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Love And Other Crimes

In June, I’ll be publishing 14 of my short stories, under the title Love and Other Crimes. Some of these stories are new, some have already been published. Some feature VI, some are standalone. Two – “Wildcat” and “Death on the Edge” – were published only as ebooks and so now will be available in print for the first time. Thanks to Erin Mitchell for recovering “Murder at the Century of Progress” – somehow in the migration from a Hewlett Packard to Windows to Apple I lost the file.

I write short stories for a lot of different reasons, often to entertain myself. I loved writing the title story for this collection – a chance to create a Mr. Micawber kind of family. But they sure do love each other.

Jacket cover

 

“They’re trying to frame Gregory,” she announced baldly.

“Who are ‘they,’ who is Gregory, and what are ‘they’ saying he did?” I asked.

“Fucking Warshawski snob,” she said. “I might have known. Like your mother, too good to walk around the planet with the ordinary mortals.”

“Anyone who compares me to my mother is paying me the highest possible compliment. But I still don’t – oh, Gregory? Baby Gregory? Are you Sonia Litvak?” She’d given her name as Sonia Geary when she made the appointment.

“I got married. Did you think that was impossible?” she jeered.

She saw my inadvertent glance at her bare left hand. “It didn’t last. Neither did yours, what I heard, but you had to keep your own name, didn’t you? No one else could be as good as a Warshawski.”

“Do you want to tell me who framed Gregory for what?” I asked. “Or just needle me about my family?”

“I want you to understand I don’t need any Warshawski pity or handouts. I came here for help and I plan to pay your bill.”

“That assumes I agree to help you,” I snapped.

“But – you have to!” She was astonished. “You’re from South Houston, same as me. And I need a private cop to go up against the city, although come to think of it, your father was a Chicago cop and –“

“If you insult my father on top of my mother, you’ll have to leave.”

“Oh, don’t get your undies in a bundle,” she grumbled. “I never went to finishing school.”

It was as close as she would come to an apology. I turned away to type Gregory Litvak’s name into a legal database and he popped right up: charged with second-degree homicide along with criminal destruction of property. Someone – allegedly Gregory Litvak – had gone through the Roccamena Warehouse and smashed about twenty-five million dollars worth of wine and booze.

Sonia was reading over my shoulder. “See, I told you – they framed him for this.”

“Sonia – this doesn’t prove anything about anyone.”

I scrolled down the screen. Roccamena had fired Gregory a week or so before the destruction. The state – and the liquor distributor – claimed he sought revenge by rampaging through the warehouse.

He might still have made bail, but the crime held a second, more serious offense: when the clean-up crew started hauling out the debris, they’d found the body of Eugene Horvath mixed in with the broken bottles in aisle eleven. Horvath was Roccamena’s accountant; the state’s theory was that Gregory blamed him for losing his job.

“They fired Gregory for no reason,” Sonia burst out. “And then, because they feel guilty, they have to frame him for destroying the warehouse and killing Horvath. The Roccamenas probably did it themselves to collect insurance.”

“What made the police pick up Gregory?” I asked.

“His prints were on the forklift. Well, of course his prints were on the forklift. He drove it for them, loading and unloading crap for them all day. Eighteen years he worked there, and then, bingo, he’s getting close to being a hundred percent vested, out the door with him. I need you to prove he didn’t do it.”

She glared fiercely. When she’d been young, carting baby Gregory around, her hair grew in lopsided clumps around her head, as though she got her brother Donny to cut it for her. Today the thick curls, dyed bright orange, were symmetrically shaped. Her face was covered with the armor of heavy makeup, but beneath that, she was still the ungainly, needy girl of fifteen.

Sonia didn’t want Warshawski pity, and I didn’t want to give her any, so it annoyed me to find myself stirred by it.

“He has a lawyer, right? Or is he in the system?”

