Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Making Resolutions

[Prayer flags in a Buddhist monastery seem appropriate to illustrate the thoughts of this blog. These are at a small shrine Yunnan province in China, not too far from where I broke my hip.]

It has been two years, in fact 26 months, since I tried to jump a ditch to get to some children to whom I wished to give some sheets of star stickers, missed and fell landing, heavily on my left side, breaking my hip. I was profoundly shocked. I was not old enough to have fragile bones -- a bone scan only a few months earlier said I was "normal" not osteoporotic. But it was broken. I healed quickly, I was soon dismissed by the visiting nurse and the physical therapy guy and soon walking properly again. Ten months later I went on a trip to the Czech Republic and Solvakia with day hikes of 3 to 5 miles.

I have read how a broken hip is often "the beginning of the end" for older people. "Older people!" Pah! Not me! So there. But I've noticed a cautiousness when I get on a step ladder to change a light bulb. I've noticed less walking distance. I've noticed weight gain. And I'm muttered [actually in English] merde. I don't like this. Of course I'm not going to live for ever; of course those arthritic type pains are going to happen, of course, I have the family genes for congestive heart disease [and a stent to go with it]. But it is not necessary to weigh 20 to 30 pounds more than a svelt weight; it is not necessary to have difficulty squatting to take a photo. I've done yoga most of my adult life -- why did I let myself stop! [My excuse was not knowing what I dared subject the hip to.] The flexibility and strength can be regained with daily practice -- this I KNOW deeply in my very body for I've done it. I know what I have to accept -- that I cannot change the rule: I will get older and never younger -- but I know what I can do about it.

I can not only make resolutions, I can fulfill them. To do yoga, to diet. simply enough. And once I've established the yoga habit again -- the feeling that I really can't get into bed at night without brushing my teeth and doing some yoga, then I can add the long thought about short periods of meditation which I believe will be a benefit both mentally and for the blood pressure. These are easy resolutions ... yeah, sure. Just ask anybody who's been a yo-yo dieter, yo-yo exerciser. These are, in any case, my resolutions. That and to stop thinking of blogging as a replacement for a few daily lines in a journal. It is NOT the same, not at all -- I'm not going to tell the world at large what I would tell a little book in my almost incypherable scrawl.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Our Crazy World

Reading other blogs, I found a note recapping an item I read in the newspaper but put out of mind as ridiculous. But apparently it's serious. One of th major drug companies has made a compound which they've submitted to the FDA for approval -- which they expect to get -- to sell a compound that will make eye lashes grow longer and more luxuriously. This is not a oosmetic company but a serious drug company. They apparently conjecture that they could make as much as $500,000,000 in a year selling this compound (which is to be applied only to the upper lashes) -- it makes hair follicles hyperactive, it seems.

There is no disease cuasing people not to have eyelashes. It seems to be a formula targeted at all the millions of mascara and false eyelash wearers who simply want longer lashes for the sake of vanity. The question is WHY? Why did a serious drug company spend R&D money on this formula? Was it an incidental discover in attempts to find something more beneficial? Nothing I read answered that question.

There are many serious diseases that affect relatively small numbers of people -- I think that might mean less than a one person per million. In Big Phrama parlance these are called "Orphan Diseases" because the possibility of large profits from a drug aimed at those diseases may not be enough to pay back the R&D costs. Some drug companies, nevertheless DO try to formulate drugs for at least some orphan diseases and do a great service to quite a few needy individuals.

Do people lose their eyelashes as they lose hair when they have certain kinds of chemo therapy? Wouldn't they need hair growth compounds more? I can think of no NEED for most people to grow longer, lusher eyelashes. If any reader has a contrary view, I'd LOVE to hear from you.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Cats an dogs

The last few days, now in the first long days of true winter, I have had a serious impulse to stay indoors and be a hermit. But I've pushed myself out into the cold, generally gray streets because it's "good for" me - yes, of course it is. When the feet move one in front of the other at a fairly speedy pace, the whole body benefits: th heart beats a bit faster, the stomach and bowels are stimulated and function better, the brain's endorphins rev up a bit and produce a feeling of well being. Walking is good. Yes, let's hear it for walking! My cardiologist recommends it -- briskly.

Every now and then I think I should get a dog. If I had a dog I would feel responsible to the critter to take him or her out twice a day. I wouldn't argue with myself that I'm cozy and comfy where I am and don't need to put on a heavy coat and scarf and gloves and hat and face the elements. I'd feel it was my duty toward the dog -- I know myself. The needs of others, including animals, are not to be ignored. They too have biological urges and appreciate attention - and they repay us with affection and companionship and their simple cuteness.

When I go out I see lots of dogs of all sizes and shapes and they all look lovable. I like cats, I've had cats, I like stroking a purring cat. I know it releases all those feel-good brain chemicals; I like that feeling. But cats in the city need liter boxes and liter boxes necessarily stink and must be cleaned and changed very regularly and no matter how fastidious the cat, it can't help but get litter granules in its paws and leave them on rugs around the house. There's only one little corner in the house where a litter box could be and I DON"T WANT a litter there. Darling as cats are, no cats, thank you very much. Ideally cats have a cat door and can go out to a backyard and do their thing most of the year. Not in the an apartment building like this.

Dogs? Yes, I like dogs. They need to be walked, they need even more attention than cats, but they are more dependably loving and playful. As I walked in Central Park yesterday I had a familiar discussion with myself. First of all one has no true freedom from a dog's needs. If there is a lovely companion or a wonderful neighbor, maybe it is possible to feel free to live one's life on one's schedule irrespective of the dog's needs, but without that, a dog's needs are more consistent and demanding than, say a spouse's even. My sense of responsibility is such that I would feel tied to a dog's needs and worry about coming home late -- what does a dog understand of an acquaintance met by chance? A subway stalled?

And then there's the question that people my age must think about. If I got a dog or cat at this time in, will I. We would grow somewhat decrepit and needy together. And just at my most vulnerable, at say 85 or 90, the animal would begin suffering old age symptoms and perhaps serious illness and perhaps die or have to be put down -- what an awful burden at that [human] age to lose a beloved companion, to see the parallels! It's cowardly to think in these terms, but it is also selfish to think that a darling dog acquired now will have a thriving life as long as I might live.

I know I would love a dog or cat but all these considerations convince me, no. Not now, perhaps not ever. And yet ... ah ... they say people live longer with pets ... the thoughts will recur, the question will not be resolved.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Who Said Life's Fair?

Still thinking about Outliers -- Gladwell is trying hard to define many of the factors that determine how individuals act and whether or not they achieve "success." He offers a more complex picture than usual but leaves out genetics to a large extent and matters of physical health, probably leaves out other factors too. But he's trying and it's something I've been trying to understand as well so I'm still mulling what he has to say.

I'm also looking at a somewhat random sample of women who are part of an internet site's "forum" for women over 50. The variety of matters that are brought up is broad but most of it leaves me thinking I am very fortunate and vis a vie Gladwell's thought, it's hard to know what other than genetics makes me feel that way. At the big 5-0 or 6-0 or 7-0 health becomes a prominent factor. On this forum just in the last month all these things have come up:

a uterine cancer scare that has turned out to be only "precancer" -- the new scare tactic leading to a hysterectomy but no radiation.

a mother died suddenly of an anuerism - no warning

a woman had to put down her beloved dog of 17 years because it was in serious pain

a woman discovered she has sleep apnea and has been prescribed a kind of oxygen mask to sleep in every night.

a woman realized the reason she's been losing her temper lately is because she hasn't been checking her blood sugar and controlling her diabetes -- taking care of live-in grandchildren instead.

a woman went off pain meds, onto a trial of a new drug, discovered she felt good three days, then sank into pain, depression and sucidal ideation for four; decided to get off the trial when pattern repeated three or four weeks

Several have had their Christmas plans changed due to cancelled flight or cars buried in snow

It goes on -- this is not a whining, bitchy bunch, these are active women, many working, all involved with family and other interests. There are good things but an astonishing amount of physical problems. That is why I feel my genetics are holding up well. Plus it seems that living alone, doing my own things makes my life easier, less complicated and allows me an amount of freedom that I enjoy -- although others might find it lonely or empty ... but they wouldn't if they were me and had the same experiences I've had.

