Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day, just done

I truly enjoy solitude and the freedom to read or listen or photograph all day long and into the night.  My dread of holidays, therefore, is not that they pass, for the most part, like other days.  For the most part.  That is, the ordinary offerings on the air and the ordinary services available on weekdays are disrupted, and I am rudely (not that anyone means to be rude) exposed to pleasures and sentiments that I cannot share, and incompatibles that I cannot, and will not, reconcile.  Unfortunately, I do not have enough Attitude, enough chutzpah, to be like Fran Lebowitz, whom I just heard interviewed.  Yes, I am thankful for many things, but no more on this day than any other.
The problem really must be with me: as I said in this space recently, there are lots of places worse than Louisiana to end up in.  I dreaded holidays from the time when at the university the facilities that I relied on, whether for a new typewriter ribbon or access to the library stacks when I needed to consult some rare book or to the cafeteria to eat cheaply in a clean, well lighted place, and short of going to San Luis Obispo, when all my friends had gone home for the holiday (or gone skiing, maybe), I couldn't.  By now I know no one there, either.  Perhaps for many Americans 'family' really is the ultimate eff-word, and as one grows ineluctably older, and the friends whom Life hasn't taken elsewhere, everyone one has known is either dead or unavailable to be invited to dinner.  Certainly, other invitations would be more fun than mine.  It really doesn't work, either, to join something just to get a place to contribute on these dread days.
The trouble is, strains of long standing get stressed, and one's clumsy efforts to link to one's family by long distance, for example, lead to laying bare the absence of a pleasure being a shared one and causing as well as feeling pain.
And folks wonder why the internet is so popular.  The pain of alienation and the helplessness of efforts to bridge it can be avoided in writing a nice e-mail.  No one wants to be uncivil, and the wrong thing can be deleted before sending.  The telephone, though, is truly the devil's invention.
Anyway, these feast days in the calendar do irritate scar tissue, whatever the cause of that may have been.  But for St. Patrick's Day, Lent would be perfect.
No wonder a Seventh Grade teacher told me I wasn't well adjusted.  I never understood that, but knew it was a reproach, an unacknowledged reproach.
My old cat is maladjusted, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teegee meets Damasio

Last week, on NPR's Science Friday, one guest was Antonio Damasio.  I liked what I heard, so I went to Amazon, found that the book, Self Comes to Mind, was just out but was already available for Kindle.  I wanted to read the book before I read any reviews of it, so I got both.  Now I want to post, again before anything else intervenes, though this post will be half-baked for my having just 10 minutes ago finished reading it, my reason for such avid behavior.  (I was going to get a Kindle as well as an iPad, anyhow, but I didn't want to wait for the book, which the local BN did not have).
As just today I told a friend, I began this blog with no intent but to write.  I had other venues for writing about coins and about ancient art.  I did not intend, and I still cannot confront, tracing my career in university teaching and research.  I did not want to write about personal relationships, let alone discuss my friends, because they wouldn't like it.  I did not want to write about Causes.
Intuition told me that I should sort out and write about the things that I actually remember, no matter how mundane, no matter how disconnected.  Writing a script or a scenario can be a good thing, but usually it's pure daytime TV unless one is a genius.  I wanted to write what is actually my own, and I knew that that had to be my actual memories, because I wanted to find out why remembering is so important to me.  Within a month I had most of the parameters.
I quickly realized that being faithful to that intuition was very difficult.  There was that awful temptation to tattle and confess!  But consulting with my sister by telephone we learned that my memories were largely unimportant to her and hers to me, though we are only 30 months apart in age.  I told her that I couldn't report hers, she should do her own (but one difference between us is that I felt that I must, and she doesn't want to).
By the time that I approached the end of the 20th century, I knew why I'd done it and I knew that I was practically done.  For every sentence, for every description that I included I had gone through, lived through, practically, many more.  It's not that I deliberately edited, but I did write just from one sentence to the next until, for each Post, I thought I had enough that was a sort of package.  But so much that I remember is exact colors and textures and sensory feelings, such as how it felt to lie on the dish-draining board to have my hair shampooed in the sink.  I remembered so much, and most of it had never been taken out and processed until now.  And I had answered the big personal question: why did I write a blog like this one?  What is the blog about?  In the convent we'd have called what I did inwardly in writing it a series of meditations with the end being self knowledge.  I also was trying very hard (and I think I succeeded, even perhaps too well) not to get "literary", meaning not to write like the opening pages of V. Woolf's The Waves or Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.  For somewhat similar reasons, I have devoted the last five days to reading the book: I don't want to know what other neuroscientists say or how other people feel about it on, say, BookTV until I have committed myself in this Post.
I don't know how many people like to use their brains for thinking about their brains and their subjective consciousness for trying to heed it or use introspection to try to separate it from self-scenarios.  But that is how I am, and very visual to boot and very fond of music (and so is Damasio, and so I trust him).  The most remarkable things can happen unexpectedly.  This afternoon when the Kindle said I was only 3/4 through the book I wrote to a friend:
But funny things happen as one is reading about the self regarding the self in the brain.  At the same time I had the TV on, and the face of the senior senator of Kentucky triggered, evidently, the recall of a very politically incorrect face of an Irish man in a 19th-century "Punch" cartoon, which looked like Mr. McConnell.  Some years back I had to read a dissertation on Punch cartoons.  OK.  It wasn't about what he was saying, anyway.  I suddenly remembered, beginning with its noisy orchestral introduction, one of my grandfather's 10" records, sung by Colin O'Moore, "It's the Hat my dear old Father wore upon St. Patrick's Day".  It's a New York Irish-American song.  Gramps liked those.  And I joined in and sang right along with my memory. All of two verses and the chorus.  And I hadn't heard or thought of that album of 10" records for at least twenty years!  Now, wouldn't Mitch McConnell be surprised at THAT?
Well, I really am very tired.  I also downloaded for Kindle all of Sherlock Holmes, free, gratis.  Maybe one of those stories will be good bedtime reading.
But to anyone who might be interested in how the brain does it all, I will say that, even through whole chapters of neuroscience which are dense with more parts of the brain than I'd ever known of, Damasio is worth it, in my opinion.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Better thoughts: If only I were younger

