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August 2008



"There is only one success - to be able to spend your life in your own way."
~Christopher Morley

I ran across this great quotation today in one of the writer's newsletters I subscribe to. It's appeared at time when I've been thinking a lot about what success is in relation to my own ambitions. I don't know whether I"m getting old and tired, or if I'm just in a low spot right now because of health problems, but I seem to have lost a lot of my ambition to be Someone. My friend MG has too (we're both old coots, and she's even older than I am, by a couple of years). I have to confess that when she told me about year ago that she was more focused right now on having fun than doing art, it scared me. When that happens, I've learned to step back and take a look at what I'm really afraid of, but I haven't really been able to put a name to it until now:

Being ordinary.

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Science Book Meme

CocktailphysicsmoiMy friend Jen over at Cocktail Party Physics has jumped into the meme-creation business by posting this pop-sci book meme she created in response to a request for recommendations. Jen has become way geekier than I am in recent years, so she's read a lot of stuff I haven't (a perk of being a professional science writer) but the list she's come up with is great and totally puts me to shame. It's physics heavy, but part of the instructions include adding your own, so this gives us the opportunity to broaden out the base.  Here we go:

1. Bold those you've read in full
2. Asterisk those you intend to read
3. Add any additional popular science books you think belong on the list
4. Link back to me (leave links or suggested additions in the comments, if you prefer) so I can keep track of everyone's additions. Then we can compile it all into one giant "Top 100" popular science books list, with room for honorable mentions. (I, for one, have some quirky choices in the list below.) Voila! We'll have awesome resource for general readers interested in delving into the fascinating world of science!

0. Principia, Isaac Newton

Oh, just kidding. Granted, it's an influential work that pretty much founded modern physics, but has anybody read the Principia in its entirety lately? Really? How about De Revolutionibus? If so, do you not have a life? Seriously, Newton would turn over in his grave in horror at any inclusion of his masterpiece in a list of popular science books. Which is why I'm starting with....


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Things you should know

Sciencereligion One of the problems I keep running into on the religion discussion list I occasionally drop in on, is the usual lack of knowledge about science, coupled with an unwillingness to see its relevance. Science, for many religious people, is The Enemy, the Antichrist. One cannot believe in both at the same time; they cancel each other out. This is just plain willful ignorance to me and I've never understood it. Science, though not value free, is based on observable facts, many of which are vital to our well-being. In that spirit, I offer a quiz to see how much you know about science. As you read it, you'll note (I hope) that a lot of this has nothing to do with faith or religion, just about the way the world around you works. At least one of the questions has an important bearing on your health. Seriously, if you can't answer all of these correctly, your sixth grader is probably more with it than you are. Aren't you embarrassed?

Take the quiz below (created by the National Science Foundation for research purposes) to test your science savvy. 

1. The center of the Earth is very hot.
2. All radioactivity is man-made. 
3. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
4. Lasers work by focusing sound waves. 
5. Electrons are smaller than atoms. 
6. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
7. The universe began with a huge explosion. 
8. The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.
9. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.
10. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? 
11. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the sun?

Answers here:

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Laughing in the Museum: Art and Criticism

DreamingartA while back, I went to see the mammoth Turner exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of my favorites in the city and one of my favorite painters. The last time I saw any Turners was at the Tate Gallery in London (now the Tate Britain; the Tate Modern did not yet exist then), a million years ago where I was completely flabbergasted by them and the Pre-Raphaelites. I met a friend I hadn't seen in several years at the Met and we had a lot of catching up and yakking to do, but still managed to spend 4 hours wandering amongst the the jaw-dropping depictions of sky and water, encompassing selections from his entire career. The man was incredibly prolific and churned out literally hundreds of oil paintings, not to mentions his watercolors and drawings, so even a selection is a lot of art to walk through. The friend I was with is an amateur artist herself, currently taking classes at the Getty and elsewhere, and turning out some very competent stuff, so we were both in art appreciation mode, despite our animated conversation.

The Turners make me extraordinarily happy. His palette is generally the cool blues and greens of daylit ocean or warm and bright sunset colors. Nobody paints water and sky like Turner did and reproductions just can't capture it.

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Food Meme!

