Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye and Good Riddance, 2009

The year 2009 started with hope, change and a brainy new president with big ideas and a desire for bipartisanship. It quickly descended into bull-headed party-line obstinacy in Washington, financial gamesmanship on Wall Street, back-room deals in the insurance world and, in the streets, the howling rage of mindless mobs following the braying directives of toxic TV personalities.

In this dreadful annus horibilis, millions lost their jobs, their savings and their homes, and all of us lived with heightened anxiety. At the end, an angry young man from Nigeria tried to blow up a plane with an incendiary device in his underwear.

A year this bad is best rung out with poetry. So good riddance, 2009. Divinipotent Daily burns your calendar.

Burning the Old Year

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.  
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,  
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,  
lists of vegetables, partial poems.  
Orange swirling flame of days,  
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,  
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.  
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,  
only the things I didn’t do  
crackle after the blazing dies.

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Burning the Old Year” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995). Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

The poem above and others by this poet and many more can be found on the Web site of the Poetry Foundation.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

At the Science Spa

"Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science."
~ Edwin Powell Hubble

If you're like Divinipotent Daily, then you are increasingly convinced that the militantly ignorant have banded together with the undereducated and politically ambitious to take over the world. That's why I was so delighted to come across an essay entiteld "Science is not a democracy: when the wisdom of crowds isn't wise" by Jessica Palmer on the Bioephemera blog. The gist: some things simply aren't open to opinion; they're facts, so get used to it.

Bioephemera is one of the reasons why ScienceBlogs — a collection of more than 60 blogs written by biologists, geologists, astrophysicists, researchers, physicians, librarians, neuroscientists and representatives of virtually every other science discipline — has become one of my favorite Internet hangouts. Most of the bloggers write well and write in language the average intelligent person can understand. It is perhaps the world's biggest science magazine, and it's updated daily.

 A random sample of current topics:
You say you've had all you can take of birthers, evolution-deniers, climate change challengers, anti-vaxxers and loudly shouting, celebrity-seeking, bubble-brained "rogue" non-thinkers? Then slip into something comfortable, light some scented candles and head on over to ScienceBlogs for a bath in some warm intelligence. You'll feel rejuvenated.

"Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination."  
~ John Dewey

Monday, December 28, 2009

Some Muscle Pain with a Side of Whining

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs."
~ Emily Dickinson

(Note: Today's blog consists entirely of narcissism and whining.)

It rained on December 26th in New York City, sometimes in a slow and steady drip and sometimes in heavy, soaking showers. The new-fallen rain transformed the mounds of snow still piled along the city's curbsides initially to slush and finally to water. Lots of water. Great, backyard-pool-sized ponds of the stuff wherever the ground dipped. Around my car, for example.

For Divinipotent Daily, December 26th was a soggy day of shoving laundry bags and grocery sacks into the trunk of my car and then wrestling them out again. Due to the ponds, this often required balancing awkwardly off to one side to avoid drowning. The result: all errand missions were accomplished, but at the cost of one sorely pulled one upper arm muscle.

Which one? This much is certain: It is not the Triceps, because like most women, I have no Triceps. After consulting Wikipedia, I am fairly certain that the muscle in question is the Deltoid. If not, then surely it is the mysterious Brachialis
or the even more mysterious Biceps Brachii. The last two muscles are completely new parts of the anatomy to me; they sound like species of dinosaur.

"I just use my muscles as a conversation piece, like someone walking a cheetah down 42nd Street."
~ Arnold Schwarzenegger

It always surprises me that, after all these years, I am still discovering uncharted parts of my own body. This last happened in 2005, when I was diagnosed with a (benign) spinal tumor. Prior to surgery, the main symptoms were increasing stiffness and the sensation of warm water running down the top of my right thigh, which taught me a little lesson about the ways the nerves of spinal column divide up their work. After surgery, once the morphine wore off, the one and only sensation was that of having a flame thrower inserted into my spine. I had no idea the body could feel like that. It was pain of sufficient greatness to fit Emily Dickinson's description.

In my current situation, Ms. Dickinson's description is reassuring, because it reminds me that I am not in great pain. My nerves are neither standing nor sitting on ceremony. They are instead producing big, ouch-inducing, short-lived twinges at unexpected moments. The surprise-attack aspect fills me with equal parts forbearance and laziness. My upbringing by a somewhat Spartan-like mother makes me want to face down pain with a steady, steely-eyed gaze. But at the same time, I am a wimp, I want to do nothing that might hurt.

"My eye muscles hurt now when I read our MasterCard bill."
~ Geoffrey Rush

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A James Joyce Christmas

"It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan's annual dance. Everybody who knew them came to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia's choir, any of Kate's pupils that were grown up enough and even some of Mary Jane's pupils too. Never once had it fallen flat."
~ James Joyce, "The Dead"

Not everyone is merry at Christmas time. That's one of the more obvious lessons of James Joyce's classic story, "The Dead." The final piece in Joyce's 1914 short story collection Dubliners, "The Dead" follows Gabriel Conroy to the Morkan sisters' annual Christmas party in Dublin in 1904. (This photo shows Joyce in that same year.) Conroy is a rather awkward man, somewhat lacking in the small talk department. Amid the rituals and obligatory gaiety of the party, he struggles to enjoy himself and find common ground with others and, at the story's end, to make sense of life and its mysteries.

You can read "The Dead" here in its entirety courtesy of Nebraska's Creighton University. Don't miss its final, haunting line:
"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
I offer this in memory of my cousins Joel Morkan, streetwise scholar, professor of Elizabethan literature and author of scholarly works on Milton and Wordsworth, and Neil Morkan, who ran recklessly through life as if knowing death was chasing him. They burned bright and died young.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Christmas

"I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."
~ Charles Dickens

Despite her mother's best efforts, Divinipotent Daily is not a religious person, but I do have great affection for Christmas. Not the mall-trawling, big-spending, show-offy Christmas, but the one that smells of pine trees, has cheery lighting and merry carolers, brings joy to children and serves up plum pudding and mincemeat pie with hard sauce for everyone.

With that in mind, and with most profound apologies to Wallace Stevens, I'm filling your stockings with thirteen links to seasonal amusements of the non-religious kind.
  1. From National Public Radio, "Jingle Jams" — a selection of holiday tunes from every corner of the musical spectrum.

  2. From the Delancey Place blog, the story behind Charles Schultz's "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

  3. From PsyBlog, "12 Psychology Studies of Christmas" — everything from how to have a happy Christmas to why we encourage children to believe in Santa Claus.

  4. From Bob Dylan, the unexpected and entertaining Christmas video, "Must Be Santa." 

  5. From the YouTube Global Chorus — voices from all over the world — a sometimes off-pitch but surprisingly moving version of my mother's favorite Christmas song, "O Holy Night."