“The public defender. We’re trying to put the money together for a real lawyer, but we can’t even make bail right now. They set it for two million. Who can come up with that kind of money? Reggie could help, but he won’t. Taking his brats to Disney World instead of taking care of his own flesh and blood.”

I didn’t think suggesting that his children were also Reggie’s flesh and blood would help. Instead, I laboriously pried details from her. Reggie had moved to Elgin, with his own little company. Sonia was vague about what they did, but it had something to do with computers. She seemed to think Reggie had become another Gates or Jobs, and that he wouldn’t help Gregory out of spite.

Donny worked for Klondike insurance. This was an agency that had the inside track on a lot of city and county business, which somehow, inevitably, also seemed to mean some of their clients were Mob fronts. It sounded as though he was the agency’s handyman, repairing broken machines, changing light bulbs, ordering supplies. I could picture him siphoning off supplies and selling them on Craig’s List, but not engineering the big deals that make a successful Mobster.

“So it’s not like Donny’s got a lot of money,” Sonia was continuing to whine, “and then his ex is sucking the marrow out of his bones. He doesn’t even get to see the kid except weekends and then the kid doesn’t want to hang around Donny because Donny doesn’t have a play station or any of that crap.”

“Stanley can’t help?” I asked.

“He dropped all the way out,” Sonia snorted. “First he was in business with Reggie, but he said late-stage capitalism was draining his life blood, whatever the fuck that means. He lives in a cabin in the hills somewhere near the Grand Canyon and thinks great thoughts. Or maybe it’s no thoughts.”

That left baby Gregory.

“Gregory is super smart,” Sonia said. “Like, he had really high ACT scores, so Daddy wanted him to go to college. He even got a scholarship to go to the University of Illinois, but then he never went. So Daddy threw him out of the house, which was when I was married, and he lived with me, then Ken threw him out, which led to me beating Ken up and him getting an order of protection and then a divorce. Anyway, that’s when Donny found Gregory a job at Roccamena’s, and he’s been there ever since. Until they fired him for no reason at all.”

“They must have told him something.”

She tossed her head, but the orange curls didn’t move. She must have sprayed some kind of epoxy on them.

“Ask him yourself. Maybe you can turn on some Warshawski charm and he’ll tell you stuff he won’t talk to me about.”

The chin beneath the thick makeup wobbled; she fished in her handbag and blew her nose, a good loud honk. “You going to help me or not?”

Not, I chanted silently. Not, not, not.

So why did I find myself printing out a copy of my standard contract for Sonia? I thought when she saw my fees and the non-refundable deposit she’d walk out, but she signed it with every appearance of nonchalance, counted out five hundred dollars in twenties, and swept from the office. Sort of. She was wearing a sweatshirt that proclaimed her attachment to Liggett Bar and Grill’s Slow Pitch team; the sleeve snagged on the lock tongue on her way out and she had to stop to pull it free.

 

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On Losing and on Being Lost

I’m misplacing gloves and bank cards, keys and eyeglasses, with more than average frequency.

I am grateful to Anna Freud for writing the essay, “On Losing and on Being Lost.” She’s writing about grief, and the way it manifests itself in our behavior. During WWII she ran the Hampstead War Nurseries, which cared for children who had been orphaned or otherwise left on their own by the war. After the war, recovering from a life-threatening bout of flu and pneumonia, she had leisure to think about her grief for her father, and the way the children in her care had grieved. She noticed she kept losing commonplace objects, like keys and glasses, and saw how similar it was to the way bereaved children had lost hats or gloves. This was at a time of poverty and need, where it was not easy to replace a hat: everyone paid more attention to their small possessions than we do now.

Freud wrote that children who’d been abruptly separated from caregivers – by their death, or a call-up for active duty – were more likely to lose things than were children who’d had time for a meaningful leave-taking. Similarly, children from angry and abusive families were more likely to lose things. Freud speculated that when we are grieving, we feel (inter alia) abandoned and so we abandon in turn, or assume we will be abandoned in turn, not just by other people but by our belongings.

