Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Poem I Can't Write

There is a poem I’d like to write. I’ve worked on it for over a year, an eternity for the lazy writer I am. What happened feels like a poem—eternal, lyric, pointed—but it never comes out right. Too sentimental, then too distant, too “poetical,” not poetic enough. Maybe it’s destined for prose; beyond my capabilities as a poet to render. So here it is:

Once upon a time, I went to my little sister’s voice lesson. She is a soprano and had been studying for over a year with her new teacher, a handsome Costa Rican tenor called Luis. I had not heard her sing during the same year. My mother told me that I would not recognize her voice, that it had matured significantly from 14 to 15. I went, of course. When I was younger and it was just my brother and me, my parents insisted that we attend each other’s activities. I spent a lot of time at Denny Storm’s Memorial Baseball Park during sweltering summers, and shagging balls in the high August grass, from which I emerged, covered in welts from chiggers and mosquitoes. My brother spent more time than he would have liked at my high school theater and wherever my piano recitals happened. He wiggled, but he went.

My sister sang “The Vilja Song” from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow. It is sung by the female lead and tells the story of a hunter who falls in love with a vilja (veel-ya), an Hungarian wood nymph or witch.

[Here’s a clip of Mrs. Zeani, the teacher of my sister’s current teacher, singing it. Start around 3:20’. Her version is a little slower than usual.]

Just in case you didn’t listen: the first line of the song climbs up pleasant intervals, reaching its highest point on the “wal” (“vahl”) syllable of “Vilja, o Vilja, Du Waldmägdelein,” after which it descends in the same pleasant intervals. It’s not a particularly high note for an operatic soprano (not a “money note,” as Luis called them) but it soars after the closed sound of “du.”

So I am sitting on a comfortable couch in Luis’s living room. My mom is sitting in Luis’s comfortable chair. Luis is at the grand piano and my sister is standing to the side, in front of a music stand holding her music. As soon as she begins, I see what my mom meant. Her voice is older, bigger, rounder, cleaner, focused. She hits the center of each note with deadly accuracy. Her breath is controlled; she sings softly at first and then opens into that peak syllable mezzo-forte (medium loud). I think I see the glass figurine of a shepherdess on Luis’s knickknack shelf tremble.

So I am sitting on a comfortable couch and my sister has a new voice. So I laugh. I mean I throw back my head and laugh, loud and long. Luis stops playing the piano; my mother smiles at me.

It’s important to find the right words for things. I’ve noticed that people—writers in particular—love to complain about language and its inadequacies. They assert that the world would be a better place if we could communicate without it, or go back to an Edenic past where it was not necessary. I cannot understand the impulse to annihilate something as magnificent and generative as language because one lacks skill in using it.

Delight, pride, awe, surprise, love, a great opening of the chest—yes, and not just for my sister, but for everything in that room and in the world at that exact moment. The power of music, the mystery of “pleasant” intervals, the fraction of a thing we call time in which existence is shifted. And my little sister who was at once as familiar as my own face and a complete, beautiful stranger. Like the vilja and the hunter, she enchanted me with her song.

Also pain and grief. I looked at her and she looked far away, across some chasm. I’ve known her since she was born and since I was 14 years old. Now she’s 15, possessed of a huge voice that transforms her once-familiar small body into something I can’t know.

And after a beat, she smiled back at me and the chasm snapped shut. We were remade. Her smile was complicated. She wondered if I were laughing at her because she was so bad. She was embarrassed that I interrupted her lesson. She understood why I was laughing. I looked at her hands, which are small. They were still small, although she was changed. I recognized her again; I had no idea who she was; I wanted to know this new/not-new person.

Later, we played the piano and sang at home. We got the giggles when I asked if she would please sing from the next room so as not to deafen me. The giggles are good. They bind, but loosely.

So, if anyone could put this into a poem, I’d appreciate it.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reading Some Books, Thinking Some Things

I’ve ended up reading three non-fiction books at the same time: An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Created Hollywood (Neil Gabler, film critic), The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Alex Ross, The New Yorker music critic) and Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Luc Brisson, French researcher, transl. Janet Loyd).

I’m convinced, like the most superstitious or religious person, that my reading habits reflect some secret order, either of the universe or myself. I just need to figure out what it is. I’ve owned the music book since Christmas (a gift), my interest in matters Graeco-Roman extends to my childhood, and I’m a blood Jew. So, why these books now and why all together?

