Monday, December 31, 2012

Party Like It's 1909

On average, odd years have been the best for me.
I'm at a point where everyone I meet looks like a version
of someone I already know.
~ from "Fragments for the End of the Year" by Jennifer K. Sweeney

Today I spent a little time with the Library of Congress's Prints & Photographs online catalog looking at New Year's celebrations of the past. I was fascinated by the year 1909, when everybody seemed to be down in the dumps for no particular reason.

Not even funny hats and feathers produced smiles on this crowd of sourpusses.

The magazine Puck ushered in 1910 with an illustration called "The Safety-Valve".

Proving that some things never change, I found an illustration titled "New Year's Eve at the Hotel Prosperity" – where all the tables are reserved for special interest groups.

All of this left me wondering about 1909 – what was going on that year? According to the Internet, it was fairly quiet. On March 4, William Howard Taft succeeded Theodore Roosevelt, becoming the 27th U.S. President; the NAACP was founded under the leadership of W.E.B. Du Bois; unemployment was just 5.1%; and Paul Ehrlich discovered a cure for syphilis. From this distance, it doesn't look too bad. Then again, new years are always overstuffed with portent.

To see some cheerful images of year-end celebrations where at least some people appear to be having fun, visit Flavorpill's "Amusing Vintage Photographs from New Year's Eves Past".

All within is warm,
    Here without it's very cold,
    Now the year is grown so old
And the dead leaves swarm.

In your heart is light,
    Here without it's very dark,
    When shall I hear the lark
When see aright?

Oh, for a moment's space!
    Draw the clinging curtains wide
    Whilst I wait and yearn outside
Let the light fall on my face.

"In Tenebris" by Ford Madox Ford

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Autumn Almanac

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.
  ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

At this time of year for the past few years I've posted scans of the lovely autumn leaves I've found around my neighborhood. This year the pickings were sad and slim. Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed so many beautiful trees, also battered the stuffing out of the ones it left standing.

In many cases, as the photo above shows, some leaves never changed color at all but grimly went from green to dead.

Here is my haul for 2012: three leaves, the best I could find – and even these are a little ragged and bruised.

Since there isn't much to show for the current year, I decided to show you some of my favorite leaves from previous years. And as you look at them, have a listen to the Kinks singing their wonderful "Autumn Almanac".

The tradition began in 2009 with these three leaves.

Here is my pick for 2010, which was a spectacular year for color...

And from 2011...

More information:

  • To see more leaves, visit my posts from 2010 and 2011
  • To find out why leaves change colors, scroll to the bottom of this post

"Don't you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address."
~ Nora Ephron

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving lessons

"I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose."
~ Woody Allen

1940 photo by Jack Delano, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. 
For more about this photo, visit the Library of Congress Prints and Photos blog.

These are some of the lessons I learned on Thanksgiving 2012, including a few I re-learn every year.
  • It is best to "shake well" before you open the can of evaporated milk.
  • I buy sugar once a year, always on Thanksgiving morning (because I always forget).
  • The ground cloves in my kitchen almost certainly date from the last millennium. 
  • All of my pie pans but one have migrated to my daughter's house. 
  • There's always a little too much pumpkin pie filling – just enough for a couple of great mini-pies.
  • Cats are not immune to the eat-until-you're-ill theme of the day.
  • Something is always too salty. 
  • I have never met anyone who likes turkey wings*.
  • I am grateful for tea towels.
  • References to "doorbusters" are a heinous linguistic blight at this time of year. 
Speaking of the cashification of Thanksgiving, linguist Ben Zimmer decimated the myth that "Black Friday" has anything to do with profitability. To learn what it's really about, read his 2011 Visual Thesaurus article. This morning I asked him (via Twitter) if he's written anything about "doorbuster" – he hasn't – but he directed me to Oxford Dictionaries, which first included the word in 2006, when he was an editor there. It has a surprising second definition. Update: The unfailingly polite Ben Zimmer sent me a follow-up note (tweet) today directing me to this comprehensive entry from Barry Popik's blog.

* Another update: After I posted this, a Facebook friend said that she does like turkey wings "as long as they're crispy."

"I'm thankful to be breathing, on this side of the grass. Whatever comes, comes."
~ Ron Perlman

Bonus! For those who had a less than blissful thanksgiving, watch this video and discover it could have been worse. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A story about a tree

"I think that I shall never see
 A poem lovely as a tree."
~ Joyce Kilmer, Trees

Joyce Kilmer's 1913 poem Trees was one of the first poems we were given to memorize in grammar school. I didn't like it then and don't like it much now, but there is a certain truth to its opening lines – especially when it comes to one particular tree, a willow that I have loved for decades.