  6. From McSweeney's Internet Tendency, the greatly entertaining "Letters to Santa Written by Shakespeare Characters."

  7. From Wired magazine, a story about the first Christmas tree lights, invented in New York in 1882.

  8. From's Explainer, answers to some common Christmas-related questions.

  9. From Clement Clarke Moore (or possibly Henry Livingston, Jr., his wife's cousin) the famous poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas."

  10. From Dr. Seuss, a Grinch epiphany: "And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons.  It came without tags.  It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."

  11. From the New Scientist, a "scientific" explanation of how Santa accomplishes his magic (spoiler: it involves aliens).

  12. From Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a familiar verse:
"I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
   13. And finally, from the world of astronomy, something new in the sky  —
the remarkable Tannenbaum Galaxy!

    Wednesday, December 23, 2009

    Seeing in 3-D

    "Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful."
    ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Yesterday Divinipotent and Mr. Daily went to see the movie Avatar in 3-D at an IMAX theater. It's a remarkable film on many levels — heroic heroes (of both sexes) and villainous villains, a roller-coaster story that shifts from sweetness to disaster and back again several times, and most memorably, dazzling special effects. Among the latter, two things really stand out.
    1. The giant leap in animation that turns towering blue aliens into people you care about, somehow completely avoiding the creepiness of the uncanny valley.
    2. The phenomenal, wondrous 3-D experience the film offers.

    My first experience with 3-D was the utterly unconvincing 1960 film 13 Ghosts (although I do recommend this charmingly goofy introduction by director William Castle). Those were the days when 3-D meant wearing paper eyeglasses that, if memory serves, were given away as premiums with Cracker Jacks and breakfast cereals.

    I've generally avoided 3-D ever since, so Avatar was a genuine revelation. For starters, no more paper eyeglasses; these days the theater provides big plastic goggles. But it's what happens once the movie begins that is so amazing. Everything really does seem to happen right in front of your eyes. Talking about it is pointless, of course; go see it.

    Meanwhile, thanks to a preview, I've already discovered the next title on my must-see list: Hubble 3-D, a film shot with an IMAX 3-D camera on the Hubble telescope when NASA astronauts made the final repairs in May 2009. The image below was taken during that mission; Hubble 3-D makes you feel as if you're right there.

    Tuesday, December 22, 2009

    A Message to the Anti-Vaxxers (Please Forward)

    "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
    ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

    In November 2009, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report about an outbreak of mumps in Rockland County and Brooklyn, New York, parts of New Jersey and Quebec, Canada. A more recent report in Discover Magazine said that the number of confirmed or suspected cases in Brooklyn alone was now approximately 600. According to a post on Phil Plait's Discover Magazine blog, the entire United States has only 300 cases of mumps in a normal year, so that makes the situation in Brooklyn extremely abnormal. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has an even bigger problem — 6,000 cases in the past year. The reason behind the outbreaks: the anti-vaccine movement.

    Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember childhood epidemics all too well. Those memories include people living in iron lungs and vivid images of schoolmates with shriveled arms and braced legs — results of the global poliomyelitis epidemic.

    In the 1950s and '60s Jonas Salk was recognized around the world as a hero for creating the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Millions of children willingly stood in long lines at school to get vaccinated. Here, children show off their shots to friends awaiting their turn; scenes like this were played out everywhere in the U.S.

    Polio was one of the few childhood diseases for which a vaccine existed when Divinipotent Daily was a girl. Epidemics spread through school systems constantly. Diseases I have personally lived through include measles, mumps, chicken pox and rubella. All were intensely uncomfortable. I can't imagine how many months of school I missed — measles alone meant three weeks of quarantine.

    By the end of the 1960s, vaccines had been developed for measles, mumps and rubella — the famous MMR trio — and fairly quickly, these diseases all but disappeared in the U.S. But the news out of Brooklyn makes one wonder. If people are not vaccinated for mumps, they are probably fair game for measles and rubella, too. All it will take to trigger an outbreak is contact with an infected person.

    And in this age of global travel, contact is not difficult to arrange. All of these diseases are active in many parts of the world — particularly in the Third World, where adequate vaccines are not available (the CDC says 43% of the world's nations have no mumps vaccination program). The Brooklyn case is believed to have started when an infected child from the U.K. visited the U.S. this summer. If the anti-vax trend continues, tragedy can't be far behind.

    So, sensible parents, be sure to keep your children's vaccinations current. And for you anti-vaxxers, I've put together a little tour of some of the misery you're choosing to risk visiting upon your offspring, courtesy of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO). And make no mistake, with so many people surrendering their reason and decision-making to unscientific scare tactics, yesterday's "community immunity" — the concept that unvaccinated children are protected by the high vaccination rates of the children around them — is on the decline.

    Say hello to measles. This is a disease so deadly that, as recently as 1999, it killed 873,000 people, almost all of them under the age of five. Because of its deadliness, in 2001 measles became the focus of a global immunization effort involving the CDC, Red Cross, Red Crescent, the United Nations Foundation, UNICEF and the WHO. By 2005, deaths had been reduced by more than half. But as the CDC points out, "Millions of children still remain at risk from measles. Malnourished and un-immunized children under five years of age, especially infants, are at high risk of contracting measles and are most vulnerable to dying from the disease."

    Mumps. The AAP describes mumps as "a disease that is characterized by swelling of the salivary glands. Prior to the vaccine that was introduced in 1967, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 cases of mumps occurred in the U.S. each year." 

    Complications of mumps include potential deafness, encephalitis, meningitis, orchitis in boys, and ovarian swelling in girls.

    Rubella, also known as German measles, looks like this. It's particularly nasty. Says the AAP, "Rubella is a respiratory viral infection characterized by mild respiratory symptoms and low-grade fever, followed by a rash lasting about 3 days. In children, the illness may not be diagnosed since the rash may be mild and mimic other conditions. Rubella vaccination is particularly important for non-immune women who may become pregnant because of the risk for serious birth defects if they acquire the disease during pregnancy. Birth defects include deafness, cataracts, heart defects, mental retardation, and liver and spleen damage (at least a 20% chance of damage to the fetus if a woman is infected early in pregnancy)." 

    In the 1960s, a rubella epidemic infected about one in ten pregnant women in the U.S. The legacy: between 20,000 and 30,000 children with birth defects including hearing loss, cardiac problems, vision loss, mental retardation and other developmental disabilities.

    And what about polio — the disease that first made childhood vaccinations so popular? According to the WHO, another global vaccination effort has all but eradicated polio in most countries, but it remains active in Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. And as the WHO points out, "As long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio. Between 2003 and 2005, 25 previously polio-free countries were re-infected due to imports of the virus."

    Hey, anti-vaxxers, here's what an iron lung looks like. Imagine your child in one of those.

