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Einstein on the Porch

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I wanted to leave as soon as I got there. Maybe it was the darkness in every room, where shellacked pine comprised floor, walls, and ceiling. Maybe it was the balding stuffed deer and muskrat. Or maybe it was because this wasn’t part of the plan, and I had really liked the plan.

It was a simple one: drive to Lower Saranac Lake in New York, get a friend’s motorboat from its slip, and settle in to an island campsite in time to enjoy sunset and a rib eye steak.

But we didn’t have a reservation, and the warden was deaf to our sweet-talking. One in our group knew a family staying over in Shingle Bay, so we motored over. Twenty minutes later, we were official (albeit accidental) houseguests in Cottage 4 at the Knollwood Camp, friends of a friend of a son who wasn’t even there.

Knollwood is one of the Adirondack Great Camps, built at the turn of the century by wealthy New York Jews who were excluded from the resort communities springing up in Saratoga Springs and Lake Placid. The architect William L. Coulter conceived of the compound in 1899 for a group of six friends and their families, among them Louis Marshall and Daniel Guggenheim. He put a massive, two-story boathouse on the water and set six Victorian-gone-rustic homes into the wooded slope overlooking the bay. The cottages are identical except for the design of their twig-work facades; the one on Cottage 4 is made of concentric diamonds.

We entered at the back of the house, into a small kitchen that had once been the domain of a few live-in servants. There we met our hosts and fellow guests—doctors, their wives, a lone physicist—all friends from way back.

During hors d’oeuvres on the porch, someone mentioned that Albert Einstein had been a frequent guest here at Knollwood. A great sailor, apparently, but he couldn’t swim. In the summer of ’41, the scientist capsized his boat and was saved from drowning by a 10-year-old who had been putzing around in a boat of his own.

Einstein was here, in fact, on August 6, 1945, the day that the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I realized that it was August 7, 2010. Sixty-five years ago yesterday, Einstein might have been sitting on this porch, smoking his pipe, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the event and weigh his own complicity in it. He had not been directly involved with the Manhattan Project, but he had spurred its creation when, in 1939, he helped persuade President Roosevelt to enter into an arms race with Germany. And he had given the world that beautiful and terrible equation, E = mc2.

The great physicist gave his first interview following Hiroshima here at Knollwood. “Atomic power is no more unnatural,” he told Richard Lewis from the Albany Times Union,  “than when I sail my boat on Saranac Lake.” By the time the article ran on August 12, the second bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki.

Much later that night, as I was trying to fall asleep in the old servants’ quarters on the top floor, the door swung open and banged against the wall. No one was there. A buzzing sound crackled out of the outlets in the room, and in the bathroom down the hall something creaked, or fell over.  Terrified, I took my sleeping bag down to the second-floor porch.

There, beneath a luminous Milky Way, I thought about Einstein again. Years after the end of the war, he would say that convincing FDR to develop the Bomb was the “one great mistake” in his life. Perhaps he decided this right away. Or maybe he just lay on the second-floor porch, looking up at the stars, knowing that something had happened that wasn’t part of the plan.


Banished to Paradise

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

A trip home reunites a student with her brother—and the country that sent him away.

The end of the dry season always brought scorching heat to the Maldives. In the capital city Malé’s southwest harbor, sleek fiberglass boats shimmered in the hazy heat, their outboard engines hanging from their sterns into the dirty waters. A small skiff passed between the rows of boats, carrying two full dustbins and a man wielding a hoop net. He was scooping up yet more plastic from the water. I stood in the meager shade of a stunted hirundhu tree, waiting to board the ferry that would take my brother Aiman and me to Goidhoo, an island located roughly 60 miles northwest of Malé.

As Aiman drove up on his enormous Pulsar motorbike, I heard passengers on the pavement muttering, “Is that Aiman?” Aiman was thin, fair-skinned, and had a mop of curls arranged strategically to hide his bald spot. His bike was more suited for a long highway than Malé’s packed streets and looked out of place among the smaller, tamer Wave scooters that most people in the city owned.

