Archive for December, 2011

Live Your Life

December 30, 2011


   Clearly and obviously I am among the more dazed and confused.  Can’t stay on topic.  Short attention span.  Where some, most it seems, see the path before them plain as day – even if it be one requisite of adroit maneuver – I usually can’t see my own fingers if arm’s at full extension.

  Sometimes there’s something going on in my head that causes not a little distress.  Though I’ve had florid (sober) hallucinations, I’ve have never heard voices and never lost a reality test (at least not one of which I was aware), but I have indeed felt the weighty presence of an uninvited emotional tone.

  Makes me think of a couple of things.  First the Russell Crowe/John Nash character in A Beautiful Mind.  Like I said, I don’t have manifest imaginary friends but do occasionally have stuff I sometimes successfully banish to the periphery.  A dismal succession of future events more often than a winning lottery ticket.

  Secondly Julian Jaynes.  I’ve previously mentioned his incredible book Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  The chief premise is that human preconsciousness was characterized by auditory hallucinations – voices -“gods”.  Of which such things occurring here and now are vestigial traces.  From barely discernable rumblings all the way to schizophrenia.  Hmmm.

  Maurice Sendak. Listening to an interview with him yesterday on that wonderful NPR “Fresh Air” program I heard him tell Terri Gross:  “…which is what the creative act is all about.  Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean… when I was younger I was afraid of something that didn’t make a lot of sense… [but now I know that]  There’s nothing to worry about.”

  Maybe there’s hope.  I do indeed agree that it can help to write shit down.

GROSS: Well, I’m really glad we got the chance to speak because when I heard you had a book coming out I thought what a good excuse to call up Maurice Sendak and have a chat

SENDAK: Yes, that’s what we always do, isn’t it?

GROSS: Yeah, it is

SENDAK: Thank God we’re still around to do it.


SENDAK: (Who’s 83) And almost certainly, I’ll go before you go, so I won’t have to miss you.

GROSS: Oh, God what a…

SENDAK:  …It doesn’t matter.  I’m a happy old man. 

GROSS: I wish you all good things

SENDAK: And I wish you all good things… Live your life, live your life, live your life.

  That’s going to be my New Year’s Resolution.

*If you haven’t ever listened to “Fresh Air” you are doing yourself a great disservice.  Go to the website and listen to the podcast of this interview.  It was played yesterday as an encore from September because it was the most commented upon interview of the 2011.


December 23, 2011


  Yesterday I was reading an article* about Carlos Jimenez, a young (52 which is younger than I am anyway) architect in Houston and remembered visiting him in his office about a decade ago.  Looking back through my notes, I remembered that he introduced me to the concept of generosity in architecture – its power to enhance the quality of one’s living.

He had entertained thoughts of entering the priesthood.  Those thoughts had long ago left him but, “my Catholic background was very beneficial because I learned a lot about human qualities that have a kind of transformative power.  And as I do architecture, I realize that one has a duty to transform certain realities.  Any project calls forth an occasion to solve its problems and aspire beyond them.  That is when a work of architecture arises…”

As opposed to a thoughtless agglomeration of rooms.  There are differences both subtle and not so.  It is no surprise that great architects relish opportunities to design places of worship whether they be churches or museum.  People visit those building types hoping to be moved spiritually and are thus prized consumers of finely wrought spaces.

All makes me think of the off quoted notion (here and elsewhere) that “architecture is nothing but frozen music” and am sure that many folks more quickly recall being moved by music than by moving through built space.  It is universal.  Incredibly so.

A few months ago on NPR’s Fresh Air I heard a researcher describe a situation involving a profoundly handicapped young woman.  She had been born with only the most ancient components of a brain enabling only the most basic physiological systems.

There had never been any concern for her experience of life because no one figured there was awareness.  One day, for some reason, someone brought in a music box, wound it up, and pushed go.  It was immediately apparent that there was register as she turned toward the device ever so slowly in a process reminiscent of a slow motion take of a flower turning toward the sun.  There were gasps all around.