ChowdownmoiI can't tell you how long I've been waiting for this one. I don't know why I didn't start it myself. I've been told by others that I'm an adventurous eater, though I don't think of myself that way.   A lot of personal taste depends on what you grow up with. I suppose I'm this way because I was made to try everything once when I was a kid. As with literature you have to read in school and hate, everything's better when you don't have to eat it. Also, our tastes changer, literally, as we get older. I hated olives when I was a kid, and now I love them, because I'm less of a sweet tooth and more of an old salt. So I've at least become something of a foodie as I've gotten older. Hence this meme. It's a little about bragging on my part, but it's also about getting to know other cultures: the world is full of marvelous food and it's a great way to introduce yourselve to someone else's way of life. If you live in New York, this is actually pretty easy to do: you can eat in a different country every night, and still sleep in your own bed. The hard part is getting dishes that haven't been watered down for American palates, especially in Asian restaurants. I suspect from Rob's description that the Korean food here isn't as hot as it is in Korea. Likewise the Thai. And I know the Chinese eat things that even adventurous Westerners would balk at. Still, it's worth the effort to try everything, even if you're not sure about it.

The Very Good Taste Omnivore's 100
1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment at http://www.verygoodtaste.co.uk/uncategorised/the-omnivores-hundred/ linking to your results. (They also have Wikipedia links to some of the obscure ones.)
5) Italicize the ones you'd especially like to try.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

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Debt-Free Education

Great article in the Times today about Berea College in Kentucky, which educates only dirt-poor students by giving them free tuition. Berea has a huge endowment of $1.1 billion, which puts it in the top ranks with the Ivies. Now if only the Ivies would focus on their real job, which is educating people, not driving research.
clipped from www.nytimes.com

Although this year’s market drop is taking its toll, the growth in university endowments in recent years has been spectacular. Harvard’s $35 billion endowment, Yale’s $23 billion, Stanford’s $17 billion and Princeton’s $16 billion put them among the world’s richest institutions.

Such endowments have helped make higher education one of the nation’s crown jewels. As Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, said in her spring commencement speech this year, endowments at Harvard and other research universities help fuel scientific advances as government support is eroding, and help drive economic growth and expansion in a difficult economy.

  blog it

I've heard the argument made that this is the purpose of large, well-endowed universities, but I can't agree. It's one of a university's functions, but it should not be the over-riding one. This is a function that should be taken up primarily by business and the government, perhaps shared three ways between them, but business has notably largely abandoned anything that does not have an immediate profit in sight, which was not always the case.

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Women Deserve Better

Feministmoi This makes me think of the students I've gotten to know at CNR and makes me wonder why there's no on-site childcare for them. It reminds me of their talent, their honesty and passion and fed-up-ness, their drive and courage, their love for their kids, their need to get them something better than the breaks that they've had. And it's about so much more than just abortion or the right to choose it. Listen carefully.

By Sonya Renee at Choice USA via Feministe, The Dawn Chorus

Where It Starts

Notfunny Like most people, I collect cartoons and send them to my friends and post them on my bulletin board. I have one by Callahan, on a postcard, that I bought years ago at a feminist bookstore. It shows a guy standing at the information counter of a similar establishment and the woman behind the counter saying, "This is a feminist bookstore! There is no humor section!" Feminists are often accused of being humorless because we don't find the same things funny that men do: jokes about us. Why women should like being the butt of jokes, especially ones that are usually demeaning, while it's okay for men to take offense at them is something I won't belabor. The point is too obvious. But while it's no longer socially acceptable to tell such jokes in mixed company, they still get told. And women, to be fair, have turned the tables and reciprocated in kind, which is not always such a good thing.

Sexist humor, as topics will when they become socially unacceptable, has gone underground or become far more subtle, sometimes to the point where I (and others, I'm sure) don't know whether I'm just being too sensitive or if the artist really meant that the way it came out. Sunday's Sherman's Lagoon was like that. This is such a silly, innocuous comic 99.999 percent of the time that I almost hate to say anything. Jim Toomey, its creator, supports and advertises a lot of ocean conservation organizations on his site, and generally seems like a good guy, without any particular agenda except humor. The cartoon's main characters are an schlumpy Great White shark, Sherman; his wife Megan (who wears pearls!), and their son Herman; a romantically impaired sea turtle, Fillmore; a young, geeky tropical reef fish named Ernest; Thornton the migrating, sunbathing, alcoholic-slushy drinking polar bear; and a misogynist, misanthropic, scamming, naked hermit crab named Hawthorne. Sherman eats vacationing swimmers and boaters, as Great Whites sometimes do, completely without remorse.  Honest, it's funny. And silly. Except not so much this Sunday:

