Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Off until July 9

I'm off on vacation today. I may post once or twice but make no guarantees, so please check back around July 9!

I am bringing lots of books: The new Michael Chabon, Savage Detectives, Beyond Black (I've never read any Hilary Mantel), an autism book I'm reading for work, and an early Ishiguro book called The Unconsoled are all coming with me.

Gogol's Diary of a Madman meets Terry Gilliam's Brazil

I've heard quite a bit about Jose Saramago, especially his books Blindness and The Cave, from reading buddies. But when I went to the bookstore to browse through some of his stuff, I ended up being drawn to this one.

So far, the narrator's voice has a stuffy exactness that seems to evoke the mania of its central character, a lowly bureaucrat. His hobby is collecting information on famous people from his millions of files. He finds himself in possession, one day, of the file of an anonymous, ordinary person and become haunted by her and decides to track her down. There is a sort of comic edge to the story's voice. Imagine if Gogol's Diary of a Madman was crossed with Terry Gilliam's film Brazil (one of my all time favorite movies).

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Silly memes: The 6th of the 8 random facts about myself (see below)

I guess #6 of the 8 random facts I was SUPPOSED to mention below should be that I can't count, as Siew at Writings Within the Margin gently pointed out.


6. I got locked in a closet on stage during a play and was forced to play a scene from inside until I was able to break the door down with my leg (why there was a lockable door on stage to begin with is still a mystery). The actor playing my brother, who was supposed to be unconscious, was laughing so hard he could visibly seen to be shaking by the last row in the audience. The fact that the two guys running lights and sound in the booth were audibly screaming with laughter did not help.

Silly memes: 8 Random facts about myself

Got soft-tagged (you're tagged if you read this) for this silly meme (which I always think of as a "me! me!") by Book Buff in Oz. Everybody has done this already except me. Here are the rules:

1: Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.2: People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.3: At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people, but I'm not going to. If you haven't gotten tagged yet, consider it your duty.

My eight;
1. I like rose - good rose.

2. I love to cook, but I share the kitchen very badly (ask my partner, our rule is to simply never cook with each other).

3. I had a massive crush on Parker Stevenson, i.e. Frank Hardy of the very bad TV series The Hardy Boys in the 1970s.

4. When I first met my partner's extended family, I attended a family reunion with 150 of his relatives on an island in the middle of Lake Erie and I had a screaming nightmare (interpret as you will).

5. For whatever reason, I cannot read Tolkein.

7. Sweets hold absolutely no attraction for me - but cheese, olives and wine I can't live without.

I want to learn Russian before I die. The Russians I have told this don't understand me. "Why do you want to learn Russian," one of them asked me, "it's so hard!"

Zeitgeist Alert: Gaydar, neuroscience, and hair orientation - I can't help it!

David France has written an informative and easy-to-read piece for this week's New York Magazine on what the latest research says about biological identifiers of sexual orientation:

A small constellation of researchers is specifically analyzing the traits and characteristics that, though more pronounced in some than in others, not only make us gay but also make us appear gay.

Handedness, the density of your fingerprint, the length of your ring finger and... ahem, other things, the sound of your voice, and the direction of your hair whorl all matter. Once the genetic basis of sexual orientation is better understood, many fear genetic engineering to change it. Given the fact that only 60 years ago, teachers were still punishing children for writing with their left hand, I can only imagine their fears will be realized. Some people will never give up their terror of being different and their effort to repress it in their children and themselves at all costs. But before we discover how to engineer out gayness, I can see developing a special skill for hairdressers - training the whorl of children's hair to go the other way. Beware - gay hairdressers may refuse.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Top 100 Novels (according to someone) or I'm such a nerd, I brag about how many books I read

Got this from Matt over at his place - A Variety of Words. He further adapted this meme in a way I like. But what is this list - honestly!?! Where is Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemmingway, Ian McEwan, Tom Delillo, Charles Dickens, E. M. Forster, A. S. Byatt, Richard Powers... this is such a of-this-specific-moment-in-time, greatest hits kind of list.

but why not...

* Bold the ones you’ve read, or are reading (I've changed this to yellow so that it's legible again the black background)
* Blue means I particularly enjoyed it,
* Red means I did not enjoy it)
* Italicize the ones you want to read
* Leave blank the ones that you neither want to read nor don’t want to read
* Strike the ones you have no desire to read
* If you are reading this, tag, you’re it!

You notice no red titles on my list, that's not because I'm shallow. It's because I won't waste time reading a book I do not enjoy. Why bother? There are so many good ones.

1. The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown)
2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. The Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Tolkien)
8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Rowling)
17. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)
18. The Stand (Stephen King)
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling)
20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
21 The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
27. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
28. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)
31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
34. 1984(Orwell)
35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
37. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
38. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)
39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
45. The Bible
46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
53. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
54. Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
56. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
57. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
59. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)
61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
63. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
66. One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
67. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo)
70. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding)
72. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. The World According to Garp (John Irving)
79. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
80. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
81. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
82. Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)
85. Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
91. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
95. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
99. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)
100. Ulysses (James Joyce)

Read 48 out of the 100 - not too shabby - am looking forward to reading another 9!

You're it.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The improvisation of our lives (Books Elia Kazan by Richard Schickel & Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh)

By what scale should we take measure of how we've lived our lives? What we've acquired? The satisfaction with which we can look at ourselves? The works we've done for others? Our commitment to causes? Our faith? The depth of our love? Our honesty? It's this I'm reflecting on having read Richard Schickel's incisive, fast-moving biography of legendary director Elia Kazan, watched the last episode (again) of the great BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisisted, and having celebrated Pride day in NYC.

Schickel characterizes Kazan as a man of contradictions: - simultaneously deeply loving and respecting his wife but openly having sex with other women - a liberal political radical and, briefly, communist, who believed in the rights of everyday man and a "cooperative witness" for the HUAC - a stickler for the truth of human behavior in acting, a true product of the legendary Group Theater and the work of Stanislavski, and a Broadway and Hollywood showman. Rather than harping on this as a flaw, Schickel sees it as the human condition:
all of us are capable only of those improvisations we make in response to our circumstances - some of which work out, some of which do not, most of which end in ambiguity, in, as we might say, mixed reviews...

Schickel, if anything, sees it as the key to Kazan's insight into how the inner struggles of human beings motivate their passions. Both the content of the work Kazan remains famous for and the methods by which he synthesized story, with performance, with physical environment, exemplify this.

Schickel is, thankfully, not simple-minded in his analysis of Kazan's testimony to the HUAC - spending many pages moving back and forth between defense, understanding, and criticism. Schickel protests a little to much that perhaps Kazan didn't respect the people he named any more - he doesn't cite any real evidence for that - or that those who were blacklisted weren't really hurt for very long. If it is true, that hardly seems the point if one feels betrayed. His otherwise fair analysis would have been sufficient support of Kazan without such disingenuous comments. But when all is said and done, Kazan's naming names can be summed up as the act of a man whose membership in a political party was never as important to him as the warm and passionate feelings about the common man he expressed through his work, and who was justly intimidated by the threat of not working just at the moment his career was on a roll.