Those of us more fortunate can notice differing effects of the differing permutations of particular arrangements of notes or rooms.  Take the exact same sets of either, rearrange them, and voila – something new, but generative of very different emotion.

Like this for example:

  Or this:

*Architect, December 2011

**Jimenez was on the shortlist for the design of a new art museum in a city by the Mississippi.  Here is what he said about the site: “I am struck by the rich potential of the chosen site…challenge will be to address these two compelling forces (urban grid and the river) in a building that bridges and filters one and the other.  The collection, the galleries, light, space, flows, views, landscape, all must merge”.    His aesthetic is similar to the one selected, but method of delivery more sensual.

How To Never Have A Sick Day

December 16, 2011


   I obviously like words.  I have the OED on my hard drive and enjoy just cruising through it from time to time.  My son used to call me Mr. Big Words, but truth be told I am almost always dead last in a Scrabble challenge.  Guess I’m just good at looking stuff up.

  I should probably come clean though and fess that my favorite words are monosyllabic, terse, and widely understood.  Even among non English speakers.   I remember a drunken Swedish stevedore reeling them off on a North Sea wharf long ago even before I heard George Carlin do so. 

  They come in handy.  Our first dog would hide when she heard me strapping on my tool belt because she knew what to expect.  Our recently passed pal Sauger wouldn’t though, but he was a guy and must have understood. 

  I’m sure I’m responsible for the, uh, clever part of our three kids’ vocabulary.  Isn’t it an event of which to be proud when your child is first heard to say “oh crap” when the family gets caught outside in the rain?  Or drops the f-bomb at Thanksgiving dinner while sporting a cherubic first step grin?

  Furthermore, I’m happy to relate that there is no longer any reason to feel even a twinge of guilt for having set such an example.  Exemplar is more like it.  Salty language has been proven to be an avenue to salubrity.  “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear” said psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in England in his study “Swearing as a response to pain”.

  He and his colleague Claudia Umland undertook a project in which subjects held their hands in freezing water for as long as they could.  Some were told to spew epithet(s) of choice without relent and others to keep mum.  The former withdrew their hands long after the latter group gave up.

  Scientists theorize that cursing emanates from a different part of the brain than does pitter patter.  A part (the amygdala) more closely associated with emotion and the fight or flight response.  It has been an evolutionary advantage to feel one’s self gird quickly up at the first note of pain through whatever sensory system the message might have arrived.

  Hmm.  I read somewhere that Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney said that trolling his mind for just the right word was indeed like throwing a line in a pond to catch a fish.  What could be the metaphor or simile for my more base proclivity?  Like plunging a stool? 

  Oh well, could though be why I haven’t had a sick day in thirty-five years.  I’ll have to ask Dr. Brother.  And hope he doesn’t say anything to Mom.

*Study was published in the journal NeuroReport in July 2009.  I read about it in Scientific American.

I Need The Eggs

December 9, 2011


  Interestingly, in his new book Who’s In Charge* cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga wrote: “…we are people, not brains” by which he means that, uh, the whole is more than the sum of the parts.  That though an emergent property of the bit of grey matter up top, a meeting of minds can not be understood as can, say, theIndianapolis 500 by the mechanics of an internal combustion engine.

  He holds that: “analyzing single brains in isolation cannot illuminate the capacity of responsibility”.  Rather, it is “an interaction between people – a social contract”.  One, crucially, able to be honored or broken.  And it’s irreducible.  A solitary test lap would be meaningless.

  Makes me think of the Buddhist imperative to “forget the self”, because there’s not one really there to begin with.  It’s (they say) a construct assembled by the brain from inputs internal and external to aid us in navigation through a daily routine.  If some combination of influences doesn’t make you feel trustworthy or un-, you will have no ability to feel either.