Well, one thing that excellent novels do is explore the human condition. A life of reading the best I can has given me perspective, as well as reading extensively in things like Gladwell, and writers like Pema Chodron, reading poets, and so on. Finally what we think matters, and we think the way we do partly because of the things we read or do to keep our minds occupied. If it's hours of solitaire or romance novels or reality TV -- I could go on -- that will color how we see the world and ourselves in it. Simplistic - "Plain as the nose on you face" yes, but we don't see our noses unless we look in a mirror.

The photo: a mild feeding frenzy in a koi pond -- a much replicated Chinese embroidery design.

Monday, December 22, 2008

OUTLIERS, Malcolm Gladwell

I said I didn't plan to read it. That was not a lie. But Rachel and Patrick sent it to me since we had talked about him at Thanksgiving -- Rachel was reading Bling. I'm about a third through and it's doing a job on my inner self. The first chapter or so seemed to glib, I resist this pop style of writing But then he described the "smartest man in the world" who simply hasn't made it in the success terms one would expect, and the analysis of why reinforced almost everything I've both thought and felt -- it's the felt part that's hard -- for a long time.

I knew I agreed with Gladwell and said I've long believed "the cream does NOT always rise" despite having been told time and again that this is an unarguable truism. As he explains how Larry's background stopped his success and continues to do so, I felt like literally crying as I feel this very minute. So much waste, so much unfairness! I am not a genius, not even Mensa IQ level, let alone in the stratosphere where he is, but I've known for a long time that I'm "smart enough" as are so many of the successes he describes. But I've been aware of the things that have frustrated me and they are not so different from Larry's, so some of my sadness is self-pity. Yes, I'm at an age when that should be behind. But is it ever?

Finally I had a strangely satisfying thought. It is the nature of Nature to over produce, i.e., thousands of acorns get eaten by squirrels but one might become another oak. And so it is with "smart enough" people - some achieve this or that success, some become outliers and some are under-developed all their lives. It is an algorithm by which the world works, who said Darwinianism is fair? Gladwell simply broadens the definition of "fittest". I'm glad I'm reading it and thinking it over; thinking is always better than burying your head content with what you've been able to come up with by yourself.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Saturday, Ian McEwan

I just read and very much liked Saturday by Ian McEwan. The protagonist is a neurosurgeon and the book is full of brain biology which I loved and have just barely enough familiarity with to have a sense, although far from true understanding, of. [THAT is a terrible sentence!! Sorry] Henry is a good man, a truly good man of somewhat limited imagination but firm grasp of his work and, in general, of his life. A brief run-in with a thug with a incipient Huntington's disease leads eventually to serious drama.

Two odd things happened in my mind as I read this. The book is set on a specific Saturday in February 2003, a day of anti-Iraq-war demonstrations in London, where the story is set, and also in New York. Although I did not take part in the NYC march to the UN I remember the day not in much detail but that I talked to someone in the evening who had been to the demonstration and that one reason I didn't go was that I was working several hours that day. I've never before had the sense of memory about a specific day that is the setting for a totally fictional story.

The odder things is that when I was reading the first scene with Baxter, the thug, I had a very, very strong deja vu. That happens when I've read something before. I do not forget strong scenes I've read. I was 99% sure I had not read this book, but I went to my log of books read to check and I had not. I do not believe the scene was excerpted anywhere and I would have been unlikely to have read it as I rarely read short fiction. All I could finally assume is that perhaps I read a long review that described this scene in some detail. Certainly I found one detail after another very, very familiar. But then other parts of the book were new to me.

Well, the scene was good enough to read twice if that happened, unlikely as it seems. Upon finishing I found it very satisfying to have read a novel about a family of sincerely good people with the "bad guy" shown in a much more complex and interesting way than usual.

An auxiliary remembrance sparked by the book was another instance of neurosurgery being a dangerous occupation -- far more dangerous than in this story. A very fine neurosurgeon I knew -- a gentlemanly man with a lovely wife I knew also -- had operated on a patient. The operation, as brain interventions can do, disarranged the man's emotional responses, not because the surgeon made any mistakes but because the brain is a delicate instrument that we don't understand very well and things happen. The patient became paranoid after he was "well", so paranoid he worked out a disguise and plan and actually went to the surgeon's house one morning and murdered him, wounding the wife as well. It was a real tragedy and some 20 years or so later it still makes me sad.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Beethoven's Birthday

Today is Beethoven's birthday, or so it's believed since he was baptized on December 17 and the tradition at that time was to wait a day [or so] to see if a child was going to survive. I'm glad this one survived.

The joy and wonder that I've had because this man wrote the music as he did has made me happy that he was who he was. I understand from Malcolm Gladwell's new book, OUTLIERS, that what he possessed [like Mozart, Schubert, Bach, Brahms, on and on] was not a gift but an innate talent and he had the good luck to be in the right place and time to hone that talent to an enormous degree. Also the circumstances of his personality and the life he lived made it inevitable that this particular music would pour out and be rewritten until it reached the perfection which we know.

I've been thinking about the idea of "gift" since this is the season of gift giving of a much more mundane sort. Gift suggests a giver. Once we are old enough to give up the Santa Claus story, we know whence our Christmas gifts. We also know whence our "gifts" of personality, both nature and nurture. We look at in our mirrors and think, Good God, my mouth has become exactly like my mother's or I have high blood pressure just like everyone in my father's family. We watch our children grow up and think, yes, I know where that trait comes from.

But in the case of heart stopping genius like Beethoven's do we look at something supernatural to explain the "gift"? I don't think Leopold Mozart would have said that about his little Wolfie. To go a little afield, where and how did Shakespeare's genius spring forth? I understand literature a little better than music though I cannot say I love it more. Beethoven awes me in my ignorance of just "how" it all works. Shakespeare awes me with the structure and invention of his work but more so with the understanding of human psychology and the actions and turns of phrase that reveal the complexity to us. I want to agree with Galdwell, I don't want to attribute it to any divine "Gift" except with that small "d" so that it is an adjective not a noun. And the same for Beethoven.

It is not a gift, but a hard earned self-education that make me able to appreciate these wonders of creation. I have a sense of richness in my life that has nothing to do with money because I appreciate Beethoven's music and so much else. I think the richness is in what we can enjoy, the complexity we can appreciate for what it is.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lanegella's Nixon

Thinking about actors and the art they possess in making difficult personalities likable and why they do it. I've known many actors, some well and many less well but I think, one and all, they are sensitive people who want to be liked. In their desire to be liked the brilliant ones know that they can play unlikable characters, say Shylock or Iago, Hitler, Dracula, Nixon, the Queen of England [well, she's not unlikeable, just unknowable for most of us]. A part of the fine actor's art is to find the humanity he or she shares with the character he or she will become on stage or screen. They find the moments when the depths of the human need to be liked, to gain approval either makes the character painfully vulnerable or moments when a realization that honesty and soul baring will lift them beyond the ordinary coward who always covers his vulnerability with bluster.

This is what Langella did with Nixon and he did it with great subtlty, I think in the same way Helen Mirren showed us Elizabeth II as a woman dedicated to her inherited role but a woman dealing with pain and needing to make a change in her usual way of acting. So did Nixon during the last interview. In both cases it was not spelled out in CAPS for the dull witted but done by the actor with his or her most important possession [as actors] their emotional instrument. They were acting, yes, playing roles, but at the same time they sincerely felt with their whole beings the emotions of the characters they portrayed.

The first time I heard the phrase "emotional instrument" I felt a the truth of that phrase, "blew my brain." I realized what fine actors really do -- they have found a way to use their own emotions as musicians use their pianos or violins or flutes. Great actors' talent is that the emotional instrument is accessible and usable in a way it is not for lesser actors. Those great actors do not take their talent for granted but truly work at using those emotions and honing their expression.

A fine actor was telling me about this before I truly understood that it is possible to reach into one's emotional instrument at will and hit a note as a violinist can play a certain note. The actor said, "I can go from just talking to you to being furious at you" -- and as he said "furious at you," he was to the extent the look on his face changed in that instant. I felt I'd seen a sleeping lion suddenly roar, his jaws open and great teeth bared, right in my face, ready to chew me to bits.

