Monday, July 25, 2016

Artifactual and Natural Art

kw: natural history, natural science, art, museums, collections, photographs

I saw two things today that I just have to share, things I found in the Collections and Research area of the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Firstly, someone donated these eight drawings done in India ink on pieces of clam shell. The bottom of the box is 6"x6", so these are all about 2" long or smaller. I noticed the different line thicknesses used. It may be that these were drawn by someone working at the museum, using the India ink pens, in a few different sizes, that we use to mark the catalog number on a shell, whenever it is large enough for us to write upon.

I asked the curator if she knew who had drawn them. She doesn't know. They have been there a long time. From an aesthetic point of view, I think them quite wonderful. From the viewpoint of a research museum, they have little value because nothing is known about them. However, I am glad that they were not discarded as "without value", because they are charming. Curator after curator has kept them for that reason alone.

Note to future donors to any museum: Please make sure that any item you give is accompanied by documentation. Who made it or found it? Where was it made or found? and When?

Artwork is not what people think of when they imagine natural history collections. Yet to be human is to create art and to appreciate art. If nothing else, these little drawings show that clamshell material is a very good substrate for ink drawings! Small ones.

Secondly, one of the volunteers was working with a tray of lovely Cuban tree snails, named Polymita picta (Born, 1778/80). (Note, when the citation of the describing author is in parentheses it indicates that the genus name has changed. In this case, various later workers attribute the original name, Helix picta, to descriptions by Born in two different years. I have not dug into the literature to see if I can winkle out the correct attribution.)

These colorful snails seem like they would be obvious, but they are surprisingly hard to spot in the forest. They are an inch across or a little less, about the size of the California yard snail, which is actually an import from Europe.

This is a lovely thing about working in a natural history museum: the chance to handle the great beauties produced by nature, and occasionally, some produced by human hands.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Three more and it is done

kw: continued review, story reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

The final third of Pushcart Prize XL, edited by Bill Henderson and (many) others, contains three stories I thought worth mentioning:

"Constance Bailey in the Year of Monica Lewinsky" by Sarah Vallance is nonfiction, evoking a year she spent visiting an impoverished, elderly black woman and attaining a loving friendship with her. While there are several threads to this, the chief is that being unabashedly oneself tends to lower barriers, given time. To one such as I, who spent decades behind a constructed personality (but no more), this is refreshing.

Meghan O'Gieblyn presents herself as a former Evangelical Christian in "Hell"; it presents her experience the weirdo fringe of the evangelical movement, those who tend to have the bumper sticker, "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." Trouble is, the source of the "God said it" part is typically an over-enthusiastic, theologically undereducated preacher. Ms O'Gieblyn begins with an interesting description of a project by Chris Herron to re-brand Hell. This is actually real, though it is an ironic exercise in public relations. Kind of like a Fabergé egg: much prettier than the original and entirely non-functional. Her theme is the watering down of the concept of Hell, such that now it is never mentioned in many congregations. This parallels her own disillusionment with evangelicalism. I can't resist quoting a wise Bible teacher: "Do not limit the breadth of God. When He is loving, He is very, very loving, and when He is severe, He is very, very severe."

One never knows what will resolve the hurt in a heart. In the story "Night Movers" by Perry Janes, Zeke (first person voice) and his boss Tye labor overnight to clear out houses of all sizes that need emptying in a hurry. One of several reasons why is on the last day before a foreclosure that a homebuyer has fought and lost. Zeke's brother recently died in a horrible accident. After an extra-busy night of emptying a veritable mansion, the two find a large school bell in a dank basement. This is the kind of bell that usually requires a crane to move. To say more would spoil a unique resolution.

I'd like to stop here, but I must mention one other story. It is not just fiction, it is pathological fiction. Character assassination of President Reagan, of the worst kind, attributing thoughts to him that he could not have thought, motivations that are so below reason I must conclude that the author is a stranger to fact and to reason. Neither author nor title is worth mention, lest this miserable person accidentally profit therefrom.

Sturgeon's Law states, "90% of everything is junk." So if a little junk got into a collection that I consider the best yearly anthology, it is no surprise. In the Pushcart Prize series, there is way less than 90% junk.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Some little escape pieces

kw: continued review, story reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

A few more pieces I liked over the past four days of readings in Pushcart Prize XL (2016), edited by Bill Henderson and many others:

Anthony Doerr brings us a capsule history of Boise, Idaho, as lived by the first family to settle there, in "The Thing With Feathers That Perches in the Soul", which is a line from Emily Dickinson. It is told in a third person, personal style that feels like second person. One feels placed within the family cabin.

I have read two other dystopian stories of the forced demise of print. "The Knowledge Gallery" by Joanna Scott comes at it from a new angle. The writers that matter most engage in a kind of aggressive samizdat, fiercely deflecting all attempts to describe them or to collect their work, in a society that punishes excessive use of paper.

"The Soldier of Michtlán" by Rigoberto Gonzalez, seems an experiment in building a pounding heartbeat by ending every line with the same word, "soldier". Not entirely rhythmic, the lines flirt among tetrameter and pentameter and hexameter, keeping the reader off balance. I must admit that this item really is poetry.

