Archive for January, 2009

From Iowa with Love

January 31, 2009


  The world looks different from a train.  When you’re driving you have to concentrate on what’s ahead. Keep your wits about you. It’s fatiguing.  You think in terms of starting point and destination.  Fuel and fast food.

  On a train you don’t look ahead unless you’re the engineer.  You look out to the side upon the world as it is.  No pavement, no bright lights.  Just now it’s dusk, January, and we’re crossing the Mississippi.  It’s frozen and covered with snow.  There are several bald eagles low over the small bit of open water still looking for something to eat.  I don’t envy them. 

  Now we are pulling through a small village and I’m reminded of Breughel’s winter scenes.  In those pictures you watch people interact and think about what their lives might have been like.  On a train, and in a museum, you can employ your mind to consider background, context, follow your thoughts wherever they might lead.  It looks cold out there.  I wonder if the people in that farmhouse are warm.  Do they have to go out and feed their livestock again tonight?     

  Train travel is also a kinesthetic experience.  Obviously one can rise and move about with much more ease than from the backseat or ‘the middle seat’.  On a train you become part of the swaying and the rhythms. At modest speeds it feels like a saunter on horseback.  Perhaps that’s why they’re called chemins de fer – paths of iron – in France.

  Certainly, road trips can be really great for extended conversation.  I’ve many, many very fond memories of being sealed in a vehicle with our whole family for hours on end. I’m sure my wife and kids would all agree those rides procured their own special sort of joy.  Back in the days before cell phones… 

  But kids are scattered to all four corners of the earth (well three) and I’m sitting across from their mother enjoying her company.  She’s sketching me which always sort of feels like, uhm, a homeopathic massage.  Makes me feel like daydreaming…

  “Everything conspired to make him sleep – the hasty metal gallop of the wheels, the hypnotic swoop of the silver telegraph wires, the occasional melancholy, reassuring moan of the steam whistle clearing their way, the drowsy metallic chatter of the couplings at each end of the corridor, the lullaby creak of the woodwork in the little room…” 

  “He looked down at the beautiful sleeping profile.  How innocent she looked, this girl from the Russian Secret Service – the lashes fringing the soft swell of the cheek, the lips parted and unaware, the long strand of hair that had strayed untidily across her forehead and that he wanted to brush back neatly to join the rest, the steady slow throb of the pulse in the offered neck…”*


  Next morning we wake to the soft pink glow of first light upon the mountains.  All is quiet but for the clickity clack clickity clack.

Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love**

  As we climb and draw near, lenticular clouds have formed and hover just above the ridge.  How do they hang there like that?


* From From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

** Poem by Gary Snyder

Expecto Patronum*

January 23, 2009

  The headline of a recent Daily Mail from London tells us that: “Richard Dawkins warns Harry Potter could have ‘negative effects’ on children”.  Dawkins is a recently retired professor from Oxford, scientist, and author of best seller The Selfish Gene.  The book first came out in 1976 and has sold over a million copies in twenty-five different languages.

  It is a very interesting look at evolution holding that the theory is best explained or understood from the point of view of a gene.  They function alone or in combination with others with the sole purpose of ensuring their own replication.  This usually, but not always, works to the benefit of the particular organism in which a gene exits. 

  An example of a case in which it does not is that of a male praying mantis in search of a mate.  You probably know that the female usually eats the male after they’ve done the dirty.  Too bad for him fer sure, but his genes made it to the pool whatever his consort might have had for lunch.

  So why in the world would he worry about Harry Potter?  As I’ve said (way) above, there are fundamentalists of all sorts of stripes.  Indeed, Dawkins has been accused of attempting to establish a religion built around evolution.  Being a prominent and very public atheist, he makes a very odd bedfellow for those mustering the clerical assault on Hogwarts.

  Book bannings and burnings are nothing new of course.  In fact those ashen pages make quite an august group.  Leaves of Grass, Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, and Civil Disobedience (!) just to name a few in English.  Why not Cinderella, Snow White, and the Wizard of Oz?  Hey, what about the witches in Macbeth?  “Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble…”  Hmmm. I’m gonna guess that those who get worked up about Harry Potter haven’t made it to Shakespeare.

  Kids learn valuable lessons from fairy tales and other fiction.  And are OK at reality testing.  In his National Book Award winning (1977) The Uses of Enchantment psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote: “a child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious… It is here that fairy tales have unequaled value, because they offer new dimensions to the child’s imagination which would be impossible for him to discover as truly on his own.” 