Wonderful actors amaze me in the same way wonderful pianists, or painters or dancers do -- they display areas of art most of us cannot fathom accomplishing, but which we are richer for having experienced. This is part of why I choose the movies and art I go to see carefully now. When you understand the wonderful of fine art other art is a disappointment.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I had a free afternoon so I went to see Frost/Nixon. Afternoon movies are largely the retired crowd and this was no exception. Senior citizen rate ends at 5:00 p.m. I don't go to movies very often -- it always seems I'd rather do something else. But I did want to see this since, of course I remember Nixon's resignation and all that surrounded it. But I never saw the famous interview.

The two main actors were excellent, Frank Langella most of all -- so much so that, although Nixon's face is etched in my memory, I accepted Langella's face completely, even in the painfully probing close ups. There were moments of speaking about misusing the power of the presidency when I really wanted to should out, "And George Bush too!" Needless to say, I stiffled the impulse. I wasn't sure the screen play was the best it could be but I was totally willing to relive that part of history. Langella has been at the top of his power both on stage and screen for the last several years. I imagine it's an Oscar nomination performance. When one is very picky about what one sees, one is rarely disappointed. It was a movie worth seeing.

Monday, December 8, 2008


So chilly today that even as I sit in my perpetually overheated NYC apartment, with a quilt over my lap and legs, my toes are cold -- I think it's some kind of intellectual sympathy because, truly, my apartment is not chilly. But it is cool enough to inspire an evening of reading. I'm into a strange, somewhat fantastic novel called The Jade Cabinet by Riki Ducornet, a book in which Charles Dodson is an off scenes character. I think I bought it because it has a wonderful cover with two apparently dead birds as from a curiosity cabinet. [Yes, they ARE wonderful even if seemingly dead!] This is not my usual kind of reading but I'm hooked and will finish it before I fall asleep tonight.

Meanwhile here are two photos from a walk on Long Beach on Cape Cod over Thanksgiving. And a couple of quotes I like very much that I have just discovered while surfing blogs:

Education is a progressive discovery of our ignorance. Will Durant


Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them? Abraham Lincoln

The shells are from the wonderful Shell Tree on the beach. The oak leaf has a border of ice, or maybe I should say morning frost. Photography is the only way to make this wonder "permanent."

And now to put on some warm socks so I can read in cozy comfort -- what a better way to spend a chilly winter evening?

Friday, December 5, 2008

About the Big Apple

I've just read an article in the Dec. 1 issue of New York Mag, "The Loneliness Myth." In New York [it was not entirely clear whether Manhattan or all of the five boroughs], slightly under 50% of the residences are inhabited by only one person. Many things have been written about the "lonely crowd" and the loneliness of a big city. Not so says writer Jennifer Senior. And I agree.

The author cites all kinds of sociological studies which bolster her premise about connectivity within the single-ness, I have an immediate reaction. I know that in this country and in the world, a woman alone [of any age] tends to be conspicuous -- FEELS and IS conspicuous. Not so in Manhattan. Neither a man nor a woman of any age alone is actually at all conspicuous. When society makes one feel one's aloneness, then that person tends to dwell on it and think he or she is lonely rather than just alone. But here that aloneness is so general that nothing about it feels strange nor is on treated as if one is less important than a couple or part of a group. Walking into a restaurant and saying "One" does not feel like an oddity -- because it isn't.

The article is far more sociological than psychological, but, in fact, loneliness is an individual state. Does one need feedback from others? Do you need to discuss a book or movie or event with someone? Will emailing a friend or family member in another city/contry/place resolve that need? Apparently, the answer to the last question is often yes. I can understand that and often feel that way. In fact Senior emphasizes that having internet communications is often a satisfying substitute for actual interaction.

Just how much one depends on another body being present really depends on the individual; I grew up without playmates except for a brother who was not a satisfactory playmate. I don't think I was lonely; that was the fact of a rural life. Probably I learned a degree of self-sufficiency that way; many other people do not have that experience and so depend more on immediate reaction from family or friends.

Demographically speaking certainly I see the truth of those statistics in the building I live in. On my floor more at least half the 20+ apartments has single occupant. We are not really a community but many of us know one another's names, those who have been here longest have our conversational forumulas [largely to do with weather] but there is a satisfaction in the tenuous neighborliness. I like living alone, having to answer to no one if things are strewn about as they are ust now while I am rearranging closets. Tomorrow it will be put to order again, for my own satisfaction. And so it always is, no excuses, no apologies, living life as makes sense to me.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Reading About Books I'm Not Likely to Read

So here are a couple of bright looking young guys who are very, very clever writers and thinkers who are being much discussed and read and talked about. The clean cut one is Daniel Pink and the one with the hair is Malcolm Gladwell. I've been reading about them and their books and realize I'm not likely to read them. A dirty little secret of people who seem to know all about what's going on in the literary world is that they do almost as much reading about books as they do reading books. It's not as sneaky as it sounds; there are far too many books to read and not nearly enough time so one has to pick and choose. To stay abreast of what's going on it's important to read about books. I've been doing this since I left college.

Daniel Pink came to my attention thanks to Oprah -- rather her magazine which printed an interview between O. and Pink. She's very impressed. His book is A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the World. Now there's a title! And it's about all I want to know about the book. I know the right/left brain ideas, which have been highly simplified going at least back to Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain quite a few years ago. Much as I'd like to be able to draw deftly I couldn't get more than two chapters in, I simply resisted the manipulation idea. I think I'm mainly a right-brainer [creative! who doesn't want to be?] but my left brain is skeptical and critical and resists all that flattery. So I immediately resist Pink's book.

The critical side sets in when he emphasizes that US companies are outsourcing all the dreary routine stuff like computer programming, data entry, customer service, even some newspaper writing, legal research, all the "dull" stuff to places like Bangladesh, India and China. While we good old Americans do the creative stuff -- like hedge funds and subprime mortgage lending, creating Super Bowl advertising and making movies to appeal to the mentality of 12 year olds. "Rule the world?" God help us! Look at the economic mess those creative types have got us in, think about the arrogance of "ruling the world" via action movies and potty mouthed stand up comics and weepy Oprahs empathizing with victims of domestic violence. This is enough to know about Mr. Pink's book.

On the other hand Mr. Gladwell, after two best sellers that were so clever, he's now asked to speak to those [possibly] right brained executives garnering fees up to $80,000 for inspiring them, thanks to his books, The Tipping Point and Bling, has now written Outliers which he says is a departure, "very definitely not a self-help book" [suggesting the others really were]. He told a NNY Times interviewer "It's very much a book about collective and social organized change. I am turning my bank on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can't be. The appropriate place to provide opportunities is at the world level, not the individual level."

The earlier books and their success make me skeptical of his thinking but apparently the new book is taking a much larger view of the forces that mold society, the things that come together to produce the remarkable successes like Mozart, Darwin, Bill Gates. He has stopped giving easy recipes and says we are all living in a great web of circumstance which includes everything from genes to economic well being to religion to nutrition [I'm extrapolating]. I tune in when I discover someone is taking a wide view and not giving me that old adage I've argued against for a long time about the "cream always rises." No, it can't if it's homogenized. I'm not sure that takes a whole book to explain. I'm not sure I need to know his arguments since I already agree with him. The whole world needs to change-- and I think that includes those who would assume that somehow Asians are to be our "left brainers" as if they do not have creative abilities, as if they ancient civilizations were the produce of bean counters and not great thinkers in every area of culture making.

So I think I'll settle in now and finish the clever and somewhat too light Julian Barnes book I'm reading. Something about British cleverness doesn't irk me as much as American cleverness -- at least in fiction.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving without Mumbai

These are Asian spices in an outdoor market. I have seen such displays in various Indian markets, and in China and other countries, but I am thinking if India, especially. While we were going through all the Thanksgiving weekend motions, we -- especially Patrick, my son-on-law, and I were keeping tabs on the horror unfolding in Mumbai -- whichh the Indian press calls "their 9/11". Not their first terrorist attack by any means but the first were the terrorist chose their victims almost one by one -- not the random killings of bombs planted in busy places. This enormously important event was on the news yet, on Thanksgiving day, the only mentions of it were between Patrick and I; it seemed not to affect any of the many other people we saw that day. We Americans can block out what is going on in the rest of the world -- or I should say, most people do not feel empathy or even curiosity about what it happening to people in other places.