    "There is nothing worse than aggressive stupidity."
    ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Monday, December 21, 2009

    Shopping Showdown: Men v. Women

    “If you think the United States has stood still, who built the largest shopping center in the world?”
    ~ Richard M. Nixon

    Earlier this month the U.K. paper the Telegraph published a story about the different approaches men and women take to shopping. Anyone who has gone shopping with a person of the opposite sex already knows all about this. Generally speaking, even a woman who dislikes shopping (e.g., Divinipotent Daily) will browse, try things on and ask for an opinion. The typical man chooses the first reasonably suitable thing he sets eyes on; if the woman he came with disagrees, he goes directly to the store's electronics department or, if there isn't one, sits on a bench and looks grumpy.

    What's new is, a University of Michigan study claims evolution is responsible for this behavior. According to Professor Daniel Kruger, it all comes down to the roles our distant male and female ancestors took on (or, as Professor Kruger so memorably puts it on his Web site, we shop "in ways consistent with adaptations to the sexually dimorphic foraging strategies utilized during recent human evolution"). What this means is, Wilma Flintstone developed her shopping habits while poking around gathering food and taking her time to avoid the poisonous stuff, while Fred went out and killed whatever he could as fast as he could and dragged it home.

    Is it true? Who knows. But Divinipotent Daily predicts that countless millions of impatient men will now try out a shiny new scientific excuse to stay home.

    “When women are depressed, they eat or go shopping. Men invade another country. It's a whole different way of thinking.”
    ~ Elayne Boosler

    Friday, December 18, 2009

    Pardon Me While I Rant About Ageism

    (Note: I have also posted this article to my other blog, Ageblind.)

    "I could not, at any age, be content to take my place in a corner by the fireside and simply look on."
    Eleanor Roosevelt

    This morning a newsletter from The Boomer Blog (which is exactly what it sounds like) included a link to an article that infuriated me. The title: "Age can affect job performance and more." The author, Linda Stollings, is a personal fitness trainer. She notes that "According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), workers aged 55 and older will account for almost 50 percent of projected labor force growth between 2002-2012." And then she goes on to say, "Now that’s a problem any way you look at it." Really? Any way you look at it?

    It's certainly a problem if you look through Ms. Stollings' eyes, where the view is filled with fat, old, self-indulgent fools who drank too much and ate too much throughout their lives and are now paying the price. They're in declining health and plagued by slip and fall injuries suffered while stumbling around the office. And let's not overlook the rising health care costs associated with aging workers. Ms. Stollings doesn't.

    After reading her article, I wrote the following comment:

    "While I realize the author is just trying to publicize her fitness training business, I have to object to the negative stereotypes this article promotes. Older workers who lose their jobs must spend twice as long hunting for new ones as younger people. This just adds to their problems. Why not write about what a drag it is to hire women, since they might have babies and take maternity leave? Or what about young people? They don’t know anything and training is expensive. Think that’s ridiculous? That’s how this article sounds to me." 

    "Growing old is like being increasingly penalized for a crime you have not committed."
    ~ Anthony Powell

    Ms. Stollings might have quoted a different AARP statistic — the one that found 60 percent of workers aged 45 to 74 have either experienced or witnessed age discrimination. Ageism may be against the law in all fifty states,  but it remains one of the last "acceptable" prejudices. I've been trying to figure out why that is. Here's what puzzles me: Most prejudices are rooted in fear of "others" — people and things that are unfamiliar and seem not like ourselves. But aging is different. It's happening to all of us all of the time. Why are we so afraid of our futures? 

    "No wise man ever wished to be younger."
    ~ Jonathan Swift

    Thursday, December 17, 2009

    The Cecil B. DeMille of Our DNA

    “DNA is an abbreviation for deoxyribonucleicantidisestablishmentarianism, a complex string of syllables.”
      ~ Dave Barry

    All human life starts with a single cell that then copies itself some 10 trillion times over. Since all cells start out the same, how does one group know to become a nose and another that most wonderfully named body part, the Islets of Langerhans? The epigenome, that's how.

    If I understand things correctly*, the epigenome is the Cecil B. DeMille of our DNA, directing the complexity of cellular assignments on a spectacular scale. Here is what the European Union's Epigenome Network of Excellence says about it: "The field of epigenetics has emerged to bridge the gap between nature and nurture. In the 21st century you will most commonly find epigenetics defined as 'the study of heritable changes in genome function that occur without a change in DNA sequence.'"

    Scientists believe the epigenome influences what individual cells become and continues to influence development throughout life. Identical twins are a favorite research subject, since they start life with identical genes that gradually change and diverge, sometimes radically. The environment, diet and aging all may play a role in producing the changes the epigenome makes to DNA. And, yes, those changes can be passed on to the next generation.

    Earlier this year, PBS's Nova aired a wonderful introduction to epigenetics called "The Ghost in Our Genes" — excerpts and a wealth of related information are available on the PBS Web site; it's well worth a visit.

    The New York Times has also been on the case for some time. In late 2008 the Times published this massive partial map of a single chromosome; then, in February 2009, came this substantial but user-friendly explanation of what all the shouting is about.

    Now, a publication called Genetics Times reports a significant breakthrough in the field: researchers at the Salk Institute have identified "the first detailed map of the human epigenome." Even though it's just one chromosome, this is a really big deal.

    Joseph Ecker, Ph.D., professor and director of the Genomic Analysis Laboratory at the Salk Institute and a member of the San Diego Epigenome Center, led the research. As Genetics Times explains, "Ecker's group will now begin to examine how the epigenome changes during normal development as well as examining a variety of disease states." Researchers foresee potential applications for problems as diverse as cancer and mental disorders.

    Another promising area: tissue regeneration. The December 13, 2009 edition of 60 Minutes on CBS had a fascinating segment on efforts to grow new body parts in the lab and, in some cases, in our own bodies. (You can see excerpts here.) Imagine what could be done with more knowledge of the epigenome — transplant waiting lists could eventually become a thing of the past.

    Even if you're not sure what to make of the epigenome, take a listen to a little ditty scientist Matt Barnett has written about it — "The Epigenome Song."  As the man sings, "Eating for your epigenes will make you strong and lean and mean." 

    “The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.”
    ~ Lewis Thomas

    * * *

    * Note to readers: Divinipotent Daily is no scientist — math anxiety saw to that long ago. I'm just a chronically curious person who is drawn like a bee to wildflowers to explanations of how and why. As a result, I subscribe to science blogs and consumer science magazines, follow scientists on Twitter, read the occasional science book, develop related enthusiasms and become increasingly incomprehensible to my loved ones.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    Life, Insomnia and Self-imposed Deadlines

    "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
    ~ John Winston Lennon

    Life has interrupted today's Divinipotent Daily — my planned post needs another twenty-four hours to steep. (And let it be said that one of the best things about writing a blog is the ability to give yourself deadline extensions.) Check back tomorrow for some link-laden musings about one of my latest obsessions.

    For today, please enjoy a re-post of two of my favorite poems about insomnia, which stopped by Chez Divinipotent for another unwelcome visit last night. 

