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Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Transcript of Severn Darden's Metaphysical Routine, As Promised.

Intro: (Andrew Duncan) And now, ladies and gentlemen, Professor Walter von der
Vogelweide will present "A Short Talk On The Universe."
Darden: Now, why, you will ask me, have I chosen to speak on the
Universe rather than some other topic. Well, it's very simple, heh.
There isn't anything else!
Now, the Universe we examine through what Spinoza has called "the lens
of philosophy". He called it this because he was a lens grinder.
Heaven knows what he would have called it had he been, for example, a
pudding manufacturer.
Now, into three branches is philosophy divided: ethics, esthetics, and
metaphysics. Now, ethics is that branch of philosophy which is neither
esthetics nor metaphysics. Esthe--well, I think you follow.
This evening I have decided to take the jump. Heh heh. Metaphysics.
Now, metaphysics is--what IS everything--ANYHOW? And what's more is
more than what's less--generally.
Now, in the universe we have time, space, motion, and thought. Now,
you will ask me, what is this thing called time? [7 second pause] THAT
is time.
Now, you will ask me, what is space? Now this over here--this is some
space. However, this is not all space. However, when I said that was
time, that was all the time there was anywhere in the universe--at
that time. Now, if you were to take all of the space that there is in
the universe and CRAM it into this little tiny place, this would be
ALL the space there was! Unless of course, some leaked out. Which it
could. And did! Heh. Hence the universe!
Now, the early Egyptian astronomers (there were no late Egyptian
astronomers) looked up at the stars and with these they measured time.
But the Greeks, who were very exact--sometimes to the point of
tediousness--came along with this question: is time the measure of
motion, or conversely, is motion the measure of time?
Viz. I have in my hand a stopwatch--imaginary. And coming through the
room is a railroad train--also imaginary, heh heh. If it was a real
railroad train it would kill us--and besides, it would be very
expensive. Now--I'm timing the train now. Is time the measure of
motion--click--[makes train noise and runs across stage]--click--or
is, conversely, motion--now I'm going to be for you a grandfather's
clock [swings arm]--tick--tock--tick--tock--the measure of time? Now,
with the arrival in the 20th century of Planck's constant and the
theory of quantum mechanics and with Heisenberg's uncertainty
principle--I think--we still don't know.
However, we might very easily turn to the pre-Socratic philosophers
(who were always good for a laugh) for assistance.
Now, take Heraclitus. Dr. Jose Benardete, by the way, has said in his
book "Coming and Becoming", he has quoted Heraclitus incorrectly as
saying that "time was a river which flowed endlessly through the
universe." He didn't say this at all. He said, "time was LIKE a river
which flowed endlessly through the universe." Aha, there you are,
Benardete!
Nonetheless, he discovered this one day, and he went home to his wife,
Helen. That was her name, Helen Heraclitus. That's two H's, like Hugo
Haas--Herman Hesse--Harry Halle[?]--Herbert Hoover--Heinrich Himmler--
oh, that whole crowd, ja.
Anyhow, he went home to his wife, Helen, and he said "Time is like a
river which is flowing endlessly through the universe, and you
couldn't step into the same river twice. Helen."
And she says, "What do you mean by that, Heraclitus? Explain
yourself." That means you could go down to the Mississippi River, for
example, and you could step in, and you could step out, and then you
could step in again. But that river that you stepped in has moved
downstream, you see, it's here.  And you would only be stepping in the
Mississippi River because that's what it's called, you see? Not only
all that water, but if something were on top of the water--for
example, a water bug--if it was there, it would be downstream. Unless,
of course, it was swimming upstream, in which case it would be older
and it would be a different bug.
So, anyhow, Heraclitus went home to his wife with this news, and he
said "Time is like a river which flows endlessly through the universe,
and you couldn't step into the same river twice."
She said, "Don't be an ass, Heraclitus. You could step into the same
river twice--if you walked downstream at the same rate as the river."
He was amazed!
So he went down to the agora, or marketplace, where there were a lot
of unemployed philosophers (which means philosophers who weren't
thinking at that time). And they had a few drinks first and they went
down to the river, and into the river they threw a piece of wood just
to test how fast the river was going. And so Heraclitus saw how fast
the wood was going. So he stepped into the river, and ran and stepped
and ran and stepped and ran, and finally he ran out into the Aegean
Sea and was drowned.
So much for time.
Now we come to another pre-Socratic, Zeno, for time and motion, and
Zeno's Paradox. Now, a paradox is something which when it isn't, it
is, paradoxically. And Zeno's Paradox is that if Achilles, the great