I think the answer resides with the novel I picked up after Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (which was excellent and naturally led to the hermaphrodite book), titled Hallucinating Foucault (Patricia Duncker). It is a book about everything that breaks my heart: the power of text, the erotic love between a reader and a writer, the longing and yearning for perfect understanding of and by another human being, the nature of madness and sanity, an ardent, beautiful young man, and some hot gay sex. In the French countryside.

The book is crafted almost on a level with The Great Gatsby—spare and clean and all the more powerful for lacking any schmaltz. Every phrase is a knife. As night follows day, I was in a state of melancholy for several days after finishing it. I was besotted: jealous, aroused, tender, a touch weepy…all things that I really don’t need right now.

Nonfiction is, I think, safer. The emotion I associated with satisfied curiosity or learning something new is profound pleasure. In short, even though fact books may recount horrible facts, my primary reaction is fascination and, occasionally, awe. Human beings. They’re so disgusting and so wonderful! All at the same time!

Not so with certain stories. A few years ago, I watched the movie Billy Elliot. Another type of story that tears me apart: the need of the artist to create at all costs (see also My Name is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok)). The movie is set against the background of the 1984 UK miner’s strike. The title character is a boy whose father and brother work the mines. The boy discovers he loves ballet and wants to dance. He must dance. I watched this movie every day for a week and ultimately sat outside with my friends at work crying because…? I wasn’t sure.

In response, a dear friend of mine gave me the idea of The Shelf. Certain things go on this very high shelf; Billy Elliot has been on it since that time and may never come off. Tequila is on the shelf, as is a beautiful crack addict I fell for a couple years ago. Another novel, As Meat Loves Salt (Maria McCann), might have its own Shelf, even higher up. Every time I approach a book like Hallucinating Foucault, I have to circle it for a while, as if it were my enemy, before deciding to engage with it. I have to set aside some time not just to read, but to recover. I know what sorts of things go on The Shelf.

When asked on a site I used to write for to describe the death that had affected me the most, I wrote about a death that occurred in a book I read as a child (David and the Phoenix (Edward Ormondroyd)). Maybe I’m crazy, maybe lucky, definitely childish. I have a good memory, which doesn’t help. I remember things—feelings, dreams, desires—that happened a long time ago and they are as fresh as my memories of yesterday. I remember sitting in my babysitter’s red pickup truck listening to the song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and sobbing because Jackie Paper was so mean to forget Puff when he grew up (and no, the song is not about marijuana). I remember thinking that if growing up meant being a traitor and forgetting your friends then I would never do it.

And, 25+ years hence, I still despise, with unmatched bitterness, that disloyal son of a bitch.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

More Science Stuff: God the Gap-Filler

I don’t understand how people can look at chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans and not see the effects of evolution. I look at these apes and I see my own face. And yet…

Orangutans affect me the most. They are smarter than chimpanzees. They learn and adapt more quickly, they make extensive use of tools. Their faces are so intelligent. Once, at a zoo, I spent several minutes staring in what I hoped was a non-threatening way at a large male having a rest against the cool Plexiglas window on the second level of the orangutan area. He had a burlap sack over his head to shade himself. In the jungle, orangutans use banana leaves; here, the zoo provided sacks, which were in demand on this hot day. He and I watched each other for a while. He raised his eyebrows when I moved closer. I raised mine back. He scratched his armpit, mine started to itch. He yawned, I yawned. I tried not to anthropomorphize (it’s difficult with animals that look so human) but he seemed curious, then bored, and then he went to sleep.

I watched him over a small distance, maybe two to three feet, a distance that seemed as small as the physiological distance between the two of us. Just a pinch of DNA here and there, maybe a couple rearrangements of sequences, and I am a human and he is an orangutan. But the truer measure of distance yields a vast gap. It’s that thing that no one understands well but we call “consciousness.” Philosophers, biologists, physicists, and computer scientists have all tried to define it; all the definitions differ. But nearly all of the thinkers I’ve read on this topic agree that humans have it and other animals do not.

A chimpanzee can recognize itself in a mirror; so can orangutans and, I believe, gorillas. This is a species of consciousness. Dogs, cats and birds, for example, react to their reflections as if seeing second animal. Most animals can learn, be conditioned with food rewards or punishments. Chimpanzees have rudimentary reasoning and planning skills. Many animals have emotions (although they do not, to our knowledge, understand them as such), many animals have complex social structures. Chimpanzees in particular have fascinating interlocking social hierarchies, and behaviors that look a lot like politics (right down to the baby-kissing, on occasion). Nearly all of what is present in humans is also present in our closest relatives.