When I first moved to Hunter's Point, Queens, in the early 1980s, the area was vibrantly industrial and trees were in short supply. Paint factories, chemical plants, electrical parts manufacturers, printing presses were all going strong, employing tens of thousands. Down the street Empire Iron Works was piling beams onto trucks from dawn until dusk. Two blocks down, the Pepsi bottling plant was working shifts and trucks bustled by at all hours.

The Pepsi plant is gone now, as are almost all the area's manufacturing jobs. But as this photo I took a couple of years ago shows, its sign remains as a reminder of the neighborhood's past.

Another part of the past that stayed and stayed and actually has grown more beautiful over the years was a three-tree stand of weeping willows on a corner a block away. It was not only a rarity in this nature-starved area, it was so lush that the tops had merged into one giant canopy. Here's how it looked in the wind on Monday afternoon as Hurricane Sandy drew near. I joked that it resembled a shaggy dog shaking off water.

Sandy, as we now know, was no joking matter. In the past week I've had this song running through my mind, over and over – Bob Dylan's High Water (for Charley Patton).

On Tuesday afternoon, as soon as the worst of the storm had passed, I walked down the street to see how my tree had fared. The news was bad – the beautiful willow was broken and bowed across the street.

Then, yesterday, I was out walking again, taking photos of the storm damage, when I came upon this shocking site. One tree had been removed completely. The remaining willows' broken limbs had been removed, leaving this sparse, mangy shell of what had been.

I've read that weeping willows are fast-growing trees – growing up to 10 feet a year.  Even so, it will be years until this old beauty restores itself. Mourning is in order.

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
~ by Maya Angelou

Read the rest of "When Great Trees Fall" here - it's a lovely poem about large things.

One more song for the road – Allison Kraus's "Down to the River to Pray".

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gordon Parks captures the drama of the docks

"At first I wasn't sure that I had the talent, but I did know I had a fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it."
~ Gordon Parks

November 30, 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gordon Parks. He was a man of many talents – film director, musician and writer among them. But for most people, including me, he was first and foremost a photographer with a varied portfolio and a quite particular vision.

In the early 1940s Gordon Parks won a fellowship from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), where he joined eight other exceptional photographers – Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott – in documenting the human toll of the Great Depression.

If I may digress for a moment: In these imagination-bereft times, when even Big Bird is under threat of extinction by budget-cutters, the idea of the government hiring creative people to contribute to our national legacy is unthinkable. But during the years when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran the country, programs like the Works Progress Administration and the FSA put our painters, writers, sculptors, photographers and dramatists to work. In return they created a national treasure, most of which survives and is available for all to enjoy through the online collections of the Library of Congress.

A few months ago I came across this photo, which Gordon Parks made for the FSA at New York City's old Fulton Fish Market in 1943.

The market is gone now – its smells and messiness banished from fancy downtown Manhattan and relocated at the Hunt's Point Market in the Bronx. But for decades it was the place where fishermen brought their catch and rough and tough stevedores did the hard work of getting the fish to market.

The original photo inspired me to go into the Library of Congress's collection and find the rest of the photos you see on this page.

"The photographer begins to feel big and bloated and so big he can't walk through one of these doors because he gets a good byline; he gets notices all over the world and so forth; but they're really – the important people are the people he photographs."
~ Gordon Parks

Learn more about Gordon Parks

Learn more about the Library of Congress

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Tonight in your neighborhood: Harvest Moon

The Harvest Moon
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes
  And roofs of villages, on woodland crests
  And their aerial neighborhoods of nests
  Deserted, on the curtained window-panes
Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes
  And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests!
  Gone are the birds that were our summer guests,
  With the last sheaves return the laboring wains!
All things are symbols: the external shows
  Of Nature have their image in the mind,
  As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves;
The song-birds leave us at the summer's close,
  Only the empty nests are left behind,
  And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.

Who would not love to hear the pipings of the quail under a full Harvest Moon?

I'm excited about the Harvest Moon – I want to see it. It was hidden behind the clouds last night, and today is also cloudy, but I'm holding out hope.

This moon comes with many pleasant associations – the divine Laurel and Hardy singing and dancing to "Shine on Harvest Moon" is one of them.

This Neil Young song is another.