Greek hero and athlete, were to get into a race with a tortoise, that
he couldn't win. Silly, isn't it.
Well, if, for example, the toroise was here and he would give the
tortoise, say, a 10-foot headstart, just to be fair to the beast, and
there would be--it would take, say, Achilles, 1 second to go 1 foot.
So at the end of 9 seconds, he would have one foot to go in one
second, ja? And in a half of a second, he would still have a half of a
foot to go, you see? And in a hundredth of a second he would have a
hundredth of a foot to go. And in a millionth of a second, he would
have a millionth of a foot to go. And since time and space are both
infinitely divisible, he would never pass the turtle! Heh, heh.
But this is ridiculous! Anyone in this room could win a race with a
turtle, you know, and we're not great heroes and athletes. Even for
example, some old, very dignified person, like Bertrand Russell, HE
could win a race with a tortoise. And if he couldn't win it, he could
outsmart it, ja?
Nonetheless, I have discovered possibly the meaning for this paradox.
I was reading recently a book called "Greek Pots In Polish Museums" by
John Davidson Beasley. 8vo, $9.75 and worth every penny of it. Big
wide margins--er, I'm getting off my point. Anyhow, in there is a
picture of a pot that has on it a picture of a ripe [?] archaic
tortoise of the kind that Zeno would have known about. Now, it isn't a
little, flat American tortoise. IT'S A LITTLE BULLET-SHAPED TORTOISE
WITH LONG, SINEWY LEGS, ABOUT 4 FEET LONG, AND IT COULD RUN LIKE
CRAZY!
Now this would seem to explain it, ja? But it doesn't! Because Homer,
who never lied about anything, said that Achilles could, if he wanted
to, beat any man or beast in a foot race. Now what does this mean, "if
he wanted to"? You know how some people can't step on the line in the
sidewalk? Achilles couldn't pass a tortoise! He was a very sick hero!
Now, thought.
For centuries philosophers have told us that thought cannot be seen,
it cannot be heard, cannot be felt, smelled, cannot be tasted. It is
not in the key of G--or F. And it is not blue--nor is it mauve. It is
not a pot of geraniums. It is not a white donkey against a blue sky.
Or a blue donkey against a white sky. Nor does it have aspirations to
become archbishop. It is not a little girl singing an old song.
Thought is not a saffron-robed monk pissing in the snow. In other
words, philosophers can tell you millions of things that thought
isn't, and they can't tell you what it is! And this bugs them!
But you are out there and you're thinking and I'm up here and I think
that you're thinking, and we think, and we think that the sun comes up
in the morning, pouring forth its beautiful bounty of light, and as
Shakespeare said, "What a piece of work is man!"
Are there any questions? Thank you.
I would really like to answer any questions that you might have. Now,
I don't have anyone planted in the audience. Occasionally friends of
mine who are in the audience throw up some hideous thing. They know
the areas in which I am weak! Only in this sense do I have someone
planted. So if you could ask me anything that you might not know about
the universe.
Q: What is the relation between space and time?
What is the relation between space and time? Well, let's see, I
thought I had covered that. Now the relation--well, space, for
example, it is a thing which is occupied by matter. Ja? Whereas time
occupies space, as we all know. Have you ever, for example, had any
time pass when there was no space? I mean, have you ever been no place
for a long time? It couldn't happen! It could, theoretically, of
course. But I mean, even with a lot of equipment it would be
difficult.
Could I have another question?
Q: Do fish think?
Well, that's a very good question, but it's not in the realm of
metaphysics. Now I had a fish once--name was Louise, as a matter of
fact. Small, fat fish. And every day at the same time I would go to
the edge of the pond--a little iron tank in my house--and throw it a
bunch of grapes. You know? Every day at the same time the fish would
be there. After a few days she knew at 1:45, grapes, bam! Fish!
However, I began making it 15 minutes later every day, you see. And
then when I was there at 2 o'clock, she'd be there at 1:45. She was 15
minutes behind. After a while she was hours and days behind! And she
starved to death. Yes, fish think--but not fast enough!
Could I have another question, please?
Q: [German accent, much thicker than Darden's] Professor, what is
truth?
What is...?
Q: Truth.
Truth?
Q: Truth.
Oh, ja. Mm-hm. An accent.
Well, truth is very difficult to explain. It is not merely the
opposite of falsehood. When I say I am here, that is true temporarily,
but it is not always true. And certain truths are immutable. Like for
example, I am not elsewhere, which is just as true here [walks across
stage] as it is over here. You see? I am still not elsewhere. No
matter where I go I can't get away from me! Sort of frightening--that
should be called truth!
Could I have another question?
Q: Will the sun rise tomorrow?
Yes. Next question?
Thank you.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Aw, Come On Folks--Here's Another Clue. . .