I'm sure I would not have wished to betray colleagues, but I cannot honestly say what exactly I would have done given his circumstances. If I experienced fear of Soviet spies infiltrating our government (which did happen no matter how underhanded the methods of the HUAC, and what a betrayal of our rights as citizens), if I had a great career with everything to lose and a family to support - what would I have done? This book asks you to ask those questions of yourself so that you may contemplate fully the worth of the work Kazan created in the context of the complexity of his life - not blithely judge him with a "I would never." Nobody's life can be summed up in a single act, . The humanity of Kazan's work should be remembered too, when examining the value of his life.

What indeed makes the sum of one life valuable? When do we say - good life, well done? Do only the Mother Teresas qualify? Is there a balance sheet we tally up? Brideshead Revisited made such an interesting point of this in the final section when Lord Marchmain returns home to England to die. A staunch Catholic family (not the usual in England), a chapel was actually part of the grand estate. Present around his deathbead are his Italian mistress of many decades, his elder son Bridey - a prig who hopes his father will take the sacrament - his elder daughter, a woman "living in sin" herself with Charles Ryder (a man married with children but also the former homosexual sweetheart of Marchmain's younger son Sebastian). This elder daughter is a deeply fearful Catholic who swings between living out her passion in full and becoming devout again to wash away her sins. She desperately wishes absolution for her father. The mistress -raised catholic and, while not hysterical, wishing for last rites out of habit. The youngest daughter, an unmarried, serious young woman - a practical sort of catholic, who wishes for the priest simply out of her own devotion. Finally Charles Ryder himself, who deeply objects to the hippocracy of imagining one can wash away the sins of a lifetime by simply saying "I'm sorry" the moment before you die. It's a marvelous novel written by Evelyn Waugh - a Catholic himself - about the deep passions that drive our lives - religious and carnal.

Does a moment of one kind of devotion trump one's devotion to the passion of one's life. Cannot one live a life of value by working well? By providing comfort for others? I think so. The greatest fulfillments in life, I think, are the acts one performs out of deep passion for those subjects, causes, or people, one loves most deeply. Writing, performing, giving medical care, participating in local government, parenting, putting out fires... There are countless ways to do it. It is the deepest kind of betrayal of ones life, I think, to try to live our the passions of others, once removed - the formula others would give us so that we might live out a life worthy of their approval. I think it's a sad life wondering only whether others will like what we do. And who the hell are these holy 'others' anyway? What arrogance.

As hundreds of thousands of people marched down fifth avenue in New York yesterday, watched by hundreds of thousands of others in the Gay Pride march, I was touched once again by the astounding variety of participants. Not only gay, lesbian and transgendered people, mind you, also those that love them, support them, or just want to sell things to them (I couldn't decide if the number of product advertisements was awful or a real statement to the rising power of the so-called "gay market"). So sure you have the drag queens in 5-inch platform shoes and peacock feather headdresses out in all their magnificence, and the floats from lots of noisy dance bars, but you also have the gay Armenians (no kidding - all eight of them), gay police force members, gay Republicans, gay religious groups of every kind, gay lawyers, gay airline employees, gay parents, gay senior citizens. If you can name some ilk of person - some way a person can look, some age or color they can be, a kind of job they can have - they were all there. And the point of this march to my eyes is that people are not limited to looking or acting just one way because of the attraction they feel toward members of their own sex. We don't live in bed, you know. They call this a "pride march." Now what better statement of pride can be made than being visible. In some cases relentlessly so, either by virtue of how much of them we saw, or how much noise they made. But after all the amplifiers are turned off and the confetti is swept up, these people were being visible to assert the value of their life as they live it. As they live all of it - the acts they perform in work, in the community, the families some of them raise, the people they love, and the way they have fun too. I would say there's a great measure of the value of a life to add to the list: that we look at other's lives openly and fairly.

That's how Kazan's life, the many varied family members sitting around the deathbead of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, and the Pride march I participated in yesterday all came together in my thoughts this weekend. Schickel helps us examine the value of Kazan's work fairly, in the context of his whole life - not as holy judges of a single act even he came to regret. It makes me want to go out and see some of his great films - A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Faces in the Crowd, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn again.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Pablo Neruda's Love Sonnets - 3 poems for summer

Since a bunch of you were enthusiastic about my summer poetry challenge pick of Neruda, I thought I'd finish the week of with a few of his 100 Love Sonnets - one from each of the 3 sections - morning, afternoon, and night, translated by Stephen Tapscott.

I love the handful of the earth you are.
Because of its meadows, vast as a planet,
I have no other star. You are my replica
of the multiplying universe.

Your wide eyes are the only light I know
from extinguished constellations;
your skin throbs like the streak
of a meteor through rain.

Your hips were that much of the moon for me;
your deep mouth and its delights, that much sun;
your heart, fiery with its long red rays,

was that much ardent light, like honey in the shade.
So I pass across your burning form, kissing
you - compact and planetary, my dove, my globe.

Your laugh: it reminds me of a tree
fissured by a lightning streak, by a silver bolt
that drops from the sky, splitting the poll,
slicing the tree with its sword.

A laugh like yours I love is born
only in the foliage and snow of the highlands,
the air's laugh that bursts loose in those altitudes,
dearest: the Araucanian tradition.

O my mountain woman, my clear Chillan volcano,
slash your laughter through the shadows,
the night, morning, honey of the noon:

birds of the foliage will leap in the air
when your laugh like an extravagant
light breaks through the tree of life.

so many of the third section are great I hardly know which to chose, but you can read them all, so I'll pick this one:

My love, if I die and you don't - ,
My love, if you die and I don't -,
let's not give grief an even greater field.
No expanse is greater than where we live.

Dust in the wheat, sand in the deserts,
time, wandering water, the vague wind
swept us on like sailing seeds.
We might not have found one another in time.

This meadow where we find ourselves,
O little infinity! we give it back.
But Love, this love has not ended:

just as it never had a birth, it has
no death: it is like a long river,
only changing lands, and changing lips.

Good summer weekend.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Free Will & the ne'er do well (Theater Review: The Return of the Prodigal by St John Hankin)

Have to post tonight - I'll be gone most of tomorrow.

St John Hankin's The Return of the Prodigal is the latest forgotten play rescued by Mint Theater, which fills a vital niche in the landscape of gritty off-off, edgy off, and decorous full-on-Broadway. Mint (an intimate, off-Broadway theater) exists to produce and publish long forgotten plays that deserved better luck - the hits that should have been. Full disclosure: I was Mint's Associate Director for four years and sing the praises of their value to those who work in theater, as well as those who like to attend or to read fine plays.

Hankin was a contemporary of Shaw and Granville-Barker's who wrote five plays at the turn of the 20th century, before drowning himself in the river Ithon. Mint produced the only other production New York has seen of his work - The Charity that Began at Home - in 2002. Hankin, like Shaw, wrote social relevant work, mostly in a comic vein, in a time in which most theater had not figured out how to break free of the drawing room. The Return of the Prodigal received a production in London at The Orange Tree in 1993. Mint published a volume of his work this past season.