Another very uncomfortable piece, a new kind of reportage: "Food and Worker Safety Across the Globe: A Nervous and Incomplete Case Study". It will make you wonder if your iPhone, tablet or other similar gadgets are really worth their human cost; and a parallel thread shows how some of "the elite" pay for farm worker exploitation because of the incredibly poor sanitation that results. E. coli salad, anyone?

I am nearing page 400, with about 150 to go. I don't plan to do more than skim the apparatuses.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The small presses outwrite the giants

kw: book reviews, story reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

Bill Henderson has now been the chief editor of the Pushcart Prize series, which he and some friends founded, for forty years. One thing I like about a collection is, if I don't like something, I haven't carried a whole book home in vain. I can skip or skim, and soon find something more worth reading (to me). I am about a third of the way through the current volume, Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses, and so far I have skipped or skimmed very little, though as I noted for volume XXXVIII, I have little liking for "free verse", which to me seems an oxymoron.

Having around 100 co-editors, Mr. Henderson naturally gathers a great variety of literature. I'll remark on three items among those I've read to date, that particularly spoke to me.

The opening piece, "Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets" by Zadie Smith, was an uncomfortable read. Miss Adele is an aging, cross-dressing performer. The corset she needs to approximate the female shape, starting with a pudgy male body, has split, and a new one must be obtained quickly. The intersection of her requirements with a corset shop owner who really doesn't want to do business with her provides a stage for a piquant confrontation in which nobody can possibly win. Life is like that. When we fail, it is either by doing too little or doing too much. Miss Adele manages both, but does get a corset.

"The Branch Way of Doing" by Wendell Berry is a pleasure from all angles. Nobody can limn a character, and through him or her, take the measure of a society, better than Wendell Berry. The Branch family, descended from Danny Branch—who was unusually sired, unusually raised, and a hyper-steady throwback to values of pre-technological America—are a window into what is possible for those who, somehow, think through ahead of time those things worth doing and worth having, and eschew the rest.

Did you ever see one of those adds for "Russian Brides", and wonder whether they are for real, or whether they ever get what they are looking for? Although "Wanderlust" by Laleh Khadivi is labeled as fiction, it evokes the lives of young Russian women, what drives some of them to sign up to be, effectively, mail-order brides, and where most such assignations wind up. If you take a moment to consider, "What kind of American man looks for an overseas bride (or mistress, usually)?", you can predict much of the outcome, but you'd have to be a topnotch writer to express it so well as Ms Khadavi.

If I come across a bit of actual verse among the purported poetry, I'll be sure to include it in a later post as I work my way through the book. The pieces themselves take up just under 550 pages. Being an omnibus, anniversary volume, more than 100 pages of apparatus follow, including a comprehensive index of all the pieces published in the series since 1976.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

City of the left-handed snails

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, collections, photographs

Alex, the Collections Manager of Mollusks at the Delaware Museum of Natural History has been a pretty busy guy lately. He has a few volunteers taking care of such tasks as sorting shells and labeling them after he has identified them. Two volunteers can be seen in the background of this picture; I caught him putting some boxes of shells away now that their labeling has been completed.

Each volunteer has a project, or a series of short-term projects, so they stay out of each others' way. One man about my age comes in two days each week, and most recently he has been replacing storage boxes. When the museum began operations in the 1970's the typical storage box for a collected lot of sea shells was a stiff paperboard box. Years later it was learned that the rather ordinary paper used for these boxes is a little acidic because of the lignin that accompanies the cellulose in all wood products. Acid is a no-no around sea shells (and a great many other kinds of museum specimens); sea shells in particular are soluble in acids! So this volunteer will take a box, say a #3 box that is 3x3 inches, remove the shells and labels, and put them into an acid-free box of the same size.

I started out at the museum as a volunteer, after retiring from a local company. Because I had been a computer professional, and I am conversant with databases and how they work, I was soon doing data cleansing and other tasks they needed for properly keeping the records of all their shells (220,000 lots with an average of 7 or 8 shells each). Now as a part-time employee the work I do is a little more advanced.

But back to Alex's volunteers. A museum cannot function well without them. Each volunteer may work only 10-20 hours weekly, but if there are five or six or more, they do the work of an extra one or two full-time employees. A collections manager would get less than half as much work done in a year without volunteers.

Just around the corner from the spot shown above I found an entire cabinet full of large whelks (big sea snails; they make great eating!) of the genus Sinistrofulgur, and family Busyconidae, the true whelks. They were recently put away as the result of another project. (I don't know if the beginning of Busyconidae is pronounced "busy", or if it comes from a name with some other pronunciation. I'll find out.) The type genus of the family is Busycon, and I'll show a few of them in a moment.

The reason for the name Sinistrofulgur is that all the shells of all the species in this genus are left-handed. See the pictures below to learn to tell whether a snail shell is right-handed or left-handed.

The shells in the picture at the left are of the genus Sinistrofulgur and are left-handed. The shells in the other picture are of the genus Busycon and are right-handed; the original name for this genus was Fulgur, so its sister genus of left-handed species naturally got the name Sinistrofulgur.

When you hold a snail shell so the spire is up, if the opening (aperture) is on the right, the shell is right-handed, and a left-side aperture means it is left-handed. Also, if you imagine that the point of the spire is like a screw, its "thread" goes in the proper direction to be screwed into something with what we think of as "right" twisting.