This virus can cause a child to have to eat lots of popsicles and ice cream, or not be able to eat at all, because it affects the inside of the  mouth. . .

Apologies and Thank you, Kind Soul Who Plus Oned My Duplicate Post. Three Times.

My deepest apologies, folks. Maybe it was editing via iPad, but I posted my virus quiz three times. Thank you, kind souls who plus-oned it each time. 

And again, my apologies. 

Severn Darden, You Are Missed.

Last night, before our youngest's mouth was affected, my hub and I went on our first date in ages. It was billed as a political improv group as they played Presidential-debate Jeopardy. We later learned that the moderator was someone who analyses faces, like the main character in Lie To Me--so his hints of analysis were fascinating glimpses into a specially educated mind. 

Unfortunately, the improv team's best political comedian could not see the screen, which was where most of the humor was taking place--in the facial reactions of the presidential and vice presidential candidates. 


Also, unfortunately, his teammates were not very aware politically, which does make it harder to improvise political comedy. I found myself wishing my very funny husband were on the team instead. And also wishing that there had been some women up there, as their lack drastically reduced the opportunities for humor--which, of course, made me wish I could have been on the panel as well. 

I suppose this wouldn't be so farfetched, if I chose to pursue it, because a long time ago, when I was a teenager, I took a class with Paul Sills. In those days, I was in college already, though still very much high school age, and spent a lot of time pretending to be a grownup, so pretending that I understood a word that Mr. Sills said was not such a stretch. Mostly, he yelled, a lot, in a strained, desperate baritone, words like: "What? What? What?" or "No, no, Where? Where? Where?" and my favorite ever comment from any  teacher I've ever had: "No, Sakki, it's not your fault." (spoken with pity. "You're the victim of a public school education." A pause. "You think there's a right way to do things." (A quote I return to on a regular basis when I am struggling with whatever the hell we struggle with in our lives, creative challenges, say, or just plain life itself.)

Viola Spolin in the 1930's. 
Sill's improv was based on his mother, Viola's Spolin's improv work, which had been designed not for theater, but to help English language learners get over their shyness and leap into language. If the kids were focusing  on goals like creating an imaginary place (a Where) and interacting with that, they wouldn't be as focused on making mistakes in their English. 
On the right in the striped shirt, Viola Spolin, above, her son Paul, and in front, his shoulder's hunched as he listens intently, Severn Darden. 

Viola's games, the basis of all modern improve, might things like building an imaginary identity, (a Who) while working away at some imaginary activity (obviously, a What.) Unfortunately, Paul did not explain this concept, just dumped us into exercises and yelled WHO! WHO! WHAT! WHERE at us. Usually for each exercise, we'd be given two of these objectives and have to create the third--like the fabulous improv I got to do one time with the extraordinary Paul Sand. 
front row, from left, Barbara harris, Paul Sand, Mina Kolb, Severn in beard in back, and Andrew Duncan? (Alan Arkin is tucked behind Paul Sand.) 
He was the boss, I the secretary and our objective was to create the Where and the What (where we were and what we were doing) and the way we were to do it was taking turns going on stage to create (via pantomime) one object in the space we were creating. Each time one of us came on, we would have to interact with the item the other person had just added before add our own, around and around, until we had a complete (imaginary) office and could then, focusing on the things in the room, create the What--whatever it was we were doing, which in this case turned out, (rather unimaginatively) to be a romance. But, I have to tell you, when you've both been flirting via the creation and use of every conceivable (invisible) piece of office equipment or furniture long before you actually interact with each other, everything that takes place becomes fresh and unexpected--everything has been created in that magical somewhere between you, not within the shoddy little limitations of your own imagination. 

But the scene with Paul was later. Now, I was in the middle of a class that Mr. Sills cancelled in the middle of one of his shouting fits. "No, no, no. You're not--you don't--Where! Where! That's it. The class is over. We're done. We're finished. " And he stormed out of the room while we students--and they were all at least ten years older than me--all stood there, eyes wide, v-e-r-y confused. 

I followed him outside, where I found him muttering to himself at the end of the outdoor hallway--this was one of those hideous sixties Los Angeles apartments that were built with the hallways outside. "Did you just cancel our class?" I asked. 

"Yes," he said. 

"For today? Or forever?"

"Forever," he said. "You're not--! You just don't--! You can't learn it. You're not, you're all NOT learning it." 

"Well, I know I'm struggling," I said, because frankly I never had a clue what he was yelling or why. "But I think I am learning something from you." 

And just like that, he invited me to "play" with some people, giving me a When and a Where--a shady neighborhood near downtown--but no Who. A bit later, my mom dropped me off, I went inside, and found a bunch of pretty old people (especially to me) whose names I recognized from old Second City Recordings, and who knocked me breathless with their improvisatory skills. The greatest of all was a bearded, shuffling bear of a man named Severn Darden. I still remember him encouraging me (ha!) by telling me about the incandescently twisted Barbara Harris, who joined the Compass players when she was my age. "Don't worry," he said. "Barbara was a teenager, too. She barely talked for months and months and months and then one day, she said--" a dramatic pause--"'A whole half a lemon?'" He sighed. "Brilliant. Absolutely genius." (And okay, but even sans context, in Severn's mouth, those words were hilarious. It didn't matter what led up to it, you could tell it was a hell of a punch-line.)  

So, in honor of Severn, I will tell you my favorite improv moment with him. I don't remember our What, or our Who, but our Where was a picnic. While we others created our fancy little scene, Severn, in one of his favorite roles as the moon-faced, rebellious, adult teenager muttered things now and then, ignoring us, and focusing on eating grapes (pantomimed, of course) from a large bunch held over his mouth, lipped into it one by one.

Then, at the ultimate moment in the sketch, (when he had to begin to behave like a grownup,) he began, in character, to pretend he was a WWII plane spitting machine gun bullets which he spewed--imaginary grape seeds aimed at us all, chasing us off the blanket and away from his picnic. It was the funniest and most unexpected thing I have ever seen. And it was utterly and completely Severn Darden. 


I know that I am a fortunate person to have seen him at work so many times, to have heard his wisdom, however hard it was to translate. I know I was fortunate to study, however briefly and incoherently, with Paul Sills. (Tino Insana, when he joined us, explained privately that Sills had mellowed with age and with treatment for his diabetes, and that, he, Tino, had known Sills to chase people across the stage, knock them down and blam their heads into the floor, trying to get them to understand his concepts. Talk about listening as a wide-eyed teenager!) 