    A flock of sheep that leisurely pass by
    One after one; the sound of rain, and bees
    Murmuring; the fall of rivers, winds and seas,
    Smooth fields, white sheets of water, and pure sky -
    I've thought of all by turns, and still I lie

    ~ William Wordsworth, "To Sleep"

    Sleep is perverse as human nature,
    Sleep is perverse as legislature....
    So people who go to bed to sleep
    Must count French premiers or sheep,
    And people who ought to arise from bed
    Yawn and go back to sleep instead.

    ~ Ogden Nash

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009

    Intelligence v. Street Smarts

    "Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain."
    ~ Friedrich Schiller

    The other day a Twitter link led Divinipotent Daily to a fascinating article published last summer in the University of Toronto's UT Magazine. The title: "Why Smart People Do Stupid Things."

    All of us, including the true brainiacs among us, do boneheaded things sometimes; but let's be honest, some very smart people engage in nincompoopery a lot more often than others. Consider brainy friends who gamble or suffer from addictions or people with advanced degrees who deny evolution. Now a UT adjunct professor named Keith Stanovich has proposed this explanation: intelligence and rationality are two different things. Said another way, being smart has little to do with the ability to make rational decisions.

    "Dysrationalia" is the name Professor Stanovich has given to the pea-brained behavior of the intelligent. The article offers a wealth of examples of dysrationalia in action, and some may be uncomfortably familiar. Thankfully, it also points out that rational thinking is a skill that can be taught. I encourage everyone to read "Why Smart People Do Stupid Things" — and don't skip the comments.

    Bonus round: the article includes a link to a five-question quiz that purports to test your rationality. Having taken it and done rather well, thank you, I am not convinced that the questions are really testing what they claim. Try it and see what you think.

    Monday, December 14, 2009

    Reading Our Minds' Eyes

    "Well, I hate to admit it, but it is possible that there is (one) such a thing as telepathy and (two) that the CETI project's idea that we might communicate with extraterrestrial beings via telepathy is possibly a reasonable idea--if telepathy exists and if ETIs exist. Otherwise we are trying to communicate with someone who doesn't exist with a system which doesn't work."
    ~ Philip K. Dick, "The Dark-Haired Girl"

    According to a new study reported last week in the Chicago Tribune by columnist Julie Deardorff, if you want to wake up a man, set off a car alarm; but if it's a woman who's snoozing, a crying baby is your best bet. Yes, apparently we are that stereotypical. More on this gender bifurcation in a moment. First, let's look at Mindlab, the company that did the study.

    Mindlab is based at the University of Sussex in the U.K. Its specialty is "neuromarketing." What this means is, Mindlab works with big-name companies — Audi, Boots, Cadbury, Microsoft, Panasonic and Procter & Gamble among them  — to market products directly to our quivering brains. But why take my word for it? See it in action.

    The Mindlab Web site offers a video demo with the exact look and feel of an educational film from the 1950s — something on bicycle safety, perhaps, or instructions about how to become popular. 

    Experiments start when a Mindlab employee fits a cap covered with electrical leads on a volunteer's head and then hooks the gizmo to an EEG machine the size of a computer hard drive. (The result looks a lot like the chapeau in this photo.) In one example, Mindlab determines which soft drink can is better than all others by having the volunteer sit in front of an "eye tracker," which does exactly what it sounds like — tracks eye movement. In another example, a volunteer is given magic eyeglasses and a floppy hat (to cover most of the wiring) and sent to a grocery store.

    Mindlab is not the only company in the mind-reading game. San Francisco-based EmSense promises clients a "window into the mind of the consumer" via its EmBand™ device, which it uses "to determine emotional and cognitive activity." And there are others.

    Such is the state of marketing today. At large companies, the financial penalties for a failed product are so immense, nobody wants to take risks and instincts are not to be trusted. Executives justify their decisions by insulating their derrieres with as much research data as possible.

    No wonder I'm having such a hard time finding a simple alarm clock that I can set even when I'm cross-eyed tired. And speaking of alarm clocks, here are the results of Mindlab's survey, as reported by Julie Deardorff.

    What wakes you up?
    Top ten sounds most likely to wake men:

    1. Car alarm
    2. Howling wind

    3. Buzzing fly
    4. Snoring

    5. Noise from drains

    6. Crickets chirruping (or chirping as we say in America)

    7. Sirens
    8. Clock ticking
    9. Drilling/workmen

    10.Dripping tap

    Top ten sounds most likely to wake women: 

    1. Baby crying

    2. Dripping tap
    3. Rowdiness
    4. Snoring

    5. Buzzing fly

    6. Drilling/workmen
    7. Sirens

    8. Car alarm
    9. Howling wind
    10. Noise from drain

    Friday, December 11, 2009

    Portraits of Times Past

    Yesterday I played hooky — took a subway ride to Prospect Heights, had a leisurely lunch with a friend at Tom's on Washington Avenue and then spent a couple of pleasant hours meandering around the Brooklyn Museum.

    My original purpose was to see the "Who Shot Rock & Roll" exhibit — a collection of photos, slides and films of singers and bands from the 1950s through the recent past. It's a well-mounted show filled with vivid, iconic shots. Some artists are represented by one-offs and others — Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan and Hendrix, for example — are given their own sections. Although some of the work was magnificent, without music and movement, little of it felt like rock & roll to me. One exception: David LaChapelle's strange and hypnotic video of the Vines doing their song "Outtathaway."

    The more interesting portraits, at least to me, were just down the hall in the gallery of paintings of North American aristocrats of the late 1700s and early 1800s. The men uniformly looked pampered and powerful. But the women...they were a different story. I found myself having silent conversations with them.

    “No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”
    ~ Oscar Wilde

    Some had unibrows and dark moustaches that cried out for tweezers and waxing. The portrait above is Mrs. John Haskins (née Hannah Upham), painted by Joseph Badger in 1759. As I looked at her my heart ached. I wanted to say, "Hannah, sweetie, let's fix that hair. It's all wrong for your narrow little face."

    “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.”
    ~ Miss Piggy

    And look at Doña Maria de la Luz Padilla (Gomez de) Cervantes as she was painted by Miguel Cabrera in 1760. It's obvious she has great wealth; just take a gander at her massive pendant, her rings and bracelets and that bejeweled headdress. But it is also obvious she is entirely miserable. My guess: she cannot breathe in that horrible outfit, and she has been posing in it for who knows how many days. Look at her waist. Inside, Doña Maria is screaming, "Get me out of this wretched corset right now!" but she lacks the courage or pulmonary power to say it. And so she sips in teaspoonfuls of air and pouts.

    But then, a few steps down the hall and 66 years later, I came upon the glorious Peale sisters, Eleanor and Rosalba, painted by their father Rembrandt Peale in 1826. Graceful, poised, softly coiffed and apparently less cruelly corseted, they seem serene. Way to go, Peale sisters. Daddy loves you.