The play concerns Eustace, the son of a wealthy business man, who returns to his family having proved a failure at every line of work he has tried in ten years. Roderick Hill plays Eustace beautifully - alternating between reveling in his leisure, deep pain at his utter uselessness, and a malicious twinkle in trying to manipulate his father into supporting him because his father is a man of responsibility, as well as a candidate for public office - fearful of scandal. Eustace is an island of candor in a world of, at best, good manners and, at worst, deceit. The actor effortlessly sashays between each of these realms while the other characters, all slaves to duty, propriety, or amibition, stand hopelessly around him. Occasionally Eustace, this breath of disappointed but honest life, fans their flames and brings one of them to life, but mostly they walk through their paces, speaking their lines. Most of the actors around Mr. Hill seemed bound to fulfill this same role, with the exception of Richard Kline, playing his father, and Leah Curney, playing his sister in a lovely scene with Eustace that finally reveals some of the life hidden beneath the conventions of Edwardian society.

Set and costume designer Clint Ramos and director Jonathan Bank chose a modern take - a choice which smartly brightened a play we would have otherwise witnessed in a dark, paneled drawing room, while highlighting the modernity of its theme. The text was spoken without British accents but with a formality of diction, a choice I would normally have liked, although it accentuated the fact that most of the cast acted from the neck up. I wished they could have lived while they spoke their lines, but those remained separate activities for most of them. Sassy 20s jazz chosen by Jane Shaw, lightened the scene changes and provided good atmosphere.

Hankin's story provided plenty of after-theater talk and thought about the responsibility of society as well as the concept of free-will. On the negative side, I find Hankin's writing a bit explicative. His characters often state their case rather than behaving so that we can see it. But he is witty and observant. Eustace argues that his father should support him because it is his nature to lack ambition. I won't tell you whether he does - in case you can see or read the play - but does he do so purely manipulatively so as not to work? Or is this truly his nature? Neither paints a pretty picture of this character, who somehow still remains charming. If his father supports him - is he loving or lacking in confidence of his son's ability? And it begs the larger question we can all ask in our lives every day as we contemplate taxes, giving change to a beggar, the responsibility of the state, the responsibility of the family. Are some people simply not cut out to be useful? Should something be done for them, about them, by whom?

In any event, the evening does what I hope good theater will - provoke and entertain - and I really found Roderick Hill's performance affecting. In fact, if it hadn't been there would have been no contest, but he so deeply conveyed the pain of his failure, the certainty that this was his nature and not his fault, that his actions provoked conflict - the substance of drama.

Summer Poetry Challenge - are you playing?

It is a dreary, oppressive day in NYC and I thought I'd brighten it with the prospect of poetry!! Don't forget about the poetry challenge - the rules are posted here. 10 players have signed up but so far only 4 have submitted poems see their submissions here. I thought I would encourage you all by announcing my own submissions:

Pre-1900: Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman - 1855

1900-2000: The Man with the Blue Guitar by Wallace Stevens - 1937

2000-2007: Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit by Timothy Donnelly - 2001-2003

Mysterious: The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda - 1973
I was first going to choose a poem that frustrated me by its being inscrutable but I acutally love these, although their meanings are elusive. I'm going to try to read them all of a piece, instead of a few at a time and see what that does.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

There is an American Culture - Elia Kazan

The next time you're tempted to reduce American culture to bad television, Disney schlock, and Vegas, or to say that it is really an amalgam of other cultures, or that it simply has no serious culture of its own, I suggest you read Richard Schickel's critical biography of director Elia Kazan and remember the great theater companies of the 1930s - most notably The Guild, The Civic Repertory, and The Group - where the artists' ideals and work were very much intertwined, and where Elia Kazan grew up as an artist. Remember the influential acting teachers who came out of The Group - Lee Strassberg, Bobby Lewis, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner, and the generations of American actors they trained the likes of Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, Geraldine Page, Lois Smith, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, John Garfield, Kim Stanley, Shelly Winters and so many others. Think of the distinctly American voice of playwright Clifford Odets. And remember the great director Elia Kazan whose work included On the Waterfront, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, East of Eden,... and many other plays and films.

America does indeed have a culture and Richard Schickel's biography of Kazan places the story of his work (Kazan's autobiography A Life concentrates on the personal to the extent that he wished it known) in this rich context knowledgeably. He makes the smart choice of leading with the controversy over Kazan's lifetime achievement award by the Academy in 1999, which was greatly protested by many because he "named names" to the House un-American Activities Committees in its embarrassing witch hunts in early 1950s. I call this choice smart because despite the uncontested talent and influence of Kazan, this act has forever colored how he is remembered. Without addressing it straight away it would cast a pall on the way we see his work. So Schickel takes this subject on with forthrightness. He is good at giving the politics as well as the art context, and is very fair about making sure that hypocrites of all political flavors share the glory of that title. Reminding us that along with the romanticism of communist party membership or the seriousness of admirable social ideas in the economically strained early 1930s, came the responsibility for support of Stalin's despotism, which could be seen with equally critical eyes.

In fact he makes this the lead of his story - the frame through which we look at a complex man. It's also a smart choice because he goes right for the conflict as Kazan did. Kazan looked at the way strong love and strong ideals - influence ordinary lives. Schickel does the same with Kazan.
Kazan did, in fact, express regret for this act in his autobiography:

I thought what a terrible thing I had done; not the political aspect of it, because maybe that was correct; bit it didn't matter now, correct or not; all that mattered was the human side of the thing;...I felt no political cause was worth hurting any other human for. What good deeds were stimulated by what I'd done? What villains exposed? How is the world better for what I did? It had just been a game of power and influence, and I'd been taken in and twisted from my true self.

That passage could really be a monologue out of one of Kazan's films. Despite the fact that I feel strongly that Kazan's act was wrong because of what I know now about the HUAC and what I feel it did to the cause of free speech and free political assembly in America, Kazan does get to the heart of the matter here. If politics is not ultimately about making the lives of people better, it has no use at all. Kazan knows that his act both caused harm to people and did no good. This is deep self-probing - honest and probably painful - and is worth more than a facile pro forma apology any day. And as Warren Beaty said, when defending Kazan in 1999

I don't want to be reductive about his politics. Although you and I might feel he made a mistake, neither you nor I was around in that period. And although you and I might think we would not have made that mistake, we didn't have to make that choice.
This is a marvelously insightful and sensitive statement and it is not surprising it came from an actor because it is so descriptive of what it means to really get inside someone's skin and walk around in it. It is the way you have to contemplate the act of a person before you can play him.

In any event, it is this controversy which forms the frame of this dramatic and swiftly paced biography of Kazan by Richard Schickel. He summarizes the context of Kazan's formative years among the artists - particularly of The Group Theater - superbly. These are artists whose stories I could eat with a tablespoon, I just can't get enough of them, but he wisely gives us just enough to understand what role Kazan played and how he was influenced. Schickel is deft with summarizing the essence of things. I'll leave you with this nugget on Kazan's working method as a director:

Direction was not "what the Group director seem to think it is, a matter of coaching actors. It is turning psychological events into behavior, inner events into visible, external patterns of life on stage."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Elvis Costello on Jeff Buckley

For any of you interested in the work of Jeff Buckley, or who enjoyed the remembrances Sheila or I posted a few weeks ago of attending his Green Mill concert, or his singing of Dido's Lament, I just couldn't resist linking you to this anecdote by Elvis Costello.