  Perhaps the example of feral children can provide a useful, if horrific, example. Romulusand Remus aside, there have indeed been cases of infants and children who survived early extreme neglect, sometimes actually with the nurturance of wild animals.  If protracted, a child’s mental and psychological development ends at a prehensile stage.

  Beyond hope and possibility of resurrection.  Should a one not be exposed to language – in any form – by puberty, the potential for later acquisition would have thus been rendered forever lost.  But, with luck and the agency of a “Good Enough Parent”**, a child grows to become part of a rich network with myriad relationships – some inchoate and fleeting some deep and long.

  Of the latter sort, I like the way Woody Allen put it in his film Annie Hall.   “I-I thought of that old joke, you know, this, this, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy.  He thinks he’s a chicken.’  And uh, the doctor says ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’  And the guy says ‘I would but I need the eggs’.  Well, I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships.  You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd and…but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.”

  I do.

*I read about this book in a review by Raymond Tallis in the 11/12-13 WSJ. Gazzaninga first gained prominence in the 50’s when he pioneered split brain research.  That is, brains in which the tissue connecting the halves – the corpus callosum – had been severed.  This lead to the knowledge of hemispherical specialization.  Interesting to note that the corpus callosum is more substantial in females.  I wonder what the ramifications of that are…

**I’ve heard this phrase a lot, but it’s capitalized in reference to the eponymous great book by Bruno Bettleheim.

***Perhaps the eggs come frequently to mind because Annie Hall came out – and won the Oscar – in 1977. The year I got my roommate.   

Best Doggone Dog In The West*

December 2, 2011


    That’s Sauger looking over Great Sand Dune National Park during a road trip with his soul mate a few summers ago.  He’d already turned twelve by then which is old for a big dog – just check out his grey muzzle.  He loved his home, but wouldn’t be separated from her if it was within his power not to be and he thus enthusiastically accompanied her on this artist-in-residency.

  Although we have many photos of him with friends and all family members, I am quite drawn to the one above.  It makes me think hard about what the world must have looked like through his eyes.  It makes me remember the subtle new verve in his demeanor I noticed when the two of them picked me up at the dusty windblown airport about an hour from that remote park.

  He’d seen things.  Smelled them first probably.   Ya, imagine the rich sensual experience it was for him, an Iowa boy, to take it all in from high up the side of a mountain.  Then near the end of their stay, it must have been an immensely satisfying, if uncomplicated, recapitulation of an incredible existential adventure.

  He’d had to worry about blowing sand, coyotes at night, weird birds and bugs, a thundering herd of elk, steep mountain trails, and the cold snow rimmed (in summer!) mountain lake far above tree line – all the while keeping close tabs on his companion.  He and she had survived it all – together – and their bond deepened to unplumbed depths by the end of the experience. 

  In his book Dogs Never Lie About Love, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson goes to a very great length to describe canine capacity for emotion and our capacity to be drawn into it.  “Perhaps it harks back to a time when humans were more like dogs, more spontaneous, more capable of expressing joy, able to experience intense emotions and enjoy the world outside our skins more immediately, in the same way we see our dogs doing.”

  “If any species on earth shares this miraculous ability with us [to love intensely and completely] it is the dog, for the dog truly loves us, sometimes beyond expectation, beyond measure, beyond what we deserve, more, indeed, than we love ourselves.”

  Holy Dogs.  Our friend Sauger moved on earlier this week just a few months shy of his fifteenth birthday.  He was strong and vigorous till nearly the very end and the marvel of vet, friend, and foe.

  Here’s how it is for his favorite artist: “It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them.  And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart.  If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog and I will become as generous and loving as they are.”

  Jeesh.  Best doggone dog in the west.       

*From the lyrics to the song you just heard.  See the movie if you haven’t.

**cf post of 6/9/10 for Sauger’s near drowning

***cf post of 10/17/09 for more about the Sand Dunes

****cf post of 5/8/09 for a photo and emotional prelude

*****cf post of 11/21/08 for a photo and a brief look into his mind