Friday, February 26, 2010

Surprise — Snow Day!

New York City woke up today to 12 inches of snow, with another 6 inches expected. Did the weather forecasting tribe see this coming? Apparently, not soon enough.

But snow is here, heaps and drifts of it, closing the city's schools, slowing its buses and subways and, for just a few hours, muffling its hustle and bustle. As our ancestors knew, there is no remedy for this except to consult the thoughts of poets and enjoy it.

"Lo. sifted through the winds that blow,
Down comes the soft and silent snow,
White petals from the flowers that grow
In the cold atmosphere.”
~ George W. Bungay

"Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow."
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"Come, see the north-wind's masonry,
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, naught cares he
For number or proportion."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Through the sharp air a flaky torrent flies,
Mocks the slow sight, and hides the gloomy skies;
The fleecy clouds their chilly bosoms bare,
And shed their substance on the floating air.”
~ George Crabbe

"Oh! the snow, the beautiful snow,
Filling the sky and earth below,
Over the housetops, over the street,
Over the heads of the people you meet.
Dancing, Flirting, Skimming along."
~ J.W. Watson

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I Luv George

A Divinipotent Daily Extra: Mary Ghiorsi is a lifelong Beatles fan but has only recently developed an affinity for George. This is her birthday tribute. (And do check out her new blog, Searching the Cosmos.)

* * *

“It’s the quiet ones you really have to watch.”

At the beginning of Beatlemania, when my second-grade friends and I intuitively knew that choosing your fave was akin to proclaiming your religion only more important, I liked the idea of aligning myself with The Smart One but he was almost as popular as The Cute One (whose obviousness made him out of the question) so I switched my public allegiance to Ringo, just to be different. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I dropped the charade and came out as what I had in truth been from the very beginning: A Paul Girl. There is nothing he could ever do to change that, and considering some of the things he’s done—Wings, “Ebony and Ivory,” Heather Mills—that's saying something.

But George? I never even pretended to like him best.

My reevaluation began when I recently watched A Hard Day’s Night for the first time in years. Much had been made about Ringo’s and John’s acting abilities, but what struck me upon re-watching was that George is the one with star quality. He strolls through the movie with ironic detachment from the frantic antics of the other lads. His acerbic asides were no doubt scripted but seem off the cuff because they are so in keeping with his self-possessed cool persona—a bemused spectator to the John & Paul Show.

In the final concert scene, he does a playful side-to-side shuffle-dance during “I Should Have Known Better,” smooth and jangly (appropriately enough since he at that very moment was inventing jangle pop on his Rickenbacker 12 string). John or Paul would never do anything like that. Too self-conscious, as is apparent in all their scenes; they're trying way too hard. John does do a frantic parody of the Charleston at the end of that concert set, but it’s awkward and clownish compared to George’s fluid footwork.

Shortly after my A Hard Day's Night viewing, I took a five-hour road trip with a friend who only had two CDs in her car, one by an Italian pop star and the other Concert for George, the tribute to George performed at the Royal Albert Hall a year to the day after his November 2001 death. I chose the Italian pop star. After ten minutes or so of Paolo Somebody, I said maybe it was time to give George's music a chance.

And it was. By the end of the second disk, when Paul sang "All Things Must Pass," my friend and I were in tears. Under those poignant circumstances (the tribute concert, not my road trip), its simple eloquence was overpowering, and I wondered how I had not noticed before.

I bought the DVD of Concert for George and watch parts of it somewhat regularly. It's slightly ironic that what got me liking George and his songs was hearing them sung by people other than him, but in truth it's not the music that gets me. It's the obvious love and respect that all of the musicians show for George. It's how Eric Clapton and Monty Python and Tom Petty, Jeff Lynn, Ringo, Paul, et al display such emotion, mostly joy, all inspired by the man whom Paul, in introducing his ukulele version of  "Something," calls his "beautiful friend."

From what I've read, George faced his final days with equanimity, "fearless of death and at peace," according to his family. I don't subscribe to his religion (to quote Ringo in Help) but I admire and maybe envy the serenity his spirituality brought him.

