that the goal of four years’ uncompromising and exhausting effort had been achieved: the Japanese had surrendered unconditionally.

Halsey’s response was to leap to his feet and begin pounding the aide’s shoulders in joy.

King reportedly looked stricken, and said, “But what am I going to do now?”

And Nimitz? He said nothing, just allowed himself a small, perfectly satisfied smile.

In three following posts, I will post a short sketch of each of these unique leaders, drawn largely from Borneman’s book (which again, I highly recommend) with some additional research:

Halsey: The Unstoppable
Nimitz: The Unflappable
King: The Impossible