Since the first orbits of the earth more than 50 years ago, we have seen pictures to tell us what a small planet we live on but we are insensible to what happens beyond our immediate perception. A quirk of mine is to imagine larger areas. At one point during Thanksgiving dinner, when everyone had quieted as they ate, I could see something like the scene repeated in millions of homes across the US, each one somewhat different, but rarely so different as not to be almost interchangeable in terms of the food on the table and the overall surroundings, the assorted people, from infants to grandparents -- and barely any, unless of Indian background -- thinking about Mumbai and the people dying there.

The writer E.O. Wilson has liken the humans on earth to an ant colony. We have our roles and go about them, not really sensitive anyone else -- yes, there is a caste among us whose job it is to gather information from afar and even to try to make it known to others but that is a very new wrinkle on the skin of the vastness of humanity. Once those who gathered knowledge or retained history talked only to others of their own groups. Today those who work in what they grandly all The Media think they are talking to everyone, but they are not; for the most part they are still talking only to others of their peculiar sort. Perhaps this should not make me as sad and almost angry as it does. I ponder that, why do I want others to care about things they cannot influence? Why do I think it's terrible that the majority of Americans aren't even sure where Mumbai is or know that until recently it was called Bombay? To a degree -- but probably only a smallish degree -- we chose the role we have in this multi-body beast called Human Beings, a fact I should know by now I must accept.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In the news

Just when I'm relaxing a little bit because some things seem to be going all right with the world -- Obama's victory, naming Hillary for Sec. of St., even a lessening of bombing in Iraq -- I am hit with another load of awfulness in the world. Mugabe's unwillingness to even let Carter and other prominent peace keepers intp his country -- where, we are told by Carter, that up to 6 million people are on the brink of starvation not to mention what else they are enduring. Why are we folding our hands and quietly letting 6 million people starve? Why? Because one despicable human being is willing it to happen. That happened -- not just once, but many times in the last 60-70 years, many places [eg, Ukraine, China]. And yet it is happening again and those who could help stand aside and simply wring their hands. How can this entire country think, this week, of gorging on our traditional holiday fare and know this is happening? How many KNOW about this, how many care? Certainly not enough. There is no real outcry.

Then I read today that even as the Tibetan government in exile has decided to follow the Dalai Lama's injunction against violence, his middle-road attitude to ask only for autonomy within China, not the independence so many younger Tibetans want [the independence that is rightfully, historically theirs[ the British -- the one government that always acknowledged that Tibet should be autonomous, not an integral part of China, has played whore to China's john -- asking China for money and negating their 60 years of acknowledgment that Tibet is NOT China, but an autonomous country. They have recanted and the Chinese have jumped on this, crowing their "victory" to the world and no longer feeling a need to have meaningful talks with the Tibetan representatives. It turns my stomach. Another six million people sold to the wolves for a handful of silver.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Frugalista "Frugalista" was William Safir's contribution to new words in his column in today's NYTimes Magazine. It seems appropriate to him in this time of recession. I like the word and am happy to add it to names I'll call myself.

I think most people who especially enjoy making scrap quilts -- the kind of quilt one does not go to the fabric store and select new fabric specifically for [although one can use up fabric that has been cached in a stash for whatever period of time] -- are dyed in the wool frugalistas. I have never purchased fabric specifically for a specific quilt although I have added to my stash knowing I was going need a certain color.

Beyond quilting I trained to be a frugalista at my mama's knee. Things were used up, leftovers were saved for tomorrow's meal or a snack later on, old towels or sheets became usable rags, bags of all sorts were reused until they fell apart, few things were purchased just because they were in style or a fad. And always there was an eye for a bargain, the coupons were used, the sales fliers were read. My mother loved reading what were frutalista hints -- "save old nylon stockings and use them to stuff a throw pillow" -- just one I remember.

The last post about purchasing books at a thrift store is a frugalista habit. Many things I have done all my life are suddenly things people are bragging about starting to do as they turn "green". I just read an article where a publishing company bragged about turning paper written on one side into memo pads -- the place where I work has been doing that for years. I have always printed first drafts of things I'm writing on the backs of stuff that might have been thrown away. The instances go on and on. I like this word, I'm going to use it and bother others about my discovery of it. Thank you Bill Safire.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Serendipity: the Art of Book Buying

People have a variety of reading habits and so a variety of book buying habits. Mine is very simple: I depend on serendipity. I read book reviews but am almost never inspired to go to a book store for a particular book. A certain set of neurons in my brain has been set aside for remembering author's names and titles and attaching a positive or negative charge to them. These neurons are not totally dependable but they do a passable job.

In NYC a chain of thrift stores called Housing Works attracts people who have high quality taste in literature, so much so that Housing Works even has an entire outlet that is a bookstore but it is in the Soho and I am rarely in that area. However two of their regular stores are essentially on my "beaten track". I stop in frequently and more often than not, the only purchase I made is a couple of books. Frequently a sign on the door will announce "Today all books 40% off" or even "all books $1." I nearly always find something, often by non-American authors that I want to read. They've piled up, of course, I can't read nearly as fast as I can buy. But that's okay.

In other places I like to go to used book stores too, but rarely do I find any with the quantity of good quality books that Housing Works sells. When I am in Hyannis visiting my daughter I like to stop at the main street used book store. I think it's called Tim's, although that might have been the name of it's predecessor. Their prices are a bit high but I get the feeling a lot of summer people who are probably Boston academics as well as Cape Cod's indigenous literary folks, sell their extra books there. They have a prodigious poetry section that I always check out.

Right now I am reading Scott Russell Sanders' Writing from the Center, a book of essay, in uncorrected advance copy [though it was published in '99]. I would have purchased this book wherever I might have found it for I once met Sanders' at a writer's conference and know him to be a professor [perhaps retired by now] at Indiana University. A man who cares deeply about writing well and also about the Midwest and about ecology. These are very satisfying essays. He defines for me once again why it is I and so many others felt it necessary to leave the Midwest -- de Toqueville defined it all before others noticed -- what a genius that young Frenchman was! His insights are just staggering. But Sanders' insights are also deeply satisfying. I have just one final essay to enjoy in a short while, then I will go on to a very clever Julian Barnes novel I've started and a book of Tess Gallagher's poems that I've been savoring for several days -- all these latter were Housing Works finds.

When one is finished I will stand in front of the "to read" bookcase and pick up one or two books, contemplate them, assess my mood, perhaps read the jacket blurbs once more and choose the next. No agenda. The variety is broad enough I can say, enough Americans for a while, how about a Scandinavian? How about a South American?

While I would enjoy the camaraderie of a book club, [I once belonged to a lively, wonderful one] I think I've become so independent about what I read and so picky about good writing that I would have great difficulty fitting into any group. Growing older may mean growing crabby-er. Ah well, it's prsonal enjoyment. And certainly the price is right.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Quantity and Quality

"The quantity of our happiness depends the quality of our thoughts." I saw this quote on an art quilt in Quilting Arts Magazine. It was not attributed to anyone; it has a literary sound, or even the sound of a new age guru. However, it's memorable and I wanted to immediately agree with it. But then I begin to wonder, what does this mean? What are "quality thoughts"? Who is responsible for that definition? Are they what I think of as Dalai Lama thoughts -- those mediated by a life of meditational practices emphasizing compassion? If that is the case, I think I would agree. But most of us do not have thoughts of that quality, most of us have lived very different lives that have made us less serene, more venal, less balanced. Most of our thoughts are terribly commonplace, terrible egocentric, terribly scattered and terrible practical.

Does our happiness depend on doing away with at least some of those common place thoughts and replacing them with more "quality" thoughts? Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe that's why almost of the great religions, maybe all of them -- I am not erudite enough to say this with assurance -- insist that time is spend in prayer or meditation both of which may be quality thoughts in so far as they are not selfish, not grasping or angry or negative thoughts, but positive ones -- ones of rejoicing at the good things of life and wishing well to at least those we love and perhaps as broadly as to all sensate beings, perhaps as widely as to the earth as a whole.