His work is an obsession, I won't apologize - take it or leave it.

Books: Dickens' Bleak House - Classic Detective Story

I am nearly done reading Bleak House now. It's amazing how quickly the final 400 pages of this novel reads. At this point the story is driven by plot but I am going to resist speaking specifically of the events so as not to ruin it for those who haven't read it yet. I hope that doesn't make this too oblique.

I can really see the seeds of the classic detective story being sown here. There is, as I've mentioned, a question of the origins of the central character Esther Summerson, that sits at the center of the mystery, but Dicken's has deftly woven a complex plot where that mystery is inseparable from questions of class and character explored in this novel. Our personal origins are often a source, too, of strong emotions - so the mystery here matters deeply to the central character and, by extension, to us. The final chapter of this novel are proving very suspenseful - not despite the 700 page set-up but because of it. In one later chapter Dickens has the detective, who I never expected to become the character he did, assemble many of the people in question - as in a classic English detective story, for example Agatha Christie's Poirot calls all the suspects into the drawing room. I smiled as a I read it and wondered to myself - is this the first time this has happened in a story? If someone knows the answer to that I hope they'll tell me. Dickens also masterfully provides an emotional pay-off by the detective using Esther in a sense to help tie up the ends of her own mystery - I won't say any more, but I found it very satisfying!

Lady Dedlock, another very important character I have mentioned before, is also revealed in a startlingly complex way. A haughty member of the upper class, known for her aloofness, Dickens' allows us a window on her inner life that is very observant and touches on the questions of identity that this novel wrestles with, as I mentioned in an earlier post. She is an interesting counterpoint to Esther as a character.

Dickens also accomplishes something in this novel that I admire in any type of artistic creation. He takes the many disparate threads he has established over many pages and brings them all together. I thought that Zadie Smith did this amazingly well in On Beauty. There is a scene late in that novel that I also marveled at because she sets up characters through their behavior so well, that by the time they are all assembled in the same place, you can imagine how they will behave together and I found myself dreading certain events that then seemed inevitable, and hoping for others. I also won't spoil the plot in that book, although Howards End will do that for you, since the book is modeled on it, so read that one first! But Dickens does the same with his denoument in Bleak House and I'm definitely reading for plot now, but simultaneously I'm realizing how well I know these characters and the feelings I have invested in them. This will likely be my last post on this book, so I'll end with my admiration for it and my hope that you will enjoy reading some day if you haven't yet. Here's an on-line resource site if you like those kind of things. Once I'm done, I'm going to rent the dvd of the BBC adaptation which I understand is really well done.

Zeitgeist Alert: Autism & Vaccines

Page one of today's NY Times has an excellent article about the rift within the family that founded the charity Autism Speaks, regarding the cause of autism. It speaks well to how beliefs and strong feelings drive this issue and relates well to my post last week. This single family's feud mirrors the debate in the autism community at-large. The large and generous charity has made an effort to be "agnostic" with regard to what it funds, according to one of its board members, but the daughter of the founders, Katie Wright, has an autistic child and believes that environmental causes are to blame. Other organizations concentrate on funding less conventional theories.

Strong beliefs and debates are not going to determine the causes of autism, research will. An ill-informed or biased hypothesis is never going to lead to good research but, if one can ask a question about causes (environmental or organic) that is truly unknown, and design responsible research (whether the theories are well-trodden or unconventional), that research should be useful. Discoveries in science rarely follow a path straight from the money to the cure. Unraveling the mystery of the cure of autism needs the tools of science the minds of creative mavericks, and the support of people who care to know the truth - whatever it is. If one looks at current research, autism is still the story of the blind men and the elephant. Lots of people are describing a small piece of the puzzle, but no one description has yet to satisfyingly encompass everything we know. Sometimes backing up or looking at the problem sideways permits a creative breakthrough. The vaccine theory was superficially convincing for a time but the science against it now is stronger, but as long as these organizations have informed scientists reviewing their funding, a conventional or a conservative funding strategy is not going to decide this debate - they don't have that much control over the truth. Evidence will accumulate over time and at some point the truth will become weighty enough to tip the balance.

In the long run, research may well lead us to redefine this single word - autism - comprising a spectrum of related disorders, into more homogeneous subgroups, allowing us to look at the problem afresh. Many current researchers are already forming their questions this way. Asking good questions is a creative act. Good creators know they must continually shake up their perspective to stay active in pursuit of a solution. Loud contrary voices may have cause hurt in this family and in these organizations which I hope they can heal, but they most likely keep the research vital and honest.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Friday potpourri - the REAL Paris Hilton! - the blogging debate cont'd - and a poem

The REAL Paris Hilton - there actually is one, I just had to check. God! Who would stay in a Hilton in Paris?!?

The debate over the mainstream press and blogging continues here - Brian Lehrer on WNYC radio (the New York City public radio outlet) widens the discussion, in case you're interested.

I've given further thought to yesterday's post on the literary blogging debate after talking with my friend Kate and am amending my comments: I hope no one misread me as saying that I think criticism (literary or otherwise) is not important. I take it seriously. I do think an educated, broadly read, and experienced point of view is desirable for criticism that is worth reading over time, but I do not think that a) there is anything inherent to people who have been hired to write for magazines or newspapers vs those that blog that makes them automatically better educated, more broadly read or even better writers or observers. b) I do not think it is inherently snobbish to value good scholarship or good writing - I value talent, taste and strong opinions. I am also not an anti-intellectual, saying everybody has equal abilities in writing, in reading for meaning, in integrating knowledge from one's reading and of the world into coherent opinions. But there is nothing inherent to being in print that automatically gives you more of these talents; c) there is nothing inherently bad about more opinions. If critics and journalists can trust their own writing then they can trust that readers who are interested in their talents will read them when they wish that format and when the quality warrants it; d) sometimes people want a short or more relaxed form, sometimes they want chatty, sometimes they want a "friend's" opinion and not one handed down from mount sinai - in this case there is plenty of that online and it is fun to share opinions with other people who love to read! But that discussion can be discerning and literate too. And some tripe occasionally makes it into print - somehow! In any event, the reader has the final word - they always have had. And now I've had my say. I'm done.