In the context of naming biological entities, "sinistro-" does not mean "sinister". It is not evil in any way. "Sinistro-" as a prefix means left-handed, and "dextro-" as a prefix means right-handed. Because most people (and most apes, for that matter) are right-handed, the Latin word for "right", dexter, also gained the meaning "skillful", as in "dexterity". We right-handed folk use our right hand for most skillful tasks and the left hand has a more supporting role. The Latin word for "on the left",  sinistralis, was not originally meant to be related to moral evil. But left-handed people were often regarded with suspicion, so "right" came to mean "good", as it often does in English, and "left" came to mean "bad" or at least, suspicious. This is meaningful in the context of the bloody old Roman society in which fighting with swords and shields was rather common. A left-handed opponent could more easily get his sword around your shield. While he might seem to be at the same disadvantage, he would have been practicing with right-handed sparring partners, while very few right-handed warriors had much chance to spar with a left-handed opponent.

But a left-handed snail is highly prized for its rarity, and a member of an entire left-handed genus, such as Sinistrofulgur, is even more sought after by shell collectors.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Philosophiae revixit

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, philosophers, psychodrama

Perhaps my title ought to have been, "Η φιλοσοφία αναβιώνει," since the protagonist of the book is Greek. I sometimes wonder how many people know that The Republic, and nearly everything else we have from Plato, is in the form of dialogues? In the hands of philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, the philosophic dialogue is restored, in her new book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away.

I recall the one college class in Philosophy that I took. We were told that all modern philosophic study fell under the rubric of Linguistic Analysis. (If you take that to its logical conclusion, you have Bill Clinton answering a Yes or No question about his adultery with Monica Lewinsky by saying, "That depends on what the meaning of is is." In my estimation, Clintonesque statements by either Clinton have gone only downhill ever since.) I left that course profoundly saddened and profoundly disgusted that seemingly intelligent people would waste so many kajillions of watts of purported brainpower on such fruitless endeavors. I care not a whit about the meaning of the word "meaning." I simply want to know if meaning is possible, and if so, what is it…even a little bit?

It has been said that all of philosophy over the past 2,400 years or so is only a series of footnotes to Plato. Not exactly. Not if a semi-Socratic dialogue I had with a professor of philosophy could end, in less than five minutes, with him practically spitting mad over a few simple questions by the admitted "layman", me. Come to think of it, he didn't actually get apoplectic until I stated (not as a question) that I found a study of the fallacies of Informal Logic most fruitful and useful. That part of what he spluttered as he stalked away that was intelligible, was, "…not even real philosophy…". Poor uneducated fellow. Of course, logic, formal or not, is definitely philosophical.

Digging into it, we find that the quandaries raised in Plato's dialogues in no way fall neatly into any of the "formal" philosophical buckets, and that the fallacies exposed by Socratic questions are primarily of the informal variety. But more to the point of Dr. Goldstein's book, while scientists and the scientific method have taken over numerous ideations once called "natural philosophy" and similar terms, there is plenty of territory left about which we may fruitfully converse.

The book's ten chapters are "numbered" according to the symbols Plato most likely would have used, Greek letters from α to ι, though a substitution had to be made at the sixth chapter. The old Greek "vau" is no longer used, and the nearest character in a modern Greek typeface is ς, the form of σ found at the end of a word; it looks almost identical. Five of the chapters are the author's discussion of philosophical matters and particularly the subjects about which Plato and certain of his contemporaries wrote, and about Socrates and his life. The other five, interspersed in alternation, are dialogues between Plato, still around after 24 centuries, and certain modern persons (in disguise), in which the statements of Plato are largely quotations or well-made paraphrases from his writings.

An important reason for writing the book is the increasingly strident proclamations of anti-philosophers who claim that science can explain everything and philosophy is no longer needed. I wonder why they never ask why their antipathy is so vehement. In the last dialogue, among Plato and a neuroscientist and a graduate student, the scientist claims that MRI studies have shown that the "I" does not truly make decisions, but confabulates an explanation for a decision that, the machine has seemingly shown, was made a second or more earlier than the "I" reports having made the decision. But then he has to admit that his MRI machine cannot resolve brain activity that occurs in less than about two seconds, nor in a region smaller than about a cubic millimeter. Since our 1.5 liter brain contains more than ten billion neurons, each cubic millimeter contains about six million neurons; and neural communications occur at frequencies between ten and 50 times per second. Then comes the fun: Plato allows the poor fellow to imagine a machine that can fulfill all his technical dreams, that can discern every neuronal action in every neuron as it happens. Could he then determine exactly what pattern of nerve firings constituted the "making" of a particular decision, such as the decision to raise a finger while ensconced in the MRI machine? And further, what is doing all the confabulating after the fact, and why does it feel the need to do so?