Yes, I do think that positive thoughts produce positive feeling, and that is exacty what happiness is -- a positive feeling. I think those positive thoughts, those "quality " thoughts" come also from chosing wisely what we fill our minds with. I do not suggest that we looked only for the saccharine, the cute and sweet and darling. Not at all. I would say that the more we fill our minds with the best we can, good literature, good art, good music the better. But I'm aware that "good" is a subjective term. What is good music to a 15 year old lover of rock or rap or whatever the in kind of music is, is not good to me, the lover of Beethoven and Mozart and Bach. And vice versa, of course.

I feel that I will get into some boggy mire if I carry on in this vein. So I will return to the original quote: "the quantity of our happiness depends on the quality of our thoughts." There is a reading in the I Ching that says we are the sum of what we put into ourselves, which means everything from the air we breathe, the food we eat, the scenery around us, the sounds we hear, the things we read/watch/pay attention to. How could it not be true? What else can we be? So finally it come down to the defintion of "quality." And we'll mostly say, we know it when we see it. What is the quantity/quality of our happiness?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Markers of Time Passing

Now and then there are reminders of how time is flying and that if other people are getting older, then maybe, just maybe, that is happening to me too. Yikes!

November is the month my oldest grandson was born -- 21 years ago. He is a young man; a smart, interesting young man who I will probably see even less in the years to come than I have in the years of his growing up. This person with a quantum of my DNA is going to college and learning things I would never have thought of studying, developing talents that are all his and seem to have nothing to do with me. I've seen him grow from a dimpled little baby to a cute kid to an awkward adolescent whose body parts grew at varying rates for a while, to a handsome young man who has yet to fill out quite all the musculature his bones can hold. What an amazement that such a person is related to me, at least genetically, for there seems to be little else we share just now. I would love a time to come when we can talk adult to adult about matters of interest and importance that we have in common.

And later this month, I am reminded for I didn't realize, my brother and his wife are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary ... and he is younger than I, though only by 22 months. They were married while I was in college. I remember playing the Mendelsohn wedding march at the church. But that is really all I remember; it seems so long ago. Indeed, it WAS so long ago. 50 years, half a century. This is absolutely staggering. Yes, I know a lot of people do manage to have these amazing anniversaries. I am stunned by the thought of living with the same person for fifty years. Intellectually I understand that two people can be happy with one another for that long, can make a life that works in sufficient harmoniousness -- and I think that is the adult way of looking at it for no two people can know each other so very well without areas of irritation, without periods of dissatisfaction. But sufficient haroniousness is a wonder in itself. Something I doubt I could have ever have managed.

So, here I am with an adult grandchild and a younger brother with a golden wedding anniversary. That means I can't be a spring chicken; it means I, too, must have experienced a lot. And, yes, I have. Yes, and we will not be marking special anniversaries -- beyond having paid attention last summer to my 70th birthday. But I think of it all those years and realize how many bits and pieces have eroded mostly from my memory or have simply become a part of the flow. A good many have said life is a river and certainly it's looking like that right now. There were rapids and waterfalls and eddies and floods and droughts and times when the river cut a new channel and so on -- all kinds of debris floating on the muddy surface at times and at other times calm and clear reflecting mostly the blue sky and a fluffy clouds and a few trees overhanging the banks. I have a good many of those lovely days now; I think I've earned them.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ssasonal Change

The season is changing -- nothing new, happens every four months or so. Those of us who have always lived in the temperate zones are attuned, probably in more ways than we are consciously aware, to changes of light, temperature and nature around us. As the days grow shorter and the darkness longer, as we have many days of gray skies, chilly winds, leaves skittering underfoot, dampness not yet turning to snow, something a little like bearish hibernation seems welcome, even immanent.

This came to mind as I was drinking coffee a short while ago and thinking how very nice had been a long night's sleep. After a couple of restless nights, last night I went to bed a bit early, fell asleep quickly and awoke about eight hours later feeling satisfied as I listened to the voice on the clock radio that began saying it would rain all day and maybe all day tomorrow. I wish that weren't so but it's also okay. I have many indoor things I want to do. And then music began to play. I did not have to hurry out of bed for any reason so lay listening to music until something in my body said, "ready!" And I got up. I realize that for large, large numbers of people even those ten minutes or so are a luxury they rarely enjoy. They have work, expectations, necessities to tend to and have to get up and get busy.

I thought of Jame Smiley's big book The Greenlanders, well researched and enjoyable although it's not one of her most successful. I believe she was writing of how people actually lived a thousand years ago in a horribly harsh climate when she described those settlers who had very little food or fuelgot through the winter by essentially hibernating. They took to their beds for the majority of those almost endlessly dark arctic nights. So many images from that book, read many years ago, have stayed with me. I think many of us can feel that rhythmic instinct with the seasons that our distant ancestors going back to before civilization must have responded to.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A return to a thinking President?

On my other blog I wrote about the pleasure of continual education in a personal sense. Today I'm thinking about a wider view: Nicholas Kristoff, one of my favorite NY Times columnists, writes that we may have a return to the Kennedy era's idea of a President who surrounds himself with the "best and brightest." I sure hope so. It's needed in so many facets of American life. Right along side that op-ed pieces was one by Al Gore on how America can regain leadership in the world by dealing with global warming and at the same time create vast numbers of jobs which would be un-outsourcable -- which is to say they'd have to employ people living right here right now.

Won't it be wonderful to have someone who can make a speech using whole sentences and well crafted paragraphs? Because my every day work involves listening to people speak I can attest to how infrequently people can speak in whole,grammatically correct sentences -- let alone whether they have anything substantial, creative, interesting to say -- let alone whether the whole thing is graceful and truly intellilgent. Not that most American listeners know a proper sentence when it is spoken. I'll never forget my astonishment as a senior in high school when the boy who's name was alphabetically next to mine [so we had sat side by side all through 12 years of school) turned to me after 12 years of instruction and whispered, "What is a verb?" I'm sorry to say he is rather recently deceased and probably went to his grave not knowing or caring what a verb is.

I can't resist adding that Krisoff noted that few younger Americans think there is any reason to know where the various countries of the world are, and that Sarah Palin, like a great many of her countrymen/women didn't know that Africa is not a country but a continent. Really that kind of willful ignorance appalls me so that I become incoherent in my astonishment and regret and horror. I don't believe any President can undo willful ignorance among our ill-educated populace but I would rejoice if the tone of arrogant ignorance could be erased at the highest levels of our government.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

History - looking back

When I graduated from college I was aware that there was just beginning to be a "Civil Rights" movement. In our college town a black man had dared enter a barber shop where only whites had their hair cut. It was quite stir in Indiana, birth-ground of the KKK. As my friend Ellen pointed out, in our adult lifetime we have seen the country go from not allowing many black people to vote, certainly in the South, to having elected a black man President It seems slow progress but as civilization goes, it wasn't so long after all.

We are now, in the so-called "developed" world, accustomed to rapid change, at least technologically -- since the last presidential election [only 4 years] we've gone from clunky auto cellular phones to everyone having a personal cell phone. Personally, I've joined the email world and use the internet daily which I did not then.

But people's minds and prejudices and political ideas do not change at the rate of LP to cassette to tape to Ipod -- although our mental synapses are still far, far faster and more powerful than any computer chip, we change our ways of acting, being, seeing the world VERY slowly ... but are being pushed ever harder to change ever faster. So in a single life time we here in the US have begun to erase our color prejudices. It is a good, good thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Historic Day

I think enormous numbers of Americans are united in the sense that this is an historic election and that they want to be able to say, "I cast a vote that election." As I write no returns are actually in yet and I'm not daring to say what's about to happen.

But I can write about my enormous surprise this morning at 7:20 a.m. when I went down to the school which is my polling place. In some 25 years I've never had more than 8 or 10 people ahead of me waiting to vote, no matter what election, no matter what time of day. But at that very early time, I was astonished to see that the line to get into the polling area was actually two cit blocks long! At first I couldn't believe it was the voters' line. When I realize it was I also realized that I didn't have sufficient reading matter with me to wait as long as it would take. So I went to work and came in the mid-afternoon with my fat book and comfy shoes, and it was not as long -- by about half, which is to say it was still 40 minutes of waiting. Ah, well! Like the others I'll say, "Yes I voted for Obama." [Still muttering, I must admit, "I wish it were Hillary."]