The Quiet One, in harmony to the end. Happy birthday, George.

— Mary Ghiorsi

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

No Wonder We Wake Up Exhausted

“Man is a genius when he is dreaming.”
~ Akira Kurosawa

A growing body of scientific research indicates that while we’re sleeping, our minds are alive with activity. 

One 2009 study by the University of California, San Diego, suggests we solve creative problems in our sleep. In Science Daily (June 9, 2009), the study's leader, assistant professor of psychiatry Sara Mednick, PhD, said, "We found that – for creative problems that you've already been working on – the passage of time is enough to find solutions" but " for new problems, only REM sleep enhances creativity."

Professor Mednick went on to add, “It appears REM sleep helps achieve such solutions by stimulating associative networks, allowing the brain to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas." Simon Bolivar and a banana. White rhinos and Thursdays. Tortilla chips and Dell Computers. Okay, brain, figure it out.

A second Science Daily article (September 16, 2009) reports on the sleeping brain’s role in memory formation. According to a study by Rutgers University and Collége de France, while we snooze, our brains sort through new information and transfer it to the neocortex, where long-term memories are archived. 

In “Human Brain Still Awake, Even During Deep Sleep” — an October 17, 2008 article also published by Science Daily (which should perhaps rename itself the Daily Journal of Sleep) — the writer notes that even during the deepest phases of non-REM sleep certain areas of the brain are hard at work. 

And now, in “The Brain’s Dark Energy,” an article in the March 2010 Scientific American, writer Marcus E. Raichle notes that even when we zone out, our brains are performing chores in the background on autopilot. “When your mind is at rest—when you are daydreaming quietly in a chair, say, asleep in a bed or anesthetized for surgery—dispersed brain areas are chattering away to one another.”

* * *

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind at on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.”
 — J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, Chapter One

When I was a preschooler, my maternal grandmother read to me daily from Peter Pan, and gradually I learned to read. The passage above, about Mrs. Darling tidying up the minds of her children while they slept, had as powerful a hold on my imagination as any of Peter’s pirate adventures. Even then I knew that Barrie's description couldn’t literally be true, but I sensed that some sort of housekeeping happened while I slept.

By the time I was in middle school I had a theory, which goes like this: The mind is like a mail chute. All day long letters and notes and packages drop in; some reach their destinations and others jam up the system. At night, when you’re asleep, it all sorts itself out. Letters reach their appropriate addresses and junk falls to the bottom for disposal. Perhaps I wasn't so far from the truth.

“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care

 The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath

 Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
 Chief nourisher in life's feast.”

~ William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Monday, February 22, 2010

News Flash: Aerosol Artist Mystery Solved

“Illusions are art, for the feeling person, and it is by art that we live, if we do.”
~ Elizabeth Bowen

Yesterday — a bright, sunny, relatively balmy 45-degree Sunday in New York — I walked across the Pulaski Bridge to see if anything new had been added in the past two months to the collection of aerosol art that has fascinated me since last October. This is what I found:

So the stenciled graphics I've been admiring are not the products of a daring graffiti practitioner — they are commissioned works! I admit that at first I was a little disappointed. My fantasy of a talented outlaw artist, burdened with stencils and spray cans, sneaking onto the bridge in the dark of night to perform random acts of illustration has been fun, and I will miss it. But in the end I am rather proud of New York City for supporting this and grateful to Transportation Alternatives, an organization that works to make New York a more livable place.

The creator, Joel Voisard, is a septuple-threat artist who works in an unusually broad array of media. His Web site reveals that the stenciled runners were inspired by the tens of thousands who cross the Pulaski Bridge during each New York City Marathon.

The sleet, snow, road salt and bitter winds of New York in winter have not been kind to the stencil people. I hope Mr. Voisard will give them all a touch-up come spring.

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”
~ Galileo Galilei

Friday, February 19, 2010

More Is Revealed: When Aerosol Artforms Meet

"Bridges become frames for looking at the world around us."
~ Bruce Jackson

As I noted on Wednesday, the footpath of the Pulaski Bridge, which connects Greenpoint, Brooklyn to Hunter's Point, Queens, has become the personal gallery of an exceptionally talented graffiti artist. His stenciled works have everything that is missing from the creations of so many other aerosol artists — charm, movement, style, even an inherent backstory that makes you curious and leaves you yearning for more.