Three years had passed since Aiman returned from his banishment to Goidhoo. In 2007, when he was 20, he had been sentenced to a year on the island for having a child out of wedlock. Aiman’s girlfriend, June, who later became his wife, was confined to house arrest in Malé. It was a difficult time; my parents refused to even talk to him because of the shame he had brought on the family. I was eager to go to Goidhoo and meet the family that had taken my brother in and cared for him when his own blood shunned him.

He shook more than a dozen hands and called out hellos to many others as he walked over to me.

“Where’s Inni?” I asked, enquiring after his four-year-old daughter.

“She’s very angry with me for not bringing her along,” he said.

“Well, why didn’t you?”

“June was afraid of stigma . . . what people might say about Inni,” he said, the faint lines around his eyes deepening for a few seconds. I followed Aiman onto the ferry. Nearly 40 people crowded onto the small speedboat. Aiman sat across the aisle from me and plugged in his earphones.

A salty breeze blew through the large windows as the boat picked its way through the lagoon, careful not to get its propellers caught in the mooring lines strewn across the harbor. As we passed through the harbor’s mouth, the engines sped up, the powerful propellers churning a white frothy path through the deep, blue ocean. The wind whipped my hair into my face and droplets of spray landed on my arm. Malé’s concrete skyline diminished steadily on the horizon. The ferry sped past Malé atoll’s luxurious tourist resorts. The small islands were dwarfed by their colonies of thatch-roofed water bungalows, fanned out in the turquoise lagoons. In the interior of the atoll ring, protected from the deep sea, the water was smooth and glassy, its blue surface disturbed only by flying fish.

Three days earlier, I had met Adam Saeed, a former criminal court judge. I was interested in the history of banishment in the Maldives. Saeed had served as a judge for 22 years. He told me that the legal system, based on a combination of common law and Islamic Shari’a, gave judges wide discretion in conferring punishment. Regardless of the crime, a judge could sentence offenders to jail, banishment, house arrest, or impose a fine. Judges often preferred banishment to imprisonment, especially in cases of child sexual-abuse and fornication. Even over the past decade, banishment consistently made up over 20 percent of sentence types.

“To be banished means to live in a community that is not yours, without the freedom to leave,” he said. “The government designated certain communities for banishment. They were small, isolated communities that are far from internal trade routes.” Exiles were expected to fend for themselves in the communities they were sent to.

“Now Goidhoo—that was the island people were banished to. It is large, out of the way, but still quite close to Malé,” Saeed said.

Until the advent of modern telecommunications and travel, Maldives’s geographical fragmentation had made banishment an effective punishment. The country lay on an underwater mountain range called the Laccadive-Chagos Ridge, off the west coast of India. Its 1,190 islands, grouped inside 26 ring-shaped reefs called atolls, are strewn from north to south over 500 miles in the Indian Ocean. The atolls are separated from each other by deep narrow channels. Traveling from island to island even within one atoll can be perilous, due to treacherous reefs, numerous sandbanks, rock outcroppings, and strong currents.

The popularity of banishment started declining only in 2006. Until then, the number of people banished was far greater than the number of people jailed. That year, for the first time, the number of people banished started to decline in relation to jailed prisoners. “Communities just wouldn’t accept criminals,” Saeed said. “They lived in fear. Could not sleep for fear of theft, boats were no longer safe in the harbors.” When communities refused to care for exiles, some exiles spent weeks on the beach, starving, unable to find work or a family to take them in.

Saeed also said a huge public outcry had ensued in 2007 over the growing numbers of reported child-abuse cases. The public started demanding a harsher punishment than banishment for sex offenders. Goidhoo was among one of the first islands that brought the issue of child-abuse to national attention. “In the majority of cases, sex offenders repeat their actions in the communities they are banished to. Now they are jailed instead of being banished,” he said.

Nevertheless, Saeed believes banishment was a good practice, especially in minor crimes. “Also in some cases, when educated people are banished, they have brought positive changes to the communities. These types of people are not criminals. They are people who make mistakes.”