Now some better words by my friend and your's, Tomas Transtromer:

Dream Seminar
Four thousand million on earth.
They all sleep, they all dream.
Faces throng, and bodies, in each dream -
the dreamt-of people are more numerous
than us. But take no space...
You doze off at the theatre perhaps,
in mid-play your eyelids sink.
A fleeting double-exposure: the stage
before you out-manoeuvred by a dream.
Then no more stage, it's you.
The theatre in the honest depths!
The mystery of the overworked director!
Perpetual memorising of new plays...
A bedroom. Night.
The darkened sky is flowing through the room.
The book that someone fell asleep from lies still open
sprawling wounded at the edge of the bed.
The sleeper's eyes are moving,
they're following the text without letters
in another book -
illuminated, old-fashioned, swift.
A dizzying commedia inscribed
within the eyelids' monastery walls.
A unique copy. Here, this very moment.
In the morning, wiped out.
The mystery of the great waste!
Annihilation. As when suspicious men
in uniforms stop the tourist -
open his camera, unwind the film
and let the daylight kill the pictures:
thus dreams are blackened by the light of day.
Annihilated or just invisible?
There is a kind of out-of-sight dreaming
that never stops. Light for other eyes.
A zone where creeping thoughts learn to walk.
Faces and forms regrouped.
We're moving on a street, among people
in blazing sun.
But just as many - maybe more -
we don't see
are also there in dark buildings
high on both sides.
Sometimes one of them comes to the window
and glances down on us.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Blogging is NOT SERIOUS - Don't Read this! It may be dangerous

I'm not going to weigh in here on the wonderful discussion mainstream professional critics have initiated about the power of the blogosphere because I'm incapable of writing anything serious about it. I haven't been trained, you know, so I would only mess it up and, anyway, I can only write "bitesized commentary" according to Adam Kirsch of The New York Sun, so I wouldn't have enough room here to talk about how insecure their protestations sound. Although, that's probably wrong, because I'm not a professional so I'm too stoopid to read them properly. Did I spell that write? Sam at Book Chase, Imani at The Books of My Numberless Dreams and Matt at A Variety of Words have already done wonderful posts on this subject, but I guess I can't resist.

I doubt Frank Bruni (food critic of the NY Times) lives on a diet of foie gras and frisee alone - I'm sure the occasional barbecued chicken crosses his palette because it tastes good and there are different ways to get nourishment. Masterpiece Theater has survived alongside ER for years and frankly I like watching them both.

When I write about what I read, I'll fully admit it - I'm an amateur. I read for the love of it and I write about what I read for the same reason. Even if every single person writing on the internet wrote tripe, and they don't, readers are the final arbiters of what they read, not critics. I don't have to defend the quality of reading some of my esteemed colleagues writing on the net (some of them even have graduated from the sixth grade) because I'm not answerable to anyone about what I read. I read what I like, thanks very much, and I have faith in my judgment. I've read some gorgeous, smart, literate, serious, well contextualized pieces on my favorite blogs, and I've read some crap too - and I can say the same for any of the smart book reviews and literary journals that I read too.

Whether folks come to We Need to Talk About Kevin or Daniel Deronda because they read about it in the Times or at The Books of My Numberless Dreams who cares? Readers read to nourish themselves, to be a part of a community, to learn, to escape, to play, to feel, to think, to comfort themselves, to try something new - and whatever reason they have, it's good enough for me. As to the merit of their source - I thought the job of the critic was to share a love of reading the work of others, not whine because they're afraid no one is reading them.

Someone has been reading you professionals - it's been those of us who love to read. A lot of us like to write about what we read too. Pooping in your own trough creates bad karma (and it doesn't taste good - or is that 'doesn't taste well,' I'm not sure. I'm not a professional).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Zeitgeist Alert: The Infidelity of Memory

Many of us have an image of memory being like a library where all the books are housed (sometimes messily) and all the pages intact if we can just look them up in the proper catalogue. However, there are many kinds of memory - some coded semantically, i.e. our fact based knowledge that is more descriptive (for example: what is the capital of Australia? Either you can access the name or you can't) - others are more pictorial (for example: what shape are a german shepherd's ears?) or episodic memories (which are often autobiographical and tend to be visual images coded in rich context). Recalling episodic memories is a very rich experience, said by many to be akin to time travel. It can feel very real, but that feeling is no indication of the reliability of that memory in terms of its content. Accessing these memories, one actually associates details from multiple stores constructing an new original. I spoke in a recent post about how the process of perception is, to some degree, creative as well. Is anything real?!? This is one of my obsessions, not just for its neuroscientific interest but for its metaphoric appeal as well. It seems to me that certain artistic voices ring true for people because of either the way they may echo the way they see and remember, or because they offer new ways to construct perceptions and memories.

More on this in a later post, but heads up on the recent Radio Lab which Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex participated in curating if you want to learn more from some of the leading people in the field. Chris Chatham at Developing Intelligence has a few good recent posts on memory as well and Madam Fathom addresses the subject from a molecular point of view if that's your bag!

The Setting as a Great Actor - (Books: Dickens' Bleak House)

I continue to enjoy Dicken's Bleak House and it's made me think about how a writer sets the scene and how the readers uses it.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but when a writer uses those words so that you may sense the walls about you and smell the grease in the air, it is worth the expense because they do something a picture cannot. The picture may be efficient, but it is fixed. The writer, decides where you will be close now or far, that you will glide quickly over this wall, but that you will linger here among the old papers and dusty objects on the desk.

Everyone likes to concentrate on "what." What happened, to whom, what was said, but a scene is only an abstraction until it is happening somewhere. An actor playing a scene wants to know - who am I, where did I come from, what do I want, what do I say, what do I do... and so on (I, I, I...) - but what about poor old "where." You really know nothing about behavior until you know where something is happening. Science tells us that people are made not only by their genes, but by the interaction of genes and environment. The actor needs the same information, after all they are creating a person too. Without "where" there is a big missing piece. As a reader we also use "where" as we create the scene in our mind's eye. Some readers like to skip over long descriptions and get to the plot, and a poorly written setting only encourages that, stripping the scene of an essential that the reader may not directly know is missing, but they will sense it as their mind's eye will either conjure up nothing at all, or replace it with some one-size-fits-all setting that sits at the ready from some television program recently watched or whatever. If it is a bore to read, you end up saying, 'I wish you could just get on with it!' So it is a talented writer who makes you want to hang around while he sets the scene, who makes the setting the whole point:
Mr. Vholes's office, in disposition retiring and in situation retired, is squeezed up in a corner, and blinks at a dead wall. Three feet of knotty floored dark passage bring the client to Mr. Vholes's jet black door, in an angle profoundly dark on the brightest mid-summer morning, and encumbered by a black bulk-head of cellarage staircase, against which belated civilians generally strike their brows. Mr. Vholes's chambers are on so small a scale, that one clerk can open the door without getting off his stool, while the other who elbows him at the same desk has equal facilities for poking the fire. A smell as of unwholesome sheep, blending with the smell of must and dust, is referable to the nightly (and often daily) consumption of mutton fat in candles, and to the fretting of parchment forms and skins in greasy drawers. The atmosphere is otherwise stale and close. The place was last painted or whitewashed beyond the memory of man, and the two chimneys smoke, and there is a loose outer surface of soot everywhere, and the dull cracked windows in their heavy frames have but one piece of character in them, which is a determination to be always dirty, and always shut, unless coerced. This accounts for the phenomenon of the weaker of the two usually having a bundle of firewood thrust between its jaws in hot weather.

Notice, he offers us the point of view of a client in the second sentence. So we become a character temporarily to view this place. This means we are not idle voyeurs but look with a sense of purpose. We're an actor in the scene. Then he gives us another actor: he writes that the office 'blinks!' Did you ever know one could? The office is suddenly a character too.