Last October I first wrote about the display and posted a group of photos I'd taken with my cell phone. By late November, when I last took photos, more characters had joined the party. I introduced some of them on Wednesday. Today, let's watch them interact.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
~ Carl Gustav Jung

First, Green Girl bounces onto the bridge from the Brooklyn side and the adventure begins.

By and by, the artist drops in, spray paint in hand. What is curious here is that he seems to be climbing over the wall from the roadway — not recommended on the Pulaski Bridge.

Meanwhile, near the center of the bridge our original star, Red Boy, has also met some people and perhaps made a friend.

As I posted these this morning, I realized that we do not yet see Red Boy and Green Girl meet. Weather permitting, I'll walk the bridge this weekend to find out if things have changed.

"As Daddy said, life is 95 percent anticipation."
~ Gloria Swanson

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Plot Thickens

“In the brief annals of street-art history, graffiti ranks as something like cave painting — a first gesture, recognized for its primal intuition that public space is up for grabs — and has, in the past four or so years, been overtaken by a host of new practices: wheat-pasted posters, adhesive stickers with oddball images on them, elaborately stenciled images and even three-dimensional objects. And like many things that start below the Establishment's radar, it has caught the eye of the mainstream and is edging into the galleries.”
~ Richard Lacayo, Time, October 2005

Last October I wrote a post called "Random Acts of Illustration" about the whimsical graffiti that had suddenly appeared on the footpath of the Pulaski Bridge, which joins Greenpoint, Brooklyn to Hunter's Point, Queens. Over the next few weeks, the artist added still more aerosol images, creating a collection that invites viewers to imagine their own narratives.

Unfortunately, there were so many images that I have puzzled over how to present them ever since. My delayed decision: introduce the characters today and show them interacting on Friday. Enjoy!

First, the original group: the playful Red Boy; passers-by including Joggers, the Bicyclist and Ms. Shoes; and, of course, the Artist.

The original cast has now been joined by an important new member: the ingenue I think of as Green Girl — a high-spirited tomboy and, one imagines, an ideal playmate for Red Boy.

Watch this space. More will be revealed on Friday.

Note: For most of the year I walk across the Pulaski Bridge almost daily, but here it is mid-February and I haven't been there since late November. It's possible that the graffiti collection has grown, but it's also possible that the construction crews who are working on the bridge have removed it. When the ice melts on the footpath, I'll let you know.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Making of Americans

“Remember, remember always that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
~ Franklin Delano Roosevelt

President’s Day is as good a time as any to think about immigration, since without immigrants and — as Roosevelt noted, “revolutionists” — there would be no United States and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln would be meaningless names.

In the past few years we’ve all heard a lot of angry, inflated rhetoric about immigration. There are those who want to close our borders or build a wall between our country and Mexico. It seems that far too many of us have forgotten who we are and where we came from.

Fortunately, the new PBS series, Faces of America, serves as a wonderful reminder. Hosted with great sensitivity, intelligence and charm by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the show traces the genealogical journeys of a diverse group of accomplished Americans and reveals to them never-before-seen photos of and documents about their ancestors.

In the first episode, under Professor Gates's gentle questioning, director Mike Nichols talks about escaping from Germany as a young child. We also see famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma describe the serendipitous meeting that led to his family’s migration from France to the U.S. The episode also delivers a tantalizing peek into the histories of poet Elizabeth Alexander, chef Mario Batali, physician Mehmet Oz, actress Eva Longoria, novelist Louise Erdrich, journalist Malcolm Gladwell and Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. While watching it, I found it impossible to avoid wondering about my own ancestors and what brought them here. That's part of the show's magic: it forces us to focus on our own immigrant roots.

The first episode of Faces of America is available for viewing on the PBS Web site right now, and I strongly encourage everyone to go and watch it. And don’t forget to tune in to the rest of the series, as Professor Gates digs deeper into the heritages and DNA of his subjects and also expands the group to include Queen Noor, actress Meryl Streep and comedian Steven Colbert.