Old comedies may do to help with boredom, but tonight I have thoughts more important to me.
Drew Faust and Susan Hockfield, respectively Presidents of Harvard and MIT, appeared together this evening on Charlie Rose.  A new interview with Felix Rohatyn completed the program.
It is so easy to get caught up in the Battle of the Congress, in the eruption of volcanoes, in the plethora of negative trash in the News (not to mention the dreadful miscarriage of justice reported tonight on Frontline) and in sympathy for young scholars in the humanities whose disciplines are daily disparaged, even trashed, and the first to have their funds cut, for whom their finest hopes seem to have vanished.  And, old and retired without a glorious legacy, either, all I can do is offer good advice, sure at least that it is good: when you have to abandon your progress to a doctorate (it is hard enough to believe that its attainment will allow you to support a young family!), the important thing is to keep learning, learning systematically, so that when things change you haven't died as a scholar.  It is bound to be good advice, because learning will keep you mentally and spiritually alive, no matter what happens.
Faust and Hockfield made me want to go back and start again, get back into things in this great age—yes, great in many respects; at least, I shall try to keep up with computers for classicists and art historians.  If I were 25 years younger again, I swear I WOULD go back, do anything if only I could devote myself wholly to creative learning.  I can't.  My healthy old body demands, meaning that willy-nilly it takes, a midday nap, and my joints aren't worth much anymore.  As it is, I can do what I can to stay mentally alive in Baton Rouge: believe me, there are worse places to have ended up in.  But an MIT which understands the importance of humanities (it always did, really) is so damned appealing.  And a Harvard that wants to teach compassion as well as impart a passion for the pursuit that is one's attrait is so comforting to hear.  You say, but all university presidents talk that way.  Maybe.  And not all, to tell the truth.  But these two were giving the ideals a concrete context  such as alone makes them credible, and they also made clear the inseparability of advanced teaching and advanced research.  No cute formulas for backbenchers.  Sometimes people still repeat, did we ever expect to see a person of color as president?  And I would retort, maybe not, but I certainly didn't expect for the presidents of both Harvard and MIT to be women.
As for Mr. Rohatyn, I'd been reading him for years and admiring him.  All the time that my colleagues on campus told me that my complaints about Wall Street (and I didn't even know then about Europe's participation, though history should have told me), as no more than a Las Vegas, only proved that I was economically superannuated, I knew that such as Felix Rohatyn were on my side.  When he urges an investment bank for infrastructure, I'm all with him; and the idea that comprehensive new infrastructure is NOT just more crippling debt, but just the opposite, makes very good sense to me.  I am old enough to remember what electrification and (yes) dams—the actually important ones—did in my childhood and what the Interstate did in my adolescence, and Mr. Rohatyn is six years my senior.  Industry and business flourished along the Interstate, rapidly, too.  It isn't only that building things makes real jobs and develops real skills (obviously I don't mean only road and rail building and airport improvement but the power grid and IT, etc., too), but the new skills and new optimism are good for the IRS and, if anything can help to fund the VA and Social Security and other necessary entitlements to make sure that in case of emergency we have a healthy nation, it will be to have new skills in new industries producing new goods that we clever Americans born on so many continents will create.  Of course, we might start by cobbling at least some of our own shoes...
Susan Hockfield is right, too, that we must show the rest of the world, as it develops, that a democratic capitalism is still the best in the 21st century, not to be abused by making it a casino and turning Iceland into (as one wit said) a hedge fund with geysers (no, I didn't say that...).
In any case, it is good to know that one is not too old to be inspired.
One last apology.  It's only a decade that I realized how important and interesting economics is.  I never took a single course in Econ in college, even.  But I've been working on the vocabulary and the workings of it ever since Enron showed that I ought.  I really do believe that, for me at least, it is besides the arts only economics that can make things intelligible.  Theoretical physics is too difficult for me: I can't read math.  I'm a pre-Sputnik baby, after all.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In passing...

Old TV situation comedies from Great Britain.  It is not that all Americans like them all, but, like Carl Davis' score for Pride and Prejudice, they are on the whole much more fun than our own.  We won't even speak of America's addiction to Are You Being Served?, but if I started watching very old episodes of Last of the Summer Wine as well, it was because Frank Thornton was in it, and when I gave Doc Martin a try it was because we had just been deprived of the second run-through of Waiting for God, and here Stephanie Cole was again; Cornwall is pretty, too, but I don't know whether I can face much of this one.  Differently, I often find that Patricia Routledge in Keeping Up Appearances is so close to the bone that I can't quite bear it (another with her wasn't so good, where she was supposed to be a detective).  I just saw on the second band of our PBS a later episode of Last of the Summer Wine; it is interesting to see them try to update the streets nnd interiors a little, but even this one was more than 10 years old.  I just read that they are ending the series after 30 years.  Odd, how we like UK better than our own.  Ours, though, have no 'edge' at all, unless of outright ugliness, and even some of the English ones have tended to ride the topics of the day.  That MI5 thing is awful, and I don't like Hellen Mirren on TV at all.
Oh, well.