    "I'm tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That's deep enough. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?"
    ~ Jean Kerr

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    Shutting Off Our Inner Censors

    "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."
    ~ Albert Einstein

    Divinipotent Daily has one of those minds that frequently wanders down side streets, and one of my favorite haunts is the human need for narrative. Somehow, while life goes on all around us in a chaotic, nonlinear fashion, we humans crave a simple beginning, middle and end. We want a story we can follow, and if there isn't a clear story progression, dammit, we'll create one.

    (This tendency is not without its problems. For example, in his book The Black Swan Nassim N. Taleb discusses the way the need for narrative makes our history books unreliable — eliminating surprises and random events and imposing an orderly progression that may bear very little relationship to reality at the time.)

    The urge to narrate crossed my mind as I read a recent blog post about lying and creativity by Jonah Lehrer. As Lehrer explains, many people with damage to their frontal lobes tend to confabulate — to make things up of whole cloth. He quotes an excerpt from a case report about a man who began confabulating after a brain hemorrhage. "When inconsistencies in his confabulations were pointed out to him, he would become perplexed and either profess ignorance of recent events or invent a new confabulation."

    "Don't play what's there. Play what's not there."
    ~ Miles Davis

    What really jumped out at me from Lehrer's post is a few paragraphs down. A research study using fMRI machines found that when jazz musicians improvise, they disconnect from their frontal lobes. "Before a single note was played, the pianists exhibited a 'deactivation' of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a brain area associated with planned actions and self-control. In other words, they were inhibiting their inhibitions, which allowed the musicians to create without worrying about what they were creating."


    The frontal lobes are our inner editors and censors; they are the headquarters of the little board of overseers who say, "Now, now, calm down" and "piffle, that makes no sense." But creativity has nothing to do with making sense. Of course we need to lock the voices of reason in a soundproof room where we can't hear them! And how utterly amazing that we are able to do that — and scientists can watch it happen.

    By the way, surely it's not just jazz musicians who do this. Writers, artists, anyone who does their best work when "in the zone" is working outside the realms of logic. Isn't that what Anne Lamott was suggesting when she wrote in Bird by Bird, "Don't look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance."?

    See you tomorrow. It's time for Divinipotent Daily to go dancing. 

    "If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."
    ~ Carl Sagan

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009

    Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful

    "It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.”
    ~ Oscar Wilde

    When I was young my mother told me that beautiful people have a moral obligation to treat others well because people expect more from them. I found this observation profoundly bewildering, having already met and seen on television so many distinctly unpleasant pretty girls that I associated beauty with obnoxiousness.

    It turns out my mother was right. According to new University of Minnesota research discussed in this fascinating PsyBlog post, "People automatically assume others who are more attractive are also more sociable, humorous, intelligent and so on."

    The part my mother apparently didn't realize is, it works both ways. Says Psyblog, "people automatically sense how others view them and immediately start exhibiting the expected behaviours."

    And so the "Hey, good lookin'" dance begins: heartthrob and conquest run their fingers through their respective manes, cock their heads and do flirty things with their eyes.

    Beautiful people. Do they really need all of the breaks?

    “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”
    ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009

    Among the Bookish

    The New York Public Library is a year-round treasure keeper that holds the answers to questions most of us will never even think to ask. The icon of the system is the main branch at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, where the great marble lions Patience and Fortitude guard the steps. (That's Patience at his south side station, above.)

    On the first Sunday in December the lions relax and the library holds its annual open house for donors. And when I say donors, I do not mean wealthy benefactors, I mean average, library-loving people who have given as little as $40.00. Guests pass through the doors into a library transformed with garlands, lights and a huge Christmas tree. A brass band playing Christmas tunes alternates with a carol-singing choir (this year it was the Brooklyn Youth Chorus).

    What struck me most about my fellow library donors is what an unusual group they are, from oddly dressed eccentrics with terrible hair to serene, tweedy women who looked as if they would fit right into an Agatha Christie mystery. Scalpels or Botox are not part of this crowd's reality. Grandchildren are, and many were in attendance.

    This year my friends and I arrived just past 2 p.m., intentionally too late for the receiving line of dignitaries and politicians who shake the hands of everyone who arrives earlier. As usual, people dressed as literary characters appropriate to the season were everywhere — giant tin soldiers on stilts, a frightful green Grinch, a snowman, a reindeer, a gingerbread man and a Mother Goose with an amazingly lifelike animatronic goose.

    Celebrations happen on every level. Downstairs, before a crowd of onlookers, a band played salsa music while thirty or forty people, including one and one-half couples who were quite good, danced. On the second floor elves painted children's faces and the Galapagos Puppet Company acted out a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle story. On the third floor, we stopped by the cabaret, where weary walkers rested and tapped their feet, and then we signed up for the tour of the stacks — a peek at the library's innards, the home of five million three-dimensional books.

    Journey to the Center of the Library. A guide led us through a magic mirror (okay, it was a door) and down two flights of stairs to a long, wide room filled with row upon row of shelves, all groaning with books. He explained that books are organized according to the NYPL's unique Billings system, which sorts titles by both height and subject before breaking things down farther. It's an adaptation designed to maximize use of cramped space — how quintessentially New York.

    Big news! The old pneumatic tubes that once sucked up book requests and whooshed them to their destinations have largely been replaced by something less likely to clog. It's not a digital system — cards are still hand-written. The new system is more like a conveyor belt. Conveyors and dumbwaiter-like contraptions also move the books up, down, around and across the library to those awaiting them in reading rooms. The tour guide explained that while the library is gradually digitizing almost everything in its collection, it will keep every three-dimensional book permanently. Newspapers, alas, will be scanned but not be saved, since their high-acid paper crumbles to dust over time.

    As we prepared to leave, we stopped on the lobby staircase to watch the crowd and listen to the brass band play. And here, too, people were dancing — not well, but with great spirit.

    Just then Ebenezer Scrooge strode by waving his hand and snarling. Was he  staying in "Bah humbug!" character or was he truly angry about the people who were walking up and down the "wrong" side of the staircase? We'll never know.

    See you next year, Ebenezer.

    Monday, December 7, 2009

    Medical Muddles

    "I rather like mysteries. But I do dislike muddles."
    ~ David Lean

    We live in the age of medical miracles, when strokes are reversed, hearts are restarted, brain tumors are removed and one-pound babies grow up to be sports stars. While we know that some conditions cannot be cured, we believe in our hearts that virtually all — and certainly any that might befall us or our loved ones — can be treated and managed. At the very least, today's doctors are expected to know what's wrong with us. And yet...

    Several years ago my husband developed a terrible, itchy rash. His internist sent him to a dermatologist who examined his skin and wrote out a couple of prescriptions; at home we soon found that one burned unbearably and the other did absolutely nothing. After that came more visits to more dermatologists along with multiple skin biopsies. The final specialist told him he had a mental problem and should see a psychiatrist. A few weeks later he stopped taking a particular medication and the rash went away.