“The making of an American begins at the point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land.”
~ James Baldwin

“A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for a man his inner distance.”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Note: All photos are from the Ellis Island archives.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy Birthday, Abe

“He has a face like a hoosier Michaelangelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep-cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.”
~ Walt Whitman

Divinipotent Daily asked me to write today’s installment because of my history of romantic dreams about Abraham Lincoln. Just two dreams in the last 25 years, but apparently that’s two more than normal, and DD finds it amusing. In one dream, he and I held hands while waiting for the 7 train at the Hunters Point Avenue station in Queens. (Subway = Underground Railroad? Maybe.) (Wait, just this second I realized that the 7’s terminus is Times Square, also known as the theater district; Lincoln, theater, hmm.) I don’t remember the details of the other except that he smiled at me. More on that later.  

I’ve had an interest in presidents, individually and as a group, since I was about six years old. A younger brother had been given a set of president coins, and because he couldn’t read I helped him learn their names. We could recite all presidents in order. I still can, a useless talent because if you mix up Taylor and Tyler or reverse the Harrisons, who’s going to know or, much more to the point, care?

But even more than the coins it was the events in Dallas about a year later that intensified my interest in presidents, especially the assassinated ones. (I have such a clear memory of cutting out from the back of a cereal box trading cards of Kennedy, Lincoln, McKinley and Garfield. Seriously? Murdered presidents for breakfast? Wasn’t watching Oswald get killed over lunch — I remember I was eating a grilled cheese sandwich — enough for us poor kids? Is it any wonder that for the next few years I was obsessed with presidents and true crime, culminating in my summer of 1966 scrapbook the front of which was devoted to Luci Baines Johnson’s White House Wedding while the back covered mass murderer Richard Speck?)

Of course I always liked Lincoln. What’s not to like? And from the time I was little, I loved the way he looked — a leaner, lankier Leonard Bernstein, whom I found devastatingly handsome in his Young People’s Concerts when I was a young person. But in truth Lincoln wasn’t my favorite president. Certainly he was in my top two, but to coin a phrase, he was no Jack Kennedy.

And then a few years ago I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The title is deceptive. Yes, it’s about Lincoln’s political genius, which was extraordinary, but politics is just one area in which Lincoln was the smartest person in the room. And the kindest, most compassionate, best educated (though almost entirely self-taught), funniest (loved bawdy jokes, but rarely worked dirty), strongest (while in his 50s, decades removed from splitting rails, he could hold an ax at arm’s length by his thumb and forefinger for minutes at a time, playfully demonstrating “that in muscular strength he was one in a thousand”), most inventive (the only president to hold a patent!) and most fair-minded. Most eloquent. Tallest. And of course most honest. A rare human being the likes of which the office of the presidency has not seen before or since.

Since reading Team of Rivals, I find myself talking about Lincoln a lot. The result is that people give me more Lincoln books. One of the two I received this past Christmas was called Lincoln, Life Size, a compilation of every known photograph of him shown in its actual size on the left side of a spread and blown up life-sized on the right.

Some of the photos are profile, some are head on, some are full body, most are close-ups, with minimal change of background, wardrobe or expression over the 19-year period the portraits represent. His hair does change. In one photo in particular, it’s an absolute crazy mess, and in another in early 1865 he has a punk-rock crew-cut to facilitate the making of a plaster life mask. The beard shows up only for the last five years of his life. His eyes are very light gray, which is surprising; I don’t know why, but I always assumed he had dark eyes. In some photos he looks weary, old and haggard, as if he had the weight of the nation upon him, which of course he did. In others he looks like a movie star, and I don’t mean of the Steve Buscemi–Bill Macy sort, I mean Laurence Olivier. All are mesmerizing. Striking. Beautiful.

As I looked through the book for the first time, I kept waiting to see the one of him smiling. There’s one photo that the authors say is a portrait of him smiling, but it’s more of a smirk. Apparently, the long exposure time required at that time made smiling difficult — he’d have to hold it for longer than he held the ax. But I knew I had seen him smiling…at me, I realized. In my dream. 