I read this scene and feel like something has already "happened." I also feel like I want to go wash my hands.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Zeitgeist alert: Public opinion and the autism debate (Books: Autism: Mind and Brain)

The NY Times has an informative op-ed piece today addressing the widespread public insistence that autism is on the rise:

The claims for or against an autism epidemic simply cannot be proved given the evidence available...
The article gives a good overview of the statistics and the difficulties of classifying children who fall somewhere in the autistic spectrum, given the shifting definitions of the disease.

The article also mentions the beginning of Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, one of many cases in the US courts claiming that childhood vaccinations lead to autism. I have yet to see any direct support for causal claims in the scientific literature, although I have seen serious direct evidence against it. There are some indirect connections made regarding emerging symptoms and time of vaccinations, but those behavioral symptoms coincide with the time in life when those behaviors develop in children - rendering them visible - and that makes it impossible to draw any conclusions. Recent work has identified some behavioral markers of the disease that might be visible earlier in development, and if these become more reliably established, that could put this debate entirely to rest. I am not politically motivated to see either argument be true and I am open to being wrong, but I have yet to see the connection between autism and vaccinations compellingly made.

Many people want this to be true because they so fervently wish for an explanation, and I can hardly blame them. If the theory about the involvement of vaccinations is true it will be conclusively borne out by evidence over time that establishes high probabilities of connection. Conclusions of this sort cannot be drawn based on anecdotes, on indirect connections however compelling, or even on the evidence of a single good experiment. Knowledge is gained in the sciences from posing hypotheses and testing them and then having that test made again by someone else, and then having another lab ask a slight variation on the question and testing it again, and then altering the group of people slightly and testing it again. One experiment does not establish cause, the evidence accumulates. And autism makes it particularly difficult because the ever shifting nature of the disease gives us a moving target. It's interesting to see this debate move out of the lab and into the court. DSM- IV and ICD-10 (diagnostic manuals) provide their diagnostic criteria, but the symptomatology of autism is heterogeneous (manifests itself differently in different people) and its underlying neurobiological mechanisms (some marker that says you have this disease in the way that the presence of the polio virus in your blood positively establishes your diagnosis of polio) are not understood. Autism is not just a disease, it's a cause celebre - diagnoses are a part of our culture now. I'm not sure how fighting the cause of one explanation for autism in court (it is fairly widely accepted that there is not only 1 cause), is possible given the fact that we still don't know exactly what autism is. It's like having witnesses testify regarding a murder they didn't actually see. I don't know if judges decide or juries rule in this type of court, but will they have uncovered the truth at the conclusion of this case in a way that has eluded leading scientists researching autism for the last decade?

In this context, a brief mention of Uta Frith and Elisabeth Hill's excellent book Autism: Mind and Brain which gives a very good summary of current work of many of the leading scientists building an understanding of autism. I'll discuss some of the more compelling work in a later post, but its chapters are written by the scientists who are conducting this work and it is well written, and careful not to draw any massive conclusions. I'd say the book is for an audience who can read scientific articles of a moderate but not highly technical nature, it's not a layman's volume.

The psychology of self - who are we, really? (Books: Dickens Bleak House)

Jonah Lehrer over at The Frontal Cortex tells us that Proust was a Neuroscientist, or he will when his book comes out in November, so how about Dickens, was he a neuroscientist too? I would say no, however he might qualify as a psychologist. Bleak House plumbs the notion of identity in a way I'm finding most satisfying. Secrets of identity - who a character actually is, their parentage, and disguising identity - are nothing new to 18th or 19th century literature, and the central character of Bleak House, Esther Summerson, wrestles first with her origins - where she actually comes from - and then with a change in her appearance, which while it doesn't have to define character, does influence it.

I'm struck by the way we create character through narrative, not just in books but in our lives. We are characters in our own stories as well as the stories of others. The Science Times had a piece on narrative and self a few weeks ago. The notion that we construct and envision ourselves through narrative (which is a useful concept), and that the brain has an affinity for narrative (which they do not sufficiently explain the scientific support for, if any exists). The article was not entirely satisfying on the science but introduced the concept well. We narrate ourselves to ourselves and to others as well. I think of people I know whose stories repeatedly stress how much harder their lives are than everyone else's, (creating the character of the poor victim), stories of how busy they are (creating the martyr). The more they tell these stories, the more true they become. There is a literal narrative created by what we say about ourselves. We reinforce that narrative each time we tell it, we can change that narrative, recasting ourselves, changing perspective like a cinematographer might changes the angle of a shot or the photographer the lens. Some psycho therapeutic are about just such processes of recreating narratives, as the Times article discusses. We learn who we are and about the central experiences of life through narrative. We learn what love is - hearing the story of the loved child, being cast as a character in that story. Later we struggle to create our own sense of character and are sometimes told stories of ourselves we don't recognize. Narratives can also be less literal. One action doesn't form identity or character, but a string of actions when linked are narrative. And the actors process of creating characters is not unlike our own process, although it's often more mindful. As an acting teacher I always felt character is not what you say, nor what you think of your character, which is an endless focus of discussions in class and rehearsal - but rather what you do. You can say what you want about a character and my suggestion would then be to write a book about it, but the audience at a performance experiences only what you do. Not just those things you think you should do, but rather all the things you do, whether at that moment you think of yourself as 'character' or as 'artist.'

The Times article quotes Joan Didion on her experience of the dichotomy of who she thought she was and who others saw, in her ruthless look at herself The Year of Magical Thinking. Esther in Bleak House must face a similar duality when she, in a single chapter (no spoiler here, I'll hold back the plot details), both finds out where she has come from (which we know earlier) and finds her appearance greatly changed from what it had been. It's an amazing juxtaposition of two key elements of identity - who you think you are and what others see, and yet it is still not completely defining. One's identity is something more, there is a core that supersedes those elements. Esther demonstrates her confident knowledge of that core and, as such, that thing we call 'character.' I'd often thought of that word as dated, but here I see it as meaning 'a certainty of who you are,' and this story's theme of identity make it feel quite contemporary.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Paris and Berlin, Desire and Bohemians

After working at the lab this morning, yes on Sunday, I paid a visit to one of my favorite places - Three Lives, a real old fashioned bookshop. I can never resist paying them a visit, even if only to browse, which is rarely the case anyway. Today was no exception. Books are so appetizing in that setting. Having read a post about Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch by JCR on Frequency of Silence, I bought it. I've meant to read it for years and the description of a writer living in Paris, his Bohemian friends, and his return to Buenos Aires - where I very much want to visit - were too much for me to resist. Artists on the left Bank in 1920s Paris, 1950s Paris - whenever in Paris - that's always been my exemplar of romantic. Sigh.

Three Lives has a knowledgeable staff and boasts a recommended books table, I always like the personal touch. I picked up Seven Lies by James Lasdun, which tell of an East German who maintains a fantasy of going to America. It looks like an enticing combination of political novel, story of longing, and thriller. Now when, amidst the 9 books left on my summer reading challenge and my 50 articles on autism, I'm going to read these is a different matter.

