Archive for October, 2010


October 29, 2010


  Sometimes while passing through the entryway to my grocery store I watch pasty sorts of folks assiduously scrubbing down shopping carts before touching them.  No foolin’.  A little exercise would boost their immune systems far more than the deficit a few germs might cause and would put a bit of color in their cheeks to boot.

   You can be too clean.  When I was a kid my MD grandfather would say that the healthiest babies were those nursed from coke bottles to which plastic nipples had been attached.  Recent research would uphold his observation.  As recounted in (among other places) a fine article by Melinda Beck in the 5-18-10 WSJ, the “hygiene hypothesis” holds that “exposure to a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasitic worms early in life helps prime a child’s immune system much like sensory experiences program his brain”.

  The simile is made even more interesting by the fact that Gerald Edelman, awarded the medicine Nobel for his elucidation of immune system mechanics, was the one who later drew the analogy between it and neuronal development.  He coined the term “Neural Darwinism”.

  Allergies and autoimmune diseases were rare before the advent of modern sanitation and still are in the third world.  Furthermore, there are clinical trials underway (re)introducing bugs such as pig whipworm to the gut as treatment for those “modern” ailments.

  The article also points out that “children who grow up on farms have low rates of allergies and asthma”; “children who attend day care during the first six months of life have lower incidence of eczema and asthma”; “Having one or more older siblings also protects against hay fever, asthma, multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes” (you’re welcome bro); and more.

  Very obviously however, one does not wish a return to the unsanitary conditions of yore.  The ultimate ramifications of poor water quality are even more pernicious than the obvious tragedy of an elevated infant mortality rate.  The energy drained by endemic diarrhea during impoverished youth will irreversibly attenuate cerebral potential and thus that of an eventual ruling class.

  But, still, here we are.  I once asked MD brother how dogs could drink from questionable puddles and not get sick.  He said “a better question is why we would”.  In the 10-15-10 Men’s Journal, Yvon Chouinard gave as his best survival tip that one should drink out of every stream one might fish.  Gave him a good gut.  “I can go to any country and eat out of the bazaars and don’t get sick.”

  Hmm.  Never seen catfish in a Patagonia catalogue…

*Top photo from the WSJ article

**Kid who rolled in paint went then to a mud hole.  Dad got in trouble.

***Bottom photo shows that we count on her for everything.      

How To Feel Good About Yourself

October 22, 2010

  Majolica is a type of earthenware ceramics characterized by rich design, broad and bright pallet, and glossy surface.  These attributes arise due to the presence of tin as the flux in the glaze.  The resulting relatively high viscosity restricts flow during firing and thus enables a sharpness of detail unusual in the surface treatment of fired clay.

  This ceramic style originated in the Middle East and accompanied the spread of Islam across Northern Africa and into Spain.  It got to Italy via the island of Majorca from whence the name.  Similarly Faenza, Italy was eponymized after sending examples to France where vessels of that nature to be called faience.  The Dutch waited for proficient differentiation and felt ok calling it Delftware.

  These centuries later, after mastering the requisite considerable skill, artists take the technique wherever their hearts might lead.  Well, my favorite artist has a huge heart and as you see here above and below, her work exudes joy and exuberance in uncommon measure. 

  The pieces are clearly functional and meant – no, yearn – to be used.  They engender the sort of feeling with which one finds him/herself imbued after a leisurely stroll through a fine farmer’s market lush with produce still sparkling with morning dew.

  That it is of a special nature I learned anew while reading an article* about, of all things, prosopagnosia – the impairment (slight to severe) of face perception.  Oliver Sacks wrote about an extreme case in his Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.  While for that man the cause had to do with Alzheimer’s, in many it is simply a part of their neurological constitution.  

  I think my artist would agree that I have much greater facility with names and faces than does she though she can nonetheless quickly (and enthusiastically!) pick loved ones out of any crowd and that’s the point.  Observation and research suggests that emotion plays a large and discrete role in face recognition and in my artist emotion flows like the Amazon.

    Jane Goodall has the condition and is unable to put a name with a face (human or chimp) before some degree of a relationship has had a chance to evolve.  It’s no news flash that her heart and mind are well connected and it’s tough now not to speculate about the extraordinary manifestations of her particular constellation of synaptic connections.    

  Most interestingly, for the purpose herewith, is that well known portrait artist Chuck Close is severely prosopagnosic.  He believes that the condition “has played a crucial role in driving his unique artistic vision” which amplifies an initial visual impact into something just this side of a wonderful hallucination.

  I think that my artist is wired up in such a way that her manners of perception interweave with her ebullience to create a constantly evolving yet unmistakable body of work – from kids, to dogs, to food, and yes, to pots.  Look at her stuff, doesn’t it make you feel better about yourself?

*”Face-Blind”, by Oliver Sacks in the 8/30/10 New Yorker. 

The Endless Unknown

October 15, 2010


  In his work Lucian Freud conveys incredible emotional depth and complexity.  It should surprise no one that he is the grandson of Sigmund Freud and furthermore, for me, his oeuvre proves that the founder of psychoanalysis was on to something no matter what modern critics might say. 

  (L) Freud has said that: “Quality in art is inextricably bound up with emotional honesty”, which is not to say transparency.  He goes on: “The advantage of taking so long is that it allows me to include more than one expression”.  Ya  There’s a lot going on in the mind of the fellow above and it would take a lifetime of analysis or a lobotomy for any hope of eventual serenity.