Anyway, yesterday, seeing that group--as generous as they were with one another, as kind and supportive--I longed to see Dick Schall (the best pantomimer I have ever known) and Valerie Harper--a couple of times--Dick Libertini now and then, Mina Kolb and Tino Ensana and Paul Sand and Annie Ryerson--she was so kind--and Avery Shreiber and what was the name of the little Lebanese guy who would always get into fights with Paul--fights you could tell they'd been having for the last fifty years? Oh, yes, Hamilton Camp--otherwise known as Hamid Hamilton Camp. 

And, of course, Severn, who was so amazingly, extraordinarily, incredibly brilliant and so willing to plunge into whatever he was doing like a peregrine falcon in a stoop, all 240 miles per hour. 


For those of you who wish to see him in his professor mode, here's one interview, and for those who want to read one of his professor riffs, I will include it in the next post--though it's really not the same unless it's coming from his brilliant mouth. 

Still, I strongly recommend you read it, and howl. And when you're done, check out anything by Elaine May and Elaine May on the internet, including but not limited to her roasting of him as the cousin of Albert Einstein. Life is too short not to spend a great hunk of it roaring with laughter. 



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrXFQNXmwqM

Guess This Viral Illness!

It's been an exciting week in House Woebegone--not that we're usually woebegone, but this week, the viruses are happier than we are. So-- let's play guess the name of the latest virus! (Or names. It's known by two different ones.) 

One sounds like either a slightly inventive sexual position or a game played by bouncing a small, leather ball off the sides and tops of your feet. The second could almost be a disease that can wipes out herds of livestock. 


This disease does not wipe out herds of livestock, but both names may make you laugh--if you don't have this viral illness. 

This virus mostly affects very little people, but a new strain has crossed the Atlantic, and adults are getting it, too.  And no, as far as I know, none of  us have, so bite your tongue rather than suggest it--except not if you happen to have this viral illness.

Extra points for anyone who can tell us something we don't know, about treatment, duration, etc. Let the game begin!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Bonjour mes Amis en France.

Bonjour mes amis en France. Comment je souhaite que je pourrais avoir assisté à la fête de la musique en Paris. Il est une telle célébration glorieuse. En Amérique, nous avions l'habitude d'avoir le chant public communal, mais elle existe à peine plus ici. Je suis jaloux.

Football or Asking Questions? Which Would You Choose?




A few years ago, a child of mine very much wanted to play football. And hockey. Both are sports with large followings in our community. I said no to both. For one thing, this kid has a disability, and we didn't need to risk a head injury on top of that. The research on concussions was just starting to come out. For another, I knew the mom of a teenager who had just suffered a horrendous concussion playing football. "He's getting better," she regularly told me months later "But he's not my kid. He has outbursts of temper, he can't remember things long enough to do his school work.  He's still not my kid yet. I haven't got him back." 

We live in a racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood where we walk a lot, and as we do, we talk a lot to neighbors.  (Our walks can take a very long time.) As we walked to school, we saw the grown son of one of our neighbors (the ones who own the music school) using a pick axe to dig under a concrete side walk, a few tilted slabs beside him.  Naturally, we stopped to talk. 

In his digging, this man had discovered a thin vein of coal. Curious, he began to follow the vein--this is when we arrived. Instantly, we were as curious as he was. What was it doing there? Coal? Under a sidewalk? Why did it stretch out under the grass lawn?

Then his father came out to check on the son's labors and scolded the younger man in no uncertain terms--"Get back to work. What does it matter where it came from? Stop thinking and dig." 

You could see his father's harsh tone smarted the younger man. We stayed and chatted a few moments so he could see that we weren't judging him and also, to take away some of the sting of the scolding. My kid said he wanted to play football, and that got the younger man talking about all his years of playing football, starting with peewee. 

After we left, my kid commented, resentfully, "He got to play football. Why can't I."  

"Yes," I said. "But he doesn't get to ask questions. Which would you rather have? Football or being able to ask questions?" 

He thought about it for a block or two. "Questions. I'd rather be able to ask questions." 

Yes. That's my kid. 


(Okay, neither one of theses pictures is my kid--I don't post their images on the internet--but they sure could be my kid!)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Lessons we should teach our children




Photo courtesy of the New York Times
#1 Don't throw up on the bed. Or the carpet. 

Throwing up in the toilet = Good. 

Throwing up on the bed//down comforter/in a circular pattern from the living room to the bathroom = Not good. 

Note to self: this is definitely a First World Rule. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

More about City On Fire

I bought City On Fire because I wanted to love it. I was not worried by its hype. No. I figured this guy has a fabulous agent, and he's written and ambitious, intricate, sprawling work of historical fiction--kind of like what I've done with the novel I am currently querying. 


I also bought it because I want to query his agent. 

And there is much that I love about this novel, which I still have not finished (so unlike me--I can read a book this fat in a weekend.)

Midway through, there's a huge hunk that is just from three female points of view--a teenager who we meet via her journal/newspaper (the first black section of the novel) a Vietnamese immigrant/American young woman named Jenny, and Regan, the wealthy daughter of the Hamilton-Sweeneys. 