I gave up trying to interpret my romantic Abraham Lincoln dreams years ago. Maybe they’re not about him at all, and he merely represents an authority figure in my life. Or maybe they’re really about Leonard Bernstein. I’ll never know. But on the occasion of what would have been his 201st birthday, I can say that if I’m going to devote many of my waking hours and some of my sleeping ones to anyone, there are few people more worthy than Abraham Lincoln. 

“Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country — bigger than all the Presidents together...We are still too near his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do."
~ Leo Tolstoy

— by Mary Ghiorsi

* * *

Note from Divinipotent Daily: This post was prompted by one of my readers — you know who you are! — who requested that I write about Abraham Lincoln. Since my friend and off-and-on colleague Mary Ghiorsi has a much more…intimate…relationship with him, I asked her to do the honors.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why Arguing About Politics Is Pointless

“There is nothing more likely to start disagreement among people or countries than an agreement.”
~ E. B. White

Psyblog, one of my favorite sources of information on psychological research, has a fascinating new report titled, “Why the Media Seems Biased When You Care About the Issue.” The subject is a phenomenon that has fascinated me for years: the fact that people with diametrically opposing views can watch the same news report — and both end up convinced it’s biased in favor of the other side. 

The study Psyblog discusses was conducted at Stanford University in the 1980s. A group of 144 Stanford students who variously described themselves as pro-Arab, pro-Israeli and neutral were recruited for an experiment. They were shown a selection of news clips about the tragic 1982 massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians by Lebanese militia forces. The finding: although pro-Arab and pro-Israeli students watched the same news reports, each group was convinced the reports were biased against their point of view.

Psyblog explains, “The study demonstrates what the authors call the 'hostile media phenomenon': people's tendency to view news coverage about which they hold strong beliefs as biased against their own position.” This apparently happens for two reasons: (1) people with strong political opinions tend to see everything as black and white, while news reports show gray areas that partisans read as bias; and (2) we tend to ignore the things we agree with and focus on the content that doesn’t mesh with our worldview.

“If we are all in agreement on the decision, then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
~ Alfred P. Sloan

Psyblog’s report brought to mind George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics, How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Lakoff demonstrates the chasm that separates the worldviews of liberals and conservatives in vivid terms. Read this summary and then ask yourself how political compromise ever happens at all.

Where does that leave someone like President Obama, who continues to try to achieve a middle ground — a gray area of mutual agreement — between two groups with completely different worldviews? Perhaps I should have titled this essay, “Why Bipartisanship Is Pointless.”

Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview — nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.”
~ Stephen Jay Gould

Monday, February 8, 2010

When Languages Die

"Language and culture cannot be separated... Language is a tool that is used to explore and experience our cultures and the perspectives that are embedded in our cultures."
~ Buffy Sainte-Marie (Piapot Cree, Academy Award-winning singer and songwriter)

Throughout history, when conquering armies have invaded new countries, they have tried to eradicate the native languages of the inhabitants. Think of the English in Ireland and Wales, the Japanese in Korea or westerners in North America. I’ve always wondered about their intentions. Are they hoping to suppress resistance by erasing a core aspect of the conquered people’s identity? Is it simply more convenient to have everyone speak one language? Are they just mean?

Unfortunately, you don’t need a conquering army to kill a language; contemporary society does the job very effectively, with little or no bloodshed at all.

Around the world languages are dying every day. I was reminded of this when I received the most recent edition of AWADmail, the weekly newsletter produced by is all about language. It is the force behind the wonderful A.Word.A.Day e-mails and the ever-amusing Internet Anagram Server, which produced on a moment’s notice 1,087 variations of the word “divinipotent” (e.g., divine tin pot, do invite pint, dip oven in tit). But I digress. 

"Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one's mother's womb."
~ Italo Calvino

In most editions of AWADmail, founder and editor Anu Garg offers up links to interesting stories he’s come across in his travels. The most recent edition took note of two examples of disappearing languages. An article in Science Daily reports on efforts to record and save two Ob-Ugrian languages, Mansi and Khanti. Once common in Northwestern Siberia, in recent decades both have been largely supplanted by Russian.