  It is difficult to leave the gaze of a Freud subject such as the one above without, first, feeling the rumble of one’s own complexes.  The title of the picture above conveys this sense perfectly: “Reflection”.  Then, as you walk away, you realize that the frame of reference is much larger and you wonder about universal truths.

  Are there any?  I’ll bet that Freud would not be surprised to learn that recent research indicates that the laws of physics might not be consistent across the whole of our universe.  Or that some think that the human mind has reached its capacity for understanding the cosmos.  For the time being anyway.

  Juxtaposed with cave paintings or ancient petroglyphs carved into rock, Freud’s art embodies a sense of the degree to which consciousness has evolved thus far.  Oh, for a take some 10,000 years hence.  Try to imagine a state of mind holding an image of Freud in the same regard as we do not an ancient stick figure!

*The quotes have been drawn from an article in the 9/25/10 Economist.  Where else?

**The bit was a review of a new book I can’t wait to read: Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.  The author, Martin Gayford calls Freud “omnivorous” in his search for “weight, texture and irreducible uniqueness of what he sees”.  I know the feeling.  See 1/31/09 and 4/10/09 below.

***Interestingly, just as a face or the representation of one can project outwardly with great force, so can inwardly a simple facial tactile experience.  The relative density of neuronal connections on a face is huge.  A recent experiment showed that continuous tweaking of just one whisker on the muzzle of rat stroke victim was enough to stimulate sufficient redirected blood flow to alleviate major damage.  WSJ 7/27/10

****Cartoon from the NYT


…All Sounds Are Music

October 8, 2010


  Just after putting up last post I turned on TV and there was the opening of August Rush.  No foolin’.  What adds to the amazement, given this particular turn of events, is that Sting wrote the music and lyrics for “Synchronicity”.  That’s the term coined by Carl Jung which has been defined as a combination of events that do not obey rules of time, space, and/or causality*.

  The film is the incredible story of the first eleven years in the life of the orphaned musical prodigy to whom you just listened.  He was the product of a chance, but seemingly meant to be, encounter between a classical cellist and an Irish rock musician. 

  Here’s a transcription of the opening lines: 

Can you hear it? 
The music. 
I can hear it everywhere. 
In the wind… 
… in the air… 
… in the light. 
It’s all around us. 
All you have to do is open yourself up. 
All you have to do… 
… is listen. 

  Several things interest me about those words.  First of all, they relate truth.  Music is sound and sound is vibration and as Daniel Levitin wrote in his This Is Your Brain On Music:  “… it would be difficult to imagine an advanced species that had no ability whatsoever to sense vibrating objects”.  Earthbound or otherworldly.  The science is quite convincing.

  In humans, music is wired into a brain more tightly than the perception of color.  If a particular note, say an A at 440 Hz, is played into an ear, certain neurons would fire at exactly that frequency.  Electrodes attached to those neurons would send out a 440Hz signal.  Nothing similar happens with vision and color.

  Secondly, the essential concept buried deep in that soliloquy goes way back.  All the way to Pythagoras.  It’s called ‘music of the spheres’ or ‘harmony of the spheres’.  It states that “heavenly bodies, being large bodies in motion must produce music… It is hidden from our ears only because it is always present…”**

  Thirdly, in between came American radical musician/composer John Cage whose work “4’33’’” debuted on August 29, 1952.  It consisted of him sitting before his piano for four and one half minutes without making a sound.  “There is no such thing as silence” he said.  “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement.  During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof”.

  In a recent profile of Cage in the New Yorker*** scholar Kyle Gann calls the “4’33’’” “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.”

  Below you will see the prodigy during his first encounter with a guitar in which he doesn’t exactly play it, but he’s not just sitting there either.   And it certainly is music.

*Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis

**Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

***The New Yorker October 4, 2010

When the West Wind Moves

October 1, 2010


  That’s obviously Sting’s “Field’s of Gold”.  The piece is an incredible combination of emotive music and powerful poetic narrative.  It is said that the notion for the piece came to him as he walked through a barley field near his home not far from Stonehenge.

  Wind moving through that field catalyzed the thought of a young couple making love upon it – “See the west wind move like a lover so upon the fields of barley”.   From there the story of a relationship unfolds, develops, and matures.

  The song came out in 1993 on his “Ten Summoner’s Tales” album and I remember listening to it then.  It became one of two bits of music I set up as goals eight months ago when I began my relationship with a guitar.  I bought an “Easy Pop Melodies” songbook in June and turned to the page, but couldn’t even get started.

  Several days ago, I thought I’d give it a try again.  A few pickup notes and a single measure later I was almost overcome with surprise by having figured it out and with emotion at the power of the sound being made by my clumsy fingers.  I was shocked.  I felt like an apprentice wizard with a magic wand and spell book.

  Perfect timing for several reasons.  First of all is that the mostly corn and bean fields around here are ripening to gold just now and it is beautiful to move among them*.  It is at this turn of seasons – summer to fall – that one’s mind casts back a bit to consider lives lived thus far: 

Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the Fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold. 

  Secondly, roommate’s out of town again and dang if that doesn’t heighten the impact of such music and rumination.  We have for the most part been able to “forget the sun in his jealous sky” but, pushing sixty, the pace of reminders has begun to quicken. 

*Of a sudden the opening of August Rush came to mind.  See it if you haven’t.