I know this feeling, this feeling of being adrift, unconnected to people or to the material world. I’m doing my best to carry on, but now, 5 months from Courtenay’s death, I still often feel wrenched by grief.

When I went to the Newberry for the Fuller award, I cried most of the evening.  Yes, I was truly moved by the generous praise my friends gave me, but so much of the evening highlighted what I was missing: Courtenay’s constant support for who I am and what I do. Near the end of his life, as he had forgotten many things, he was proud, almost unbearably proud, of me and my work. “I saw how you made those New York publishers pay attention to women,” he would say. “I know what you did.” Of course I keep losing things, my darling one. Of course.

 

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Remarks on Receiving the Fuller Award, 9 May 2019

Receiving award from Chicago Lit Hall of Fame Chair Randy Albers

 

A few years ago, I saw the Oriental Institute exhibit on the history of writing. I felt a sense of awe as I saw myself, one small person, one small voice, connected to a chain of storytellers that stretches almost 6000 years into the past. Buffalo, elk and wolves roamed widely here when the ancient Sumerians made the spoken word visible.

Writing probably developed so accountants could keep track of land and livestock ownership, but it quickly became the purview of poets. And it is to poets, to musicians, to artists that we turn when we celebrate our joys or need help in enduring our sorrows.

We are enduring bleak times, indeed, in these United States, and we need the arts today as we never did before.

In the aftermath of 9.11, musicians from America’s great symphonies went to Ground Zero, where they played through the night to support the hard work of the first responders. No one sifting through rubble for fragments of human bodies wanted to hear someone read an accounts payable list, much less an ideological diatribe. They needed music, they needed poetry.

When you are out of work, or ill, or grieving, you need a sense of an enduring beauty, one that transcends our changeable mortal condition. In these hard times, I turn to the poet Akhmatova, whose work helped her fellow Russians endure Stalin’s tyranny. I turn to the American poet Mary Oliver, whose deep digging into the natural world gives me new ways of thinking, seeing, feeling.

 

My own most moving moment as a writer came one evening at a reading I’d given here at the Newberry. A group of women stayed after everyone else had left. They told me they were married to steelworkers who’d been out of work for over a decade. These women worked two and three jobs to support their families. They told me they hadn’t read a book since graduating from high school, until they heard that my books take place in their scarred and wounded neighborhood. They came to hear me read, they said, because my words gave them courage to face the hard hand life had dealt them.

That my work spoke to them in such a way does me more honor than I can rightly express. The Fuller award is for me a shorthand for every writer, every storyteller, poet, painter, singer, whose art has helped another person endure the dark night of the soul.

Around 600 BCE, the Spartan poet Sappho wrote, “Although they are only breath/Words, which I command/Are immortal.”

We don’t today know the names of Sparta’s accountants, nor what they had to say about poets and poetry. We know the name of Pericles, a statesman from Sparta’s rival city, Athens, not from his tweets, but because he funded some of the greatest art the world has ever known.

Sappho lived through times as turbulent as our own, but what we remember from those times are not the account books. We remember the poetry and the sculpture. If we want to create a lasting legacy, it will be through the support of that word, the word cherished by every reader in this room, that word which is only breath; in the end, it is poetry which endures.

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All about the Benjamins

When Rep Ilhan Omar quoted Puff Daddy’s song, I had to have it explained to me – I tend to be clueless aboout pop culture and didn’t realize that it was a reference to the hundred-dollar bill. But I did, sadly, know the trope. Ever since our 9th grade English teacher at Central Junior High reinforced the stereotype of the money-loving Jew in the way she presented Shylock to us as we read A Merchant of Venice, I’ve understood that some part of the world will always view me as though I valued ducats more than daughters.