But here's the deal: Everybody who we hear from in this novel so far has the same super-educated voice, and middle-class concerns. There are characters that we meet who are middle class, strung out, dish-washers, fish-scalers, but we never do hear from them. All we hear from are existentialist folk who mostly run, screaming, from their feelings, happily getting drunk, stoned, taking 'ludes, using heroin, (snorted, injected; between the toes, in the arm) oh, and practicing bulimia. And they all sound the same when they're talking about it. Jenny Nyugen, Regan, Sam Cicciaro, our sleeping beauty, William Hamilton-Sweeney, the red-headed Charley and even the newspaper reporter who gives us a brief few moments of actual plot, they all sound exactly the same, and exactly like our narrator. Supposedly, this is the whole city of New York in 1976-77. It makes me think of Woody Allen's claustrophobic, white New York; it makes me long for Let The Great World Spin, which plunged boldly inside the head of an aging black hooker, a Guatemalan caregiver, a Park Avenue housewife and her Judge husband (Jews who think like Jews.) 

I I had some problems with McCann's version of the hooker, but at least he let her be a major actor in the story.  

City On Fire does have Jenny, who seems more of a character sketch than a person, and the lovely, decent Mercer Goodman who we barely see. And red-headed Charley knows so little about his Jewish religion--though he has attended Hebrew school and had a beloved, observant, Holocaust survivor grandfather, that his philosophical musings are the same nihilist twists all the rest spend hours (it seems) pursuing.  From my perspective, as a writer and an actor (which I am) I'm really struggling. 

I applaud Risk Hallberg's ambition. I share it. I've probably messed up any chance at his agent because I'm posting this here. I'm more than halfway through here, I'm going to keep going, but it's not with joy and excitement. 

And this is not snark, it's not wanting this book to not succeed. (something I've blogged about before, something that human's tend to do.) I want it to soar, and then my book can follow. For now, I keep plugging, keep hoping I can get swept away, and can finally rest in someone else's story inside this particular book. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

The "Ouch. You stepped On My Toe. Back-off" Rule

Some people bully. Well, probably everybody has bullied somebody at some point in their life (and if I could find MaryAnn Finney, I would beg, beg, beg her forgiveness.) And some people--even people running for public office (gasp)--seem to have no other social skills. 

I have developed some tools to use with bullies who are in my life and my favorite ever tool is what I have named the Ouch. You Stepped on my Toe. Back off. Rule. 




The way it works is simple. Say you're in a social situation and someone says something nasty about you. You say, out loud, right in front of everyone, and very calmly,"Ouch. That was a nasty thing to say. Don't do that again." Or even, "Ouch. That hurt. Stop it." 

Suppose someone says something snarky aimed at you. Those kind of hidden things can be like tiny jabs, and they can be tough, but not with this rule. You just say in a calm, firm voice,"Ouch. That had a hidden jab. Don't do it again." 

If someone says, "I was just joking!" 

The response? "Well, don't." 

If someone says, "You're touchy." 

The response, without defensiveness--"Maybe. Don't do it again." 

The biggest problem with this tool is that sometimes people don't see an attack at the time it happens.  We might have been trained as children to be nice, or to always assume the best, or if we were raised by manipulate bullies instead of direct ones, we literally have been taught not to see bullying when it occurs, which means we have been taught that our "ouch" response didn't ever happen--i.e. we have learned to override our own wince of pain. It might be days before we realize we were jabbed. 

The ouch rule says, "Speak up as soon as possible after the event."

The ouch rule says, "Speak up every time." 

The ouch rule says, "If the insult is public, the ouch should be public. Sometimes, if the insult was private, the ouch should still be brought up in public." Next time you're in a small group with this person, say, "Remember the other day when you said x? That was nasty. Don't say it again." 

Special note: it's hard to teach a shy kid to do this, but it can be done. The more you do it, the easier it is. No fuss, no muss, no big drama, just bully, back off. Good luck. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

When Do Thirty-year-olds Get To Be Women? Not when they're The Girl On The Train

At the pool yesterday, racing between children-- (I'm one of those uncool moms who swims and laughs a lot and drags them through the waterfalls)--I saw a woman reading a book called The Girl On The Train. 

I knew nothing about this book, but as I dripped my way from one child to another and one pool to another, I thought--The Girl. The Girl. How old is she? Ten? A teenager? What is she doing on the train, this little girl, this teenager? 
But something told me the girl on the train was, in fact, a woman. 

On the way back, I asked the woman what the book was about. "Oh, she said, there's this girl and she rides this train everyday and she gets really interested in this couple that she sees from the window. Like she almost thinks she knows them, but she doesn't. And then, the wife in the couple disappears, and she starts to worry about them." 

"How old is this girl?" I asked. 

"Oh, twenty-nine. Or in her early thirties." 

"Thanks," I said. A woman, then. A woman on the train. Why isn't that the title? If it was a thirty-year-old guy would the title be The Boy on the Train? No. Why isn't it The Woman on the Train? Because we are more interested in Girls? What's wrong with women? Aren't they interesting? 