    More recently, one of my sisters was diagnosed with a medical condition that sounds quite alarming but so far is more irritating than dangerous. She was also informed she may or may not have a second condition. The problem: the preferred treatment for condition A is taboo in the presence of condition B. "First do no harm" is the oath the doctors have taken. And so she goes from expert to expert, having test after test after test. It's been more than two years and the debate continues.

    A few weeks ago, a woman I know told me about her husband, who has suffered from intermittent high fevers for almost a month and spent a week in an ICU. After thousands of dollars worth of tests, the doctors still have no idea what's wrong.

    Yesterday I heard from a client who spent 24 hours in an emergency room only to emerge with the same symptoms that had brought her there. While she had no diagnosis, she did have a great big medical bill.

    One of the saddest Google pages I have ever seen is the response to this query: "Doctors have no answers." When doctors have no answers, when our condition presents a medical mystery, we are more than shocked, frightened and frustrated; deep down, we are heartbroken.

    “Mysteries are not necessarily miracles.”

    ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Friday, December 4, 2009

    A Cat Named Migraine

    “When my cats aren't happy, I'm not happy. Not because I care about their mood but because I know they're just sitting there thinking up ways to get even.”
    ~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

    I have been a migraine sufferer for most of my life. Hallucinatory lightning bolts and fireworks in my eyes, a pile driver in my head, all that and more is part of Divinipotent Daily's reality. I tell you this not for sympathy but to assure you that when I named my cat Migraine, I did so with full awareness of the implications.

    It is not that Migraine is a terrible cat. Quite the contrary, he is an exemplary feline in every way — graceful, regal, insouciant and independent...and yet remarkably affectionate. Laps are to some cats as the Bat Signal is to Batman, and so it is with Migraine. Wherever a lap forms, he'll be there.

    "There are no ordinary cats."
    ~ Colette

    Sometimes animals choose you, and that's what happened with Migraine. One day a couple of years ago he followed my husband into our building, up the stairs and through our front door. We put him in the spare room with some litter, water and food, posted signs around the neighborhood and asked about a lost cat at places where local pet owners gather. Nada.

    Did I mention we already had two cats?

    Their names are Bogie and Harry, they adore each other and until Migraine came along, they led lives of perfect peace and harmony. The problem is that Migraine doesn't like other animals, including cats. He particularly doesn't like Harry. Harry is a gentle soul and Migraine apparently sees that as a character flaw to be punished with ambush attacks, biting and hissing. This is one key to the origin of the name Migraine. The other: I am allergic to cats and three is one too many.

    With regret, we decided we would find Migraine a new home after having him checked out by our veterinarian. The good news: Migraine had no communicable diseases. The bad news, he has a heart murmur and an overactive thyroid that requires a daily dose of medication mixed into his breakfast. These facts, combined with the fact that he is not a kitten, make him a cat most people do not want. Since we didn't want to put him in a shelter — he likes people too much — we seemed to be stuck with him.

    We had almost resigned ourselves to this imperfect situation when the pining for a dog began. Every holiday season the news is filled with stories about overflowing shelters. This year, many stories mention "black dog syndrome" — the fact that black dogs are disproportionately likely to languish in shelters. (Yes, folks, discrimination based on color is not just for humans.) As yesterday's post about my late dog Decibel should have made clear, I do not suffer from black dog syndrome. I would welcome another black dog. And then there was this story in the November 27 issue of UK's Daily Mail: "How walking the dog beats going to a gym." Sounds good to me.

    Here is our conundrum. Robert and I want a dog. Those mellow and friendly souls Bogie and Harry would ultimately adjust to one — that's just how they are. But Migraine...he would feel differently.  Things could get ugly.

    This is Migraine. A handsome devil, don't you think? Would you like to adopt him?

    "Cats were put into the world to disprove the dogma that all things were created to serve man."
    ~ Paul Gray

    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    A Dog Named Decibel

    "Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in."
    ~ Mark Twain

    Piglet came first. Inherited from a friend, she was a gorgeous, pale blond Golden Retriever with a personality that reminded me of Harpo Marx. When her puppy-like energy began to congeal into laziness some time around her fifth birthday, Robert and I talked about getting her a playmate.

    We went to a well-known Long Island animal shelter. Eventually we came to a cage containing a filthy little black ball of pathos with rheumy eyes, a gamely wagging tail and a look of total desperation. "What's wrong with her?" we asked. "Just a cold. She's almost all better," we were told. Yeah right. I'll never know exactly why we chose her, but we signed the papers, handed over our "donation" and went straight to our regular veterinarian. He listened to her lungs and immediately called in the student doctors who were interning that year. He said to them, "I want you to see this. For as long as you practice veterinary medicine you will probably never see a case of distemper as bad as this." To us, "I don't know if we can save her."

    Somehow, with weeks of isolation, heaps of antibiotics and multiple steam sessions every day, we did save her. But because she was too sick to be vaccinated, she was quarantined for months in our apartment. Seeing Piglet come and go for walks drove her insane. When we left the house she would whine and squeal with anxiety; she was so loud and sounded so tortured, a neighbor reported us to the ASPCA for animal abuse. That's when I asked the veterinarian if there was anything we could do to calm her down. He gave me a bottle of valium and said, "It probably won't work, but you can try it." I should have taken it myself. And so we named her Decibel, DB for short.

    Decibel was a one-dog wrecking crew. One day while I was at work, she chewed almost all the way through the legs of a table that had belonged to my grandmother. We bought a puppy gate, but she just climbed over it, so we bought a second one and stacked them. The next day I came home to find she had scaled the stacked gates and eaten the couch. It was an 82-inch, Tuxedo-style affair with lots of pillows and cushions, and she chewed through all of them. The living room was knee-deep in mounds of white pillow stuffing. It was a little like that Rolling Stones video for "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" where the boys are in sailor suits and at the end they're nearly swallowed up by bubbles. On that day I seriously considered taking her to the ASPCA and leaving her there. In the end, I bought a third gate.

    When Decibel was finally well enough to go out, she turned out to be an athlete. She ran like a greyhound and caught balls like an all-star outfielder. But as we soon discovered, she was at least 75% Border Collie and the herding force was strong. She was an excellent playmate for Piglet, but when we tried putting her in the dog run she just ran after the others, barking and nipping at their heels until they cowered together in a corner. So much for that. If Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, had been around he would have said Decibel needed a job. Since he wasn't, we relied on long, strenuous play sessions morning and night on the local ball field; these were later supplemented with mad-dash races against our daughter, another strong runner.

    Fast forward nine years. Decibel, not quite ten, was still in her prime, but the lovely Piglet, now fourteen, was developing kidney problems; her time was short. It was a cold late winter day when we finally let Piglet go. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that DB had a good five years left...didn't she? That spring, as the ground thawed and filled the air with aromas that make a dog's heart sing, Decibel seemed to smell Piglet everywhere. She ran through the park wagging her tail, sniffing the ground and searching expectantly. It was heartbreaking,

    In early summer, Decibel's feet suddenly began to swell. Then her appetite dwindled and one morning she simply collapsed. I rushed her to the nearest hospital, Manhattan's big Animal Medical Center, where she was hooked up to an IV and tested for everything from Lyme disease to exotic parasites. Within 24 hours she was well enough to come home, but we still had no diagnosis. A month later, it all happened again. And then again. All those experts, all those tests and still no diagnosis.

