Friday, September 30, 2011

Word Play, a film about cross word puzzles

Today's documentary was the delightful film about New York Times crossword puzzles and the annual contest for puzzle solvers, Word Play. I saw the movie three or four years ago when it was first out in NYC because I have been a puzzle addict for a very long time and feel deeply deprived if for some reason I don't get my Sunday Times magazine with the puzzle. I rarely want to watch a film twice but this one was so much fun I totally enjoyed watching it again.

Not surprisingly many people in the documentary class were also puzzle addicts. I especially loved the part of the conversation afterwards that talked about Howard Gardner's book about different kinds of intelligence. Within verbal intelligence Gardner describes 3 or 4 subsets, as he does within musical intelligence and scientific intelligence. Clearly puzzle solvers have some of that verbal intelligence and using it gives them great pleasure. A man brought up the subject but a woman who has been taking the class several years, actually knows Gardner personally and suggested that, since writing his book 25 or so years ago, he has added a couple of other "intelligences." The woman suggested that he should also add culinary intelligence for the people who can cook anything without recipes and it's always delicious. I love when the conversation ranges so freely from the original topic.

In fact, it was a day of connecting with people's ideas which has left me in a great mood this evening. In my writing class we had some brief but thoughtful/thought provoking discussions and at lunch with three of the writers, more discussion. Then in the late afternoon a friend stopped by and we had a good conversation ranging over a number of topics. At least for me, at this stage of life, my greatest and most satisfying experiences are discussions. It's been a most satisfying day.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Horseshoe Crab remains

Last summer especially and this summer less so, I have habitually picked up the horseshoe crab shells, some young and small, 3 to 5 inches, others ancient, 10 to 12 inches and much darker than the young ones, and lay them in groups high up above the tide line because I feel such ancient creatures deserved reverence.

About the first of August there was a huge die off. One morning I counted over 65 shells washed up along the mile long beach, mostly relatively young crabs. [It might have been a molting instead of a die off. I hope so. I'm ignorant bout how to tell the difference.] After that the numbers have decreased, and are fewer than last year. A few times I've come across huge shells that I think of as the remnants of Methusalahs, perhaps 50, 60 years old, often with a covering of barnacles, and very dark in color. Those I've put in prominent places high up on the shore so others can see them and be amazed as I am.

The last two week there have been a scattering of shells, mostly within a fairly short stretch of the beach, perhaps where the tide comes in at a different angle than elsewhere. I noticed that someone else had taken my hint and gathered a great many together in one group, 17 shells one day, over 20 another. The picture shows them one morning this week. The tide may reach them, perhaps walkers come by paying no attention, or dogs being walked nose around among them. But I was touched to see that my respect for the shells, which I always turn up so the messy, semi-empty internal structure is covered, is shared by others. Perhaps they only need a small hint -- or perhaps it was an original impulse of their own.

Horseshoe crabs were around when the dinosaurs were, they have persevered through enormous geological changes. They deserve respect as do all living creatures but they deserve an extra degree of respect for the connection that goes back to such an early part of earth's history.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How I Ended My Summer

How I Ended My Summer is a Russian film -- all 132 minutes of it -- with only two characters in a tiny bit of the Arctic, at a weather station. Claustrophobic? No, the scenery goes on forever with full knowledge that they are the only two people for miles and miles. There is a rabbit, a polar bear and some bird, an older man and a younger man. The younger man makes a youthful, cowardly choice not to pass on a message to the older man which eventually leads to a nearly deadly feud. The movie has no music until the lsat 3 or so minutes, we see long minutes of inaction. The two actors shared a best actor aware at the Berlin Film Festival because they WERE the film.

I feel as if I have been in the Arctic for a long time because this movie comes on top of finished T.C.Boyle's Drop City, the final half of which takes place above the Arctic circle in Alaska. I have been above, by a matter of not may feet, the Arctic circle in Finland, in August. but extreme places fasciante me. This movie however worked on our nerves with its slowness. The feeling of being trapped and in danger was nerve wracking. I am not sorry I saw it and I will not forget it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Catching the DAwn

This was the sky at 6:00 this morning. I've been up before dawn every day this week but this morning was the most dramatic dawn. I purposly chose an eastward facing apartment because I wanted to see dawns. Ideally I'd have another room that looks west for sunsets but that's not the architecture of this apartment complex so dawn it is and who can complain? I'll be seeing dawns for the next six months because I am a morning person and often am awake by 5:30.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What You Don't KNow May Kill You

What you don't know may kill you -- and thousands of others. Perhaps one way to avoid the problem of aging Americans is to kill off vast numbers before they reach old age. How? It's being done by polluting most of America's major waterways and aquifers with a cocktail of poisons, mostly colorless, odorless and tasteless that are used in the production of natural gas in an operation called fracking.

