Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Connecting the dots

I admit it. Sometimes I just don’t get it.

Try as I might, and I do try, there are some people I will never understand. We have a permanent disconnect mentally, emotionally, something. And more often than not, that pains me. I truly want to understand, and I’m quick to lay any failure to do so at my door.

And then there are the basic mechanical or factual issues that simply do not compute, no matter how hard I try. In nearly all cases, I’ve been a fast learner, never had to spend much time studying in school, and I think that may have been to my detriment. If a new topic doesn’t come easily, I get impatient. Until 2006, when I went back to college at age 48, I’d never really learned how to study. It wasn’t necessary. One pass through a book, one sufficiently detailed explanation by a competent instructor, and I was set. There have been isolated stumbling blocks, i.e., electricity, although I somehow aced high school physics even with a yawning gap of knowledge; music, in spite of my ever-so-patient son’s efforts to explain the simplest notational ideas; and, as I was reminded recently during movie night, modern art.

Hubby and I often spend an evening with a movie, usually Netflix or from the library. I hate paying outrageous ticket prices to sit in a noisy theatre, forced to watch the commercials I mute on television at home followed by a stream of trailers for movies light-years away from the kind I came to see...and don’t get me started on the price of concessions! Because of that, we rarely see anything first-run and our to-be-watched list contains a number of older films. Last weekend we finally got around to Pollock, largely on the basis of Ed Harris’ reputation as an amazing actor.

As expected, Harris’ performance was incredible. He so thoroughly inhabited the persona of self-destructive genius it was frightening at times. Much of the supporting cast was equally stellar, from Marcia Gay Harden as his driven but long-suffering wife, to another favorite, Amy Madigan, as Peggy Guggenheim. Pollock’s early work, when they were influenced by Picasso’s cubism, almost makes sense to me. I catch at least a glimmer of something familiar in the bold colors and odd shapes.

But I guess I’m too much of a realist to appreciate his later work. The drips and splashes that make up what I’ve seen in museums as Pollock masterpieces do not impress me. I don’t get it. I need to see something on the canvas I can recognize, not just color (which can be nice, but it’s not art). Impressionism is fine; a painting doesn’t have to be factual. I love most of Dali’s work, but his pieces are like a puzzle to be deciphered. Pollock’s are...a mess.

I’ve been told, of course, that I feel that way because I simply don’t understand art, that I’m unschooled. Bleh. Snobbish comments like that irk me. I get the same reaction to my arguments against opera and much of what passes as ‘literature.’

I’ve long believed art is a unique form of communication, of looking at the world in new and different ways and sharing that perspective with an audience. At what point does artistic freedom which fails to communicate something become a failure in itself? I can throw paint on canvas or words on paper to express myself to myself, to free buried emotion, etc. – all those reasons we are told to release our inner creativity. But I realize that much of what comes out of such moments is of value and of interest to no one but me, nor should it be. I don’t share those eruptions. They expend any inherent ‘value’ in allowing me to emote, and that’s enough. Vanity presses and self-staged art shows cater to the ego behind those moments, not to any artistic integrity that I can see. But society encourages such things.

And from the other perspective, how often does the media trumpet a former masterpiece worth untold millions (that’s another whole argument!) suddenly deemed all but worthless when it’s discovered to have been painted/written/composed by an unknown? Has the color changed on the canvas, or the words morphed on the page? No; but without that imprimatur of celebrity, few are interested.

Over the years I’ve visited many museums, read many, many books, listened to all sorts of music and wondered how much of what passes for art is labeled as ‘good.’ As a writer, I struggle to produce ‘good’ pieces, yet I know the bar is constantly moving, always tilted in some mysterious direction by unseen hands. If a work of art is so avant-garde that it must be meticulously explained (not just shades of meaning), does it miss the mark? Is transmission without reception communication?

Or maybe I truly am the one missing the point. Maybe art isn’t supposed to communicate, or be understood. Maybe it just is...something. Words matter to me; precise definitions and shades of meaning give flavor and nuance to my work. In that respect, ‘art’ escapes me.