For a slightly more scientific view, don't miss the Farmer's Almanac, which has a September moon guide packed with information and videos.

"We all shine on. Like the moon and the stars and the sun."
~ John Lennon

Friday, August 10, 2012


"To get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with."
~ Mark Twain

This brief video shows what happened in the NASA control room when the Curiosity rover touched down. It is 16 seconds of sheer joy. I'm posting it here so I can watch it whenever I want. Feel free to do the same.

"Scatter joy!"
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sometimes the story is the thing

"The most common lie is that which one lies to himself; lying to others is relatively an exception."
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Confusion and debate have gripped science journalism since July 30, when the talented and much-praised science writer Jonah Lehrer resigned his position with The New Yorker after admitting he had fabricated quotes. Why Lehrer would do such a thing — especially since the quotes he fabricated were attributed to Bob Dylan, whose every word is pored over by fans — remains a mystery.

Several interesting articles have followed. A Language Log post by linguist Mark Liberman posited that Lehrer's "unquotations" were not materially different from those of New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm or, in fact, any number of other journalists; in a subsequent post, he discussed the continuing controversy and law suit surrounding alleged misquotes and mistakes in a New Yorker article by scientist Jared Diamond.

On Friday financial blogger Felix Salmon* contributed his view that Lehrer's fabrication is of a piece with the nonsense contained in contemporary TED talks. TED (short for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a series of live events that grew from one annual conference about "ideas worth spreading" to an endless series of events of diminishing quality. While I don't entirely agree with Salmon's conflation of Lehrer and TED, I wholeheartedly agree with his inspiration — Evgeny Morozov's "The Naked and The TED," a brilliant take-down in The New Republic about three jargon-filled, fatuous and fact-free books from TED's new publishing arm.

All of this made me sorry about the state of ideas and storytelling. Storytelling is all the rage in business nowadays — people have rediscovered the concept that context, quotes and examples make information more memorable. Unfortunately, most corporate storytelling is terrible stuff that might actually benefit from some fabricated quotes.

TED was once a forum for brilliant storytelling by people with high-quality minds. Sadly, those days seem to be gone. So, in memoriam, I present here my three all-time favorite TED talks. None makes a scientific case; all are about experience; each is unforgettable.

Sometimes the story is the thing.

"There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."
~ Ursula K. LeGuin

In the first, neuroanatomist and brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor talks about her "Stroke of Insight" — what it felt like when she had a stroke and experienced it as a scientific observer as well as a person in the grips of a life-threatening medical crisis. This 18-minute-plus talk will have you at the edge of your seat.

My second pick is "The 4 a.m. Mystery" by the extraordinarily clever monologist Rives. This one is only 8 minutes long and so entertaining, you'll want to watch it more than once. 

My third choice is conductor Benjamin Zander's talk on "The Transformative Power of Classical Music." Zander believes that classical music has the power to leave us all "with shining eyes". Watch this talk and he will have you convinced. 

"Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts."
~ Salman Rushdie

* Felix Salmon and I work for the same company, apparently in the same office building. I don't know him.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Mystery Is in Our Stars

Like many people, I sometimes suffer from insomnia. One of the things I like to do amuse myself in the middle of the night is visit NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website. The photo for July 8 was this absolutely stunning specimen from Iceland — a volcano and an aurora.

When I posted this on Facebook this morning, I got into a conversation with a social media friend (hello, Thomas G. Fiffer!) about my belief that looking at the sky is the key to having a sense of awe and wonder about the world around us. Eventually the post below, which I wrote in March 2010, came to mind. And then, when I looked at the post, I realized it included a reference to a 2009 article by the excellent neuroscientist and top-notch dad Mark Changizi...who had referenced the same article on Facebook the day before.

These are what we fact-minded people call coincidences, and they inspired me to re-publish this post. I'd love to hear what you think.

March 17, 2010

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."
~ Albert Einstein

Every evening after the sun goes down, I look out my kitchen window at the Manhattan skyline. The view is a lot like this photo, although partly obstructed by nearby buildings.

To the left is the Empire State building; dead center, the fantastic hubcap-, hood-ornament- and gargoyle-laden Chrysler building. Below, above and all around, sprinkled among the city's predominantly domino-shaped structures, are pastry-shop-window constructions from an earlier time when building tops looked like fevered meringue dreams. I have been looking at this view for decades now, and it rarely fails to fill me with joy.