I suppose I am burdened by excess knowledge. The graduate student has made the point that there are numerous reasons for some kind of brain signal to precede a person's report that "I just made such-and-such a decision", or for the finger-lift that signals that decision; none of these reasons eliminates the need for an actual "I". More importantly, though, what could the "dream machine" really tell us? Here it might have been interesting for a knowledgeable philosopher of science (which is what the title PhD is actually supposed to represent) to mention three significant names: Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and Gödel. Heisenberg showed that there is a definite limit to what science can measure; Schrödinger, intending to make a joke, actually showed that we cannot determine the result of an action without making an observation; and Gödel proved that no consistent mathematical or conceptual system is capable of fully answering all the questions that it is possible to ask within that system. These three set firm boundaries around the kinds of knowledge that can be known and the depth of knowledge that can be attained. Though the realms in which science is able to fruitfully operate are vast, and are quite far from being fully tapped, they are very, very much smaller than the realms about which science can never describe nor prescribe.

It is not often that I read the whole of a 432-page book without feeling a growing ennui by the end. This book is delightful throughout. I am not philosopher enough to follow all the reasoning, but I found it refreshing that, as reported by the author, although Plato was most sympathetic to Rationalism, he had to hedge that bet, because he seemed to have an inkling of what Kurt Gödel demonstrated, that he was asking questions that nobody had the mental equipment to answer, and even more, while it might be demonstrated that the questions themselves are valid, we may never attain the oomph needed to provide a full answer. That's OK. May we not be so small-minded that we insist every question be fully answered. There is plenty yet to gnaw over.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Camaraderie among the Collections

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, collections, photographs, sociability

Today nearly everyone who is regularly to be found "upstairs" at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, that is, in the Collections and Research area, was there. We practically filled our little lunch room. I suppose the stereotype of "museum people" is that we are super-nerds, antisocial, spending our time among musty, dusty old stuff, and just sort of hiding out up there.

It is true that scientists and science hangers-on tend to be introverted. But that doesn't mean we are all loners. Rather, in contrast to extroverts, we can tolerate aloneness without being lonely. The eleven people seen here include four "real scientists", an intern, myself as a paid contractor, and five volunteers who enjoy the kinds of work found in a research collection.

The woman looking at the camera is Dr. Elizabeth Shea, the Curator of Mollusks, my supervisor. The man in orange is Alex Kittle, the Mollusk Collections Manager. Behind him, nearly hidden, is Dr. Jean Woods, the Curator of Birds (and other vertebrates). The young man in purple is Nate Shoobs, a graduate student of Conchology (mollusk studies), who is already making a name for himself in the field of terrestrial gastropods (land snails and tree snails). I am next to Nate. One of the volunteers comes to this museum one day a week, and travels one day a week to Washington, DC, to volunteer at the Smithsonian. There was about an even mix of volunteers plus interns working mollusks and birds today.

I suspect not many lunch rooms have stuffed monkeys hanging on the walls. Museums use every available space for items that are not on display! The big wreath is a few hundred sorta-big sea shells glued to a plywood backing. It hasn't been on display in years, but when someone in Exhibits gets the notion to display "natural history art", it will probably spend some time downstairs.

Today a lot of the discussion was related to ultra-marathons. One volunteer has a son who runs hundred-mile races. He usually finishes. He lives in Colorado, where one famous race starts at the edge of the town of Breckenridge, at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet (~3,000 m). Then it goes uphill, above 12,000 ft (~3,600 m). The trail descends and joins the road leading through Leadville and then south to somewhere near Granite, Colorado. That's halfway. They turn around and run back. Whoever doesn't finish in 30 hours doesn't get a T-shirt. You don't drive to Colorado from sea level to compete in this race!

Most days the lunch bunch amounts to six or seven of us. And at times I've worked a few days as the only person on the floor. But usually there is enough companionship available to break up the silence of a day spent either doing research, or getting stuff ready for other people to do research.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Presenting CWWN v06 - The Christian (4)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Volume Six of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee (CWWN) is a fourth volume of articles drawn from The Christian, the journal he published from 1925 to 1927. The two sections contain nine Gospel Messages and fourteen Spiritual Teachings. These were articles he wrote for Issues 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 14, 16, 19, 22 and 24. In most of the other issues he used translations from Christian literature he had gathered from extensive reading. It is said that during the 1920's and through most of the 1930's he spent about one third of the money that passed through his hands on books ordered from overseas Christian booksellers. His dwelling was filled with books. Fortunately, he could read, in either Chinese or English, very, very fast.

The Gospel Messages are impressive for their breadth of scope. Some are edited transcripts from spoken messages. Here and later his written and spoken evangelism was intended to reach every kind of human personality. Thus the message, "Can Morality Save Us" is intended for those well-behaved ones who are not apparently sinful. Dwelling on what Jesus said upon observing how a Pharisee prayed, and how a publican prayed, Nee shows that the super-moral Pharisee was left unredeemed after his self-righteous prayer, while the sinful, possibly extortionous, tax-collecter "went home justified" because he admitted his sinfulness to God and asked for mercy. Three of the messages describe fifteen of "The Paths to Hell". They show how easy it is to go to hell, and in each case, describe and the remedy for such hell-bound practices as self-confident pride or making excuses to delay accepting Christ; more serious practices such as habitual adultery are also addressed. The ironic approach was intended to get the attention of those who had a ho-hum attitude toward the ordinary gospel preaching of the day.