Shermans_lagoon In some ways, it's a typical trope about men's gender identity anxiety, and kinda goofy because Sherman and Hawthorne are such typical "guys." Until that last panel. And then I felt just a little sick. This might not have bothered me as much if I hadn't just been thinking about the male urge to deface women's images that I see all the time on subway advertisements: sexy women with teeth blackened out, Sharpie mustaches, bruises drawn around their eyes, or my particular favorite, a crudely sketched phallus and hairy scrotum aimed at their smiling mouths. Sometimes the women's sexual organs have been sketched in at their crotch with the same crude phallus addition, or their nipples blackened in as though their clothes were transparent. And sometimes, with the women's pictures, there's a knife. The faces and bodies are slashed, disfigured, breasts cut out, or a knife or gun is drawn aimed at their breasts or crotch.

Men in the advertisements get the blackened teeth and mustaches and the dangling or erect phalluses but they seem more a sign of extra manliness than violence, a ramping-up of the testosterone that's already exaggerated by body building, steroids, and PhotoShop. With the women's images, it's clearly an act of humiliation or violence, sometimes both. Knock her teeth out, cut her, fuck her, ruin the commodity she's trading on, her beauty and youth, for whatever reason; impugn her gender identity by giving her male characteristics; and the wider message: make sure women know we can put them in their place with violence.

That's why that last panel of the cartoon bothers me. I know it's playing off the fact that Sherman's son is a Great White shark, and that they do attack and eat humans (Hey, I loved Jaws). Sherman himself regularly munches on swimmers (usually men, come to think of it), so I don't think there was any intention by the cartoonist to condone or encourage violence against women. But the image still bothers me, probably because it's one ingrained in the culture and even when it's meant to seem innocuous, funny, or ironic, it isn't.

Barbie_massacre Take the Barbie Massacre project, for instance. Girls have a love/hate relationship with their dolls, especially Barbie. We know we will never match her impossible physique; we know we will never be as desirable as she is to Ken (and aren't sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing); we hate her because she's beautiful. And stupid. Even when she represents a powerful Superheroine like Black Canary, there's something wrong with her. She dilutes the image because Barbie, face it, is a helpless bimbo. I had the full Barbie set with Ken and Skipper and Madge when I was a kid and quickly lost interest. It was too much like my own life: My blonde best friend got the guys while I was the cute but dateless sidekick or the obnoxious "little sister." That picture of how my life was going to turn out did not appeal to me. So I completely understand the impulse of these six women to mutilate Barbie. It's one many women share.

Nonetheless, the images are deeply disturbing, not least because they've taken tropes from every vicious and bloody slasher flick and turned them on the dolls, who are so often a stand-in for what real women should be like, and just as defenseless as women often are against male violence. Slasher flick violence is whole other category I won't go into here (one that's been handily addressed elsewhere not just by other women including my friend Jennifer on HuffPo but by Joss Whedon), but it also pervades the culture. In the hands of six women, the Barbie Massacre images become a statement, intentional or not; if done by a man, they become threatening. Why? Because they happen in real life, too.

And maybe that's part of my problem with Jim Toomey's cartoon this weekend. He's just the wrong gender to be making cracks about biting the heads off of Barbie dolls. Sorry if that's sexist.

The Bereavement Club

Cry_in_your_beer_moiThe mother of a friend of mine died last week, while the friend was home visiting. The death was sudden—and quick—with her mom doing much the same as my dad did: dying in someone arms, in this case, her eldest daughter's, my friend's. She's the only one to have moved away from the hometown and seems to be having the roughest time of it, which doesn't surprise me; it's always hardest when you're not there all the time. No matter what, there's a sense of guilt wrapped up in that. But because she's an observant person and analytical, she's been watching and reporting on the reactions of her siblings and father, and comparing them with her own.

