Recently I attended a book reading and signing by singer/songwriter Josh Ritter on his debut novel, Bright's Passage. The book is a delightful tome set in a dark background -- the story of Henry Bright, a WWI veteran whose bride dies during childbirth. There are a confluence of demons chasing him, including an angel who gives poor advice, a forest fire, and a crazy colonel and his sons.
During the lecture, Ritter revealed he chose World War I as the backdrop because it was such a critical period that became the roots of so much of the last 100 years --- the introduction of airplanes, mustard gas and weapons that had the power to wipe out civilizations. And poor Henry Bright strolled right into that storm.
His lecture made me think of what many historians have told me; that is, the story of a century really begins to be told in its second decade. Wouldn't it be great if we could resolve to create at this time a challenge and commitment to advance science and research with an eye toward real breakthroughs? So much of our first decade was framed in despair and fear -- the threat of terrorism, an economic depression that rivaled what our parents and grandparents endured and politicians who are skilled at defining what divides us while kicking the real problems down the road.
Ritter revealed that his parents were neuroscientists and what they ingrained in him is the scientific process -- to understand larger problems, to muddle through and figure things out. I've heard some pundits say there has been little progress in medical research -- and I say nonsense. I'm a cancer survivor who celebrates birthdays and I oversee a 30-year long research program that is bringing discoveries made decades earlier to the bedside. Right now what we need most to progress is adequate time and money! If we use science to help answer the important questions and find cures for those living with spinal cord injury and paralysis -- wouldn't that be a goal we could all get behind?
What has always struck me about Ritter as a performer is not only his lyrical and songwriting skills, but the energy and integrity of his live performances. Hundreds of people showed up that evening and he promised to sign each and every book. He proceeded to engage for a minute or so each and every person who waited in line. After a few hours, it appeared many would be shut out as the store was closing and the tension and anger of a New York City crowd that stood in wait was palpable. But Josh took it all in stride and the store did something it had never done -- those remaining marched in single file, in order, and he stood outside until long after midnight to sign each and every book.
It was an unusual and rarely seen act of both generosity and devotion to Ritter fans. I've seen physicians do it, and it was reminiscent of how Christopher & Dana Reeve had lived -- reaching out to people they didn't know, traveling the world with a message of hope and an enduring belief that nothing is impossible. I came away from the evening with renewed hope for my own work and what we can accomplish. If we put our collective minds and resources toward common goals, nothing is impossible! Yes, we can in our lifetime reverse the reality that ours is a great country -- that is, unless you are sick and/or different. We will become a greater country when those faced with physical challenges have the opportunity to fully participate and live independently. Let's get behind science and create the kind of collaborations we've done at the Reeve Foundation to translate discoveries into tangible treatments.