The Spiritual Teachings were intended to instruct believers with any level of experience in truths that were being neglected by the standard Protestant theology of the time. The first article, "Assurance of Salvation," was revolutionary. Throughout the "Christian world" of the early Twentieth Century—and even into the 1960's in America, in my experience!—hardly anyone dared to proclaim, "Jesus has saved me," or "Jesus is my Lord. I am a child of God." Instead, at the most they might weakly proclaim that they had "hope in God's mercy", or, if they actually knew some scriptures, "the hope of eternal salvation." Nee uses the clear proclamations of the scriptures to show that we can indeed know that we have been redeemed and that we are secure forever; and even the more, he shows that we must know these things in order to grow in our spiritual life. In another wonderful message, "The Source of Faith," he expounds upon Eph. 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God." We are not born with faith. God gives us faith, and it is then ours to use. How tragic to neglect so precious a gift! I am reminded of a story I read, in which a preacher is urging his friend to receive Christ. The friend is part owner of a soap manufacturing company. As they walk they pass a very dirty child playing in the dirt. The preacher asks, "Why is this child dirty? Your company makes many tons of soap." The friend replies, "He has to use some to clean himself." "Yes indeed," the preacher says, "And you have had faith made available for you to use. Use it to believe and claim the redemption that Jesus Christ already produced for you!"

By the time Watchman Nee wrote articles for Issue #24 of The Christian, he had just turned twenty-four years of age. He had been a Christian about seven years. Few indeed are those men or women of God who have seen as deeply, and expounded so clearly, even during lives of sixty or eighty years, what this young man was enabled by God to do by an age that a typical "minister" graduates from Seminary.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A big old Turbine shell

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, collections, photographs

 A large collection (almost 40,000 shells), donated to the Delaware Museum of  Natural History years ago, has been cataloged little by little over the years. At present the Collections Manager and a few volunteers are working with certain fossils, including this immense snail shell. It is a bit over a foot long and weighs a few pounds. The animal must have weighed 20 pounds or more when alive.

The species is Turbinella angulata (Lightfoot, 1786), also known as the West Indian Chank Shell; "chank" comes from a native word for "divine conch". This specimen is a Pliocene fossil collected in Florida, so the animal lived about 5 million years ago. The species is still found in waters off Florida and around the Caribbean and the western Atlantic Ocean.

The many holes in the shell are from calcium-consuming organisms that gradually destroy any shell left lying on the bottom long enough. When you find a shell, or a piece of one, that is ragged and full of holes, it has been on the sea floor for several years or decades. This specimen and those with it were sitting around for some time before an underwater mudflow covered them and preserved them so they could "hang around" a few million years until erosion exposed the fossil beds known as "marl pits" in southern Florida.

This view of the same shell shows that the pearly inner layer is still largely intact, with some of the original pinkish color. The main structure of most mollusk shells is the calcite form of calcium carbonate. A slight change in the chemistry of deposition can produce aragonite instead. Aragonite forms mother of pearl and the smooth inner surface of, for example, clam shells. The mantle of many, many kinds of mollusks can perform this chemical trick to lay down mother of pearl, and also to deposit pearls. Notice also that there are no holes in the pearly lining. Aragonite is a lot harder for the calcium-eaters to attack.

This particular specimen has a chunk knocked out, as you can see at the right. This allows us to view the columella, the central structure that supports the whorls of many snail shells. I gave the shell a quarter turn and played around with light and focusing until I could get a picture of part of the columella, seen here:

This species is characterized by the three spiraling ribs down the columella. Different species have different numbers, so if you can't distinguish which kind of conch you are collecting, you can either x-ray one of the shells, break one open, or if you have a small "borescope camera", spin it up inside and have a look!

The largest shells of this species are more than a foot-and-a-half long, only a little smaller than the largest American snail, the Florida Horse Conch (which is not really a conch; we can dig into that another time).

Friday, June 17, 2016

The man behind the Vulcan

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, actors, acting, television series, space, space aliens

My family and I all loved Star Trek when it was first aired in 1966-69. By mid-1967, my mother would get dinner prepared in time for us to rush into the den and watch the show while eating on TV trays. It was her favorite TV series, as it was for most of us. Over the years of reruns, we re-viewed many of our favorite episodes. But none of us became an overt "trekkie", going to conventions or wearing costumes.

At times I have read articles about the cast and how they got along. The main thread was often how arrogant and generally unliked William Shatner was, and how beloved was Leonard Nimoy. Apparently, the only cast member to hold on to his dislike was "Scotty" James Doohan. Maybe; that could also be hyped. But it became apparent as co-appearances and co-interviews worked their way into the press that a real friendship developed between Shatner and Nimoy.

Now William Shatner, with David Fisher, has written a posthumous biography of Leonard Nimoy, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship With a Remarkable Man. Let's see: 2015 (the year Nimoy passed away) minus 50 is 1965, the year that they began work on the promotional first episodes of Star Trek (they'd appeared in an episode of The Man From Uncle in 1964). As Shatner tell it, though, they were both accustomed to "show friendships" that last for the run of a series, and then end amid promises of eternal fealty. A real friendship was kindled once they were thrown together by the unexpected popularity of the Star Trek franchise in reruns, the conventions, and cemented while making the first movie in 1979.

