Category Archives: Biography

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

Lessons from the Life of Nelson Mandela

By Johna Till Johnson

Nelson Mandela

“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right” — Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is dead.

It’s hard to believe—not that he’s dead, but that it happened today.

His life was so epic, so mythic, that it’s hard to believe he was actually alive in our time. He has always seemed to me to be one of the heroes of yore, the kind that doesn’t live any more in these diminished times.

And although I know shamefully little about South African politics or history, I’ve always been captivated by one part of his story: that he spent 27 years in prison—a significant chunk of his life sentence—before not only being set free, but becoming President of South Africa.

I often try to imagine that: being sentenced to life in prison, and actually spending 27 years, a lifetime by itself, imprisoned under brutal conditions.

How do you keep believing in yourself, your cause, and in the possibility of having some kind of impact on the outside world? What keeps you from just giving up, as year after year goes by, with no hope, or reason to hope?

Only Nelson Mandela knew the true answer, and now he’s gone. But as I try to imagine it, here’s what I imagine:

–That after the first shock of the realization settles in, you recognize that although you can’t control your circumstances, you can control your response to them. (And really, that’s no less true in the outside world—we think we have control over circumstances, but how much of your day do you actually spend reacting to them, rather than creating them?)

–That you never give up hope that the dream itself will exist one day, whether or not you are there to see it. And you take faith and nourishment from that dream, and from your ability to believe in it.

–That you remind yourself constantly that your adversaries are humans, too, and seek a genuine connection with them. (Mandela learned Afrikaans in prison, and ultimately succeeded in making friends with the guards.)

–That you refuse to let your failures define you. By then, Mandela had failed many times in his life—he didn’t pass his law examinations, his first marriage ended because of his unfaithfulness, and the fact of being imprisoned (no matter how unjustly) had to have felt like a failure. But none of those defined him. What defined him was his belief in the dream.

These are all easy to write, and inspirational to think about.

But living them—day by day, hour by hour, moment my moment—must have been difficult.

Each moment he had to have made up his mind to resist hopelessness and embrace the dream, to work passionately towards his goals while detaching himself from the desire to be present when they were achieved.

And do all that not once, or twice, but over and over again—there are a lot of moments in 27 years. That takes not just inspiration, but persistence (stubbornness, if you will) and consistency.

There are many lessons here, but this is the lesson I take away from the life of Nelson Mandela: The way to survive, and triumph, is not just to believe in your dreams, but to work doggedly, persistently, with a strong heart, towards achieving them. Day by day. Moment by moment. And focus not on your failures, but upon your efforts.

RIP Nelson Mandela.

And thank you.

Happy Birthday, Colette!

By Johna Till Johnson 

Freshly Pressed on the WordPress.com home page!

You probably knew this, but January 28th is the 140th birthday of the French writer Colette.

Colette, in costume

Colette, in costume…

Okay, you probably didn’t know that. You might not even remember who Colette is, though chances are, you’re familiar with at least one of her works.

And you’re probably wondering why you should care about her birthday, or her.

Let me take a step back. This year,  Vlad and I have adopted a new tradition: We’ve selected a pantheon of personal heroes, and heroines—people whose spirits and lives matter to us—and are making a conscious effort to celebrate their birthdays.

Colette’s is the first, but there will be plenty of others.

So why did we select her?

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