Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Blue Arabesque--NY Times Review

Patricia Hampl's new memoir "Blue Arabesque"--justifiably called so, since she defines memoir as the story of a mind, not a life--received a grand review in the October 29 Book Review section (available now to online subscribers).

Kathryn Harrison compares Hampl's analysis of her aesthetic experiences to those of John Berger in "Ways of Seeing," and Susan Sontag in "On Photography."

Patricia Hampl’s determination to occupy the space between the eye and its object and her success at articulating the mysterious transactions therein grants her authority among writers like Berger and Sontag, who not only sit and stare but see. Read “Blue Arabesque” and you too might mistake — or exchange — art museums for churches.

I'm eager to read this after having the honor this summer of studying with Patricia at the Prague Summer Program. The other two books of hers that I've read, "A Romantic Education" and "I Could Tell You Stories," are now two of my best-loved reads. If her exploration of Matisse is anywhere near as exalted as what she accomplished with Czeslaw Milosz in "I Could Tell You Stories," then I am sure to be taken beyond the walls of my minor-league mind.

Here's an example of her thinking on why Milosz's memoir "A Native Realm" differs so much from American work:

The American assumption is almost always psychological, and therefore personal. There is a throb toward (personal) salvation beating within American autobiography. Milosz's assumption is superficially cooler, harder. Put another way, it is more elemental. For him, the awareness of a rich and complex "origin" necessarily dilutes some of the paralyzing power of the present: something else is always tugging at consciousness, something neither wholly familiar nor wholly abstract. This presence which lies at the heart of the experience of memory is both personal and impersonal. This double nature of his memory, which Milosz says caused his post-War experience in the West to be "robbed" of some of its "reality," is, from an American middle-class perspective, an enriching and intensifying of reality. (from "Czeslaw Milosz and Memory" from "I Could Tell You Stories")
Be kind to yourself and allow this brilliant memoirist to push your thinking, seeing, and feeling into the realm of the divine.

Monday, October 23, 2006

First Dance

My daughter had her second school dance last Friday and it reminded me that I had taken some pictures of her and her friends as they were leaving our house for the first school dance. Jim walked them across the street to the middle school.

She had asked me if three of her friends could come over after school that day to get ready. I said sure, and went shopping that afternoon for snacks and pizza and drinks.

Instead of three friends, four ending up walking over here after school, although Chloe forgot to mention this additional girl's presence. Fortunately, I saw her walking through the kitchen and asked her who she was, a few minutes before her father called to see if she'd made it over here OK. That's right, I'd never met her.

She's only eleven and yet our biggest argument lately is about dating. She insists that she should be able to go to the movies with a mixed-gender group with no chaperones. Last year, I was the only parent who did stay for the movie when they went as a group. Even though I sat in the back and said nothing the whole time, I'm ruining her life. Sigh...

Rock on Baby

Is it easier to be in a good mood when you listen to a lot of music? I wondered about that. I figured that it could at least help as a distraction for the annoying and sometimes damaging thoughts we can allow to make residence in our minds.

A quick search on Medline showed that music is being used as therapy and that it has been shown in a variety of studies to improve mood. Using "music and mood" as my keywords, I pulled up 271 articles. Here are a just a few of them:

Kemper KJ and Danhauer SC published Music as Therapy in South Med J. 2005 Mar;98(3):282-8.

Their study shows that:

"Music is widely used to enhance well-being, reduce stress, and distract patients from unpleasant symptoms. Although there are wide variations in individual preferences, music appears to exert direct physiologic effects through the autonomic nervous system...Music effectively reduces anxiety and improves mood for medical and surgical patients, for patients in intensive care units and patients undergoing procedures, and for children as well as adults. Music is a low-cost intervention that often reduces surgical, procedural, acute, and chronic pain. Music also improves the quality of life for patients receiving palliative care, enhancing a sense of comfort and relaxation..."

Stratton, V.N. Psychology and Education: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2003; vol 40: pp 1-11. News Release, Penn State University.

Shows that:

"No matter what kind of music you listen to, it makes your mood better...Not only did our sample of students report more positive emotions after listening to music, but their already positive emotions were intensified by listening to music," Stratton says in a news release.

It didn't matter whether the students listened to rock/pop, soft rock/easy listening, oldies, classical, or new-age music. It also didn't seem to matter whether the music was played during an activity -- such as dressing or driving -- or or whether it was played while socializing.