It is apparent from Shatner's own telling of many stories, and his take on things he admits remembering differently from others, that the charge of arrogance is true, but he was not, is not, self-blind, and has a bit of a list of re-do's he wishes he could perform. However it happened, a real and even close friendship developed between the two men. They had similar backgrounds, were of the same age, and had worked equally hard to perfect their acting skills and develop a career. To get roles that some might call "lead and supporting", but were really co-leading parts, they had to be very accomplished actors by the time they were chosen for the Star Trek series.

With his somewhat brooding appearance and solemn manner (though not as solemn as Spock), before Star Trek Nimoy played the heavy or the villain about 2/3 of the time. Spock was not, as some suppose, his first "positive" role. As any actor will tell you, the villain's part is usually the most interesting, so he had developed a wide range of skills before he first put on the pointy ears to become a half-human First Officer on the Enterprise.

Without the book, it would be hard to gather all the elements of Leonard Nimoy's life, to see how remarkable he really was. As hard as he worked at acting, he also explored poetry and professional photography, and took time (but, he admits not as much as he'd like) to raise a family. The financial cushion of success and his "star power" after 1979 enabled him to finally "major in family". He no longer felt obligated to take every acting job that came his way. Like any other task he set himself, he worked conscientiously to heal the relationships with his children, who'd felt neglected and had drawn away. Perhaps this is why my favorite image of Spock is this stock image from the 2009 remake of the Star Trek movie, in which "Spock Prime" lends advice to his younger self. He has passed on, but while he was with us, he did indeed live long, and he prospered.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

More investigative journalism, and reverie

kw: article reviews, nonfiction, fiction, essays, collections, anthologies, magazine writing

It took no more than a couple of days to finish reading The Best American Magazine Writing 2015, edited by Sid Holt. To avoid further disturbing my sleep, I did more of the reading in the second half of the volume during the days! Articles worth special mention:

  • Love and Ruin by James Vernini, first published in The Atavist. At 52 pages, this is probably the longest. It chronicles the lives of Nancy and Louis Dupree during their decades in Afghanistan, and the turmoils of that poor nation from 1949 onward. In 1978 Louis was expelled, but surveyed the Russia-Muhajideen war during frequent visits to Pakistan. Some say he participated in training anti-Russian fighters. But the memoir is more about Nancy, who carried on after his death in 1989. She became a beloved mother figure to many in Afghanistan, where she continues to spend part of her time even at age 89. It is a very touching survey of the changes she has seen, too frequently tragic and too seldom hopeful, in a country the world will not leave alone.
  • Jackie's Goodbye by Tiffany Stanley, first published in National Journal. The author's aunt Jackie began to manifest symptoms of Alzheimer's dementia in her fifties. She was cared for by her increasingly over-stressed brother—the author's father—until 2012 when he suffered heart failure and Ms Stanley had to take over the care of both of them, but primarily of Jackie. Amidst a heartbreaking story of her aunt's decline and death after little more than two more years, Ms Stanley frankly describes the heartbreakingly banal indifference of every facet of the "health care" industry to these most needy ones. While many assisted-living and nursing-home facilities have "dementia care" units with very caring, and sometimes even well-trained nurses, few can afford to pay $6,000 - $9,000 per month. If you can't afford that, you're on your own. There is a big, big gap between "not affording" such horrendous costs, and being so totally broke that Medicaid will pay. But while awaiting Medicaid approval, from a few months to a year, you are still on your own. You can't take the time to hold a job to make the money to pay a half-time helper and still keep your own sanity together. Far too many places will admit someone who cannot show sufficient assets to pay for at least the first six or more months' residence. This touches a chord with me: my father spent half his net worth hiring caregivers during the last few years of my mother's life. He had seen what a supposedly "good" nursing home was like when his uncle had to be in one for his last few months. Dad was determined that his own wife would never enter such a place. She didn't. But he was in pretty poor shape by the time she died. Somehow, the little help my three brothers and I could offer, none of us living closer than a day's drive or a day's plane ride away, could suffice to give him more than a day or part of a day of respite. One of my mother's caregivers, a lovely woman named Mary, bonded with Mom so much that she had a nervous breakdown near the end of Mom's life and needed care herself. She got out of the nursing/caregiving field entirely.
  • This Old Man by Roger Angell, first published in The New Yorker. Roger Angell is 93 (maybe 94 now), and wrote of how things really are for him. You could call this 16-page piece an extended answer to, "How are you?" The short answer is, "Not too bad, not too good." He writes about the paradox that many of the very aged are happier than those a generation younger; of the growing invisibility of the elderly, as if the young think, "You've had your turn. We'll be polite, but we don't care what you think"; about sex and companionship, which makes those who are "only 50-60" or so very squeamish: what, we're supposed to become neuters at some defined age? Ask my 94-year-old Dad about that; he wishes he could return to the facility he stayed at until early this year, where he had a girlfriend, and he still phones her almost daily. Her 100th birthday was last week. She craves his company also. I remember, when I was 35 and Dad was 60, asking him, "What is it like to be 60?" (It seemed pretty old to me at the time). He said, "It is pretty much like being 25, except things take longer. Now that I am just a little shy of 70, I agree. The mind and our attitudes don't change much, and because our body changes gradually, we get used to it, if a little chagrined sometimes. Should I live to be 95 or so, I hope to do it with the grace of Roger Angell and the vigor of my father. When Dad says, "Don't get old," I reply, "It beats the alternative." We both know it is true.