    Eventually, it must have been in September, I went to see my old veterinarian, the one who had helped us save Decibel the first time. He reviewed the tests done by the Animal Medical Center and said he needed to do two more, but he was pretty certain he already knew what the diagnosis would be: Lupus. Lupus? In a dog? He explained that canine Lupus is sometimes manageable with steroids, but it would all depend on how far the disease had progressed.

    Decibel stayed with him about two days, long enough to confirm the diagnosis and treat her with steroids. When I took her home, the swelling was gone and Decibel was bounding around and bouncing off the walls like her normal self. For the next two weeks, thanks to daily doses of steroids, she was like a puppy again. Even our cat, Clyde, was happy.

    But then, one bright autumn morning, we went out for our walk and she collapsed. I carried her home — she was unable to walk — and sat down on the floor, with Decibel in my lap. Clyde came and sat beside us. And just like that, she died in my arms. She was not quite ten years old.

    Losing two dogs in six months was a devastating experience. I thought I would never want another dog. But lately I do. Tomorrow I'll explain why I don't have one.

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009

    In a New Dog State of Mind

    “If you don't own a dog, at least one, there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.”
    ~ Roger Caras

    At this time of year, when my mind travels to holidays past and the news features stories about overflowing animal shelters, I find myself pining for a dog.

    My first dog was a Golden Retriever who answered to the name Gay. Don’t read anything into it — Aunt Jo and Uncle Ken had named her parents Joy and Bliss. Gay was already on the scene when I arrived, predating me by several months. And what a swell companion she made. There we are with my mom at Westhampton Beach, where we spent the summers; this was back in the days when Dune Road was still a casual strip of shingled cottages instead of the McMansion-strewn eyesore it is today.

    As dog owners know, a dog will form a unique relationship with each member of the family. To me, Gay was a best friend and confidant who knew how to keep secrets. When I was sad, she would nudge me and lick my face and make sounds so sympathetic, they sounded like sobbing. With my mother, Gay was an ever-present shadow and self-appointed guardian; once, when mom was swimming in the ocean, Gay raced out to “save” her and nearly drowned her instead. But with my dad, she was chief cheerleader and fan club president; whenever he came home from a trip, she became so excited that it seemed her heart would explode. She'd writhe on the ground, beat her tail hard and fast in all directions, yelp with joy, pipe and whine and tell him how she missed him in dog talk.

    But Gay was not, repeat not, a guard dog. One day when she, an older sister and I were all at home, a burglar entered our house, robbed it and left with most of my mother’s jewelry. Gay never made a sound. Shortly afterward a Golden Retriever won the Westminster dog show. The breed expert talked about their loyalty and intelligence and excellence around children, but then added, “Don’t expect a watch dog. A Golden not only will not attack an intruder, he will fix him a drink and show him around the house.”

    That's Gay, at right, with my cousin Joel on the back steps of the house that was robbed. She's probably looking for some nice stranger in a ski mask to invite in.

    Gay lived to be nearly fourteen, but was almost crippled with painful arthritis. Agreeing to have her put down was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. It taught me a lesson about the quality of life that has served me well ever since.

    Tomorrow: my last dog and why I don't have one today.

    Monday, November 30, 2009

    Two More Things to Be Thankful For

    “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

    ~ Henry Miller 

    Yesterday, in the neighborhood bagel shop, I stood behind a scruffy young guy who was buying breakfast for himself and two young women. It was simple fare — bagels, assorted toppings and coffee — and it came to $16.37. He didn't have the cash, so he gave the cashier his debit card. Declined.

    Part of me of course felt awful for him; in all likelihood, his dating prospects had now dimmed dramatically. But it also occurred to me that whatever state of intense denial the young man was living in is connected to what got our economy into all this trouble. Most of us like to treat our friends to a meal once in a while, but there comes a point when enough is enough. And when you are too tapped out to scrape together $16.37, you have reached that point.

    Some things to be thankful for: being broke, but not that broke, and wanting our friends to think well of us, but not that desperately.

    Thursday, November 26, 2009

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Thanksgiving is a holiday for everyone — no religious or 
    political ties, dedicated to family, friends, food and gratitude. 
    Wherever you spend it, I hope you enjoy your day.

    Divinipotent Daily will be back Monday.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    Thanksgiving Memories

    "The funny thing about Thanksgiving, or any huge meal, is that you spend 12 hours shopping for it and then chopping and cooking and braising and blanching.  Then it takes 20 minutes to eat it and everybody sort of sits around in a food coma, and then it takes four hours to clean it up."
     ~ Ted Allen

    For some people holidays evoke painful memories. Others are lucky enough to have happy ones. Divinipotent Daily is in the latter category, and this is what I remember.

    When I was a child we lived for a few unforgettable years in a large, sturdy house surrounded by huge trees. It had a circular driveway in front — perfect for roller derby — and a big, landscaped yard in back. The house held three bedrooms plus an Attic of Mysteries on the third floor and four bedrooms on the second floor. It was cramped by today's McMansion standards, but was still large enough to contain our eight-person family and, on holidays, our cousins and second cousins from Virginia. The photo at right shows my parents, sisters and I in the living room of that house.

    On Thanksgiving day, my mother whirled elegantly through the kitchen (she did everything elegantly) in an apron made by her much-loved Aunt Ella. Her approach to organizing and preparing a meal was practiced and efficient. A typical holiday menu featured large quantities of beans, Brussels sprouts, pearl onions in cream sauce, mashed turnips, mashed potatoes, vast mounds of stuffing, a fresh 25-pound bird, incredibly rich gravy, cranberry sauce, home-made biscuits and wonderful desserts. She was an excellent cook, but the only things she really enjoyed preparing were pancakes in animal shapes, waffles, baked apples and desserts. For holidays, we had buttery, perfectly sugar-and-cinnamon-seasoned apple pie with ultra-flaky crust, tomato soup cake with cream cheese frosting (a favorite allegedly discovered on a Campbell's soup can during WW II) and of course a home-made pumpkin pie with fresh whipped cream. My sisters and I helped where we could — peeling and cubing potatoes, chopping onions and celery, mixing sugar and butter — but this was really mom's show.

    All the while our big, lovable golden retriever (at left with my father) would traipse in and out — never begging, she was too well mannered for that, just getting underfoot — until she was finally banished from the kitchen.