A second example comes from India’s Andaman Islands, where Boa Sr, the last person to speak the Bo language — one of India’s oldest — has died. According to a report from BBC news, "Languages in the Andamans are thought to originate from Africa. Some may be 70,000 years old." You can hear a recording of Boa Sr speaking Bo on the BBC Web site.

In this era of expanding cultural homogeneity, we should be grateful to those who create for posterity accurate records of dying languages. Still, each loss subtracts from the rich diversity of our world. One might write an elegy, but in what language?

"The vanishing of languages, like those of living species, is an event that has been repeated many times in history...The death of a language is not only a tragedy for those directly involved but also an irretrievable cultural loss for the rest of the world. Through language, each culture expresses a unique world view. Thus, any effort to preserve linguistic variety implies a deep respect for the positive values of other cultures."
~ Rodger Doyle, Scientific American, March 1998

Friday, February 5, 2010

Resilience: The Science of Equanimity

“He who gains a victory over other men is strong; but he who gains a victory over himself is all powerful.”
~ Lao Tzu

A few weeks ago I sat in a conference room in a New York City hotel as Andrew Shatté, Ph.D. gave a lecture on “The Science of Resilience: Why Some People Thrive and Others Fail.”

Dr. Shatté is currently managing director and principal of Adaptiv Learning, a company that helps other companies teach their employees to be more successful. He was previously adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and is co-author of the book The Resilience Factor. You could safely say he is a resilience expert.

Andrew Shatté is a singularly entertaining speaker who knows how to win over his audience with humor and personal anecdotes. But it wasn't all fun and games; some of his observations provided the audience with surprising moments of self-awareness. His fundamental message: resilience is not blind perseverance, nor is it a function of genetics or intelligence; instead, resilience is the intelligent deployment of limited assets and a particular thinking style — and it is a skill that can be learned.

Wherever academics talk about psychological balance, they’re likely to bring up Epictetus, the Greek slave whose serenity and self-control led to his freedom and eventual acclaim as the leading philosopher of Rome. Epictetus maintained we are all the masters of our own feelings and lives. Although it's believed he wrote nothing down, here are some of the philosophical tenets attributed to him:

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.”

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

“Difficulties are things that show a person what they are.”

As Dr. Shatté noted, in today's world the philosophy of Epictetus is most commonly expressed in theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known Serenity Prayer. The prayer has become a mantra at most twelve-step programs, but for those who are unfamiliar with it, it goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things that I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
As we all know, wisdom is the tricky part.

Another man who knew a great deal about resilience was Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905–1997).  Frankl developed his understanding of defeat and resilience, as well as his existential therapeutic approach, while imprisoned in the German concentration camp at Auschwitz. His book about his experiences, Man's Search for Meaning, later became a best-seller. Frankl's fundamental insight has much in common with that of Epictetus: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." You can read more about Viktor Frankl's philosophy and download recordings of lectures and interviews at the Web site of the Viktor Frankl Institut in Vienna.

When he was teaching at Penn, Andrew Shatté was part of the team that established the Penn Resliency Project — a research program that teaches children and adolescents how to cope with life's setbacks and disappointments. So far, the program has studied over 2,000 children in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. Coincidentally, a few days before the lecture, National Public Radio broadcast a story about the Penn project titled “Emotional Training Helps Kids Fight Depression.” I encourage everyone to go to the NPR Web site, read the story and listen to the podcast. In nine fascinating minutes, it will open your eyes and maybe even lift your mood.

Still to be determined: when will we have a Penn Resiliency Project for adults?

“Don't wish me happiness — I don't expect to be happy, it's gotten beyond that, somehow. Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humor. I will need them all.”
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Waking Dreams, Dreaming Wakefulness

“Life is something that happens when you can't get to sleep. “
~ Fran Lebowitz

The other night as I tossed and turned, occasionally sneaking glances at the clock in the hope that I might have dropped off for an hour or two, an old memory came to me.