I've seen a number of problem revealing documentaries in the last couple of years and I've been outraged at Wal-mart and Monsanto and other industries. But I have never been so horrified as I was watching Gasland made by Josh Fox which shows that natural gas [advertized as "the clean fuel"] companies, when the boom began were unilaterally exempted from oversight by the EPA in a sneaky little law master-minded by Dick Cheney [only recently, at that time, retired from Haliburton, one of the biggest natural gas producers. The fracking process puts a toxic cocktail of over 500 chemicals into waterways and aquifers that affect people in 32 states. People near these gas wells find that the water coming out of their faucets not only stinks, tastes terrible but BURNS -- literally burns if a match is struck to it coming out of the tap. There were scenes in several homes where that was demonstrated.

Not surprisingly the people who have used that water are sick. Their pets lose their hair and die. Imagine living in a house where the water in your pipes could catch fire! The industry is essentially unregulated, they have deep enough pockets that when people hire lawyers and complain, they are paid a bit, big plastic cisterns are provided for them so they can buy water elsewhere and truck it to their homes and farms. But where does that water come from? Utter and complete disregard for the environment is so mind boggling it makes me feel sick at heart. We can see the pollution that causes smog. We cannot see the underground pollution that ruins our water. The industry is so unregulated managers at many levels do not know what is happening, probably only a few chemists have any idea how dangerous the stuff they send by the tanker -- dozens of tankers -- to start each well is so toxic. The workers who handle it are not protected. Over and over again in the history of industrialization companies have done whatever it takes, disregarding both workers and those downstream, downwind, i harm's way. We have the EPA and it has been utterly declawed in this instance and is being gutted in may other instances by funding cuts. As a country, as a voting populace people are essentially committing murder and suicide in utter ignorance. Thank you, Josh Fox! It's a lonely voice but I'm glad someone has done something. It's a start.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Autum begins, summer end

Autumn begins this evening at 5:05 on the East Coast -- does it roll around the globe [or has it been rolling around the globe for a few hours now, always arriving at 5:05 in the evening of Sept. 23rd, this year? Our way of telling time always is a kind of glitch in my rational [I think it's rational!] mental picture. For instance, all of India is on a time zone that's a half hour out of sync with all its neighboring countries so autumn will arrive there either at 4:35 or 5:35. I wonder if I'm alone in amazement at the things we rational [we think we're rational] human beings have chosen to live with in order to make our civilizations run in a regimented way.

For now never mind those spacy considerations. The weather has suggested autumn's arrival for the past couple of weeks. Cooler temperatures, days of gray dampness with occasional return of beautiful sunny warmth. We don't need the artificial calculations of those who determine the precise minute of the equinox [when curious kids try to stand eggs on their end]. I can feel it on my face when I open the patio door and step outside while my coffee pot heats up. The human skin is a good calculator if you've been in the habit of paying attention.

Summer was lovely; to me summer is always lovely. I literally love those warm, even hot, days; love when I am walking barefoot on grass or sand or wading in water. Always have, I think, since I was quite small. And many, if not most, other people feel the same. But I also love the crisp coolness of an autumn morning or afternoon when a sweater is just the right amount of protection. Gray, damp mornings such as today is have a sensual velvety-ness that kisses the cheek like an old friend who may have once been more then a casual friend. I like the instances when I can stop and think for a few minutes about these usually taken for granted senstions.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Human Resources Manager, a film

I am enjoying a series of foreign films shown at the the Cape Cod Community College, a free course that is open to regular students and we over-50s it the Academy for Lifelong Learning. Last week's film was a sad and moving story of a peasant in Bolivia and his family trying to simply life their lives in the mountains while the guerrillas were trying to take control of the area by intimidation that did not stop at murder. Colors of the Mountain was the English title.

Fewer people were at today's film possibly because they do not wish to see serious foreign film that touch the heart in a way very few American films do. Film makers in other countries are not slaves to the "entertainment" ethos but have the freedom to express themselves in an artistic and serious way. Today's film was The Human Resources Manager, an Israeli film which was actually set mostly in Romania. The HR manager of a large bakery finds himself reluctantly accompanying the body of a Romania employee who was killed in a suicide bombing attack back to Romania where everything that can go wrong goes wrong. The divorced husband is estranged from the punk son. Son insists mama should be buried in grandma's town which is in the far boonies, grandma doesn't want her buried there. The HR guy has many personal troubles as well as accompanying the body -- and he is dogged by a nasty little newspaper reporter. Everyone gets marginally humanized in the course of the film. This is a 2010 movie, for those who wish to trace it for rental or viewing.