There were very few Jews in my home town and I was almost always the only Jewish kid in any classroom. I’m not sure how or why I got picked to make presentations on Judaism to some of the area churches when I was 17, but the inevitable question was why Jews were so rich and why we controlled the world’s money. My family struggled like every other to afford a car and a mortgage, but to my audience, all that proved was that we were clever about hiding our wealth from the people around us.

The trope persists, through the halls of Congress, and the pages of Louis Farrakhan’s work. A friend’s sister at a recent party started in on it – my friend pointed at me and shook her head and her sister shut up – I pretended I had heard nothing and seen nothing. I try to be generous with money because I believe that as my physical energy waanes I can use money to do good. But I also worry that non-Jews are judging me  in restaurants or occasions for charity

I have nothing to add to this centuries-old libel/slander. I know it will persist long after I’m dead and gone, like so many of the other ills I’ve tried to fight – unsuccessfully. I don’t have much optimism these days. I pretend to, I pretend to rejoice in the energy of the youth around us – but when our energetic youth carry so much old baggage with them, I don’t have a lot of hope.

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Do-Overs

I replay my past with anguish over my failures – my biggest – my hot temper which bubbles over when I suffer a narcissistic wound. Every time it happened I was ashamed in the aftermath, vowed not to do it again. In time I learned some patience, some cooling off before reacting, but never enough.

When I think of Courtenay’s last days, I suffer a different self-torment – that I wasn’t physically with him – not at the moment of his death, but in the days before, where I came and went.

I’ve been hearing from other grieving people since Courtenay died. Some are close friends, some are strangers, but all experience the same torment I do, the “if only” torment.

I admire Kate Atkinson as a writer, but when I read her 2013 Life After Life, it irritated me exactly that reason – the effort to rewrite a personal as well as a meta life.  You could do it differently, you could affect the outcome – if only someone had killed Hitler (or, for that matter, Stalin) before 50 million people were murdered. If only you’d stayed home instead of going into town and contracting influenza. If this, if that. It seemed to me at the time to be unbearably juvenile, even while beautifully structured and written. Today it hits me even harder.

Ten years ago, if I’d been offered a chance for a do-over, it would have been for some  missteps I took that harmed my public career. Now – I’d redo those last two days. Or the time I screamed my head off in traffic. Or – or – or.

The point is, if you were given one do-over, you’d always pick the wrong one. And then you’d spend your time wanting a do-over to change your choice.

 

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The Quotidian

The quotidian does me in. I love to sing, although my musicianship can charitably be called “sketchy.” Courtenay loved listening to me. When I took lessons or sang in a community musical he always came to hear me perform. Similarly when I did readings or gave talks. Last night I went to the choir  practice for my local synagogue. I’d never been part of it; in fact, i didn’t know it existed. On the way home I had a total meltdown. I kept thinking, I have to get control of this or I’ll hit someone and then I’ll cause wider floods of grief for strangers, but I couldn’t stop weeping.

Grief surges are like power surges. They overwhelm the system, the trigger all the circuit breakers. They do us in.

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And now – bewilderment

I struggle to be in the now. I was with Courtenay for 47 years and we had the usual trajectory of excitement and its physical passions, moving to a sense of belonging together and then building a life together, but that life feels remote, almost non-existent. At this time,  the past is a series of self-lacerations – the things I didn’t do, the attention I didn’t pay, the carelessness of feelings/time/person.  I want to connect to the whole arc of our life together, the excitement, the quotidian, the annoyances, but instead those years seem  more remote, unreal, than if I’d read a novel about them.

It’s easy to turn from that uncertainty to the future – many of us live there most of the time – the next event, the plan for the next trip/project. But my stomach tells me it’s important to resist the pull of the future. My stomach says to stay in the now if I can.

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The Journey So Far

Courtenay died on November 22 at 9 in the morning. He was in a hospice facility, where he’d been for a scant 53 hours. I was not with him. That is a source of pain.