In 1969 I spent several months in a rambling Victorian house in Oakland, California, sharing the rent with a small group of nomads and free spirits. Since we were young and this was the 1960s, most household members were experimenting with mind-altering substances of one kind or another. There came a day when the most eager experimenter in our group — let’s call him Gary — consumed way too much of something he hadn’t tried before. Hours after the drug should have worn off Gary was still rattling around the neighborhood babbling to himself. Eventually, with some effort, we coaxed him into the house. The question was how to keep him there. We were certain that if he rambled out again, as he was inclined to do, he would end up under arrest or in an asylum.

We decided we would take turns guarding Gary around the clock until he was back to normal. You may wonder why we didn’t simply bring him to an emergency room. The answer is, that would have made sense, but this was the 1960s and young people rarely did the sensible thing, especially if it involved authority figures. Has that changed? Probably not. In any case, I took the overnight shift, but stress also kept me awake during the day. When the next night came and I took my turn, I was exhausted.

Around 5 a.m. on the second day of Gary’s madness I discovered myself sitting in the kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee, having a conversation with Gary and another friend. I had no recollection of how I came to be there. Gary was back…but where had I been?

Somniloquy is the name science gives to talking in one’s sleep. (Imagine for a moment what Hamlet's somniloquy might have been.)  Somniloqy is a subset of the larger classification called parasomnia, which includes somnambulism — sleepwalking — which I had obviously been doing as well. I cannot find any scientific information about somnicaffeination — sleep-coffee-drinking. It is possible that it's a subset of nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NSRED). But I suspect it was simply a natural instinct telling me to wake up. After all, it's what millions and millions of us do to wake up every morning.

That experience awakened me (pun intended) to the fact that my unconscious mind was able to participate in its own activities, with no input from me. I wonder, what else is it doing?

"All men whilst they are awake are in one common world:  but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own." 

~ Plutarch

Monday, February 1, 2010

Into the Mystic

"All art is the expression of one and the same thing — the relation of the spirit of man to the spirit of other men and to the world."
~ Ansel Adams

On January 23rd the Wall Street Journal published an article and fascinating slide show about the ancient paintings in Inanke Cave in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park. This cave and hundreds like it were painted between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago by the people known as the San. There are two absolutely remarkable things to know about the San: first, they are believed to be the very earliest of all living humans — and second, yes, they are living humans, still very much among us. Commonly called Bushmen, modern San primarily live in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

While Inanke has the region’s most extensive paintings, the Matobo National Park Web site  also speaks highly of the paintings at Nswatugi Cave and several others in the area. The faint paintings of white rhinoceros in the cave known as White Rhino Shelter actually inspired Zimbabwe to reintroduce the species to the park. 

The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Fitzgerald describes the startling wealth of imagery on the walls of Inanke. “Beneath Inanke's encompassing dome, herds of giraffe, eland, kudu, ostrich and duiker, among others, fill a broad painted band running the length of the back wall just above eye level,” he writes. “They offer a celebration of life equal to any of the mural cycles of the Renaissance.”

Sculptor David Maritz, who grew up in Central Africa and has visited Inanke many times, writes movingly about the caves and their influence on his art on his Web site. (This is his photo of the cave.) He explains that we know the meaning of the paintings because a German ethnologist named Wilhelm Bleek, who came to Africa in the 1870s to study the Zulu language, became fascinated with the “Click” language of the San. Bleek compiled a “12,000-page verbatim recording of the language, beliefs, and habits of the San people” that opened the door to understanding.

Maritz describes a recent visit to Inanke. Walking through the high grass he briefly lost his way — the cough of a nearby leopard sent him backtracking to the path. Being threatened by territorial baboon troops is also a commonplace for visitors to the cave, which can only be reached by foot. Referring to the ancient peoples who left their fascinating marks on Inanke, Lascaux and other painted caves, Maritz writes, “These first human artists were using the animal icons of their time, the Eland in Africa or the Bison or Aurochs in Europe, to empower themselves into the spirit world to seek the answers to the everyday problems of life. Their art was a real part of the solutions to these problems.”

Inanke is a breathtaking window into the culture and mystical beliefs of the oldest traceable members of our family tree. What talented babies we were.

"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."
~ Thich Nhat Hanh