It's a natural reaction, I suppose; I remember buying books to see if what I was feeling and what I was doing in reaction to my parents' deaths was "normal." It took me a long time to realize that there is no normal. As I wrote her a few days ago, it's one of the most universal of experiences and also one of the most personal. It's different for every person and different for every loss. So much affects it: circumstance, cause, age, length of illness, our own emotional make-up and baggage, the culture we grew up in, and the culture we live in now, our religious beliefs, our own spirituality—and how other people around us act.

My friend was unlucky enough to run up against the same rigidity of religious custom that I was when I was arranging my mother's memorial service. It came out nothing like I wanted and said nothing about her. My friend had a little more luck than that, but why it should be an issue at all is beyond me. The last thing a person in mourning needs is an argument over what's "proper" or "traditional." The last thing a person in mourning needs is an argument over anything, frankly, to do with showing respect for the dead.

Burial customs seem far more fraught and freighted than marriage or birth customs, I suppose because there is so much guilt wound up in death, even if we haven't aided or abetted it, or even neglected the person while they were alive. An awful lot of people seem to be very invested in "doing it right," whatever that happens to constitute in your particular culture, regardless of what the dead person might have wanted. My friend Helen has made it clear that she'd like Van Morrison blasting at her memorial service and an open bar. When one of her cousins heard this, her response was "Not if I have anything to say about it!"

But why should she? It's Helen's choice. That's like planning someone else's wedding for them (which is certainly done, and far too often I might add). When my dad died, there was no memorial service, no funeral, no nothing, because that's what he wanted. I sent him off with a toast to the Old Soldier from Mike and Brian, and scattered his ashes in the woods by myself. I'm sure that was viewed as extremely cold by the rest of his family, but that was what he wanted, and he'd made that clear for years. And when Mom died and he didn't want to go to the memorial service I had for her (such as it was) I didn't insist that he go. I knew it wasn't because he didn't love her; it was because social situations of any kind make him extremely nervous and because he was really broken up and didn't want to cry in public. What purpose would it serve to torture him about it? He was already miserable enough.

The idea that funerals are for the living seems just an excuse to make them another occasion for reinforcing social norms. No ceremony is going to make that person any less "gone" in your life or make the pain of losing them go away. What it often does instead is provide a lot of hard feelings and rancor among the living. Death seems to bring out the worst in us, probably because we're all so damn scared of it. I think what they really do, especially Western funeral customs, is tidy the dead away so we don't have to deal with them. They remove us from the process and the reality and turn it into a sanitized monetary transaction that can just about bankrupt the survivors at the hands of the unscrupulous.

But this is the kind of conclusion you come to only after you've gone through the actual mourning process itself, during which even the best and most level-headed of us will generally lose at least parts of our mind. It's a release for some, a relief for many, the most painful thing they'll ever experience in their lives for most of us. It makes us stupid, impulsive, angry, depressed, and somewhat crazy. You can't really hold people responsible for much of what they say and do when they're grieving, you can only support and love them and hope they come back to themselves eventually.

I'd originally written "get over it" but that's nuts: you never get over it, no matter how reconciled you are to the idea. There's a point at which people's patience with you tends to run thin, so I think many people "act as if" but really, you're never over it. It crops up in the middle of the night, or at odd moments and the next thing you know you're weeping. That's a lesson I learned the hard way, too. My family has obviously always been pretty pragmatic about death and I was pretty much ready for both my folks to go when they did. By that I mean I could see it coming, knew it was inevitable, but didn't realize what a shock it would still be. It's been nearly four years since Mom died, and my friend's mother's death brought it all back to me in a kind of sickening rush, blind-siding me. Losing one or both of your parents is an initiation into a club that nobody wants to belong to.

This is really why we send flowers and cards, I think: to welcome the living into the Bereavement Club. The dues are harsh, but the company is good.

Famous in France

ChanteuseperiMy extremely talented friend Peri Lyons is singing again! If you're in NYC around the end of August/early September, catch her show, Famous in France, at the Metropolitan Room. Peri is an amazing singer/songwriter/performer who does songs that are not your typical cabaret. She's funny, smart, beautiful, has a great voice and can play your emotions like a piano with her songs. And as Peri says, "Besides, what other cabaret show is going to bring you songs sung from  the viewpoint of the Marquis de Sade's wife?" Don't miss her.