This is nothing against the book or Paula Hawkins, who may not have even had the choice of title. But really. Twenty-nine or in her early thirties, and she's a Girl? On the Train. Guh. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Les Miserables En Français--It's so much better!

Because I have a pubertal child interested in Musical Theater and in learning French, I downloaded the 1991 French version of the originally French musical, Les Miserables, with music by Claude-Michel Shonberg (can't get those umlauts in there, sorry) and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. 

Hey, two birds, one stone. (Sounds like a particularly appropriate metaphor for Les Miserables for some reason.) 

Now, I am not a fan of Les Miserables, the musical. I lump it in there with the Andrew Lloyd Webber school of musical, lots of spectacle, hard to sing, storming barricades, flying helicopters and falling chandeliers. Meh. 

And then, I hear the score for Les Miserables in French. My God. It's so much better. No more lyrics straining to fit the words and story. The music feels so right for the words. Even the sounds of the words fit better. Maybe my problem was just with those damned British (Cockney, BBC Narrator) accents? 


(Love those sulfurous greens, don't you? I wonder if that's supposed to be Sheele's Green, one of the literally deadly green dyes that were popular around this time?) 

And, yes, since this is on stage and not in a film, where the director decided to show us how absolutely stupid and futile it is to lose so many lives manning a barricade blocking nothing, since the rest of a city has already surrendered.



At any rate, I highly recommend listening to Les Miserables en Français. Especially if you are planning to storm some barricades of your own, as we are doing today in our fair city. Alons y! 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Shell-shocked in Mrs. Dalloway. No, Virginia, It's Not Mental Illness

According to new research reported in the New York Times on June 10th (Thank you, reporter Robert Worth), Modern Warfare--or the explosions that accompany modern warfare literally scars parts of the brain. 
Yes, the symptoms of Shell-shock may not be mental illness caused by the traumas of war, but the result of scarring in important parts of the brain, like those associated with sleep. 

We first learned this in WWI Trench warfare when soldiers stuck in deep pits encountered percussive forces en masse for the first time. That guy on the lower left, staring out into space, has the thousand mile stare typical of shell shock. 

Here are the lyrics from a song in that era: 

"Perhaps you're broke and paralyzed

Perhaps your memory goes. 

But it's only just called shell shock 

For you've nothing there that shows." 


For all those years--over a hundred years--nobody quite knew what the problem was. Virginia Wolf, with her constant headaches and mental breakdowns, put herself in a soldier's shoes and gave us the astonishing character of Septimus Warren Smith. 

But it seems she was wrong. 

This photo by Greg Kahn of the New York Times shows Dr. Daniel Perl holding two slides, one showing normal brain tissue (below) and the upper showing tissue from a brain whose owner was the victim of explosions. 

They look very different, don't they? 




And that damage is not--at least so far--reversible or treatable. 









Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Behind the news of the murderer in Orlando: Pashtun acceptance of gay pedaphilia and the Taliban

Okay. I'll say it out loud. I've been thinking about it for two days now, since the Orlando attacks and hearing that the murderer was both Afghani and Pashtun. 

There is an Afghani practice known as Bacha Bazi. (Literal translation: boy play.) Another word for this is to have a "tea boy."





One Pashtun song begins: "There is a boy across the river with an ass like a peach: but alas, I cannot swim."


In a culture where women are kept in purdah and honor killings are a fact of life, there is no way to have an affair. And for decades if not centuries, boys--young boys--have filled that gap. Men kidnapped or purchased or were given the care of young boys, who they used as servants and for sexual favors. This is not considered homosexuality and the men--men of power--who victimize young boys--are often warlords and village heads. The boys who are sold by their families or given by them--large families, an urge to be connected to someone in a position of authority--will be used sexually by their overlords and lent out by them until they age out of the system.


Those who practice this sexual abuse of power no more consider themselves homosexual than married men from restrictive cultures who nevertheless haunt the down low.

The practice of Bacha bazi flourished among mujahideen during the war with the Soviets. No one knows how big the problem is, but it is insidious and it is everywhere. An Atlantic article from 2010 quotes a solider as saying: "I want to say that the soldiers on the ground know about this and know it is rampant. We used to call it "man love days." We noted that attacks on our base did not occur during these events as all the men with money (Talibs) were engaged in this kind of activity. It is truly a disturbing sight to see something like this occurring and you can't do anything about it. We were told it was a "cultural thing" and it wasn't our business." 


An article in Newsweek called Confessions of a Afghan boy sex slave, quotes a sixteen year old dancer named Kamal, who says that when his father died, his mother placed him in the care of a family friend. Kamal was fourteen and had never heard of bacha baz, where Bacha Bereesh (literally beardless boys) are recruited from poor communities and brought to wealthier ones. 


The World Weekly quotes Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi's The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, in an interview with a former mujahideen commander and wealthy businessman "regarded to be at the centre of the local bacha bazi business in the northern city of Takhar. Priding himself on having a chai boy (a tea boy) Dastagar was more than willing to accept an interview request.


"We're looking for a boy," Dastagar says, "who's good for dancing, around 12 or 13, and very attractive, very attractive." Asked if he sleeps with them, he replies, "Of course!"


"Having a boy has become a custom for us," says a local man in his mid-forties, interviewed by Mr. Quraishi. "Whoever wants to show off should have a boy."