On October 2, I wrote in my journal that he’d been ill, another lung infection – pneumonia? a worsening of his CPOD? – but that prednisone and antibiotics had brought him back. I wrote that I had arm-wrestled the Angel of Death, who had let me win, as he had many times in the past 17 years. “I know you could win any time you wanted,” I wrote to the Angel. “I know it’s an illusion that I have won, but I am grateful.”

The seven weeks that followed were a steady decline, just one I refused to acknowledge. Or perhaps I thought the Angel would keep letting me walk away from the table with another victory. On November 18, my poor darling lost power in his legs, but he was agitated and couldn’t stay still. I finally, on the 20th, agreed to hospice care away from the home he’d lived in for 61 years. The hope was that medication would calm his agitation and he could return to the house he loved.

The hospice nurse called and said, “I’m sorry to tell you that Courtenay made his transition.” I knew as soon as I saw the number on the screen that he had died, but the phrasing was so strange I didn’t instantly understand it. Then I screamed, “No, no, no,” even while I started pulling on outdoor clothes. Leashed the dog, texted his sons, called Marzena, who loved him like a daughter . We met in his room at the hospice center. The next 4 hours are not a blur but they are painful and private. We had to move his body out by 1 p.m. because of the rules of the hospital where the hospice is housed. We were greatly aided and supported by the hospice staff, who let us stay with him, holding him, until the last possible moment. They escorted him out with gongs, with psalms, with the Mozart clarinet concerto. I wanted to fling myself on the body and scream and tear myself apart, but could not.

We had a funeral service on the 25th, Jewish, in our home. Beautiful and overwhelming. Courtenay’s favorite poem, Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.” So true to him: “a bride, married to amazement, the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” My own favorite: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. “Our two soules, therefore, which are one, though I must go, endure not yet a breach but an expansion.” My beloved Eve read that, a heroic effort to make it through to the end without breaking down.

It turns out there is no pre-mourning. Over the last 5 years, he gradually lost many of his great capabilities, the problem-solving, the insights, the understanding of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and how they are at work and play in the natural world that surrounds us. He became bewildered by simple things and there was so much loss that I thought the ultimate loss would not be so devastating. There is no pre-mourning. The ultimate loss is still a grand piano that drops from the sky onto one’s head.

I have a shrine in the living room: his ashes with emblems of his loves – a photo of him with one of the dogs he adored, the Go stones for the game that was his passion, pool balls – another passion. (Two weeks before he died he did the equivalent of running the table in the arcane version of billiard-pool he and his friends played). I still need something to signify his love of ships and sailing. I figure the room is full of photons and electrons. I talk to him at the shrine.

I walk the lakefront with the dog, who was inseparable from him for four years and is as bewildered as I am. I watch the ducks in the cold water, the grey air, and take solace in knowing that I am connected to a web of nature, of plants and animals where we all keep going, putting one little webbed foot in front of the other, valiantly braving the cold.

It turns out mourning is physical. It is exhausting, but one feels it in the body. In my case, it’s a heaviness in the stomach. When I imagine going shopping, or traveling, or any of those things, the heaviness increases and tells me to stay put.

The least thing can make the chest constrict. Also I am bewildered: I want him here, but memories also stir the more recent griefs: he was the most competent man I ever knew, the most moral, the kindest, the most brilliant but in the last years he relied on me to mediate every aspect of the surrounding world. It was never a burden but it was always a grief.

I am on an express train moving at too fast a rate from the place I want to inhabit, the world where the Angel of Death let me keep winning our arm-wrestling matches. People in my house for the last 8 days  interrupted my grief and I am angry that I let those precious days close to the station be taken from me.

I have always hated my legs – they look fat and wobbly. Almost every day for 47 years, Courtenay said to me, “You have beautiful legs.” At the hospice, I lay in bed with him, holding him, singing the ballads he loved. The last words he said to me were, “Your voice is lovely and your legs are beautiful.”