    The primary job site for the younger generation was the dining room. Assignments included dragging the dining room table toward the hall to make room for every available extra leaf plus a card table at one end; spreading out the linen cloths (solid linen below, lace on top); setting out the candelabras and butter dishes and serving dishes we'd polished the day before; and then carefully working our way around the table with napkins, silverware and glassware, attempting to provide each adult with enough room to actually eat dinner. Younger children (of which I was one) always ate in the adjoining breakfast room. This was my favorite room in the house, with greenhouse-like windows and cool, soft green tiles that covered the floor and ran part way up the walls. On average days it was sunny and comforting. On holidays it was a riot waiting to happen.

    In the afternoon, when aunts, uncles and still more cousins arrived, my father took to the butler's pantry to make drinks and, as the day wore on, attempt to perform sleight-of-hand tricks. Meanwhile, my mother began sending out trays of hors d'oeuvres to moderate the onrushing tipsiness. It never worked. By late afternoon, mother and her sisters Madge, Jo and Allie would be in the kitchen, drinks in hand, Madge and Allie complaining that dinner was late and critiquing mom's cooking techniques. At some point, something would clatter to the floor. Usually it was just a gravy ladle, but one year it was the turkey. Mom and Aunt Madge picked it up, dusted it off and put it on the carving board. No one else ever knew (until now!).

    At the kids' table, the meal itself was a blur — an odyssey toward dessert that required passage through the Scylla and Charybdis of brussels sprouts and turnips (both of which I eventually learned to love). Long after the kids had left the table and started to clean up, the adults lingered with their wines and liqueurs and brandy. Their voices still echoed up the stairwell well after this young child had gone to bed.

    This happy period only lasted a few years; my father died at 53 and, of course, everything changed. But the memories remain vividly alive today. Tomorrow, I hope everyone goes out and collects some great memories of their own.

    "There is one day that is ours. There is one day when all we Americans who are not self-made go back to the old home to eat saleratus biscuits and marvel how much nearer to the porch the old pump looks than it used to. Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American." 
    ~ O. Henry

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    Divinipotent About Talent

    "I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious."
    ~ Albert Einstein

    Perhaps you amaze your friends by wiggling your tongue and ears simultaneously. Or maybe at family get-togethers you're known for putting your legs behind your head and singing the National Anthem backwards. If so, do I have news for you. Today, November 24th, is Celebrate Your Unique Talent Day.

    As Holidaypedia explains it, the premise for this occasion is as follows:
    "Everybody has at least one thing they truly excel at it. Everyone is truly exception [sic] at something. Flaunt your talent gifts today."
    Celebrate Your Unique Talent Day is possibly the worst idea for a holiday I have ever come across. While I can't prove it, I am certain it was invented by the same people who want every child, regardless of ability, to make the team and go home with a trophy. Hello, people, life isn't like that. Get over it.

    Of course if we stretch the definition of talent to the breaking point, it may be true that everyone possesses some special ability. Consider those listed on the skateboard city forum:
    • "I can shake my eyes left and right really fast!"
    • "I can fall asleep at will."
    • "I can fit 3 quarters into each of my nostrils."
    • "I can lick my ear."
    Given enough drive, most people with even a modicum of talent can audition to celebrate themselves on one of the "Idol," "Got Talent" or similar shows that have cropped up around the world. Those without drive can simply head to a karaoke bar or, as so many thousands have already done, upload a video to YouTube.

    Here is my holiday wish: By all means, everyone, celebrate your unique talent today — but please do so in the privacy of your own home.

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    Divinipotent About the Blame Game

    “It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you place the blame.”
    ~ attributed to Oscar Wilde

    Many years ago I worked for a woman who had a wonderful approach to mistakes. Whenever things went kablooey (a lot) she would say, "I don't care who did it or how it happened. How can we make sure it never happens again?"

    A new research study by Stamford University and the USC Marshall School of Business reminded me how wise that attitude was. It's no surprise that when one of us points a finger of blame, lots of others are quick to join in. But according to the study, the more public the blaming, the more likely it is to catch on. As Science Daily put it, "Merely observing someone publicly blame an individual in an organization for a problem — even when the target is innocent — greatly increases the odds that the practice of blaming others will spread with the tenacity of the H1N1 flu." And the more blame spreads, the more the workplace cultivates a "culture of fear."
    The current word for this "blamestorming," but the phenomenon itself is nothing new. It's how blamers from Adolph Hitler to Glenn Beck to mean girls in junior high schools have always controlled their minions.

    Social Media Today has an interesting, quick-read take on the study here. For a somewhat more in-depth report, see "Shifting Blame Is Socially Contagious" in Science Daily. 

    This Stamford-USC study is behavioral, concerned with how people behave but not why. In my unscentific experience, fear may motivate young children to place blame, but teen and adult blamers are likely to be manipulators trying to gain an advantage. Still to be resolved is the question of what twisted pack instinct leads so many people to second the blame and pile on.  Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist, consultant and adjunct professor at NYU, writes an interactive blog series called "Credit and Blame at Work" for Psychology Today. Perhaps he'll get to it one of these days. Meanwhile, I think I'll borrow a page from my old boss and look for the answer to a different question: How can we stop the blame game in its tracks and make sure it doesn't happen again?

    “We believe that to err is human. To blame it on someone else is politics.”
    ~ Hubert H. Humphrey

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    Divinipotent About Monkey See, Monkey Do

    "Let us carefully observe those good qualities wherein our enemies excel us; and endeavor to excel them, by avoiding what is faulty, and imitating what is excellent in them."
    ~ Plutarch

    PsyBlog is a Web site and newsletter written by Jeremy Dean, a psychology researcher at University College in London. Earlier this week, PsyBlog's topic was research into "the chameleon effect" — specifically, the theory that we like someone better if they mimic our body language.

    Scientists are not talking about the exaggerated mimicry of a nine-year-old aggravating his his twelve-year-old sister by copying her every word and gesture. This is about subtler actions — things like concurrent foot waggling, face touching and smiling. Although mimicry is generally unconscious, researchers have tested the chameleon effect by observing what happens when they send people into a room to intentionally mimic strangers in understated ways. The answer seems to be yes, mimicry does increase liking.

    “We ape, we mimic, we mock. We act.”
    ~ Sir Laurence Olivier

    PsyBlog deals with psychology, but when neuroscientists like V.S. Ramachandran talk about mimicry, they talk about mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are fascinating brain cells that, in monkeys, seem to connect vision to a sort of empathy. Basically, scientists have found that whether a monkey is scratching its chin or watching another monkey scratch, its mirror neurons light up. The implication: in monkey society, your itch is my itch.

    As yet no testing has been done on people, but that hasn't stopped speculation that humans also have mirror neurons that influence everything from cultural habits to theory of mind to empathy. (If human mirror neurons are eventually discovered, perhaps we will finally have an explanation for teenage fashion trends.)

    Whether it's mimicry, mirror neurons, peer pressure or some still unknown factor, it's obvious that identifying with others is essential to social understanding and human bonding. Isn't it ironic that we humans, having built a culture based on imitation and homogeneity, claim to worship originality?

    “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
    ~ Oscar Wilde