I still don’t get it, but I’m willing to learn. If only I could pin it down.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Expecting the unexpected leaves room for change

One of the more unusual things we inherited with our new home is a beautiful koi pond in the back yard. As attractive as it is, I was concerned about how the dogs would react. I wasn’t too worried about Chi. At 7-1/2-years-old, she’s lost most all the ‘puppy’ and is our sedate matron. I’ve found her dipping her paws in the edge, curious about the bright gold flashes under the water I’d imagine, but she’s never gone in after them.

But knowing Barkley, our 4-1/2-year-old English Springer Spaniel, I expected wet dog from day one. He surprised me, thank goodness, and only once since July has he taken the plunge. I wasn’t here to watch, but I’d bet he was chasing one of the two bullfrogs who reside on the water lily pads.

What’s been particularly interesting is watching their behavior change as the pond froze over. It didn’t take them long to adapt. Barkley bounds over it without hesitation when he’s in hot pursuit of the squirrels. Chi seems to have taken to the smooth, cool surface as her private resting place, rolling in the snow when it accumulates on the ice.

Now that the dogs have replaced the kids as my daily lesson-givers, I still find myself in awe of what they have to teach me. While my dire expectations of their curiosity have not panned out, I still cling to them, worrying unnecessarily, living the disasters that never come to be. I don’t allow Chi and Barkley the possibility of learning, too, and dealing with the situation in an acceptable (to me) manner. Unfortunately, I do the same thing to the humans in my life, myself included.

A recent disagreement with a family member sent me over the edge into a stress-induced migraine because I refused to let go of unrealistic expectations. I packed so much baggage onto a simple difference of opinion there was no possible way the situation could have ended well, and ultimately, I’m the one who suffered. Hubby did too, tangentially, and for that I humbly apologize. It doesn’t help at all that I thought I was protecting him when the whole thing started. I felt it was expected of me, and that in other tenuously-connected ways I was not fulfilling still other expectation. I got defensive. And when my misguided albeit well-intentioned motives were thwarted, I imploded.

By loading all kinds of history and expectations onto simple everyday interactions, I deny all of us the opportunity to change. How we have behaved in the past is not necessarily a harbinger of what will happen when faced with a similar situation. If I truly believe in the possibility of learning and growing, I need to let go of those restricting expectations that keep us locked in old patterns. The Dalai Lama said, “I am open to the guidance of synchronicity, and do not let expectations hinder my path.”

Chi and Barkley are outside now, chasing the squirrels and barking at the wind. Barkley just realized the ice is starting to melt. His steps are tentative as his feet get wet. He’s learning. Any bets on what to expect?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Sounds of frustration

I don’t listen to music at home or in the car. The only radio I play is the occasional WYSO (NPR) talk show broadcast. Rarely do I play CDs. I don’t own an iPod, other MP3 player, or smartphone. I love almost all kinds of music (opera and rap being the exceptions that come to mind), so why do I avoid it?

Because once my brain hears a song, it won’t let go. It clings to the melody, running it in a constant loop for days – and nights – on end until I want to scream. Even the Muzak in the grocery store or blaring from the speaker over the gas pump can be a culprit. The (often) inane lyrics drive every coherent thought from my mind, making it difficult to write or even think at times.

My wise hubby, knowing how much I enjoy live performances yet despair of not being able to endure the soundtrack after the fact, suggested a desensitization process: listen to music all day, every day, for a week on the assumption my brain would no longer find melodies so remarkable and therefore would have no overwhelming desire to cling to them. Nice try.

The songs simply form a battle of the bands in my head, fighting for supremacy and making the raucous replays even more unbearable.