He never in 47 years complained of pain, despite crippling RA, a leg broken in 7 places, cancer and radiation therapy. He never wanted novocaine when getting dental work, no nerve blocks when he needed hand surgery. The last 4 days the pain was too great for his stoic heroic heart. I should have stayed with him, holding him, but I did not. I was the bustling Martha, trying to set up in-home care, imagining he would come back. I was walking  the dog and writing emails and not knowing I should not have left his side. That is a pain I can hardly bear.

The journey so far.

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Courtenay Wright, 1923 – 2018

My husband Courtenay turned 95 on October 16. He died a month later on November 22, but Professor Young-Kee Kim, chair of the physics department at the University of Chicago, hosted a lunch in his honor shortly before his death.  Here are the remarks I made at that lunch. I am so glad I got to share a small portion of his remarkable life with friends and old colleagues.

 

Courtenay has been part of my life for 47 years. After all this time, I could talk about him for several days, the things I admire, the quirks I never really got my mind around, the past we’ve shared, the parts of his life I know only by hearsay, but I will try to be brief. I will focus on the things I’ve learned from Courtenay as well as some of the things he’s tried to teach me that I never mastered.

When I first started seeing Courtenay, I was attracted by his accent and his eyebrows – both reminiscent of the young Sean Connery, on whom I had a crush. But what made me fall in love was the way his face, indeed, his whole being, lit up when he was doing the work he loved. Physics was his passion. His zest for that world, those ways of thinking, was exhilarating.

I sometimes sat in on his lectures; his face was filled with joy as he talked about electron half-spin, as it was when he tried to teach me non-Euclidian geometry, or special relativity. The day they moved the cyclotron from the central shop to Fermi Lab he called me to come watch. He had a boyish eagerness about all the different aspects of the field that had chosen him.

There were three different occasions on which I actually understood relativity, and I briefly shared his exhilaration, but I couldn’t keep hold of it, and now probably never will.

The colleagues who do understand relativity

These are some of the things I learned from Courtenay:

How to get ketchup out of a bottle – not with brute strength, but applying a physical law that means you slap the bottle in an upward motion so that the ketchup flows in the opposite direction.

I learned that if your electronics aren’t working, check first to see if they’re plugged in.

I learned to change fuses, and test electrical outlets, to clean carburetors and cylinder heads and to gap spark plugs – skills now obsolete. One of Courtenay’s hobbies was hot wiring but that one never attracted me.

He taught me to love dogs, to use chopsticks, to understand vectors. He gave me the courage to find a public voice, in writing and in speaking.

 

Like many of the scientists I know or have read about – Fermi, Cronin, Roger Hildebrand and others – Courtenay loved strenuous physical activity. Until arthritis claimed his joints, he was a tennis player, a downhill skier, and a boater, although he only really enjoyed taking the boat out when lake Michigan waves were 6 feet high or higher – in the face of physical danger, his face lit with the same joy as when he was talking about electron spin. He embraced the entire physical world, from the sub-atomic to the grand peaks and waves.

Friends listening to my remarks

 

Courtenay served in the Royal Navy during World War II. At age 20, he was the radar officer on the HMS Apollo, which took Eisenhower and Montgomery to Normandy on D-Day Plus One. He also was the officer on duty when the coded signal came in from the Admiralty: He was the first person in the world to know the date and destination of the landing, as he translated the message and hand-carried it to the head of the fleet.

The BBC once interviewed him about this. The interviewer wanted to know what it felt like – the thrill, the awe, whatever emotion Courtenay could remember from that moment. Courtenay kept saying, “It was my job. I was doing my duty.” In his mind, that over-rode any sense of being special. The interviewer and he never found common ground and, sadly, the interview was never broadcast (although his war memories are part of the video archive at the Pritzker Military Museum downtown).