We met friends for tea afterward at an unlikely find in the old meatpacking district - now filled with trendy restaurants and expensive boutiques. Arium has about 100 kinds of tea and lots of dainty food, so if you're into tea at all, as I am, it's a lot of fun. Tried a new white tea called snow dragon which tastes like apricots and smoke, which is a good thing.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Making Deviance Sexy - A new challenge!

Atul Gawande's book better, reviewed below, celebrates the value of positive deviance. It has inspired an on-going challenge idea that I pose to all of you:

Keep a lookout for any examples you see of contemporary positive deviants (Gawande's term), or mavericks, in your favorite sources. These are people who, because they buck the trend, adopt new ideas when they are still unpopular, or make new connections between things, are able to see things anew and make a useful change for the better. That change can be one of perspective, an original idea, it can be a change in method of performing some act, or the creation or alteration of some tangible physical thing. It can come from the world of politics, science, arts, that thing we call culture, or anywhere else I'm not thinking of.

Save up for really good ones, mavericks are rare by definition. When you really think you have one, send me an email with a link to your source and I'll post it, or if you put something on your own blog I'll link to your post. I'm the final arbiter of which submissions are really good ones (this is my blog, after all).

The idea is to look for people who are deviating now, but below you'll find some more classic examples and one recent one. In the left column: Galileo, Dr. Viginia Apgar, Louis Pasteur, Virginia Woolf. On the right: Patricia Churchland and Meredith Gourdine. Now venture forth and be vigilant.

Meeting Places - Poems of Tomas Tranströmer

Some poems today by Sweden's Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton. Tranströmer has talked about his poems as being meeting places, because he wishes to make sudden connections between aspects of reality that language ordinarily keeps separate. What better reason to write a poem.

The Couple
They switch off the light and its white shade
glimmers for a moment before dissolving
like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then up.
The hotel walls rise into the black sky.

The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colours meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy's painting.

It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer
tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.
They stand close up in a throng, waiting,
a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

The Tree and the Sky
There's a tree walking around in the rain,
it rushes past us in the pouring grey.
It has an errand. It gathers life
out of the rain like a blackbird in an orchard.

When the rain stops so does the tree.
There it is, quiet on clear nights
waiting as we do for the moment
when the snowflakes blossom in space.

Further In
On the main road into the city
when the sun is low.
The traffic thickens, crawls.
It is a sluggish dragon glittering.
I am one of the dragon's scales.
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windscreen
streaming in.
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
inside me
words in invisible ink
which appear
when the paper is held to the fire!
I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far in the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.
In there on the moss lie stones.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything
it can make the darkness shine.
It is a switch for the whole country.
Everything depends on it.
Look at it, touch it...

See more of his poems at my new post in honor of his Nobel Prize.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Zeitgeist Alert: Bamboozle 'em with neuroscience

If P. T. Barnum were alive today, would he be selling the impressionable public with bearded ladies? With an animal that is part iguana, part gerbil? Don't be ridiculous! He'd sucker 'em with neuroscience.

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation.

This is according to research conducted by Deena Skolnick Weisberg et. al. at Yale. Their article entitled The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations is in press at the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience .

It's worked for me.

But seriously, I think ideas that become part of the zeitgeist in the way neuroscience has recently become salient. We start seeing their application everywhere. It's human nature to resort to heuristics whenever possible, it's why education in criticial thinking skills across disciplines (rather than specific subject matter) is so essential. And those of us in popular fields are no less guilty of being seduced by those ideas, perhaps more so in that we access them all the more quickly and want to believe that our field possesses the answers. Neuroscience has by no means cornered the market on this phenomenon. I guess those working in the field must be vigilant in regard to the language used when reporting findings. And more generally focused media should be aware that when they try to make sensational news out of science by reporting only conclusions without context, they are more likely to lead their readers to draw false conclusions.

Hat tip: 3 Quarks Daily & The Frontal Cortex

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

New York Culture: An afternoon in Venice and Leipzig, an evening in Lisbon, and all in New York

It was a gorgeous spring day in New York, and, no, this is not the view from my window. But both my partner and I had some odd hours free in the afternoon today and took off for the Metropolitan Museum where there were a number of things we wanted to see.

There is a great show on Islamic Art in Venice. It is a large exhibit, providing a great deal of historical context on the extensive trade relationship between the Islamic world and Venice from around 828 - 1797. It demonstrated through maps, navigational instruments, books, textiles, lacquer, and everyday objects made of metal and glass - goblets, trays, boxes - and paintings, the influence what we would now call the Middle East had on Venetian culture, their language, use of materials and design. The contextual information really adds to the experience of the exhibit and I was struck how modern some of the objects such as this goblet seemed.

There are also two smaller and very worthwhile exhibits, one on a contemporary German painter named Neo Rausch, based in Leipzig. He did perhaps 15 new paintings specifically for the small exhibit space they now hang in. They are odd, somewhat dark, folksy paintings, the people posed like the opening of Blue Velvet but the painting with a very 30s feeling to it. I enjoyed the ones with peculiar fantastical twists in them the most. Here is one not in the exhibit:
There is also a small show of german drawings and paintings from the 1920s through the 1980s that asks the question - is there a particular look that is specifically German? It includes Dix, Klee, and Baselitz, to name a few. Based on what they showed, I'd probably answer 'no.' Normally this room in the mezzanine of the modern art section way, way, way in the rear of the museum's first floor features a nice, tiny show. I tend to prefer seeing smaller shows so this was perfect.

Then we walked across Central Park. It was one of those days when all of New York seemed to be out. Women and men in their business suits had put on sneakers to walk through the park, a young woman stopped to sit on a bench and finish reading a book, kids could not be kept in their strollers and whenever they saw empty space in front of them wanted to run, people lay on the lawn, which was shining with a color like Granny Smith apples, to catch the last hours of sun, the stage crew at the Delacorte Theater was putting finishing touches on their production of Romeo and Juliet, puppies strained at their leashes to sniff at other puppies - it was an irrepressible sort of day.

Portuguese tapas followed. Yum.

With great power comes great responsibility - (Book Review - better by Atul Gawande)

Let's play a game. I'm going to say a word and you tell me what your first thought is. Ready? "Surgeon."

Did your mind leap to "makes tons more money than me," or maybe "jerk, usually male, who thinks he's god?" When we give a person permission to cause us great pain, tear us open with sharp objects, administer chemicals, and physically move things inside our bodies, we give them tremendous power. With that power can sometimes emerge from that person the notion that their knowledge is of greater value than all others and they deserve that power. But there is another kind of surgeon, one who accepts that with the great trust we give them comes great responsibility, and that their skills must be used thoughtfully and, sometimes, not at all. Having just finished better by Atul Gawande, it seems that he is that second type of surgeon. His final essay, in fact, is built around the question "How do I really matter?" It exemplifies his approach to his work which values asking questions, facing his own limitations and those of whatever environment he works in with honesty and humility, and it values change. Most of the advice he offers would be applicable in any walk of life and, indeed, after reading I was struck by how much a doctor's life is like anyone else's.