"I go to every province to have happiness and pleasure with boys," says another Afghan man known as "The German," who acts as a pimp. "Some boys are not good for dancing and they will be used for other purposes. I mean for sodomy and other sexual activities."


Boys are lured by the need for food, a place to stay and money. Sometimes, they know what the future has in store and in some cases, their families use them to bring in money. In other cases, they have no idea what is in store, but once in, a boy is considered his owner's property. At the end of the party, he is often shared for sex. Many men are attached to their boys, but children are sometimes sold to the highest bidder. 



This practice is at least hundreds of years old, according to poems and tales. Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, the first Mughal Emperor (1483-1530) wrote in his autobiography about his "frothing up of desire and passion" for a "fairy-faced young boy called Bahuri and composed couplets for him.  



Homosexuality was common in the Mughal army. The third Mughal emperor, Akbar (1542-1605) tried to discourage and suppress it, with little success. Many warriors were known to have homosexual relations with military servants, slaves and eunuchs but were still seen as deeply masculine men. 


And, like victims of child abuse everywhere, the children involved often find someone other than their abuser to blame. 


Kamal, the dancing boy of the Newsweek article, says, proudly, that his owner paraded him around "like his little prince." Kamal "is reluctant to talk about the sexual component of his relationship to his bacha baz. “He never hurt me,” he insists. “He was always tender. He never traded me around with his friends as some did.” Kamal." A recent study says that one in ten boys in Afghanistan are touched by the tea boy trade. 


The Orlando murderer's father is Pashtun and reportedly unstable himself. In his TV program, the father has said he despises homosexuals. The murderer reportedly visited the gay nightclub that he subsequently shot up, and also went on homosexual dating sites. 


I wonder if, as more information is uncovered, we learn that an ancient and horrendous type of child abuse haunted the actions of an unstable killer who then destroyed the lives of so many people in Orlando who freely, openly and joyously accepted their sexuality. 


Friday, June 10, 2016

Hate Speech as MainStream news.

So, I was reading a "Yahoo News Story," which I realize is an oxymoron. Still, Yahoo is a main stream media source, which is why I was stunned and worse to read hate speech casually flipped into a minor news story. 

The article was about Laura Olin, who made Emoji Art to mark Hilary Clinton's presidential nomination, riffing off some marvelous art by Patrick Moberg designed for his blog to mark Obama's election as president. 

Olin was objecting to people who were retweeting her emoji art without giving her credit. (Though I'm not sure she was giving Patrick Moberg credit, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.)

But the author of the story, Lauren Tuck, casually states that "soon after, she saw celebrities, influences, and the media companies "pull a fat Jewish" and share the image without credit. 

The phrase, "Pulling a fat Jewish," comes from a guy named Josh Ostrovsky, who has made a lot of money tweeting jokes, some of which he has stolen. 

But--stop and think about it. Could anybody get away with casually writing, "Pulling a fat Lebanese?" How about "Pulling a fat Black guy, Pulling a fat woman, pulling a fat Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Bahai, Pulling a fat African?" No fricking way. Our words have such power. And when speech like this becomes common venacular--when Trump can get away with calling all Mexicans rapists and robbers and all Muslims terrorists, and Paul Ryan is still willing to support him, even though he admits its racist, when Yahoo doesn't even seem to think twice about using, "pulling a fat Jewish," as a casual meme, then hatred becomes acceptable and commonplace, and the world grows scarier for most of us. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Science Lesson, or Things They Don't Tell You Will Happen As You Get Older

There are age-related weird things that people don't tell you about. Here is one: 

Sometime between the age of forty and seventy, it is likely that the vitreous jelly of your eye will pull away from the peanut butter of your retina and float freely. The usual age is between fifty and sixty, but if you're highly myopic (like moi) you get to have a higher risk of hitting around forty. 

Before the jelly separates from the peanut-butter retina, it first de-jellifies. This means that pockets of liquid appear, much like happens to the jelly in your fridge. It's these pockets, which take up less space and pull on the retina, thus allowing the jelly to detach and float like a jelly-fish, sting like a--jelly-fish. (Well, okay, vitreous jelly doesn't usually sing. 

The only warning you might get that your vitreous and your retina are about to part ways are: you'll see a bunch more floaters--those tiny dots that dance with you wherever you look. You might see a lot of them suddenly. You might also see flashing lights--this is caused by the jelly pulling on the nerves of your retina. 

If you have these symptoms, you might be perfectly fine, as your jelly might be floating around happily with no repercussions to your retina. 

However, your vitreous, unwilling to part with its beloved retina, might have yanked parts of it free as well. This is why, when you have these symptoms, you must hie thee to a vision specialist this very minute second. With a laser, that retina's lifted edges can be literally heat-fused back onto the back of your eye. 

Without treatment, or if that retina pulls away completely, bye bye vision.

