Monday, June 28, 2010

For Reading Out Loud

"Reading your own material aloud forces you to listen."
~ Stephen Ambrose

On a sweltering New York City night last week, two friends and I sat in folding chairs in Washington Square Park in front of a statue of a man named Alexander Lyman Holley, whose statue-worthy achievements seem a little thin to me. We were there for an event sponsored by the Mr. Beller's Neighborhood* website on the occasion of its tenth anniversary. It was part of this year's Park-Lit series of outdoor readings.

Mr. Beller's, which is named for its founder, writer Thomas Beller, publishes true stories about New York City. Most are interesting and some are a good deal more than that. Some are written by surprisingly well-known authors. (For many writers, the urge to publish is strong, even when the pay is nil.) For the reading, Mr. Beller assembled seven contributors. Phillip Lopate, Hal Sirowitz and Said Sayrafiezadeh are reasonably well known; three others — Abigail Frankfurt, Daniel Meneker and Christine Nieland — are probably best known to fans of Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. The seventh storyteller was Thomas Beller himself.

Phillip Lopate is a writer I greatly enjoy. As I listened to him I was struck anew by the importance of listening to stories and poetry — preferably through the voice of its author. Why is reading aloud a pleasure we normally restrict to parents and children?

While some of the authors read stories, Lopate chose to read poems, including the wonderful "The Last Slow Days of Summer"; written in the despair of the 1970s, when New York was crime-ravaged and broke, the poem came alive and revealed itself to be far more sardonically hilarious than it appears on the page. He did not read his laugh-out-loud funny poem We Who Are Your Closest Friends, which begins...

we who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty

Click here to read the rest of it — preferably out loud.

One of my favorite places to listen to stories is the Moth, an organization that encourages people to stand up in front of an audience and tell a tale. Everyone is welcome; the only stipulations are no notes and stay within the five-minute time limit. I have heard stories at Moth events that will stay with me forever. Lucky for you, the Moth has put podcasts of some of its best stories on its website. One of my all-time favorites is there — Alan Rabinowitz's gripping and emotional "Man and Beast."

The Internet also offers excellent places to hear poetry. A good place to start is PBS, which has assembled an archive of readings by some of the world's greatest living poets; go here to listen.

* * *
*Full disclosure: One of my own New York stories occupies a small walk-up on side street of Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. Other than disguising the names of the people involved, I tried to tell my tale as accurately as I could. Nevertheless, a few months ago I received an angry e-mail from one of the disguised names; she was incensed at my recollection of a particular incident in the story and insisted I was wrong. Did I mention this was the first time this former friend had contacted me in at least 30 years? I didn't respond, but if I had, I would have quoted this passage from neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer's book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist:

"The uncomfortable reality is that we remember in the same way that Proust wrote. As long as we have memories to recall, the margins of those memories are being modified to fit what we know now. Synapses are crossed out...and the memorized moment that feels so honest is thoroughly revised."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Write?

"Words form the thread on which we string our experiences."
~ Aldous Huxley

Why do I write? That's what I should have called this post, but it sounded too narcissistic. Ten years ago, the answer would have been simple: "It's what I do for a living." But now, given the recession, given the cheapening of writing by online content mills, writing barely pays the bills. I think about the other things I might have done with my life. My husband says I should have studied criminal law because of my tendency to question people relentlessly. My fascination with the human mind and brain tells me I should have considered neuroscience. Once I planned to be a painter, but an art school painting teacher told me I was not allowed to write on my canvases — I was making cartoons, not art, he said. In a fit of youthful pique, I quit painting and decided to write. And I continue to write. Here are some of my reasons why; I would love to hear from other writers about their own reasons.

1. It's genetic. Words were important in my family. We revered them and we played with them. My father loved poetry and occasionally read it to us at the dinner table; Leaves of Grass was a favorite. When he'd had a few, he'd choose something less lofty and ignore the family's groans — Robert Service's "Dangerous Dan McGrew" was a favorite. My soft-spoken mother, leader of the groaning chorus, also loved words, loved spending a quiet Sunday afternoon with the New York Times crossword puzzle. Sitting with her, trying to work out the clues, my vocabulary expanded; by the time I was six or seven it was so freakishly large that people would try to stump me. 

2. Writing helps me recognize what matters. I learned this in elementary school, when I first kept a daily journal. As I looked back on old entries, I discovered that a test or spat with a friend that had me in a frenzy in October was completely forgotten by April. Perspective!

3. Most of my friends are writers. It's been this way since high school, when my wannabe-beatnik crowd soaked up Sartre and Nietzsche and wrote bleak poems about alienation and angst; the effort to fit feelings into words connected us. 

4. Writing helps me understand what I think. This post is an excellent example. As I write it I repeatedly stop and interrogate myself: Is that what I really mean?