After listening, the psychology students were more optimistic, joyful, friendly, relaxed, and calm. They also were less pessimistic and sad. Music, however, did not entirely soothe the frightened beast in student breasts. After listening, they did not report being less fearful." therapy, massage, and hypnosis may have a positive effect on anxiety in cancer patients (Mansky PJ and Wallerstedt DB Cancer J. 2006 Sep-Oct:12(5):425-31).

So, why not turn on the tunes? We have so many more ways to enjoy music in our lives these days, from our iPods (check out the love song to this device on Salon today) to Pandora--a free customizable Internet radio service, which I'm listening to now as I write this, that we really have no excuse to sit in silence.

I've gone back and forth with music. I know I wouldn't have survived our cross country trip without the thousands of songs I had downloaded, and my feet move with extra buoyancy when I listen to my workout playlist while running. I also love to listen to music when I cook.

I do sometimes choose to sit in silence when I write though. I guess I've always thought that music would distract me. I've read that some writers use music to set the mood for what they're working on and I've toyed with that idea myself. I do know that if I'm going to get depressed, irritable, or crave carbohydrates it's usually going to happen when I'm writing. I mean sitting still in front of a computer all day and spitting out slop isn't a mood-enhancing activity for me. Maybe if I play some music I'll get more done and make fewer trips to the refrigerator. It's worth a try.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Aironic Hudson Valley Living

I've never read the Kingston Times. Although it's published by Ulster Publishing, whose work I admire--especially anything written or edited by my friend Sigrid Heath--I rarely see this newspaper around town. But, the other day when I was at Adams in Kingston, I couldn't manage to walk by this headline:

Killing us softly?: Scientists suspect PCBs jack up stroke, heart attack risks in riverside towns

I happen to know Dr. David Carpenter the researcher who is responsible for this study. He's renowned for his public health work, was the Dean of the School of Public Health and is employed by the New York State Department of Health Research Labs, where I worked for five years before and after grad school.

What I found so disturbing about this research is that they are suggesting that the 40% increased risk of heart disease that they saw, in towns that border the river, is do to volatile PCBs, meaning that they're airborne.

In other words, we're breathing these in every day and they're acting on our livers to increase production of cholesterol which then builds up in our blood streams and blocks our arteries.

This finding is remarkable considering that towns that border the Hudson River have generally speaking a more affluent population which should have reasonable access to health care and knowledge of healthy lifestyle choices.

GE, thanks for that and the microwave thing too.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Taking One's Life

Pay attention to things that come up more than once in a short period of time. It's not always a coincidence. Suicide is a theme for me to struggle with it seems. Please be assured that I'm not suicidal myself, but that I'm finding myself engaged in the topic with several people.

I have a pen pal named Beverly who is a prisoner in California. Her last letter was short and painful for me to read.

My dear Sista and friend,

This will be short--I just am upset today because a young woman here about age 26, hung herself. Yes, Kim she died right in her cell--the room mates were not around, I had last spoken to her during work but never was there any clue that she was having problems!

As I have mentioned before Kim, I have seen too much illness and death among my peers--these years have not been easy to do, yet I press on no matter what I endure because I'm leaving here Kim and no matter how tough being here is--taking your life is not an option, ever!

Well, I just felt too overwhelmed Kim and I thank God I can express my fears to you...
It's taking me longer to write back to Beverly this time. I've had to think of how someone in my situation can possibly identify with what she's feeling. My automatic response regarding suicide--that it's the end result of a potentially fatal illness, not unlike a heart attack--doesn't resonate with people. Most people that I've spoken to about this, still see suicide as a choice and not the result of what happens when a powerful organ like the brain is sick.

Maybe I am too much of a reductionist. It's just that despite how difficult it might be for people to understand that the mind is in the brain and no where else, it seems like too elusive a concept for most people to grasp.

Lately, people have come to accept the idea that sexual orientation isn't a choice. Before this awareness, homosexuality was viewed as a criminal deviancy, a crime against society. But now, most people seem to understand that a conscious choice is not what homosexuality is about. That people are born with their orientations and that their lives can be a struggle for acceptance.

Our brains are affected by stress. Depression is considered by neuroscientists to result from chronic stress. Certainly being in a woman's prison at age 26 is depressing. When we're suffering from chronic stress, our brains are bathed with high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. This compound can actually kill neurons in some brain regions and can affect the way the brain works.

Of course suicide can be prevented in many cases, but I think the more we consider this event to be a medical crisis, rather than a selfish, criminal act, the farther along we will be to finding compassion for the dead, their families and friends. No one stands around at a wake for an obese, middle-aged man snickering about how selfish he was to leave his family. If he had only exercised and dieted...or do they?