Now I hold my breath -- since the Gore/Bush election I've learned to take nothing for granted. I have spoken to no one who feels truly confident of what the outcome will be. No, I will not stay up late listening for returns [I am still television-less and don't mind] I am a bit anxious.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The New York Marathon

As all who care to know have heard, Kara Goucher, a English woman, won her third NY Marathon today, running more tha 22 miles in 2 hours and something -- amazing! The men's winner was from Brazil. It was a beautiful sunny day with a breeze that was a bit chilly to walkers like me but probably felt very welcome to the amazing people who managed to do the course, whether in two and a half hours or eight or even ten.

I wrote this poem last November. I won't apologize but I won't pretend it's deathless poetry.


They run
By the thousands
through the canyons
over the bridges
through the park.
News cameras look down from helicopters.
People look out tall windows
lean over high balconies
line crowded streets.

like once the bison ran over the grasslands,
like wildebeast still run over the savannahs,
like fabled lemmings run over cliffs into the sea,
like heroes ran the mountains in ancient Attica.

As they run
many thousand feet pound cement softly
their breathing is a mass sigh in a city
accustomed to sirens' screams.
The crowd's cheers drift softly to the sky
newscasters' chatter circles the globe.

They have been running
alone or in packs of two or three or a few
for months, years. They leave
behind home, wife, husband, children.
Silence is enough for many,
some reach for "the zone."

The run
to win, or bear a record, to follow heroes,
to prove something, "because it's there,"
"to do it once."
to be, this one day lost in the herd,
part of something big and beautiful,
massive and magnificent
independent individuals
who trained and paid and stayed the course.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Dream Job

For several years now I have been telling people about my dream job. I only dream, knowing that even if I were younger and more ambitious I would not take the steps to explore it's possibility. I think of it today because a I just read a blog showing a roadside sign that totally misuses the Welsh language. All around the world tourists sites have signs in the local language and in English; the English is often misspelled [okay a lot of us make mistakes too] and often says something so awkward it's not clear what it means. The most egregious example I've seen was at the high end of a long escalator at a Chinese nature park where a trail took one to the bottom of a river gorge. To get back up to the top the escalator had been installed for those not walking the hard trail up. A lot of Chinese characters were translated in English simply as "No Having Fun." We English speakers took photos [which was fun] and chuckled at Chinese ineptiness [also fun].

My ideal job would be as a language consultant, hired by various countries' tourist departments. I would be paid to travel [free, course] to tourist sites to correct the English on all local signs [while staying, free of course, in one of the best local hotels which might wish also to retain my editorial services at my standard additional fee]. Thus I could travel to many parts of the world, render a service that is much needed and even get to know some of the local people in the course of my work. So all I need is an ambitious booking agent to make the necessary contacts. Any takers? You'd get standard agenting fees, and perhaps the occasional trip as well.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Edgar Bronfman, Sr. and Judaism

I've been in the transcription business for a long time and enjoy it [in general, not always in specific naturally -- nothing is always a joy] because of the great variety and because sometimes I feel I "meet" fascinating people. On the variety side, just this month, off the top of my head, I've encountered the US Army, ghost hunters, people dealing with Alzheimer's, autism, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the current economic crisis, legal suits about past discriminatory practices of a large insurance company and the Metropolitan Opera. And Edgar Bronfman, Sr., who is on my mind. He spoke at a public forum which I transcribed, talking about a book he's written. I had known of the Bronfman family, of course, for a long time, mainly the more flamboyant Edgar, Jr. And I knew that EB, Sr. was a great philanthrophist for Jewish causes. And I know about Seagrams, of course.

Well, at 79 (I think) EB, Sr. is taking on Judaism as it is known to most North Americans. He's written a book and he talks very articulately about his serious study of the Torah and Talmud texts. It seems to me, he has done what he can with his money to influence modern Judaism and now has, with a co-writer, and through public fora, decided to state his beliefs and reach a wider audience. Hurray for him. This is the wisdom of age, a man who has done well, now doing good so far as he can. Most people don't have his resources but all can have some of his ethics and, hopefully, some of his good sense.

Among the things he says in his book, and in speaking: He does not like and chooses not to believe in the god of the Old Testament who he called "a killing machine. mean, angry and vengeful." He believes in some creative god but not in that particular version of God. And he said, that the belief that the Torah was is the words of God is a bad joke that first got somehow perpetuated on the Jewish people and thence was taken up by the two other great monothesitic religions -- which has badly stymied any good sense that would have come about if people realized those books were written by men -- some of whom were inspired, but not taking direct dictation from God. He also tells the Jews to stop moaning about intermarriage. It's always happened and always will so instead teach our children what is beautiful in Judaism so they'll want to perpetuate it within whatever marriage they make.

These are highlights. I'll add the name of the book probably tomorrow as a quick search didn't produce it. It's a pleasure to listen to someone speak passionately about having arrived at a common sense belief after much questioning, much reading and study and discussion. A pleasure to listen to people with open minds, especially men who are not stuck in some life long repressive state of mind. His book seems worthwhile both for him to have written and for people, most especially Jews, of course, to read.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Women in politics

On the op-ed page of yesterday's NYTimes Judith Warner, a Times columnist, began an article with this: In 1977, Bella Abzug, the former congresswoman and outspoke feminst, said, "Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel
to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel." In other words women will have truly arrived when the most mediocre among us will be able to do just as well as the most mediocre men. By this standard the watershed event this year is ... Sarah Pallin's nomination as the Republican's No. 2"

She goes on to speak of how Hilary Clinton is one woman who believes she must be twice as smart and twice as good as a man to get ahead and that furthermore, Barak Obama is a man who believes that a person of color must be twice as smart and twice as presidential to get ahead. But the Republicans traffic in raising mediocrity to a national standard. This is a national standard that has us in a hateful war, in an economic crisis that hasn't reached bottom yet, and an ecological disaster the few have yet to comprehend. Not to mention the most extensive penal system on earth, the most arrogant nose thumbing at international agreements ... oh, I could go on. Was it Archie Bunker who said, "You take my meaning?"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday walk in the park

A very beautiful Sunday afternoon for a walk -- and LOTS of other people had the same idea. I love the Sunday afternoon crowds both in Central Park and along the Upper West Side streets [others streets too, but I'm not usually elsewhere]. Earlier this week I had a letter from someone who lives in a small city in Kansas. He and wife had visited NYC and stayed a week some ten blocks away from where I live. He rhapsodized about the mom and pop stores, the small individual boutiques and little restaurant some very plain, a few a bit fancy, all the non-corporate businesses He loved the crowds in the streets too.

Then he complained about the lack of people on streets in his town, even the teacher who lives within site of the school where she teaches actually drives from her garage to the school parking lot every day. He complained there is nothing downtown and that all the places at the edge of town are corporate from grocery stores belonging to big chains to the mall to the big box stores and the national fast food joints That's Kansas, Toto, and Indiana and South Dakota and Alabama and ... just about everywhere. Lots of scholarly articles and books have been written about what's happened to Main Street USA.

It's sad, it's part of the same syndrome of greed that our capitalistic system encourages -- the idea that quantity is more important than quality, that it's better to buy 24 rolls of toilet paper at a time, to eat the tallest hamburger concoction, have the largest number of choices of breakfast cereal and dog food, drive the biggest car/SUV, grow corn on the largest number of acres, crowd as many chickens as possible into multistoried buildings with the least amount of space and grow them as fast a possible [then you get the kind of meat I wrote about a few posts back-BLECH! Who asked, "Is this good?" Who's asking now?

Well, some people are asking. I just read about Prop. 2 in California pushing for more humane treatment of animals being raised for food. High time! We don't have to get Biblical to begin to understand that a day of reckoning is

Okay so how did I get here from a nice walk in the late October sun? It's the life we live, where in Manhattan, NY or Kansas. There is SO MUCH to think about, so much to pay attention to ... a walk in the park is not JUST a walk in the park. The ncessary mottos, I think, are "pay attention" and "give a damn."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Lucia di Lammemour.

So more about opera. So why a bagpiper? For the one opera set in Scotland of course and because a piper was outside the theatre as I went to a dramatic concert version of Lucia di Lammermoor. Before the opera began the piper came into the auditorium, walked down one aisle, across the stage and up the other -- the whirring and whining and trilling in the medium sized space make my scalp all prickly. I imagined a horde of tartan clad redheads, swords flashing, as they loomed over a hill to a beach to chase away invading Vikings [no, Mel Gibson was not in my picture] A bagpipe makes an awesome, scary sound.