As I’m speaking, Courtenay, our niece Heather, and our neighbor Martha while I give my remarks

Courtenay has the highest sense of duty, and the highest level of integrity and morality, of anyone I have ever known. Certainly in his work he was ambitious and competitive, but only against his own standards, not against his colleagues or students. He didn’t look over his shoulder to see whether someone was gaining on him – he did the work because it brought him joy.

Outside the lab and classroom, he had other interests, like the board=game Go, which he played at a high level, but he also took his sense of duty and moral obligation to the public sphere. He was part of Jason, and wrote, with Steven Weinberg and Freeman Dyson, a crucial paper that kept McNamara from using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia.

In the 60’s, before Roe, he often spoke in public forums and on television to support abortion rights. When a student was stranded in Europe because he couldn’t get a visa for his French wife, Courtenay went to the State Department and got the matter untangled in short order. He wrote to Senators to protest the bills that eroded our rights under the Fourth Amendment.

His essential kindness also made him the person who visited sick friends in hospital, made sure they had the care they needed at home, looked after me, my friends and my family with unfailing generosity.

During his first wife’s serious illness, Courtenay cared for her and their three sons for a number of years. Juggling career and family took a toll, but he never complained and never regretted making that choice.

Prof. Frank Merritt describing some of Courtenay’s work on the Physics of Leptons

In fact, I have never heard Courtenay complain about any personal matter, great or small, either in his career, his personal health, or his private life. He never whined that he was dealt a bad hand, or had rotten luck, or was mistreated. You play the cards you’re dealt and you take what action lies within your power to heal yourself and the world around you –tikkun olam, the rabbis call it. Courtenay is not the least bit religious, but I look on him as someone who’s spent his life practicing tikkun olam.

I’m grateful that I’ve been granted all these years to try to learn from him. I tend to whine any time I stub my toe, but I look at my husband, and know I can do better. I probably will never master relativity or non-Euclidian geometry, but I can still get ketchup out of a bottle, and I can still become a more moral, decent person.

Thank you, my dearest one, for all you’ve given to me and to the world around you.

Courtenay acknowledging the crowd’s applaus

 

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Courtenay Wright at 95

In between touring for Shell Game, mourning Pittsburgh, trying to do some election work, I celebrated my husband Courtenay’s 95th birthday. Kee Young-Kim, chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago — where Courtenay taught and did research for 44 years — and her husband, physicist Sid Nagel — organized a wonderful celebration for Courtenay on OCtober 30. Here are the remarks I gave, an inadequate summary of a remarkable man’s life.

Courtenay has been part of my life for 47 years. After all this time, I could talk about him for several days, the things I admire, the quirks I never really got my mind around, the past we’ve shared, the parts of his life I know only by hearsay, but I will try to be brief. I will focus on the things I’ve learned from Courtenay as well as some of the things he’s tried to teach me that I never mastered.

Frank Merritt, Oct 30 2018 briefly describing Courtenay’s phyics contributions

 

When I first started seeing Courtenay, I was attracted by his accent and his eyebrows – both reminiscent of the young Sean Connery, on whom I had a crush. But what made me fall in love was the way his face, indeed, his whole being, lit up when he was doing the work he loved. Physics was his passion. His zest for that world, those ways of thinking, was exhilarating.

Friends listen to remarks about Courtenay

 

These are some of the things I learned from Courtenay:
How to get ketchup out of a bottle – not with brute strength, but applying a physical law that means you slap the bottle in an upward motion so that the ketchup flows in the opposite direction.
I learned that if your electronics aren’t working, check first to see if they’re plugged in.
I learned to change fuses, and test electrical outlets, to clean carburetors and cylinder heads and to gap spark plugs – skills now obsolete. One of Courtenay’s hobbies was hot wiring but that one never attracted me.

Linguistics prof Jerry Sadock delivered witty talk on pool as “Large Particle Interaction”

 

He taught me to love dogs, to use chopsticks, to understand vectors. He gave me the courage to find a public voice, in writing and in speaking.