The dean of the college who introduced the film said that traveling in the Central Europe with a body to be buried is so grim she wouldn't give us the whole story but her grandmother's body was being smuggled across borders in the trunk of a VW which got stolen and the body totally disappeared. She then talked a little bit about the theatre of the absurd and we understood that indeed much in life is absurd.

People who avoid films, books, whatever that might be a bit uncomfortable are depriving themselves of a depth of experience that could make them stronger and even happier people. By dealing with difficult emotions vicariously through art, especially good, complex art, we are better prepared when we face difficult emotional problems.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

My Google Search vs Your Google Search

Ronni Barrett at "Time Goes By" [see side bar and click on it] does a collection of interesting stuff on Saturdays. Yesterday she had a wonderful, very short clip about dog wrapping himself in a duvet, a stunning 101 year old lady who drives an 81 year old car, and a Ted Talk that I highly recommend listening to. This is the introduction:
Not just Google – other search engines too. You and I can search the same word or phrase and get entirely different returns depending on what the search engine knows about us from our past searches and other information.

Google is not the only search engine, or large internet site, that filters the information that comes to you. Facebook does, says the speaker. I don't do Facebook but I do buy from Amazon and was immediately aware of their "you might also like" messages based on things I've bought from them. In that case,I actually like the filer, they let me know of books I don't know exist and sometimes, yes, I might also like that, and I order them.

The information filters are scary. I don't know if my AOL homepage filters the "news" that pops up, I think it's possible. At any rate it seems to me what's happening is a kind of Orwellian Big Brother. This BB is without an agenda beyond sales [in Amazon's or NetFlix's case], and it is without morals, it is an algorithm of our own habits. It re-enforces our bad habits [yes, sometimes I wonder about who George Clooney is dating] and doesn't tell us things we probably should know [a recall of E.coli tainted foods?] Happily I get a lot of information the old fashioned way, through reading, but fewer and fewer people get any amount of real information at all. If we are being dumbed down, in a sense it's our own fault. I strongly recommend looking at the TED talk on "As Time Goes By".

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

To Hell in a Handbasket

Thomas Friedman [I believe] had an editorial page piece yesterday about American students' moral sensibility. He quoted a psychological study that interviewed many students on many campuses asking questions to assess their moral sense. Most asserted that killing as wrong. Otherwise they had very little to say about moral issues, often they said, "I don't really deal with that." They were asked about cheating, lying, stealing, various other matters and were wishy washy about most of them.

Today in the context of American economics and how American can compete with China and India, I raised the question of education. It's been a supposed knee jerk priority and yet I saw a young woman in a fast food restaurant this summer who clearly could not make change from a $5 bill. I have seen community college students who clearly did not understand sentence structure, the need for paragraphing and did not know enough, or care enough, to turn on a spell and grammar check program in order to present a readable paper. If American students don't know enough basic math to make change how can they become a part of a technological workforce? And if they cannot write and don't care about their communication skills enough to use a computer program how can anyone imagine they can succeed in a service industry that require interpersonal skills. And if they have no concept of right or wrong who can trust them in any kind of job?

I am taking a course that will talk about the economic rise of India and China, in a comparative sense, but it will hark back to American economic repeatedly. I get very tired of people who talk about creating jobs for Americans when they have a workforce that is almost subliterate. Whatever is going on in schools it's not basic education; whatever is going on in homes, it seems to have nothing to do with instilling vales and ethics. Oh, I know that's a broad brush generalization ... but so it that supposed panacea for maintaining the beloved "American way of life" which is jobs creation. This is a three-month course, I'm sure I'll return to this subject.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Only Three of Many Memories

[The Memorial Quilt for 9/11 - partial view]

My job at a transcription service gave me a compendium of information. I was the one who most often transcribed tapes with foreign speakers/ I had listened to a Japanese, or perhaps a Singaporean businessman, speaking about "the world trade center" in Singapore, thus learning that the one in NYC was not the only one in the world. When the owner of the company sought me out in my little cubby-office, since I was usually the first to arrive and he often second, he said, "An airplane has run into the World Trade Center." I asked "Which one, where?"

"Here. Ours," he said. A little later he came to tell me it was not an isolated accident.

Several hours later I walked three miles north, alone. The streets were nearly empty, Times Square was strangely desserted. Two tourists were staring at the lighted news strip that usually gave stock market numbers. It gave the planes' number and number of passengers. An evangelist thrust a tract at me, I gave him a fiercely cold stare and walked on through the eerie emptiness and quiet that occasionally carried a distant siren wailing its way to a hospital.