All the more to contrast with the lushness of Donizetti's very Italian opera. I've never been more aware how odd to have this Sir Walter Scott story set to such music. Wordsworth wasn't thinking of opera when he coined "suspension of disbelief" but opera demands supreme suspension of disbelief. But using the imagination is a joy when reading fiction and a necessity when thinking about grand opera. I was happy to believe the men in tuxedos were Scottish lairds and that the gorgeous diva in a very modern strapless red dress was young Scottish woman being forced into an unwanted marriage.

I have seen Lucia performed only once although I've heard it often -- that was at the Met and believe me, it was a serious test of my ability to suspend disbelief. In the very first scene I discovered that Lucia and her brother were both Asian singers -- perhaps Chinese, perhaps Korean. Beautiful voices, beautiful people but NOT Scottish! However I was far from the stage so I put away my opera glasses and enjoyed once I wrapped my head around the "nontraditional" casting.

Anyway, I'm not writing about the opera so much as the evening as experience since in the previous post I suggested one can read about Sonam's culture shock. For those with the impression NYC is all sophistication and la-de-dah, this was at my neighborhood culture center, Symphony Space, a renovated movie theatre. Not large and lavishly red and gold like the Met or City Opera. The performance was by Opera for Humanity, an entirely volunteer organization, including singers, with proceeds going to feed the hungry both in NYC and in other countries. Good! The Lucia was very fine, the men were good, if not outstanding, he orchestra was small but it was good to watch them for a change as they were on stage with singers. So for a change I really listened to the orchestra score along with the singers.

The music is magnificent and this was the first time I've really enjoyed the mad scene and didn't get bored part way through -- which is a tribute to the acting and stage direction as well as singing. Intermission was interesting. A couple sitting in the row in front of me slightly to my right did not seem to be particularly opera lovers. I was looking around at the crowd when I head the woman mention twice the word "Viagra". Not a frequent public topic at such events. I have no idea what the man said but his [I suppose] wife later said "Well, maybe we can arrange for you to be introduced to him." I thought, there are short stories I could make up about this couple but ... So I turned my attention to a young woman on the other side of me whose outfit was possibly very cool or in-style, or maybe very misguided. From feet up: high heeled platform mules, pinkish tights, a 13 or 14 inch wide piece of stretch fabric that was supposed to be a skirt, some sort of top in a somewhat different pink with a very low neckline and over it a black bolero-ish piece of clothing that fit tightly. I didn't get as far as her makeup and hair-do because some rather loud voiced people behind me were calling to someone coming up the aisle.

There was considerable sense of community in the auditorium. I felt most people had been coerced to purchase tickets and weren't really there for the music. A shame, the music was worth being there for. It's a wonderful town and I am prejudiced but I think the upper west side is a super part of the town.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Another Viewpoint

Think of all the things New York City is: big, crowded, full of tall buildings, noisy, full of traffic, busy, loud, multi=cultural, stylish, aggressive, success obsessed, known everywhere. Now think of the opposite of ever one of those words. That opposite is what Bhutan is. As people who read my blogs often know I frequently attend events at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art. The current major exhibit is about Bhutan; the art works exhibited there have never been out of Bhuthan and are not only national treasures, they are high revered objects. To insure the objects are safe here the Bhutanese sent a couple of lamas to care for them by saying prayers for them morning and night. Being out of their proper place, being in New York is seen as something of a dangerous shock for these items.

You can might imagine what kind of shock being here is for the lamas. Yes, they've seen television -- a little =- and speak English but this is certainly a cultural shock. One of the lamas, Sonam, is writing a blog while he is here, Sonam in The Big Apple, and you can click here to go to his blog. I've been reading it backward and haven't yet got to the beginning. It is fascinating to see how he feels about our city and what his life is like while he is here.

I add this to an opposite of reading experience, the other lama, an
American Buddhist monk who is working in Mongolia helping the Mongolian Buddhists restore monasteries and practices. He's a fluent writer and adds a lot of photographs. Most recently he visited a 100 year old nun who practiced her rituals secretly the 40+ years of Soviet occupation. We should all look as wonderful at 80 as she looks at 100. For reading to get people out of their everyday thought patterns these two lamas' blogs are a great antidote. Highly, highly recommended.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Upcoming UN declaration: rights of older persons

In 1948 when the UN was being established a person born that year had a life expectancy of 41 years! A person born today has a life expectancy of 72 years. I believe this is worldwide data. 60 years ago no need was felt to declare special rights for older persons. They just weren't that prevalent and society was quite different in most of the world than it is today. A committee is now working on a statement, or declaration of the Human Rights of Older Persons because, as the speaker I was listening to, declared the world over abuse of older persons exists, they are isolated, ignored, and often considered burdens by younger people -- by their societies at large and their families specifically. Not at all everywhere all the time -- but enough that it is truly a problem. So a declaration will be proposed in the next year or so and, probably, enacted.

Although it sounds like a tired a cliche, the speaker said, "older persons are the mirrors of tomorrow and reflection of what younger persons will experience as they go through life." Yes, we know. Except the full meaning of these thoughts is not much considered, largely because the younger people to whom it's directed do not want to think about themselves as becoming "older tomorrow" -- although, of course, most feverently hope to have long lives and, in fact, in most cases in Western society take it for granted that they will reach that 72 and possible well beyond.

If older persons were given the respect and equality that the proposed declaration will claim is their right, younger persons should have less fear and trembling as they think of becoming older. How wonderful it is that now older persons are the majority in many countries, and how sad that those countries NEED to heed a declaration of human rights for what is now or soon to be a majority. True, these older persons will need a large share of the social and medical serives. But they also can contribute greatly, in their ranks is enormous expertise and wisdom as well as long, generosity and humor.

Friday, October 17, 2008

United Nations Declarations

I listened to a couple of speeches from the UN sessions that has been ongoing the last couple of weeks. I did not know that there had been, only in 2007, a Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The wise people of the UN had finally realized that even into the 21st century colonizing countries still do not treat indigenous peoples as if they are equals. Among the provisions are the right to their culture and their languages and that their children shall not be forcefully separated from families and sent to schools in the dominant culture.

I am not fully aware of all that's going on around the world but I think Canada was the first country to recognize their indigenous people and to make a state for them. Yes, the state is very far north and not in the economic mainstream and they did then dam the James River and flood hundreds of acres of forest to produce hydroelectric power to sell south of the border. Yes, the electicity I enjoy this very minute may be a product of that left handed gift made by Canada to their native peoples.

I know that Australia has formally apologized to their aborigines and have stopped the practice of forced "white" education of children. The US has stopped the practice too but never yet apologized nor ever been fair and generous to native Americans. I cannot resist noting that the Chinese are treating the Tibetans like a despised indigneous people quite forgetting the great cultural debts they own Tibet and that there was a time when the Mongol "Khan" was considered the "Buddha of power," the Chinese emperor, the "'Buddha of wisdom," and the Dalai Lama the "Buddha of Compassion." {I hope I have that right and if not that I might be corrected) For the last 60 years the Chinese have tired hard to eradicate the Tibetan culture, {they allow somewhat rebuilt monasteries more as tourist attractions than anything else and infiltrate the lama ranks with spies.}

I am certain there are other indigenous cultures in many other parts of the world, like the natives in Central and South America and certainly in many African state, where these human rights that so many of us take for granted are anything but granted. Perhaps it's a failure of imagination on my part but I cannot understand how one can look at another human being and not recognize the commonalities we all share. That many people don't look a thing like me is a wonderful, fascinating and beautiful thing; the fact that they don't think like me is equally fascinating and wonderful. Why should I want to rid the world of them or turn them into people like myself? I like myself well enough but I don't think I should be a model for all others. These seem to me rather simple minded, common sensical attitudes and I'm astonished others don't share them.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bellini's Norma

Symphony Space is a movie theatre turned into concert venue and neighborhood cultural center. Connected to it is the Thalia theater, long an art house, then closed for a few years but now resurrected and showing art films, usually in series, again. The fall Hi-def videos of Italian operas are being shown twice, first on a Sunday evening in the larger Symphony Space auditorium and then on a Wednesday in the Thalia. It's a community friendly arrangement. Last night I went to a showing of Norma at that Thalia space.