I applaud Sid Holt and his helpers on this and the prior volumes in the series, for gathering articles that make me think, make me feel strongly (sometimes against my will), and make me say, "I'm glad I read that."

Friday, June 10, 2016

The pleasures of investigative journalism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fiction, essays, collections, anthologies, magazine writing

Sometimes I read two or more books and journals at a time, and then I don't tear through a book in my usual 3-4 days. This is the case with the latest edition of my new favorite nonfiction anthology, The Best American Magazine Writing 2015, edited by Sid Holt. While reading a volume of CWWN, I also read articles in the two journals I subscribe to, Wired and Scientific American. The 2015 edition of TBAMW was kept on my bedside table, and I confess that, while I usually read to put myself to sleep, sometimes an article kept me up quite a bit longer than I expected!

I am currently halfway through the volume, having read 8 extended articles, with 11 slightly shorter ones to go. A few that I wish to discuss particularly:

  • The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, first published in The Atlantic. The essay is nearly 50 pages long, and probably occupied about 30 pages in The Atlantic. The author's subject is not just reparations for black slavery, which went on in America for more than 300 years. He focuses on a more modern phenomenon, one that is still occurring at such a rate that OECD cannot afford to adequately enforce existing laws: Redlining in real estate markets in Chicago. Chicago is Coates's prime example, but the practice is rampant in cities of all sizes throughout the country. When I took the "Real Estate Course" a few years ago, they discussed redlining, but the attitude was dismissive, as though "it doesn't happen here". But I know it does. The article's ten sections connect the attitudes of slave owners toward their slaves with the attitudes of bankers and real estate brokers and agents, and others who continue to profit from the so-called "sub-prime mortgage crisis". This article did more than anything else I have read—and I confess I have not read very much—to give me a more favorable attitude toward reparations. I still suspect that any large and sustained effort to actually provide reparations could do more harm than good, perhaps much more. But we do need to answer these questions: To whom are reparations to be paid, and in what form? From whom will the funds come? In the case of reparations targeting Redlining over the past 50-80 years, I'd be in favor of requiring forgiveness of all the mortgages made to African-Americans in the Redlined neighborhoods. But the hard part would be the followup education and training of the new landowners; most would be overwhelmed and at an entire loss, and likely to lose their windfall. The bankers who participated in this—that is, nearly all major banks' officers—have grown obscenely rich from the predatory practices that Coates outlines. They, more than any, must absorb the blow. But other measures will be harder to determine, harder to implement. Broad-brush approaches don't ever work out like you expect. It is not a subject we can safely ignore any more.
  • I Don't Care if You Like It by Rebecca Traister, first published in The New Republic. This is one of three of Ms Traister's articles in TNR that together attained a Finalist award. It is a concise (~10 pp) and excellently written slam of the male attitudes that keep women objectified. It focuses on a signal event in which Amy Poehler put Jimmy Fallon in his place for chiding her with an "I don't like it" statement. What she said was a rather profane version of the article's title; naturally it contained the F-bomb. But how much of the dancing on eggshells that women must do to be accepted is predicated on male acceptance? My wife reads Women's Day, mainly for recipe ideas. But most of the articles are about becoming better and better at pleasing men. No wonder the recent case of the Stanford swimmer raping an unconscious woman garnered only a 6-month sentence. After all, the victim's function is to please men, right? The current news ties this event to "white privilege", but it is really about "male privilege". I read an article by a woman who had tried in vain to get her husband and sons to "help around the house." Finally, she bought a bunch of 2-ounce Dixie cups, a big box of plastic flatware, and a big pile of paper plates, and announced the following. She would make her own meals, eat off the good china with the good silverware, and clean up after herself. The men were on their own, but were not allowed to touch anything besides the paper and plasticware unless they washed it immediately thereafter. She would do only her own laundry. They could not use the pots and pans for cooking unless they washed them immediately after the meal. She would not clean up after them. I'd like to have seen a follow-up article by her a year later. I thank God for two things in my life: a no-nonsense Japanese wife who continues to train her husband, and a compliant nature in that I accept her training. It took a few decades, but our home is comparatively peaceful and we're a happy couple. 
  • Inside the Iron Closet: What it's Like to be Gay in Putin's Russia by Jeff Sharlet, first published in GQ. I am appalled, but I suppose I should have expected it. Russia has always been one of the least-accepting of demi-Western cultures, towards homosexuality, and towards sexual expression in general. Frankly put, being gay or lesbian in Russia right now is very similar to being a runaway slave in Alabama in 1850. Though the lack of a black skin makes it slightly harder to detect a gay Russian, otherwise, it is the same: every hand is against you, police just smile should you dare to report being attacked, and if you have children they are likely to be removed from the home and raised by others with "better moral probity".

Does all that seem like good bedside reading? I'm the sort that relishes good, thought-provoking writing, even when my reason for reading is to lull myself to sleep.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Presenting CWWN v05 - The Christian (3)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Volume 5 of the Collected Works of Watchman Nee concludes his "Meditations on the Book of Revelation" from Volumes 3 and 4. The meditations on the letters to Thyatira and to Sardis each take up about fifty pages, while he treats of the letters to Philadelphia and Laodicea in something over sixty pages each.