5. When I speak, I sometimes babble. Words tumble out in a disordered jumble, as if they've formed a mob at the door of my mouth and pushed until my lips finally burst open. At least when I write, I can edit myself.  

"Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have a different effect."
~ Blaise Pascal

Sunday, June 20, 2010

For the Dads

“The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.”
~ Peter De Vries

A father pushing his daughter on a playground swing; a father listening intently while his son explains what he learned in preschool that day; a father rendered helpless by the grasp of his newborn's tiny hand. When I see fathers today I sometimes wonder, who are your role models? Seahorses?

My own dad was born in 1905, but he was a lot like today's fathers in many ways. He was warm, encouraging and always ready to listen, the sort of person you could talk to about anything. He was a homework-checker, a bar-raiser, a joke-maker, a father who took pride in whatever my sisters and I accomplished. He even did magic tricks.

The thing dads need to understand is, no matter what they do, they will shape their children's estimations of themselves, and they will be remembered. My sisters and I lost our dad almost five decades ago, when I was still a child. Yet we continue to think of him, miss him and try to live up to his expectations of us every day.

Happy Father's Day, dads. Here's the lovely song Judy Collins wrote about hers.

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.”
~ Charles Wadsworth

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Not Everything on the Internet Is Ephemeral

"I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me — shapes and ideas so near to me — so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn't occurred to me to put them down. I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught."
~ Georgia O'Keeffe

Every now and again — surprisingly often, in fact — the Internet coughs up a video or an article or an artwork that wears well over time. Today I offer you two videos that, for me, retain their value through multiple viewings. Both are from TED, an organization that brings together the best minds in science, the arts, politics, business and technology to share their ideas — and then posts their presentations online. (E-mail subscribers, please go to Divinipotent Daily online to watch or click on the individual links below.)

The first presentation is Rives on 4 a.m., a performance by poet, storyteller and wag Rives at the 2007 TED conference. In this eight-minute piece Rives uses large doses of intelligence and humor to dissect the popular insistence that relationships exist between random events.

Conductor Benjamin Zander insists that, deep down, everyone loves classical music. No matter how you feel about it right now, you'll probably agree with him by the time you've spent 20 minutes with his joyful and infectious 2008 TED presentation.

Finally, while it's too soon to call this playful graphic a keeper — it's only a few weeks old — I have hopes for it. The source is Lapham's Quarterly, a publication of ideas, culture and history, the sort of information that helps put the present into context. Recently, @LaphamsQuart — as it's known on Twitter* — posted a chart that is 100% trivia and yet so deviously fascinating, I have returned to it several times. Now it's your turn. Here's the chart in miniature, but please click through to see it full size.

"We do not know the true value of our moments until they have undergone the test of memory."
~ Georges Duhamel

*Contrary to what you may have read, Twitter is not all about what people had for breakfast.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Adventures in Attempted Life-saving

“Everyone wants to understand painting. Why is there no attempt to understand the song of the birds?” 
~ Pablo Picasso

Before I write another word, I should explain that my sister Terry and I have a complicated relationship with cardinals (the birds, not the priestly kind). When we were growing up, our mother would stand at the kitchen window in the morning and carry on a conversation with a Northern cardinal in our backyard. If you play the audio file at this link, listen for the long slow tweets that start at the 18-second mark. This is the song mom and her cardinal shared. And even today, whenever Terry or I encounter a cardinal, we feel like we've just had a visit from mom. I walked down a neighborhood street last Saturday I was suddenly aware of an infernal screeching. It was a pair of Northern cardinals, hopping up and down in the branches above me. Something made me look down, and there I saw one of these:

Photo credit: audreyjm529, Flickr Commons

It was a fat little cardinal chick, apparently healthy but out of its nest and not yet ready to fly. No wonder mom and dad were worried.

I read somewhere that one shouldn't touch baby birds because the parents might reject them. I also knew that cardinals nest low to the ground, in bushes, so I shooed the chick through a nearby fence and hoped it would find its way to the garden behind it.

On Sunday I went back to that place to see if all was well. Once again, the adult cardinals were hopping from branch to branch frantically. And once again, the fat little chick was on the sidewalk, looking a bit worn from its 24 hours at large. I decided it was time for drastic measures, so I picked up the tiny creature and set out across the street, where the little garden outside the church offered shade and cover. My passenger began screaming — like Brenda Lee, his tiny size belied a huge voice. Mom and dad whirled and twirled around me, a profusion of bright crimson and bitter orange feathers in motion. It was a little like this, but vaguely threatening.

It took only moments to reach the church garden but the journey felt much longer; finally I set the chick down on the cool earth and both parents swooped in to inspect him.

I don't know the end to the story, but I hope the tiny wanderer will have a chance to grow into one of these and enchant some admirer with its song.