Just recently, I realized what it does not fill me with: wonder and awe. And that's because, in this light-drenched panorama, I cannot see the sky. No planets, no constellations, no milky belt of suns wheeling by.

This realization hit me yesterday while I was out walking under New York's first clear sky in a week, brooding about the sad state of science knowledge. According to Pew Research, 47% of Americans believe life evolved over time (with or without heavenly guidance), while 42% believe humans have always existed in their present form. Many also believe the universe was created 10,000 years ago and dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time.

"Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand."
~ Neil Armstrong

Cognitive scientist, evolutionary neurobiologist and author Mark Changizi of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has written persuasively about why many people cannot grasp evolution. In this blog post, he compares their confusion to his son's shock and fear on first encountering a jacuzzi. Like a jacuzzi, he says, evolution seems nuts when you first run into it. And as he wrote, "If you’re so used to evolution that you fail to see how weird it is, you’ll be in a poor position to explain why it isn’t as crazy as it at first sounds."

What keeps me up at night is the fear that today's anti-science bias is dragging knowledge into the past. I worry that in a few more generations we'll be teaching our kids the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. It's as if we're in a time machine that's stuck in reverse.

"We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened."
~ Mark Twain

But I have an idea, and it's very simple: turn off the lights. Literally shut off the glaring lights at least one night per month and let the people of this planet see the stars again. Staring at the stars led early man to try to understand the forces at work around him. Staring at the stars gives us that sense of wonder that is fundamental to science and to appreciating science. Here's a place to start wondering.

"All is mystery; but he is a slave who will not struggle to penetrate the dark veil."

~ Benjamin Disraeli

Friday, June 15, 2012

Living la vida Crayola

"All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites."
~ Marc Chagall

The other day I read a fascinating article about colors, cultures and language. The title is "The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains" [link below]. Its focus is the relationship between language and color perception.

The thing that startled me was how few words some cultures have for colors. According to the article, some have names for only four or five colors. The Dani people of New Guinea have just two words for colors and one Amazon tribe, the Piraḥ, is said to have none. I, who grew up with ever-larger boxes of Crayolas, have a gluttonous color vocabulary. Dozens and dozens of words. According to studies quoted in the article, once you start naming colors, the left side of the brain Рthe language side Рtakes charge. Naming colors becomes a new skill to be developed.

Discovering the color wheel ranks among my most memorable childhood experiences. I had always liked to draw and color, but this – it thrilled me. It showed me the relationships between colors – I hadn't known they had them. It showed me how to blend, and how not to blend, my little jars of tempera colors. I suddenly understood that harmony and dissonance were not just musical terms: They applied to color, too.

I had a similar thrill years later when, as a first-year art student, I was told to buy a Color-aid kit for my color theory class. I checked and was pleased to discover they're still on the market.

The Color-aid kit of my art school days was a box of 100 or so color swatches. They were a lot like paint chips but in a profusion of colors, some of which vibrated wildly when placed side-by-side. Who knew colors could do that? I suddenly had a new sense of the possibilities of color.

"Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions."
~ Pablo Picasso

Color theory class also gave me new ways to think about colors: by their hue, saturation and chroma. I don't know what they're teaching now, but in those days, these were defined as the three properties of color. Hue is of course the color itself. Saturation is the richness and depth of the color – how much color is in the color. Chroma I interpreted as the brightness of the color – the amount of light it seemed to emit. Knowing these terms made me feel like I understood color for the very first time. Ms. Pantone 1969.

It was a gorgeous day in New York City today – all clear air and bright, bright colors. As I walked down the street I instinctively noticed the sky that went down the blue scale from ultramarine to powder, and the trees that went from the yellowest green to apple, fern and forest, and I thought about a fact I'd just learned: that in many cultures, the words for blue and green are the same.

I would feel lost without my color names. Thank you, Crayola.

"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Read the article:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


"You've got to have something to eat and a little love in your life
before you can hold still for any damn body's sermon on how to behave."

~ Billie Holiday

Monday, May 21, 2012

Young artists about town: Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol

"The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work."
~ Chuck Close

Down in the lowest part of the Lower East Side of New York City, on Norfolk Street just off Delancey, is a fascinating photography exhibition in a pop-up gallery called site/109. The photographer is William John Kennedy, whose editorial work  appeared in publications including Life and Sports Illustrated and who also worked for top corporate clients.

But in the early 1960s, Kennedy befriended the artist Robert Indiana, who then recommended him to Andy Warhol. Kennedy photographed both in the first half of the 1960s, just as their careers were about to take off — and then put the photos in a drawer for almost 50 years.