  The problem with fundamentalist adults, it has long seemed to me, is that the words that leave their lips express desperate attempts to convince themselves that the doubts lurking deep in their unconscious are unfounded.  And as Bettelheim continues: “When the unconscious material is repressed and its content denied entrance into awareness, then eventually the person’s conscious mind will be partially overwhelmed by derivatives of these unconscious elements, or else he is forced to keep such rigid, compulsive control over them that his personality may become severely crippled.”

  They get stuck and never take up such important tomes as the one my thoughtful (and well yes perceptive) brother gave me for Christmas: The Encyclopedia Of Immaturity.  There are approximately 240 entries.  I’m already to page 18 which helps me brush up on “How to Make Noises Under Your Arm”.  I’m trying to get each lesson down before turning the page, but I couldn’t help noticing that “The Case Against Chores”, “Here are Your Lifetime Goals”, “Be a Stapler Artiste”, “Do the Bubblegum Nose Bubble”, and “The Cas Aginst Gud Spelg” lie ahead.

  My wife said it was the perfect gift for me.  Also that my brother is better looking than am I as well as much handier.  She hasn’t laughed at my new facility with the brachial noisemaker. Jeesh. I’ll get even once I master “How to Be A Rubber Band Ninja Warrior” and “How to Make an Air Puff Annoyer”.       

*Expecto Patronum is a spell first used in the Harry Potter book Prisoner of Azkaban.  According to Wikipedia it “Conjures an incarnation of the caster’s innermost positive feelings such as joy and hope…”

Grace Under Pressure

January 16, 2009

 Once heard Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live being interviewed.  Questioned about what made for the best guest hosts he responded “athletes” without missing a beat.  He said that people like Michael Jordan were used to being in front of a demanding audience and performing under pressure.

  He didn’t mention the tremendous work ethic that great athletes must also have.  Or the ability to take mistakes in stride or worse – how to deal with “the agony of defeat”.

  Youngest daughter played D1 soccer for four seasons.  Team made it to the Big 10 championships her last season.  Lost by one point to the eventual #1.  They worked out from 7:00 AM to 10:00 AM and several hours late in the PM six days a week.  And that was the off season.  Seniors all graduated with honors.

  She’s now in Aspen working at an exclusive club.  Waitress/sommelier.  Her first time in Colorado was during the summer before she was born.  I remember being concerned for her prenatal wellbeing when we all hiked above the upper lift at Aspen Highlands.  +12,000 ft.  I worried that the thin air might somehow attenuate her potential to, well, smile.

  Needn’t have worried.  On her Facebook wall her brother’s post read: “Why is it that in every picture you look like you are having more fun than everyone else in the room?”  In Sydney, Australia she and a friend won the grand prize at a karaoke contest singing “Born in the USA” along with the Boss.  Who else could get away with something like that?  In June of 2008?  Her name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “source of joy” so maybe that’s it.

  Lorne Michaels’ thoughts came to mind when we heard that senior staff at the club were favorably impressed with her performance.  Maneuvering trays and bottles through a room crowded with demanding folks has to be easier than doing the same with a ball through a bunch of Amazons intent upon inflicting bodily harm.

  These months have been a great opportunity for her to sift through her thoughts of the year she spent working at a fine winery in New Zealand.  She’s just now begun evaluating graduate programs in viticulture and oenology.  I was quite taken by her response to my question of what drew her interest thereto.

  She said “Dad, you can’t cheat or lie.  You can only do the best you can do with the soil and the grapes.  The fact that a crucial ingredient, the weather, is completely beyond the vintner’s control only makes the work more interesting”.

  Her first comment evoked a vision of the current scoundrels of Wall Street.  I thought about how all of the ugly headlines must reverberate across the cerebrations of those with career choices not yet hardwired in.

  Then it dawned on me that she was talking about farming and how, in any of its permutations, agriculture is the archetype for an honest living.  For exactly the reasons she mentioned. 

  A few years ago some urbanite asked Pulitzer Prize winning poet Jorie Graham why she lived in Iowa:

  “Iowans respect work.  When one comes to live and work here, from whatever corner of the globe, one realizes after a while that one is working amidst people who work hard, who work with their hands, who stand between land and sky, corn prices and weather, with determination and faith and courage and an uncluttered understanding of the value of work.  When you sit down to work in their midst – you have a deep sense of their being at work in your midst.  Whether it’s the farmland that surrounds us, or the small businesses struggling around us, writers in Iowa are encircled – and instructed – by all kinds of other real work being done… One can feel the rightness of a well-planted thing, the incredible hard work it takes to make it come to fruition, the miracles and the sweat and the patience and the technique – both literal and imaginary – are in fact poems or stories that carry in their marrow the values and the beliefs of that community…” 

  Yup, can take the girl out of Iowa, but can’t take Iowa out of the girl.