“You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness —  ignorance, credulity — helps your enjoyment of these things.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sunset After the Storm

"As only New Yorkers know, if you can get through the twilight, you'll live through the night."
~ Dorothy Parker

After glowering most of the day, the skies delivered a fast-moving, soaking rain squall to New York City late Thursday afternoon. It ended just after sunset, and the waning light gave the world a silvery twilight radiance. I took a walk along the river.

The sky was aglow.

The water was aglow.

The Pepsi-Cola sign, a local landmark, was aglow.

Across the river, the Empire State Building was aglow.

Even the boardwalk seemed to be glowing.

Thank you, rain.

"Twlight: A time of pause when nature changes her guard."
~ Howard Thurman

Monday, June 7, 2010

When Everyone Is a Stranger

"A face is too slight a foundation for happiness."
~ Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

On Friday night in the Kaye Playhouse at New York City's Hunter College, the World Science Festival brought together two extraordinary men for what turned out to be the most fascinating discussion I've ever witnessed.

Oliver Sacks (above) is almost certainly the world's best known neurologist. He has written ten books including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Anthropologist on Mars and Awakenings (Robin Williams played Dr. Sacks in the hit film version of Awakenings.) 

Chuck Close is one of the world's most celebrated portrait artists, known best for astonishing, wall-sized faces composed of intricate, mosaic-like cells of color. During my days as fine arts student, he was everyone's favorite substitute teacher — an engaging, outgoing man who always brought a sense of joy and adventure to the classroom. (The image below is a close-up of one of his self-portraits. The full painting appears later in this post.)

The title of Friday's event was "Strangers in the Mirror." The subject: face blindness (prosopagnosia), a condition both Dr. Sacks and Chuck Close have lived and struggled with daily since birth. Genial, well-prepared moderator Robert Krulwich (journalist, member of National Public Radio's Radio Lab team and expert in making scientific information intelligible to non-scientists) called it a "face-blind face-off." (For a neuroscientist's view of Friday night's discussion, click here to read Sam McDougle's article on the website The Beautiful Brain. ) 

At first I found it difficult to grasp what face blindness even means. To never recognize a loving look, a knowing glance, a fleeting smile from a friend — imagine it. Facial recognition is so important to human life that evolution has given us a brain area just for that purpose, and it begins gathering and processing information in infancy. But to a person with face blindness, faces are a meaningless jumble of parts. If seen every day for a long enough time, they may become familiar — but will only remain familiar if contact continues. To someone with face blindness, even the face in the mirror is unfamiliar.

"Our masks, always in peril of smearing or cracking, in need of continuous check in the mirror or silverware, keep us in thrall to ourselves, concerned with our surfaces."
~ Carolyn Kizer

Krulwich's masterful questioning led to often hilarious stories that clarified what it's like to be face blind. Dr. Sacks admitted that "Several times I have started to apologize to a mirror." He also recalled combing his beard before his reflection in a restaurant window...only to discover that his "reflection" was doing something else. The full, slapstick potential of face blindness came through in his tale of a dinner with another scientist, someone he'd never met. After enjoying each other's company and conversation for a couple of hours, the other man went to the men's room...and could not find his way back to the table. Amazingly, he, too, had face blindness and could not tell which of several men seated alone was Oliver Sacks; Dr. Sacks, meanwhile, could not tell which of several men looking around the room was his dinner companion. (Dr. Sacks said that up to 2% of the population probably suffers from significant face blindness.)

But face blindness seems to be limited to human faces. He said that while he cannot recognize his neighbors when they step into the elevator with him in his apartment building, he can recognize their dogs. Interestingly, both men have no problem recognizing objects.

Both Sacks and Close deal with multiple abnormalities. Dr. Sacks, for example, cannot find his way home unless he follows an orderly grid like the streets of New York City. And, after losing one eye to cancer, he had to learn to see in two-dimensions, which created some bizarre side effects. Chuck Close, on the other hand, has always closed one eye to see — otherwise, he has double-vision — but has no problem finding his way around. He said, "I feel like I'm flying over the city. I could draw a floor plan of every room I've ever been in. " 

Chuck Close has so many learning disabilities that at one point Krulwich said to him, "You're a wreck!" One example: He counts the dots on dominoes to add and subtract. He has also been paralyzed from the neck down since suffering a spinal artery collapse in 1988. These days he paints with a brush strapped to one wrist and travels in a remarkable, high-tech wheelchair created for him by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. 

A combination of openness about their condition and self-deprecating humor helps both men deal with the demands of a world in which friends and acquaintances expect to be recognized. As Close put it, he makes fun of himself "so people will cut me some slack."

Long before the incident he calls "the Event," face blindness led Close to develop specialized tools and coping mechanisms. In fact, he said, "I'm sure I was driven to paint portraits by face blindness." He talked about the notebook he began creating as an art teacher. Since he couldn't remember people's faces and also seems to have difficulty with names, he made a record of what people painted. Now, when former students ask him for recommendations, he consults his notebooks to decide what to say. 