Discovery Health calls them earworms: ‘When we listen to a song, it triggers a part of the brain called the auditory cortex. Researchers at Dartmouth University found that when they played part of a familiar song to research subjects, the participants' auditory cortex automatically filled in the rest -- in other words, their brains kept "singing" long after the song had ended. The only way to "scratch" brain itch is to repeat the song over and over in your mind. Unfortunately, like with mosquito bites, the more you scratch the more you itch, and so on until you're stuck in an unending song cycle.’ They quote University of Cincinnati Professor James Kellaris who claims ‘women, musicians and people who are neurotic, tired or stressed are most prone to earworm attacks.’ Oh, good – so as a tired, stressed, neurotic (!) female, I’m doomed.

Kellaris advises getting rid of an earworm by:
1. Sing another song, or play another melody on an instrument.
2. Switch to an activity that keeps you busy, such as working out.
3. Listen to the song all the way through (this works for some people).
4. Turn on the radio or a CD to get your brain tuned in to another song.
5. Share the song with a friend (but don't be surprised if the person become an ex-friend when he or she walks away humming the tune).
6. Picture the earworm as a real creature crawling out of your head, and imagine stomping on it.

I’m rather partial to number six (none of the others work anyway), except the idea of an insect in my head recalls visions of Chekov’s misery in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan...not a good scene.

Even worse, I’ve found it’s not only music that sticks in my brain. Commercials, movies, television shows, even Windows Solitaire mind is like Velcro except for things like the story line I dreamt about last night, where I filed that document, or what I walked into the room to do.

Maybe if the earworms would leave, I’d have room for the important stuff. Anyone know a good exterminator?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Ah, the benefits of downtime...

One arguably positive side effect of yesterday’s ice storm-induced power outage was enforced downtime. After using up the minimal battery in my laptop to finish a pending assignment and finding the back-up battery was not charged, I turned to my teetering pile of half-read and to-be-started books. My first choice was finishing an interesting book that, because it qualifies on my list as pleasure reading, had unfortunately been overtaken by more urgent matters. During the past few months as I’ve retooled my website, I made a conscious decision not to join the legions of bloggers who focus on book reviews; no sense in competing with the masses too directly. Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth Century New York has made me reconsider my decision, at least this once.

Wednesday was my lucky day, lack of heat in the house notwithstanding. Not only did my off-the-grid hours allow me to digest the remaining few chapters of Goodman’s remarkable history of the evolution of new papers and journalism, and the extent of human gullibility, but I found those final pages to be a philosophical delight. I highly recommend this story to anyone with even a passing interest in any of those topics.

The majority of this meticulously researched account details the rough-and-tumble world of New York City newspaper publishing in the early 1800s. Keep a scorecard handy to track the dozen or so papers mentioned with their revolving-door owners, editors and writers, many of whom appeared on a variety of mastheads. Goodman’s central character is Richard Adams Locke who arrived in New York from England in 1832. Locke’s life would make a fascinating story on its own. The Sun and the Moon takes Locke’s adventures in NYC, most notably his 1835 “Great Astronomical Discoveries” series (memorialized as the Great Moon Hoax) for the Sun, weaves them in with Edgar Allen Poe’s literary travails and P.T. Barnum’s humbugs to provide a unique and informative perspective of the country’s early years. Slavery, religious fanaticism, and labor unions all mesh seamlessly in the riotous days explored in Goodman’s work.

Only after five years have passed, and after his journalism career has crumbled, did Locke reveal the true impetus behind his Moon Hoax. No spoilers here; suffice it to say I came away with a greater respect for Locke than the already-lofty fellow writer’s admiration evoked by earlier pages.

Interesting coincidence: in the middle of writing this, I received a wrong-number phone call for ‘Matt.’
My respect and admiration encompass the author of this volume as well. The Sun and the Moon showed me an unfamiliar moment in our history. Goodman reveals such notable figures as Poe, Barnum, and de Tocqueville as contemporaries of Locke, offering a new dimension to my understanding of their work as well. While the complex and at times overlapping and redundant events are sometimes difficult to follow, the journey is well worth the effort. Goodman’s attention to detail coupled with his wonderfully vivid imaginative recreations of the era makes for a delightful reading experience.

I look forward to Matthew Goodman’s next work on another great name in American journalism (Nellie Bly, if I remember correctly) with great anticipation.