The Catalyze podcast: SEVEN Talk, by Frank Bruni ’86: “We Are Starfish”
Today’s episode is a recording of a SEVEN Talk from the 2022 Alumni Forum. This talk, given by Frank Bruni ’86, is entitled, “We Are Starfish.”
Frank is a Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The alumnus is also author of four New York Times best sellers, including his new memoir The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found.
More about Frank
Frank Bruni ’86 has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades, including more than twenty-five years at The New York Times, the last ten of them as a nationally renowned op-ed columnist who appeared frequently as a television commentator. (His archive of columns, starting with the most recent, can be found here.) He was also a White House correspondent for the Times, its Rome bureau chief and, for five years, its chief restaurant critic.
Frank is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Beauty of Dusk, which reached #5 on both the hardcover nonfiction and the combined print and e-book nonfiction lists. In July 2021, he became a professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write his popular weekly newsletter for the Times (you can sign up here) and to produce occasional essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
How to listen
Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OK, this is official, usually scary. I’m Frank, but I want to talk to you, at least for starters, about a friend of mine named David Tatel. He’s someone I met about five years ago. He’s a retired judge, but when I met him, he was still on the bench. He was a judge with the—I don’t always get this right—the US. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. District. It’s a pretty dense and daunting proper noun, but basically, it is the court just shy of the Supreme Court. It’s probably the primary feeder court for the Supreme Court. Many justices on the Supreme Court have been elevated from that court. In other words, David Tatel had reached the pinnacle of his profession, and he was blind. He had been blind since he was about 30, but many of the lawyers who argued cases before him never knew that or didn’t know that at the time. He had so mastered his environment that you couldn’t tell. When he was on the bench and lawyers were arguing before him, he would move his head to the sounds of their voices as if he was looking at them. He would walk to and from the bench, to and from his chambers, without ever seeming to need assistance, because he had memorized his physical environment so well.
I got to know him pretty well over the subsequent years. Whenever I would go down to D. C. from New York for work, I would take some time, and I would go talk to David in his chambers. I would sometimes have dinner with him and his wife, Edie. And one evening, we were leaving the courthouse to travel the eight miles to his Washington, D.C. home to meet Edie, who was cooking for us. And I said to him, “Okay, so I should now get an Uber or hail a taxi or call a lift or something,” because I figured, how does a blind man get home from work? And he said, “No, no, no, we’ll take the Metro.” And I thought, “Well, of course we’ll take the Metro because I’m here. He’s going to grab my arm, I’m going to guide him.“ Wrong again. He pretty much did it on his own. I was walking alongside him. I was walking behind him. He had learned over the years, using his memory, using sound, to do all the things that someone else did with sight. He knew the number of steps from one street corner to another. He knew the number of steps from that street corner to the next one. He could use his hearing to figure out, to listen to traffic and the footfall of other people, and figure out when it was safe to cross the street. So I just followed along, and he led me to the Metro. And he led me into the Metro and through the turnstiles into the exactly right platform. And when the car came, from his memory of the surroundings, from the sounds of the doors opening, from where he could sense other people were, he knew where and when to enter the train. And my sole contribution was to look for an empty seat and guide him toward that, something that strangers typically did for him if he didn’t have someone like me around, because he did this by himself all the time.
And as we sat down, I knew him well enough to know I could say something to him without sounding condescending or patronizing. I said, ”David, I can’t believe what I just saw. You are such an inspiration that you can do all of that on your own.“ And he said to me, ”Frank, starfish can regrow limbs, but that’s nothing compared to what human beings can do. He had just shown me that he was proof of that, and I needed to hear that, because I haven’t told you why I met David Tatel.
I was introduced to him weeks after I had a rare stroke that destroyed the vision in my right eye. Weeks after, I was told that I would never recover vision in that eye and that there was a 20% chance the same thing would happen to my left eye, a 20% chance that I would go blind. Good odds, really high stakes. How do you live with that? What you do is you educate yourself. You educate yourself about what other people who have been dealt surprises like that and confronted limits like that, what they’ve done to adapt, what they’ve done to transcend those limits. You educate yourself about what people are capable of, because that may well be what you’re capable of when the situation demands it. So do you know that one of the most celebrated, if not the most celebrated, and popular and best selling British travel writers of the early 1800s was a blind man? His name is James Holman, and I can’t believe his legend isn’t larger than it is and we don’t all know his name.
He lived in an era when there was no commercial air travel, no cars and highways. He traveled by ship. He traveled by horseback, by horse-drawn carriage, and he went from Britain to Asia, to Africa, to South America, to Australia. In fact, he traveled. He went to all those places and wrote about them, based on what he heard, based on what he heard in the environment, the stories that people told him, based on smell, based on touch. He brought these places to life without ever having seen them with his eyes. And he, in fact, logged many, multiple times the number of miles that Marco Polo did. So if there was any justice in the world, or in the world’s swimming pools, children wouldn’t say Marco to hear Polo; they’d say James to hear Holman. James Holman was a starfish.
I met and got to know a man who was working as a sound engineer at a very high level of the music industry. When a rare cancer destroyed the hearing in one of his ears, he figured that might be it for his profession. His ears were his everything. But he didn’t lose hope. He hung in there, he tried and tried, and his brain performed an amazing trick. And he found himself able, eventually, to do with one ear what you were supposed to need two to do. He could hear in three dimensions. He could hear which direction sound was coming from. And he tells me he thinks he’s better at his job today than he was before. He’s a starfish.
One of the most accomplished open water marathon swimmers in the world is a woman who didn’t try to do that until she was about 30 years old. And she didn’t do it until she had a horrible accident that mangled one of her legs so badly, doctors told her they thought they were going to have to amputate. It took her two years to learn to walk again. And looking for a new source of exercise, looking for a new source of confidence and strength, she took to the open water, and within a matter of years, she became the first woman ever to swim for 30 infamously dangerous miles from an island off San Francisco through shark infested waters to the Golden Gate Bridge. She’s a starfish. She didn’t regrow a limb, she grew fins.
Scientists used to believe, not so long ago—we’re talking about a couple of decades ago—that our brains sort of stopped growing or developing or doing much that was important after a certain age, that we’ve got a, sort of, fixed amount of good stuff up there, and we burned through it at a constant clip. And that was that. In recent decades, though, they’ve realized, no, they were totally wrong. We generate new neurons well into old age. We make new synaptic connections. I don’t have the exact scientific and medical vocabulary for this, but basically, we never stop learning and changing and adapting. There’s a name for this school of belief and this area of medicine: it’s called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity basically says, we are all starfish. And that is such an important lesson to keep in mind as you age or when you’re young and you’re a student, because it’s a lesson in infinite possibility. David Tatel, James Holman, the sound engineer, I introduced you to the marathon swimmer, you, me—starfish, all of us. What an incredible source of consolation and what a generous and deep wellspring of hope.