My frequent gallery companion Dawn and I were there because Dawn's mom, Joan, had noticed an article about the show in an upstate New York newspaper — thanks, Joan! By the time we arrived, we'd missed a talk earlier in the day where the director of the Warhol Museum, Eric Shiner, had chatted with Kennedy and old Warhol companions Ultra Violet and Taylor Mead (both of whom figure prominently in multiple photos). But we had our own good luck when Louis Canales, the Creative Director of KIWI Arts Group, which produced the gallery catalog, agreed to be our very own docent. He showed us around the gallery and gave us the background on the photographer, the photos and the New York City art scene at the time they were taken, which was a few years before Dawn and I both attended the School of Visual Arts and Warhol and Indiana were household names.

I found the photos of the young Warhol especially interesting. There must be thousands of photos of Andy Warhol and I've seen scores, but these are the first I've come across where he looks like he's having fun. The affectless ennui that characterized every photo of him once fame took over is much less apparent in these photos.

Louis also gave us a copy of the catalog, which includes a rather fabulous DVD with a recent interview with the reclusive Robert Indiana.

The artist has lived for many years in Vinalhaven, Maine, which pretty much defines "off the beaten track." In the video, we see Kennedy and his wife travel by boat through heavy mist to the Vinalhaven dock, then walking up a street that probably hasn't changed much in 150 years before knocking on Indiana's door. You can see a brief clip from the video here.

The show is open until May 29. If you're in New York City, it's definitely worth a visit.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Perfect Elegy

It's Poetry Month and I have been remiss, failing to write until today about this annual occasion that gives such joy to so many, including me.

The inspiration that moved me to action is a blog post by New Yorker Editor David Remnick. He was writing about an April 20 memorial he attended for the brilliant Christopher Hitchens. He included a poem written and read by the excellent British poet James Fenton, who was a friend of Hitchens in life.

Fenton has written about Hitchens, for example in this post about why Hitchens chose to become an American. But the poem he read at the memorial service is a deep and touching remembrance he wrote about someone else.

This poem is, to me, exactly what one wants to hear at a memorial service, so I'm posting it here.

For Andrew Wood
by James Fenton

What would the dead want from us
Watching from their cave?
Would they have us forever howling?
Would they have us rave
Or disfigure ourselves, or be strangled
Like some ancient emperor’s slave?

None of my dead friends were emperors
With such exorbitant tastes
And none of them were so vengeful
As to have all their friends waste
Waste quite away in sorrow
Disfigured and defaced.

I think the dead would want us
To weep for what they have lost.
I think that our luck in continuing
Is what would affect them most.
But time would find them generous
And less self-engrossed.

And time would find them generous
As they used to be
And what else would they want from us
Than an honoured place in our memory,
favourite room, a hallowed chair,
Privilege and celebrity?

And so the dead might cease to grieve
And we might make amends
And there might be a pact between
Dead friends and living friends.
What our dead friends would want from us
Would be such living friends.

You can hear James Fenton read this poem in a long but rewarding podcast produced by Oxford's Bodleian Library. This poem starts at approximately 22:10 — but I encourage you to listen all the way through.

Also intriguing and enlightening is Stephen Metcalf's 2007 review of Fenton's Selected Poems in The New York Times Book Review

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Fools of April 2012

"This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are the other three-hundred and sixty-four."
– Mark Twain

As has become my custom for the past few years, I've taken note of some of the April Fools mischief on the Internet during the day. What follows is a list of pranks that simply appeared unbidden in my inbox, on my Facebook page or in my Twitter stream.

My favorite was the first: Science 2.0 (renamed Seance 2.0 for the day) clocked in before midnight EDT with Right Under Our Eyes: Nibiru On Its Way?, about the planet Nibiru, formerly known as Neptune. According to the story, Nibiru has wobbled off its axis and is "behaving according to the Mayan and Nostradamian prophecies." It will approach but not collide with Earth on December 21, 2012, causing massive tsunamis. The key to survival: Get out in the middle of the ocean.

Music business pundit Bob Lefsetz announced "I Quit" in his newsletter today. It's a hilarious piece of self- and industry parody that starts with a complaint about being persecuted by Taylor Swift and concludes with the revelation that he's taking a job with a hedge fund.

Comedian Andy Borowitz reported that "as an April Fools prank, Fox News will switch to an all-truth format for the day."