Descartes believed it was language that set human beings apart from other animals, which I would call the ability to represent the world in symbols and manipulate it accordingly. I tend to agree. While all animal species communicate, none seem to be able to master to any significant degree, the ability to understand the relationship between a set of symbols and the world. As a result, none but humans can use those symbols to create things that did not exist but are brought into existence as a result of this symbolic understanding. Or, the idea to build a wheel likely preceded the wheel.

Then again, the human brain is itself a mystery. I read a book by a cognitive psychologist called Julian Jaynes, with the irresistible title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’ theory is roughly that consciousness evolved in human beings many thousands of years after the species evolved. Up until about 3000 years ago, we just heard voices and did as we were told, because the two hemispheres of our brains were not yet fully connected.

It’s not that far-fetched. Ancestor worship is probably the earliest form of religion in human beings. What better way to understand death than to attribute the voice in one’s head to the recently deceased relative or leader? Dead mothers and fathers eventually became gods and goddesses, ordering us to act in certain ways from the left hemisphere (language, ordering of stimuli and planning) and understood and obeyed as a familiar voice in the right brain (intuition, emotion, creativity). Also, if we believe, per Papa Darwin, nature does not make leaps, it makes more intuitive sense that consciousness evolved separately in humans after the speciation event, rather than bam! Humans! Consciousness!

Jaynes was never taken very seriously by his colleagues. This inclines me to him. Also, he describes several split-brain studies and studies done with people who suffered various types of brain damage that suggest there is something to his theory. As a last resort for severe epileptics, a neurosurgeon may sever the corpus callosum (the neuronal tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) to prevent the electrical storm from spreading. These patients can generally communicate and act normally, but when certain perceptual and cognitive functioning is tested, the results are seriously bizarre. When asked to both identify and point to a picture of an apple, a patient told the experimenter she could not see an apple, even as her left hand was reaching towards the picture.

Other studies Jaynes cites involve brain damaged patients hearing voices, having visual hallucinations (very, very rare without the aid of psychotropic drugs) and various and sundry other—forgive me—wicked cool results, suggesting that indeed there are two brains inside our heads and it is the connection of these two brains that somehow creates something called “consciousness.”

We’ll probably never know. And I suppose this is my urge to fill the gap. I want to know. I want to know what orangutans are thinking. I want to know what a chimpanzee thinks when she sees me looking at her. I want to know what something that isn’t human makes of humanity.

For now, I’ll accept the fantasy and science fiction that at least provides insight into what human beings think that non-human beings think of human beings. It’s why I love Tolkien’s Ents. Forget orangutans. What would an ancient tree-herder make of all this?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Which I Despair: Happy 200th Birthday, Charlie.

Politics—that is the actions, processes, events, occurrences, etc. done by or to or as a result of the body politic (i.e. the world, or in this case America)—rarely drive me to despair. I have practiced disengagement of the emotions from massive matters over which I have little or no influence. Indeed, it is my preference to treat such matters as coolly and rationally as possible, understanding that reasonable minds may differ and that there are many viable solutions to the problems facing 300+million people.

Nonetheless, I am still not able to overcome the sickness in the throat, chest and belly I experience when I read of certain compatriots’ continued resistance to evolutionary theory and the teaching thereof to young people. It is symbolic, I suppose, of a much deeper ideological evil that I sense from time to time in America, all the more disheartening because it comes from the middle class, as a rule, and not the wealthy and powerful, whom I have never trusted an inch. If people can’t accept the mountains of evidence that support Mr. Darwin’s theory of descent with modification from a common ancestor through the mechanism of natural selection, I despair that they will ever be able to think through larger issues—nonscientific ones—that trigger even stronger emotional responses. We Are Doomed.

The “scientific” arguments of creationists (in which group I include the re-branded Intelligent Design™ people) are without merit. From “it’s just a theory” to “microevolution is OK but not macroevolution [speciation],” these people require a level of proof and clarity unknown to any other field of scientific endeavor. No, the speciation event has not knowingly been observed in the field or in a lab. Nor has gravity, but creationists to not seem to take issue with the latter body of knowledge and processes generally accepted as true until disproven (i.e. theory). We see the effects of gravity; we see the effects of evolution. There is, frankly, more evidence to support Darwin than there is to support the existence of a magical, invisible force that keeps us from flying off the planet. Where, I wonder, are the creationists who argue the reason we stay on the ground is because choirs of angels are pushing on our heads?