So--if you have these symptoms, the scientifically recommended thing to do is: Panic! Freak out! Make your husband stay home from work to take you to the doctor. Wake frequently in the night wondering if you will wind up blind, or having to permanently view the world through what appears to be a contact smeared with mascara. Wonder which is worse. Try to focus on your breath, and calm your mind, because you're getting older faster than you realized and you'd better figure out a way to take your husband and children--even your kid with special needs--into Afghanistan with you, because you've suddenly realized that you should have become a clown who uses theater to teach mine-safety to children in remote, war-torn corners of the world like the Bukhan province--(If you don't know where that is, either do a Sporcle geometry quiz or read my last post. )

Realize you're supposed to be watching your breathing. Wonder what happened to the boldness that had you wearing a yellow shirt, bright green shorts, and purple socks when you were nineteen, simply because you liked bright colors together. Try to figure out if you have anything bright green, yellow and purple in your wardrobe. Wonder when you can next visit the thrift store on two dollars Tuesdays. 

Remember you're supposed to be watching your breathing. Fall asleep. You think. 

Find out your eyes are okay, but have spent so much adrenaline that for the rest of the day, you are exhausted, grumpy and doing a very good Mean Mom clown act of your own. Wonder if that whirligig ride at the kiddy fair-ground--the one that always terrifies you because your childhood friend was killed on such a ride, but only after you had moved away--if that whirligig ride might serve to help the irritating mascara milky way that is currently blocking good parts of the vision of your dominant eye. 

Comfort your children about their various worries, yet somehow leave the pizza you bought to feed them at the grocery store. (Fortunately you never paid for it.) 

Spend time you could be cleaning writing a blog post about your eye while your youngest asks you to please make her a baby sister. Please, please, please, because she really, really wants one. 

Gulp. Hit Save.  Publish. 

Below, the beauties of vitreous jelly. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Two Clowns Meet in Afghanistan--The Story Behind Air Play

Every year, we attend a children's theater festival. It can be hit and miss. Sometimes, the pieces are extraordinary, luminous, unexpected, wonderful--works that would clearly not be marked "Children" in Europe, but here are stuck in that corral. Sometimes, though, it's commercial crap, but the tickets are five bucks a piece, and we're seeing puppet shows, adventures, often world-class short works from Italy, French Canada, Romania, and all over the U.S. We usually go several days, and see things more than once. 

This year, today, it was just me and my little one. We did arts and crafts and got our faces painted--hers with lovely flowers, mine as a puppy dog, black nose and lolling tongue. Because we got down late, the only work we saw was called Air Play, a wonderful, inventive, thought-provoking and just plain physically beautiful piece of clowning with balloons and silk and wind. There are no programs, so all we learn about the shows are their names and where they're from. 


Dennis LaCombe as a mad conductor on springs
The couple who did the clowning blew me away (pun intended). I had to find out more. And it turns out, they are a married couple, who met while clowning in Afghanistan--which is almost as good as the story I once heard from a woman in New York City who met her ex-husband when she was a clown-groupie (yes, they do exist) for the first Cirque du Soleil clown, Dennis LaCombe. (Yes, when she said her ex-husband was a clown, she meant her ex-husband was a clown. Not only that, she explained, her father really had been a rocket scientist, so she couldn't even say that it didn't take a rocket scientist to tell you not to marry a clown.)

Unless you are a clown. 

Even then, Christina Gelsone (pronounced Gel-son-ee) and Seth Bloom, (pronounced Seth Bloom) were wary about getting romantic. A date may be hard to find, but not as hard as a great clowning partner. 

But, eventually, they gave in and fell in love. They were married in China, with Christina wearing a dress made of small, white balloons. (Anybody know a good heirloom cleaner who can store that for her children?) 









Then, they spent their honeymoon in one of the most remote corners of the world, the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan. (Geography lesson: Now that we know where Afghanistan is, we can learn about what's inside it. And this is the tiny handle the Wakhan corridor, a tiny handle that could never lift the whole country: 

And parts of it look like this: 

Or this: 

Or this: 


Or this: 

Now, I'm not sure if Acrobuffo (the company name of the clowning pair) were at work clowning in Afghanistan during their honeymoon, though it wouldn't surprise me. They are involved in an organization called The Afghan Mobile Mini-circus, which has the goal of developing, together with the Afghan people, circus, art and theater projects that can bring people together culturally rather than dividing them politically, inspiring creativity, resourcefulness and hope for a more peaceful and stable future in an area that has endured decades of civil war.  

Clowning can be a fabulous way to communicate information to children about left-over ordinance safety. 



Or health concerns. 


Wow. Clowning in Afghanistan--building a clown/circus community in Afghanistan, now that is charity I could get behind. 
 No, truth be told, teaching clowning in Afghanistan is probably one of my alternate lives, the ones I would be living if I'd made other choices. 

But for right now, I have to run to the corner market to get something to make for dinner for the kids. Without removing the puppy dog makeup, of course. 

If you're in the Twin Cities Area, hie thee to the Children's Theater Festival and go see Air Play. You do not have to be a child, or a clown to enjoy it. And if you like having clowns clambering over your head, or sitting on you,  sit way up front. 

And--wait. It just occurs to me, if we switch the color schemes of this show to red and blue from red and yellow, 





maybe we could send these clowns to Congress so that there, too, Acrobuffo could "develop circus, art and theater projects that can bring the House and Senate members together culturally rather than dividing them politically, inspiring creativity, resourcefulness and hope for a more peaceful and stable future in an area that has endured decades of civil war." 

A puppy can dream, right?