The grapes of my body can only become wine
After the winemaker tramples me.
I surrender my spirit like grapes to his trampling
So my inmost heart can blaze and dance with joy.
although the grapes go on weeping blood and sobbing
“I cannot bear any more anguish, and more cruelty”
The trampler stuffs cotton in his ears: “I am not working in ignorance
You can deny me if you want, you have every excuse,
But it is I who am the Master of this Work.
And when through my Passion you reach Perfection
You will never be done praising my name.”


Persian mystic Jelaluddin Rumi  1207-1273

January 9, 2009


 It’s been nearly two years since my father passed away, but his office (adjacent to mine) has remained more or less the way he left it.  Only real work undertaken in there over the last twenty months has been the administration of his estate.  I used his desk for that effort and all sorts of statements, letters, appraisals, and other assorted documents have lain strewn atop it.

  Several weeks ago the notice came from Uncle Sam that everything seemed to be in order and I decided it was time to straighten things up.  I first looked through the old roll top desk (that was first my grandfather’s) behind his main work space.  Found two bank books from erstwhile institutions that didn’t make it through the thirties.   The last entry in the American Commercial and Savings Bank book was for a deposit of $883.36 on September 22, 1931.  I checked and that bank failed before the end of that year.  Hope Grandpa got his money out.

  Then I came across several of Dad’s report cards.  Grades 4,5, and 7.  Back then E was excellent, G very satisfactory, A average, F below average, and P “not sufficient for passing”.  Dad’s were all E and G in grade school, but dropped a bit in junior high.  I thought back to the horror that I found 7th grade to be and tried to picture him there.  I remember a few of his stories from grade school and all sorts of his exploits from high school on, but nothing in between.  Hmmm, I’ll have to ask my brother if he remembers anything.

  I decided to try to make space in a wide standing file cabinet just to the left.  I pulled the door of the second shelf out, up, and back and began to sort through the sheaves.  Estates.  My father’s parents and paternal grandparents.  Took me quite – way – aback.

  Dad’s passing, even though it was not sudden, left me feeling half exposed to the cosmos.  It was as if a hole in the ozone opened just over my head allowing a powerful new force to pour down upon me.  It was searing.  Sitting there behind Dad’s desk looking through generations of funeral bills I realized more fully than ever before that one day I’d find myself in that filing cabinet or one like it.

Chicago          March 3, 1914               
David D Mee & Co Undertakers:
1 Casket                $65
Embalming              $10.00
Auto Hearse             $13.50
4 6 passenger autos     $54.00
1 Auto Flowers          $ 9.00
Total                   $151.50

  After meditating upon this for quite some time, I was able to throw enough stuff away (old power bills, laundry statements etc with which even I have no problem dispensing) to find a place for a new estate file.  Dad’s.

  I pulled the file door closed and sat back in his chair and thought about all of the times I’d entered in search of his advice.  It was always better to seek it out than wait for it to arrive.  “Son…” he would begin.  Experience taught that I had to figure out some things for myself, but that for others Dad always had answers.  I asked him about an electrical problem the day before he died.

  I was awakened from this new sort of reverie by my own son who rolled in for some financial advice.  “Dad, would you co-sign on this lease and Fed Ex it out today?”  It was a bit after 4:00 PM.

  “Sure” I said listening to Dad chuckle in the background.

Here’s Hopin’ for a Draw

January 2, 2009

  Talk about a battle for resources.  A new theory asserts that mental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism result from competition between genes from the sperm and egg.  They vie in utero over management of available nutrients.  The mother fights for moderation so she might live to bear another day while, given the opportunity, the father would empty the refrigerator to enhance the chance that each seed grows to maturity.

  A gene called IGF2 is inherited from both parents and promotes growth.  Usually the mother chemically muffles it so that demands for sustenance do not become voracious.  If the gene is fully active growth can becomes excessive.  As much as 50% above normal.

  The implications for brain development arise in the same region on chromosome 15.  There dominance can lead to conditions associated with autism on the father’s end of the spectrum and mood problems and psychosis on the mother’s.

  “Emotional problems like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, seen through this lens, appear on Mom’s side of the teeter-totter, with schizophrenia, while Asperger’s syndrome and other social deficits are on Dad’s. 

  One of the researchers, Christopher Badcock of the London School of Economics noticed that: “some problems associated with autism…are direct contrasts to those found in people with schizophrenia.  Where children with autism appear blind to other’ thinking and intentions, people with schizophrenia see intention and meaning everywhere.”

  My roommate tells me that I am rude, crude, unattractive, and am extremely symptomatic of all sorts of social deficit disorders.   I love it.  I is fine.  Thanks Dad!


* I learned about all of this in an article in the 11/11/08 NYT by Benedict Carey.