This Man Has Created A Monster

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Dexter came to Jeffry Lindsay ’75 at a Kiwanis luncheon in South Florida, not far from where the crime novelist lives and writes. Lindsay was sitting at the head table, preparing his remarks, facing a room filled with real estate brokers, car salesmen, ambulance chasers, and bail bondsmen. “And they’re talking and shaking hands—totally phony, annoying behavior—talking with food in their mouths, la la la la, handing out their business cards, and the idea just popped into my head that serial murder was not always a bad idea.” He began to scribble on his napkin, profiling such a character. “Now what if there were a guy like that? He killed only really bad people.”

In the months that followed, Lindsay amassed a gruesome library of books on sociopaths, murderers, and the G-men who hunt them. He interviewed psychologists and crime scene investigators. Cop friends turned him loose in the dead-files room, so he could pore over reports and photos, “the ultraviolent, horrible stuff. If you look at missing-persons statistics,” he said recently, “and if you put the numbers together, it seems possible that there’s an awful lot of very happy, very clever serial killers out there, too smart to get caught, just going about their lives. When the mood takes over, they go out and biff somebody.”

Out of Lindsay’s macabre research emerged Dexter Morgan: a fussy, neurotic forensic blood-spatter-pattern analyst for the Miami Police Department who moonlights as a serial killer with a lusty knife. Crime fighter by day and crime doer by night, Dexter suffers through the nine-to-five and departmental infighting while gleefully delimbing child molesters and trailer-park lowlifes in his free time. Can psychopathy possibly be endearing?

**

Miami is an essentially weird place. Artifice and grit are in constant competition. Luxury condo skyscrapers, scrubbed to the brilliant white of cruise ships, stretch like sails along the beach; their aquamarine windows flash high above the street’s barred shops, where you can turn your gold into cash, style your hair, and buy discount shoes, all at the same address. Cuban cafés sell medianoches—ham, cheese, pickle, and mustard, smashed and grilled on cheap egg-bread—and Dominican beer at any hour. When I arrived for a visit in April, I landed in a thick rainstorm, but a cheery recording on the airport shuttle wished me a “sun-sational” vacation anyway; pulling away from the curb, the driver ran over an abandoned Smarte Carte, a fair introduction to Miami driving.

Not far away, the home where Jeffry Lindsay and his wife, Hilary Hemingway, raise three daughters sits among a maze of cul-de-sacs, in a sleepy suburb awash with beach pastels. Lawn grass makes a valiant attempt against the sandy soil. Pelicans come in low over the terracotta roofs. Retirees in Bermuda shorts stop to chat at the mailbox. Riot-haired Lindsay, his chest like a keg and voice a sonorous baritone, greeted me in the driveway. “You’d better be Kevin, or I’m going to get the shotgun.”

Just inside the front door, the living room’s deep shadows offered welcome sanctuary from the summer’s enduring heat. Napoleon, a cursing cockatiel who’s vocabulary also includes the Lord’s Prayer, perched in his cage, while a miniature poodle and three remarkably fat cats lounged out back by the pool. A pink-handled BB gun and more serious firearms occupied the corner. On the wall were mounted the sword from a swordfish, a stuffed buck head wearing sunglasses, and—hanging among dozens of Hemingway and Lindsay family snapshots—a photo of the Dexter from the television program Dexter, with drops of blood and a grin on his face. “He’s part of the family now,” Lindsay said.

“When you spend seven or eight years with this character, you start thinking about sociopaths pretty seriously.” Standing in his kitchen, where the cutlery holder is a human figure with knives sticking through its body, Lindsay listed the easiest ways to dump a body in Florida: bury it in the woods, toss it down a sinkhole, wrap it in a chain and sink it in the ocean, drop it in the Everglades and let alligators take care of it. “Dexter’s not a vigilante,” he reminded me. “Vigilantes are trying to perform an act of justice. Dexter just likes to kill people.”