Throughout these Meditations he stresses repeatedly the dual interpretation of each letter. Firstly, each was a letter to the "messenger" of a particular local church. Thus, there is no gospel message in any of them because each church consisted entirely of believers. The late First Century was not like today, in which it is rather easy to be called a Christian while having no reality. The Western countries abound with church-goers for whom this activity is primarily a social function. In about the year 95, when John was exiled to Patmos, to become a Christian and to present oneself as a believer in Jesus was to take a deadly risk.

On the other hand, Nee dwells upon the historical interpretation, for each letter has something to teach us today. The eras represented by the first three letters, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, have come and gone. The era represented by Ephesus was ending as John wrote. In the later letters by Paul thirty years earlier we can see that many were forsaking the way of Christ, and the love of many was already growing cold. The era represented by Smyrna (=Myrrh, representing suffering) occupied the Second and Third Centuries, and the first part of the Fourth Century, the era of official persecution of Christians. The era represented by Pergamos (meaning "fully married"), in which the Christian church became wedded to the world, particularly to the Roman Government, lasted about another two centuries.

Although these eras have ended, these three letters have something to say to us, no matter what kind of "church" we may attend or adhere to. Do we love the Lord with the first love? We may have many works, yet be motivated either by a desire for other's good opinion or by a self-righteous sense of duty. The first letter is for us. Maybe our love of Christ has not waned, or has been rekindled, and we are suffering persecution. In America and other Western countries it is less likely that you could be killed for your faith, but not entirely out of the question. But more subtle works of Satan induce others to exclude us or humiliate us, or some might lose jobs "for being too religious". The second letter, with its lack of rebuke by the Lord, and its many words of comfort, can sustain those suffering for their faith. But are we instead someone who loves to attend the richest congregation, the one filled with political and business leaders? Do we love hobnobbing with the great of the world, "even at church"? The third letter has significant warnings of the spiritual peril we are courting, and remedies to induce in us a pure love for the Lord and a straight walk in His presence.

The latter four churches represent expressions of the church that coexist now. They began at different times, but the later ones did not replace the former ones. Thus, the local church in Thyatira had characteristics that made it the prototype of worldwide Catholicism. This is primarily the Roman Catholic Church, but in principle it includes the eleven other Orthodox, or "old Catholic" churches. Sardis represents the churches that arose out of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the State Churches: Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, and so forth. Other "mainline denominations" would also be included, such as Methodist or Presbyterian, but not Congregational, which we'll get to in a moment. The weak but faithful church in Philadelphia represents those expressions of the church that are characterized by love among the believers ("Brotherly Love"), holding fast the Lord's name and keeping his word. For this the Lord appreciated that they had "a little strength", and a little is all that is needed. The fourth church, Laodicea, had become quite "democratic", replacing revelation with elections. The name means "rule of the laity", and in a certain way, it harks back to the proverb of the times of the Judges, "Each man does what is right in his own eyes." The Congregational denomination is the epitome of this kind of expression. But the "Christian world" abounds with denominations of all kinds, rampant division of the body of Christ, such that division is the "new normal", and those who separate from divisions and attempt to attain Biblical unity are considered heretics. Modern Philadelphians experience a taste of Smyrna! But this "new normal" kind of church expression is most hateful to the judging Jesus Christ, who promises—it was no warning this time—to vomit them out of his mouth. Though shut out of the church, He remains near the door, knocking, and blessing any who answer and let Him into their own heart, though the church door remains shut to Him. Thus we can discern a third mode of interpretation, the personal. It is possible to be sitting among faithful believers in a church that primarily expresses the love and faithfulness of Philadelphia, while inside being a lukewarm Laodicean or a chilly Sardisite (as some even boast, they are "God's frozen chosen"!).

In these Meditations we see a measure of incipient maturity in one who was about the age at which I received Christ. Is it not true that nearly all of us spend most of our lives as a mature adult? So why is spiritual maturity so rare? These seven letters, each with their call to the overcomer, and each with a remedy given by Christ for the local situation, contain the "supplies" we need to overcome and to mature in Christ, loving Him first, relying on Him, and living a life of faithful testimony to Him. May the Lord at His return find us doing so!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A few hidden art works

kw: natural history, museums, photographs, art

When you get behind the scenes at any museum you never know what you'll run across. I was delivering some empty egg cartons to the Education Department at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. They are used for craft projects. I purposely went by the section which houses several tarantulas and other large leggy critters, but they were all asleep or in hiding. I'll have to find out when feeding time is, when they'll be out and active.

Right around the corner this quilt was set up for display, but not in an area that the public usually sees. It is titled Lilypad Mural and the squares are about 9 inches (23 cm).

Later, among the mollusks, I decided to re-photograph some "shell art" that is stored on a low cabinet right in the middle of the mollusk research cabinet room. Of the two pointy balls, the larger one is made from 50,000 auger shells. Among the seven pieces of shell art there is also a carving of a pelican. From the shape and the semi-unfinished stump below, I can see that it was carved from a three-way branch junction.

I enjoy finding all the different ways people make art out of nearly everything!