In fact, gravity is a serious problem for physicists. Stand up. Lift your arm. You’ve just overcome the gravitational force on your body. If the remaining three forces identified by physicists were anywhere near as puny—the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetic force—everything would periodically fly to bits and then (hopefully) snap back together. The energy required to split an atom (i.e. overcome both the strong and weak nuclear forces) is phenomenal, as is the energy generated by doing so. That is how nuclear power works.

Physicists build enormous cyclotrons, miles long, to accelerate particles at ridiculous speeds and bang them into one another or run them through teeny filters and separate them. To date, no particles, waves, or other thingummies have been observed, such that physicists can point to them and say, “gravity.”

Contrasted with the amount of evidence that exists to support evolutionary theory, gravitational theory seems like a dream. And yet, there is no hue and cry from creationists about teaching magic to kids in schools. Newton was wrong (about gravity; calculus still seems to be going strong). He is still taught in physics classes everywhere. Gravity. That’s the real scientific conspiracy.

Fossils are where they are supposed to be. No fossils are where they are not supposed to be (i.e. no trilobite fossils found in the same strata as, say, Archaeopteryx fossils). The same set of virtually identical genes control development in organisms as diverse as the fruit fly and the human. They result in the fly’s segmented body and humans’ spine, ribs, arms and legs (segments). Widespread misuse of antibiotics has resulted in the selection of a population of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis and streptococcus bacteria (might these be new species? Perhaps). Carrying the recessive gene for sickle-cell anemia provides a selective benefit to people living in malarial Africa, as the malaria parasite preferentially feeds on sickle-shaped red blood cells. Therefore, this gene persists at relatively high levels in that population, despite the sickness it causes before the carrier reaches reproductive maturity. See? Darwin’s theory tells scientists where to look and when they look, they find what his theory would predict. To date, evolutionary theory is batting a thousand.

Not so much gravity. Einstein’s gravitational theories break down at the atomic and subatomic level. Quantum theory fails to explain the actions of large bodies, like planets. Theoretical physicists have come up with string theory to unify the two. No strings have ever been observed; it’s all math and philosophy. Physics is in serious trouble. More cyclotrons are required. Silence from the creationists.

I don’t know if a god or gods exist. Darwin didn’t know. It’s not something that can be known, in the way science knows things. Just as I do not look to evolutionary theory to tell me whether it is morally OK to cheat on my imaginary boyfriends, I do not look to faith-based methods of knowing to tell me how the physical world operates, has operated and will operate. Each arguably has a place, along with other ways of knowing. But people need to think about which to use when and whether to combine them, if ever. And that, I suppose, is why I despair of ever laying this ridiculous “controversy” to rest.

It’s funny; of the Darwins, Charles’s grandfather Erasmus was the true radical. He was more a philosopher, really, than a scientist (although he was an enthusiastic one). He rejected the established Church, charged religious belief with all or much that was wrong in his world, believed that reason, science and education would liberate humanity from its wars and hatreds, and that all would proceed merrily down the path of thoughtful discovery. Why wouldn’t humans want to be free?

I wonder what he would make of all this.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tangible Feminists

We're not succubi, dream-spawn,
we don't sit on men's chests, suffocate,
draw out semen by wicked means.
Not bain sidhes who howl and keen;
we don't appear to announce
your death. You won't see us
washing bloody clothes in a river.

We can be touched, stroked, fondled,
kissed, licked and bitten. All flesh, yes,
no demon parts, no harbingers of evil.
Unless you'd rather force or ignore,
dismiss with a pat on the head.
Then we might become devilish
(Lucifer never did as he was told).
Then we might become the Fates,
decide if your time has come.

No frigid deserts inside us.
If our bodies don't rise to your touch,
if we don't pant and mew at each word,
it's because you're stupid, or you're not
doing it right. Yes, it's you who are ghostly,
untouchable, unknowable. You can't feel
the weight, the swell, the quickened beat
of hot, embodied justice.


Inspired by SMG via a random title generator for which I cannot locate the link at this time.