NPR reported that "Tweets Will Shrink to 133 Characters."

Scientific American got into the act with a report titled: "Neuroscientists: We Don't Really Know What We're Talking About, Either." It began "NEW YORK — At a surprise April 1 press conference, a panel of neuroscientists confessed that they and most of their colleagues make up half of what they write in research journals and tell reporters."

The Planet Nibiru

"If every fool wore a crown, we should all be kings."
– Welsh proverb

Monday, February 20, 2012

The creativity test

"Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character had abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time."
~ John Stuart Mill

"The Unleashed Mind," the cover story of the May-June 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind, is an article about highly creative people. I've been thinking about it off and on for almost a year now.

The article includes several stories about the eccentricities of extravagantly creative types. My favorites are about Charles Dickens, who "is said to have fended off imaginary urchins with his umbrella as he walked the streets of London." Dickens also apparently believed his characters sometimes followed him down the street. Perhaps that explains "Dickens' Dream," the positively ensorcelled creation of Victorian illustrator Robert William Buss.

But back to the known world. Scientific American Mind is in the helpful habit of summing up its articles in snappy bullet points — in this case:
  • "People who are highly creative often have odd thoughts and behaviors—and vice versa.
  • "Both creativity and eccentricity may be the result of genetic variations that increase cognitive disinhibition—the brain’s failure to filter out extraneous information.
  • "When unfiltered information reaches conscious awareness in the brains of people who are highly intelligent and can process this information without being overwhelmed, it may lead to exceptional insights and sensations."
Some scientists believe the key to creativity is "cognitive disinhibition" — basically, having fewer filters to block out disorderly thoughts.

But that's not what made me want to write this post. The impetus was a sidebar containing an eleven-question test titled "Are You a Creative Eccentric." For now let's just focus on question 11: "Do you often feel like a square peg in a round hole." The magazine says, "A yes answer to question 11 is related to both creative thinking and schizotypal personality."

That surprised me. Not the schizotypal personality bit — you can have that without schizophrenia. The surprise was that while I don't consider myself an exceptionally creative person, my whole life consists of holes into which I do not fit. I remember feeling wrong-shaped as early as three or four years old. In fact, I don't ever recall feeling completely right-shaped, even in my own family. When you were a child, did you ever believe you were adopted — or perhaps wish you were? Then you know what I mean.

To me the peg-and-hole question is really about feeling at home. I most often feel at home when I'm in the zone — when I'm writing or editing and the words are flowing effortlessly and the structure comes together as if preordained. Going for long walks, having meals with one or two close friends — those things also feel like home.

Those feelings are also common among introverts, as an excellent NPR story recently pointed out. (See link below.) But the creative world contains as least as many extroverts as there must be much more to it.

This is Elisha Pope Fearing Gardner. I don't know anything about him — but perhaps this photo tells us all we need to know. He looks like a fellow who fit in everywhere and nowhere.

What about you?

For more information:
  • Creative Brain Test (not the one in Scientific American Mind but by the article's author, Shelley Carson)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Happy birthday, mom

As I write this, it is late in the afternoon of February 11, 2012, the 105th anniversary of my mother's birth. Her name was Gertrude Elizabeth McMeel Hush. She died 26 years ago, but we lost her well before that to the personality-eradication of Alzheimer's.

This morning, as is our custom, my sister Terry and I got on the phone and sang "Happy Birthday" to mom together before rushing off to the obligations of the day. Now, as the day ends, I'm reminiscing. One of the things you discover after you lose someone to dementia is, eventually you forget most of the awful parts. You get your good memories back.

This photo of my mom hangs on my living room wall. She must have been quite young when it was taken, a teenager. By her twenties, the softness of her features was replaced by delicately sculpted bone structure. Those finger waves make me think it was the early to mid-1920s. But she never lost that faraway look.

When I think of mom, I think of music. It was a huge part of her life and became part of mine. She loved classical music — symphonies and concertos — and I came to love them, too. She also liked romantic songs. "Autumn Leaves" was one of her favorites; she never heard Diana Krall sing it, but I'm sure she would have liked it. 

Mom and I never saw eye to eye about my beloved blues and rock 'n' roll, but I have fond memories of sitting with her, both of us giggling, listening this next song. It's Harry Nilsson's version of "It Had to Be You," and if you listen all the way through, you'll hear a new twist on the lyrics. Mom, this one's for you. (Note: The video below directs you to click through to YouTube. Trust me — it's worth it.)