The chapter on hand washing that I mentioned in an earlier post, is informative about the history of that innovation that revolutionized health care. Dr. Ignac Semmelweise, a Viennese obstetrician in the mid 19th century, discovered that the leading cause of maternal death in childbirth was a bacterial infection that could be greatly reduced by washing hands. But really, Gawande's chapter is a cautionary tale about pride and the difficulty of changing human behavior when those who must change have to face that they have been doing something less well than they could. That they've been doing something wrong.

Out of three thousand mothers who delivered babies at the hospital where Semmelweis worked, six hundred or more died of the disease each year - a horrifying 20 percent maternal death rate. Of mothers delivering at home, only 1 percent died. Semmelweis concluded that doctors themselves were carrying the disease between patients, and he mandated that every doctor and nurse on his ward scrub with a nail brush and chlorine between patients. The puerperal death rate immediately fell to 1 percent - incontrovertible proof, it would seem, that he was right. Yet elsewhere, doctors' practices did not change. Some colleagues were even offended by his claims; in was impossible to them that doctors could be killing their patients. Far from being hailed, Semmelweis was ultimately dismissed from his job.

He writes a chapter Naked, on the intimacy involved in a doctor/patient relationship. The doctor is clothed, the patient often naked with examination techniques that requires that the doctor touch them. He speaks of the different ways this relationship manifests itself in patient care in Afghanistan, Venezuela, England, and the United States. Should a chaperone be present? He lays bare his own internal debate and the differences between his father's approach and his own. One of the central themes of this book is success in the performance of medicine, and that makes itself plain in this chapter's conclusion:

It is unsettling to find how little it takes to defeat success in medicine. You come as a professional equipped with expertise and technology. You do not imagine that a mere matter of etiquette could foil you. But the social dimension turns out to be as essential as the scientific...

Gawande's approach to practicing medicine values the humane above the technological and efficient. The book is built on the notion that human connection improves medicine. One chapter ponders the wisdom of our malpractice system as it exists - the inevitability of human error, the suffering of those not served well by the medical system, the arbitrariness of compensation. Another chapter asks why the records of success and failure of doctors and hospitals are not more readily accessible to patients and more frequently confronted by the caregivers themselves. Like every other industry, medicine's performances can be charted on the bell curve, i.e., most performance is average.

It belies the promise that we make to patients: that they can count on the medical system to give them their very best chance. It also contradicts the belief nearly all of us have that we are doing our job as well as it can be done.

Another chapter asks the simple question - how much should a doctor earn? Like each of his chapters, that question is couched in a narrative where a character faces a conflict (the essential need for any drama). In this case a young Gawande fresh from his residency is about to begin practicing medicine. It is the skill of his writing - mixing good story telling and straightforward style, that makes his interesting points compulsively readable.

Gawande writes admiringly of the remarkable Virgnia Apgar, the doctor for whom the Apgar Score is named, whose innovation revolutionized childbirth and the care of newborn, and who seemed a remarkable person to boot:

one of the first women to be admitted to the surgical residency at Columbia University college of Physicians and Surgeons in 1933...She wasn't just a talented violinist; she also made her own instruments. She began flying single-engine planes at the age of fifty-nine...

I could not find any published biography when I Googled her. Perhaps his publisher should ask Gawande if he is up for the challenge.

This book emphasizes the value of building relationships and being open with ourselves and each other as a way to practice better medicine and to live more rewarding lives:

What is more likely to save [a life] - investment in laboratory science or in efforts to improve how existing medical care performs?
The answer most people would come to is investment in laboratory science - the search for a cure....To be sure, we need innovations to expand our knowledge and therapies...but we have not effectively used the abilities science has already given us. And we have not made remotely adequate efforts to change that. When we've made a science of performance, however - as we've seen with hand washing, wounded soldiers, child delivery - thousands of lives have been saved. Indeed, the scientific effort to improve performance in medicine - an effort that at present gets only a miniscule portion of scientific budgets - can arguably save more lives in the next decade than bench science...the stakes could not be higher.

Gawande touches on this theme over and over again, whether writing about the latest technological advances in treatment, about triage on soldiers during war, or treatment in a clinic in Nanded, India. Success in medicine can happen in any context - he insists - and it depends on improving performance

Having a machine is not the cure; understanding the ordinary, mundane details that must go right for each particular problem is.

He sums up by offering suggestions about making a difference in practicing medicine, which are useful advice for making a difference in living your life in any arena. They arose by asking himself a question - something he seems to do often and well. The question is this: "how might one become a positive deviant? " I recommend reading his five suggestions as I did, as the conclusion to this kind and tough-minded book. And I applaud his celebration of the usefulness of deviance. How encouraging.

To play my new Positive Deviant Challenge click here!

Summer Poetry Challenge Directory - Get Your Copy Here!

And here it is, as promised, the list of each participant and their four poems, (the ones I've received, at any rate). A full list of declared participants can be found on my side bar. Once we get to posting day - I will link each list to that blogger's posting of his or her poems.

pre-1900: Paradise Lost by Milton

1900 - 2000: a pick from Adam Zagajewski's Without End

2000-2007: a pick from Talking Dirty to the Gods - Yusef Komunyakaa

From any period: Persephone the Wanderer by Louise Glück

Before 1900: “And did those feet in ancient time” by William Blake — 1804

1900-2000: “Les Feuilles Mortes” by Jacques Prévert

2000-2007: “We Gather” by Nikki Giovanni — 2007

A poem I find mysterious: “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll — 1871

Before 1900: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald), written 11th or 12th century.

1900-2000: 'The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower' by Dylan Thomas - 1933

2000-2007: 'Cactus' by Siobhan Harvey (one for Australia!) - 2007.

Lastly, 'Waiting for the Barbarians' by Constantine Cavafy, mysterious to me as it's captured the inspiration of some of my favourite writers, yet I have never read it - 1904.

Before 1900: Paradise Lost - by John Milton. I read it when I was a junior in high school, for English - and I can honestly say that that doesnt' count. I need to read it in its entirety again.

1900 - 2000: To Brooklyn Bridge - by Hart Crane

2000 - 2007: Anahorish 1944 - by Seamus Heaney

Poem I find mysterious: Sailing to Byzantium - WB Yeats

Pre-1900: Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman - 1855

1900-2000: The Man with the Blue Guitar by Wallace Stevens - 1937

2000-2007: Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit
by Timothy Donnelly - 2001-2003

Mysterious: The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda - 1973

Loose Baggy Monster:
Pre-1900: Dante's "Inferno"

1900-2000: Something by Osip Mandelstam (perhaps "To the German Language"-1932)

2000-2007: "Early Hour" by Wislawa Szymborska-2006.

Any period: "For My Enemies" by Boris Pasternak

Before 1900: Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (I'm reading the whole collection, but I'll choose one poem from each part to post)

1900-2000: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, "Tomorrow's Wind" (1977) (I *love* Russian poetry, but I usually read the older stuff)

2000-2007: "Reading the Entrails: a Rondel" by Neil Gaiman (I'm awful about modern poetry, but I like this poem and it's short)

Other: Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" (I chose it because 1) I've always had a problem w/ Plath for committing suicide and 2) the poem itself is quite disturbing, but also haunting and powerful)