As I watched Chuck Close speak, my mind kept returning to a particular day in art school that I have thought and talked about many times. Back then, neither I nor anyone else in my class knew he was face-blind. What happened was this: One day when he was filling in for sculptor Richard Serra, he announced we were going on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He gave us an assignment that was a lot of fun at the time and has come back to me over the years whenever I visit the museum. The assignment was this: find paintings with faces that look like people in the class. From now on, it will have a very different significance. 

Oliver Sacks has just completed a new book about face blindness and other vision problems titled The Mind's Eye; it will be published in late October. To see Dr. Sacks in action, click here to watch a segment of the PBS NOVA program "Musical Minds," which was inspired by another of his books, Musicophilia.

"The features of our face are hardly more than gestures which force of habit made permanent. Nature, like the destruction of Pompeii, like the metamorphosis of a nymph into a tree, has arrested us in an accustomed movement."
~ Marcel Proust

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sunday at the Museum with Pablo

"Art is never finished, only abandoned."
~ Leonardo da Vinci

New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art is a place I have loved since I first began exploring it as a teenager in the 1960s. My high school was diagonally across the street, so I wandered in frequently, often several times a week. Admission was free then, at least for students, and the museum was largely empty of people and noise, a quiet cathedral of art. 

Today almost five million people — art lovers as well as tourists and students by the busload — visit the museum every year. According to its website, the museum's collections "include more than two million works of art spanning 5,000 years of world culture, from prehistory to the present and from every part of the globe." The Metropolitan Museum is also exceedingly large, covering two million square feet. 

Last Sunday, the day before Memorial Day, I spent the better part of five hours with the museum's expansive exhibition of nearly 500 works by Pablo Picasso. The collection ranges from his earliest work, like the 1900 self-portrait titled "Yo" (above right), which Picasso painted when he was just nineteen, to familiar paintings such as the 1905-06 portrait of Gertrude Stein below.

The museum's Picasso collection is rich in work from the artist's famous Blue Period, when he was consumed by the afflictions of the poor. The 1903 painting he called "Blind Man's Meal" (below) is a particularly haunting example.

Just a few years later, we see him begin to develop cubism in early work such as this 1907-08 "Standing Nude." 

And we see cubism more fully expressed in later work such as the 1911 drawing, "Still Life with Cruet Set."

The collection also includes a dazzling display Picasso's printmaking virtuosity — woodcuts, linocuts, lithographs, aquatints, etchings and more. The subjects are varied but as always, Picasso's sexual partners and appetites play a central role. Nowhere is this more vivid than in the room devoted to the "347 Suite."

Picasso created this series of 347 erotic prints between March and October 1968, when he was 87 years old. He had become fascinated by the 1499 Fernando de Roja novel La CĂ©lestine, about an aging procuress, and created the 347 Suite to illustrate it. This sugar-lift aquatint called "Las Meninas and Gentlemen in the Sierra" is one of the few I can show you here. The rest, while beautiful and delicate, are graphically sexual.

Two aspects of the 347 series fascinate me. One is the extraordinary creative energy of this man, who at age 87 could produce in just six months such an enormous body of work. The other is the way Pablo Picasso, a man well known for his voracious sexual appetites throughout life, channeled his yearnings into his work at a time when, as he confessed to friends, his body would no longer act on his desires.

Thirty blocks south of the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art also has a current exhibition of Picasso's printmaking. The MoMA show, like so much of Picasso's work, is dominated by the women he loved and left. If you're in New York, try to see both.

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."
~ Thomas Merton

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Look Through Any Window

"Walking along past the store windows, into which she peers with her usual eagerness, her usual sense that maybe, today, she will discover behind them something that will truly be worth seeing, she feels as if her feet are not on cement at all but on ice. The blade of the skate floats, she knows, on a thin film of water, which it melts by pressure and which freezes behind it. This is the freedom of the present tense, this sliding edge." 
~ Margaret Atwood 

Lately, I've become obsessed with photos of department store windows, the older the better, and especially if the windows are filled with hats, collars, bloomers and other items we don't often see today. Here's one example, and apologies for its small scale.

This is the window of the Godchaux Department Store, which once stood at 527 Canal Street in New Orleans. The photo was taken in the first half of the last century by John N. Teunisson and is now part of the Louisiana State Museum's Amica collection. Just look at the fanciful display of hats — come on, you know you want one! (By the way, I am also a little obsessed with great hats. Despite the fact that I look terrible in most hats, I believe we would all feel better about ourselves if we wore them more often.)

Like so many once-great department stores, Godchaux is long gone, but it was a New Orleans shopping mecca and landmark for decades. Here is how it looked in better days.

"I went window shopping today! I bought four windows."
~ Tommy Cooper