Untreated depression can be fatal. It's hard for me to see this any other way, just as it's hard for many of the people I've spoken with about this to see it this way. Our consciousness is a wonderfully complicated phenomenon constructed from the cells inside our skull and when we try to understand this we falter as humans have throughout history.

To Beverly and other survivors, the aftermath of a suicide seem more tormenting than a death by other means. We always struggle with questions of "why" or "if only," but we can say that for all deaths. Understanding the role of the sick brain in suicide can give survivors a break. They are no more responsible for the way a neuron is firing in someone else, than they are the way a loved one's heart is pumping. Think about accepting this as another natural, but no less tragic death and see if your heart opens up a little more.

I haven't begun to address the issue of health care for these prisoners. I wouldn't dare to absolve anyone who works there for this woman's death, if she wasn't receiving adequate care. From what I've been learning, the conditions there are abhorrent and medical negligence could possibly be a question in this case. But that's a different question to answer and a different state of mind to live in, than one where the survivors are looking at each other and the departed in a futile effort to make sense of a choice.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Lonely in a Hot World

Two things that I read yesterday resonated in the most poignant way and I had to share them with you. In Parabola, an article by Thomas Berry quotes Chief Seattle as having said

"when the last animals will have perished, humans would die of loneliness."
Berry goes on to illustrate the importance of the natural world to humans by reflecting on the needs of our children, especially toddlers and pre-schoolers. How else can we communicate with them in any meaningful way, without the use of pictures and stories of humans and animals?

These present to the child a world of wonder and beauty and intimacy, a world sufficiently enticing to enable the child to overcome the sorrows that necessarily they experience from their earliest years....We consider ourselves blessed, healed in some manner, forgiven and for the moment transported into some other world, when we catch a passing glimpse of an animal in the wild: a deer in some woodland, a fox crossing a field, a butterfly in its dancing flight southward to its wintering region...
How lonely will we and our children be when this is no more? The connection is with an article published in Nature in 2004, which predicts that, worst case scenario, 60% of all species will be extinct by the year 2050. Chloe will be 55 and Conor 53. What kind of world are we leaving them? Will they see a fox and her baby along the side of the road when they drive home from a night out, like I did the other night? Will they be able to take their children to Glacier Park to see mountain goats? Will hawks and turkey vultures soar over the valley?

More from Berry:

The animals can do for us, in both the physical and in the spiritual orders, what we cannot do for ourselves or for each other. These more precious gifts they provide through their presence and their responsiveness to our inner needs.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Wait--tell the chimps it's unnatural

A new, first of its kind exhibit at the Oslo Museum of Natural History courageously portrays the truth about sexuality among the animal kingdom. While the religious right seethes at the sight of bees sucking pollen together, the exhibit illustrates a complexity of relations among creatures. Not all interactions are performed for the sake of reproduction.

The birds and the bees may be gay, according to the world's first museum exhibition about homosexuality among animals.

With documentation of gay or lesbian behavior among giraffes, penguins, parrots, beetles, whales and dozens of other creatures, the Oslo Natural History Museum concludes human homosexuality cannot be viewed as "unnatural."

"We may have opinions on a lot of things, but one thing is clear -- homosexuality is found throughout the animal kingdom, it is not against nature," an exhibit statement said.

Geir Soeli, the project leader of the exhibition entitled "Against Nature," told Reuters: "Homosexuality has been observed for more than 1,500 animal species, and is well documented for 500 of them."

Friday, October 06, 2006

Laptop Lunchboxes

It's not often that a new product comes into my life and changes the way I think and behave. As a mom of two school-age children, I'm faced with concerns of offering healthy, organic lunches, and the issue of packaging. How do we provide lots of cut up veggies and fruits and yet not increase the volume of the already overflowing garbage pails with more ziplocks?

Laptop Lunchboxes are one of those cool things that the kids like and I love. It even offers a creative outlet and a book with ideas of how to fill all of the containers with yummy, vitamin and fiber packed goodies.

The Mind is the Universe

and the universe is the mind.

I always wondered how--if there was any chance of consciousness after death--it would be contained. Gamma rays? I do believe in a collective unconscious, but knowing that the mind is in the brain makes it hard to imagine anyway of it remaining after the cells, which make it up, decompose.

Anyone out there who doesn't understand what I mean by that should read Oliver Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He shows how brain lesions can fundamentally change who we are, yes our consciousness. That slim little book, more than anything else, shook my metaphysical understanding.

But today, I Stumbled upon (literally) two images. One of a neuron and one of a model of the universe. See for yourself. It's the same thing. It's all one and I like that.