Like many of the scientists I know or have read about – Fermi, Cronin, Roger Hildebrand and others – Courtenay loved strenuous physical activity. Until arthritis claimed his joints, he was a tennis player, a downhill skier, and a boater, although he only really enjoyed taking the boat out when lake Michigan waves were 6 feet high or higher – in the face of physical danger, his face lit with the same joy as when he was talking about electron spin. He embraced the entire physical world, from the sub-atomic to the grand peaks and waves.

Courtenay with long-time colleague Dieter Müller; behind are physicist Jon Rosner, Mel Shochet, Wyatt Merritt, Frank Ferritt

 

I sometimes sat in on his lectures; his face was filled with joy as he talked about electron half-spin, as it was when he tried to teach me non-Euclidian geometry, or special relativity. The day they moved the cyclotron from the central shop to Fermi Lab he called me to come watch. He had a boyish eagerness about all the different aspects of the field that had chosen him.
There were three different occasions on which I actually understood relativity, and I briefly shared his exhilaration, but I couldn’t keep hold of it, and now probably never will.

Courtenay with Sara and Physics Dept Chair Young-Kee Kim

 

Courtenay served in the Royal Navy during World War II. At age 20, he was the radar officer on the HMS Apollo, which took Eisenhower and Montgomery to Normandy on D-Day Plus One. He also was the officer on duty when the coded signal came in from the Admiralty: He was the first person in the world to know the date and destination of the landing, as he translated the message and hand-carried it to the head of the fleet.
The BBC once interviewed him about this. The interviewer wanted to know what it felt like – the thrill, the awe, whatever emotion Courtenay could remember from that moment. Courtenay kept saying, “It was my job. I was doing my duty.” In his mind, that over-rode any sense of being special. The interviewer and he never found common ground and, sadly, the interview was never broadcast (although his war memories are part of the video archive at the Pritzker Military Museum downtown).

Courtenay with niece Heather Watkins

 

Courtenay has the highest sense of duty, and the highest level of integrity and morality, of anyone I have ever known. Certainly in his work he was ambitious and competitive, but only against his own standards, not against his colleagues or students. He didn’t look over his shoulder to see whether someone was gaining on him – he did the work because it brought him joy.
Outside the lab and classroom, he had other interests, like the board=game Go, which he played at a high level, but he also took his sense of duty and moral obligation to the public sphere. He was part of Jason, and wrote, with Steven Weinberg and Freeman Dyson, a crucial paper that kept McNamara from using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia.

Sara giving speech

In the 60’s, before Roe, he often spoke in public forums and on television to support abortion rights. When a student was stranded in Europe because he couldn’t get a visa for his French wife, Courtenay went to the State Department and got the matter untangled in short order. He wrote to Senators to protest the bills that eroded our rights under the Fourth Amendment.

 

His essential kindness also made him the person who visited sick friends in hospital, made sure they had the care they needed at home, looked after me, my friends and my family with unfailing generosity.
During his first wife’s serious illness, Courtenay cared for her and their three sons for a number of years. Juggling career and family took a toll, but he never complained and never regretted making that choice.
In fact, I have never heard Courtenay complain about any personal matter, great or small, either in his career, his personal health, or his private life. He never whined that he was dealt a bad hand, or had rotten luck, or was mistreated. You play the cards you’re dealt and you take what action lies within your power to heal yourself and the world around you –tikkun olam, the rabbis call it. Courtenay is not the least bit religious, but I look on him as someone who’s spent his life practicing tikkun olam.
I’m grateful that I’ve been granted all these years to try to learn from him. I tend to whine any time I stub my toe, but I look at my husband, and know I can do better. I probably will never master relativity or non-Euclidian geometry, but I can still get ketchup out of a bottle, and I can still become a more moral, decent person.
Thank you, my dearest one, for all you’ve given to me and to the world around you.

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