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.