Days later, when the subway was running again, people made eye contact with strangers and began telling their stories, "I was on my way to work..." "My wife called me to say ..." Small memories -- even those with mere crumbs of memory, like mine, wanted to testify that they, too, were touched.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Calling Ourselves By Another Name

I just had lunch with a largish group of people and met a couple or three people I had never met before. We all had name tags. One very dignified, very well put together woman [maybe the best dressed in the room] had a name tag that revealed her first name is "Fuzzy". We were all teachers in the Academy for Lifelong Learning, nearly all over 60. This woman was 70 or more and, as I said, very well kept. I had seen her name in the course listing and had formed a [you'll excuse the irresistible pun] fuzzy impression of what she might look like. Of course I know that guessing what someone will look like is impossible. She told me, "That's what my father called me the second day of my life." We were interrupted before I could ask what her actual name is.

Most people would have dumped a baby name like that before grade school, and certainly after graduation. Why would a person take a name like that to college? Or like Muffie, Sparky, Bunny, Jimbo, Mags ... I could go on. A high school reunion is upcoming and, the times I've joined these events, I've had difficulty calling Lindalou, Lynn which she used from College on, two Eddie both became Ed, two Bobbies became Bob. That makes perfect sense to me, they grew up, they got rid of the childish diminuative. I think mostly women maintain their nicknames. I hate stereotyping, especially women as a group, and I can say that in the brief time I talked to Fuzzy nothing about her seemed childish, but I think women are [or were in my generation] more inclined to continue the child-like role than were men.

For my part, I've never really had a nickname. My name, in fact, doesn't appeal to me very much and it has seemed not to appeal much to the men in my life. I was more often called Honey or Darling or by my last name. I've never thought I was a June and always wished I were something else, but what? ... well, Honey and Darling were satisfactory, also Mom, Mother, Grandma and Greatgrandma -- although I averred only yesterday that I'd be happy to respond to simple Great. The child to whom I said that only has about 12 words at this point, maybe "The Great" will stick.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Will Power, Ray Baumeister

Will Power: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, is reviewed in this week's NYTimes Book Review. The author is Ray Baumeister, a psychologist, and the reviewer the almost omnnipresent Steve Pinker. The book discusses an experiment from the '60s by psychologist Walter Mischel in which, as Pinker puts it, he "tormented preschoolers with the agonizing choice of one marshmallow now or two in fifteen minutes." Decades later the now grown children were interviewed. The children who had the foresight and will power to wait for fifteen minutes had, in almost every way, fared better in their lives than the ones who took the immediate reward. They were more successful in their studies and their jobs, had more money, and were happier.

I don't know if Baumeister writes about whether it seems that children are born with or without "will power" or if they had learned it before the age of four from their family situation. I would guess the latter. The subtitle of the book tells us it's message. I think of all the times I've had dessert when someone mentions "saving the icing [or heart of the watermelon} for last versus eating it first. I'm a saver 'til last and have always been. Intuition has always told me that saving the best part last says something about our outlook. But questions arise about whether that's necessarily the best approach. Too many people defer their dream vacation, deprive themselves of some pleasure for this reason or that [good sense financial reasons or from fear of daring]. Few things are either/or. Yes, I believe will power is good, especially when more appropriately called "self discipline." Put money in the IRA but go see the pyramids too. That has been my method and, yes, I'm happy about it -- but no one offered me either one or two marshmallows. I don't remember any discussion in my family about discipline or eating the icing last. My brother eats it first. Maybe the tendency is inborn along many other personality traits.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Birds Harvesting -- what?

The Canadian geese have been back for a few weeks. This year they arrive in gaggle of 8 to 15, browse the lawn for about an hour and take off. I assume they are stopping by here for a while, perhaps another month or so, until they go further south where snow is rare.

The last few days I have noticed this infestation [is that the word? seems right] of starlings -- a flock of several dozen that arrive in the late afternoon, and do not stay long. I watched them today, since it's Sunday and I was wracking my brain over the Times crossword puzzle as I sat on my mini-patio. They arrived from the north, settled in the middle of the sizable lawn [photo shows the south end which is less than a quarter of the entire lawn] they browsed for about five minutes then gradually individuals flew a few feet further south, others followed suit until the whole group had moved forward about ten feet, then they repeated that process a coupe of times until they reached the edge of the lawn, then some individuals [the leaders?] flew back ten feet north and the rest gradually followed, this was repeated a few time and then they were up and off as a group.

I don't know what they are eating, but they obviously are. Are there seeds from the grass or are there insects. I believe the geese actually eat the grass although they don't make an appreciable difference in its appearance except for their piles of droppings.

My botanical ignorance has been bothering me lately -- but not enough to do serious research. When I walk on the beach I watch the tiny sand pipers [or maybe baby sanderlings] running along at the very edge of the tide, pecking at something. I suppose it is small insects, what else is there? I can't see anything but they clearly find things that they eat. They are all fascinating, I think of Mary Oliver's line in her "Summer Day" when she says she has been watching a grasshopper which she describes exquisitely, and asks, "What else should I do?" Indeed.