Since I began listening to the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts when I was about 14, I've heard all the repertory standards many, many times and listened to discussions about them. To me opera is more an auditory experience than a theatre experience. In fact the first few operas I saw overwhelmed me with spectacle and sound --one of the first was Turandot, -- no wonder I was overwhelmed.

Bel canto operas are almost by definition jewels and Norma certainly is. I feel a little low brow but I have to admit that I really am liking these hi-def productions that are suddenly springing up since the Met pioneered the idea a couple years ago. The sets are glorious, the camera work fine [a little self-conscious, I felt] and the sound is glorious in a small movie theatre, plus there's unobtrusive subtitles, and wonderful close-ups and the singers have become, more or less, actors. Silly as some stories are all the elements pull me in and I'm finding it a rich experience of music and story. My theatrically critical mind tries hard not to sabotage my enjoyment by disliking anachronisms -- like dreadlock wigs for Norma and Adelgisa.

But that is all prologue and just me explaining where I'm coming from and saying I had preconceived ideas when I went to the theatre last night. Little did I expect to discover what to me is the real story of the "Druids and Romans," as it's generally defined. This is actually a story about women's friendship, understanding and generosity to one another. No, there is no hint of lesbian love, they are rivals for Pollione and they fully understand how the other fell so hard for the skunk. [He deserves another "S" work.] I was amazed to realize that the emotional story is not about Pollione or about the Druids rebelling against the Roman occupation, but about a younger woman's great respect for the priestess and Norma's generosity toward Andelgisa. I've never heard this discussed, not even mentioned. Commentators tell the action but they all seem blind to that central part of the story as if taking it for granted that women would be so generous toward one another or as if it is simply not very significant. But the most powerful and beautiful duet in the opera, one of the most beautiful in all opera, is between the two women. Wake up guys! This goes way beyond being teammates in some ball game.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Poverty is the subject of thousands of blogs today. For so long I can't remember when I first saw her, a Hispanic woman has been beside the subway entrance I use every morning. She has a styrofoam picnic cooler which is full of hot tamales wrapped individually in foil and she has an insulated picnic urn full of cafe con leche. She sell breakfast to the other Hispanic people who arrive at that corner going to their jobs as janitorial assistants, deli clerks, stock "boys", cleaning ladies, and the guys who wait on the corner for pick-up jobs. She is there in every kind of weather - if it's raining hard she's under the overhang of the store across the sidewalk. She must get up a 3:00 or 4:00 to make the tamales. Many of the men who buy their breakfast from her probably live with several others in cramped rooms, possibly with only the most basic kitchen and perhaps have no idea how to cook. This is one face of urban poverty -- no one gets up in the wee hours to cook and then faces the weather all year 'round because it's a dream job. Perhaps she has a cleaning or baby sitting or some other job in the afternoon. I have no idea. Perhaps she sends a money order home to Guadamala or wherever every week.

A woman at my quilt group last weekend spoke to a friend about children coming to the day program at which she works. "We serve them lunch and it's the first food they've have that day," she said. My daughter Leslie who works with mentally and physically handicapped adults who live in group homes tells me many come to the day program she runs without the lunch the homes are supposed to supply so she must find lunch for them -- sometimes out of her own pocket, because the owners of the group homes haven't received money from the state for months and are many times mortgaging their own homes to run the group homes. Many of the handicapped people are alone, without family, most have nothing.

Many older people who have only social security checks truly have to choose between buying food and buying medicine. The same old coat will keep them warm enough another winter, although they may have to keep the thermostat very low, the same shoes will protect their feet although they'd be ashamed for many people to see the condition of the shoes, but they cannot afford the diabetes medications or they don't know enough about medicine to know which of the many drugs the doctors so cavalierly prescribe are keeping them alive and which are "recommended for someone your age." Neither they, nor often their MDs,know that the anti-cholesterol pills have only a 17% chance of saving them from a heart attack, while the anti-hypertnsion pills,if taken in doses that keep the blood pressure in a safe range, will probably save them from having strokes -- and usually the blood pressure pills are much less expensive. There is poverty of information and education as well as financial poverty and frequently the poor education has, of course, led to the financial poverty.

These are a few of the kinds of poverty that have come to my attention, not for the first time, but lumped together in the last few weeks. It's easy to walk through our days with blinders on. Put the headset on and listen to music, chat away on the cell phone and ignore everything around you. My advice: Don't! Don't stop looking at the world you live in. Don't think it has nothing to do with you. Don't think they're getting by and you have to worry about your own problems. At least SEE your neighbors. At least know the world you live in and let yourself feel. Care. You'll act in some way -- whatever way you can ... when you care.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Eating chicken

Food is the topic of the entire NYTimes Magazine this week. I haven't had time to read most of the articles, partly because the puzzle is pretty hard this week although I've just cracked the "code" and expect to make headway later this evening. However, I have read the interview with Robert Kenner who is making a documentary called Food, Inc. about, obviously, the industrialization of how we get our food.
What he says about how chickens are raised -- crowded in the dark doing nothing but eating and growing lots of white meat -- is not news to me. In fact, for the last two or three years I have liked the taste of chicken less and less. So what idiot thing did I do this afternoon? You guessed it. After three hours of walking about in glorious warm weather to a street fair and thrift shop and flea market -- at which first an third places I resisted gyros, crepes, home made donuts and, falafel, not to mention the disgusting oncoction, deep fried Oreos.

I was, as I said, tired and hungry so I stopped in the supermarket where I need to get a couple other items and at their hot food center where the chickens are roasting, I saw that I could get a nice piece of chicken breast with sweet potatoes [love them, even plain as they were]. So I gave in to the hungery/lazy syndrome. Big Mistake!!

I added a salad - at least that was smart -- nuked the other food and discovered all over again how awful chicken has become. I remember farm chickens, now called "free range" then called June's chore to feed and gather the eggs from and to shut up at night. (Dad unlocked them early in the morning and checked for signs of foxes.) The white meat might as well be made from some amalgam of styrofoam and silly putty. It does awful things in the mouth -- like semi-cooked pie dough. It seems to grow and threatens to clog the esophagus like a wade of paper towel in a toilet.

I eat very little meat as it is and I MUST remember not to eat chicken again. Oh, tiny cubes or slivers as in soup or some casseroles that are greatly disguised, or enhanced can be tolerated or even enjoyed. I wonder if people really like those roasted chickens. Or is that why chicken as such seems to be mainly consumed breaded and fried so that people really aren't tasting chickent at all but all other coatings. UGH!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bill Ayers

This is not a political blog -- except for my passionate feelings about the plight of Tibet -- but I am greatly irritated by the stupidity of the media, and the Republican smear tactics over the Obama/Ayers tenuous connection - I'd probably like Obama more than I do if he had a very strong connection with Bill Ayers.

Bill Ayers is a distinguished professor, he is a humanitarian. One need only go to the many Google sites to see that. Why am I in a rant? I have never met Bill Ayers. But I have met his wife, Bernardine Dorn although only briefly. A very good friend of hers [now deceased] is someone I knew very well, and knew of Bernardine through her. Yes, both of them were radicals in the '60s. Anyone old enough to remember the '60s knows there was a lot to be radical about. I'm only sorry we haven't had a redux of the anti-Vietnam sentiment over the Iraq war and America's atrocities there. But that's beside the point. Both are far better citizens, more caring, more informed and better intentioned [I believe] than the Gov. of Alaska has shown herself to be.

The Republican tar and feather machine and many in the press would have us believe that one's youthful passions cannot ever be tempered and that those who are seomtimes too passionate cannot harness their moral outrage into a constructive and exemplary life. How many who are over, say 50 would wish to be defined by the person they were at 25? Don't we beleive in the value of life experience?

The big bad word today -- and for the past several years -- is "terrorist." That's the word that has deprived many innocent people of their civil rights, and even sent them to be tortured in hidden hell holes. That's the word that convinced Congress to spend enormous amounts of money for a war we went into fraudulently. It's an ugly word, and in it's ugliest form it indicts those we don't understand or who we want to harm -- by applying it to upstanding citizens the users are themselves terrorists.