Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mad Mad World



First came the recognition. "Hey, that's my Aunt Dorothy's dining room furniture." We identified all the old brand names, the furniture styles, the sport coats, the commercials...of course the commercials. That was the initial appeal of Mad Men. The story line never really surprised, after all it's not like we didn't live through those years ourselves. But now, as Mad Men, the popular AMC produced TV series begins its fifth season, I'm finding that it has a particular, if not singular appeal to my generation.
Oh sure we could always go back and look at the re-runs of old 50s and 60s sit-coms. But Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet don't feature the smoking and drinking that were so much a part of a Boomer's childhood. Mad Men offers the diet, the sexism, the racism, the duplicity in all it's arrogant glory.
I've heard the show is painful to watch for some. That could be, but I dwell on the humor. There is one scene that exemplifies this beautifully. Shortly before their divorce Don and Betty Draper take their growing family out for a picnic in the park. Of course they smoke through the little repast taken under an elm tree on a beautiful patch of green. When it's time to go, they gather up the kids, pack up the leftovers into their wicker basket and then dump all the trash on their blanket onto the ground and just walk away. No trashcan, no concern for littering, no consciousness of what they've just done. Was it really that way? For some, it was.
What fascinates me now is what is on the horizon. I don't care about the ins and outs of the relationships, the ins and outs of the corporate structure, or even what happens to these people as they age. My eyes are on the prize that's just about to be explode on the scene. We've got the twin catalysts of civil rights and Vietnam waiting in the wings and it's going to be a hell of a show. Soon to follow will be a tsunami of Feminism and another couple of political assassinations.
It's fairly easy to see which characters will sink and which will swim in this ocean of change about to break. So for now, enjoy the lull of high balls, the twist, and Crisco. Cause something is happening here and we know what it is, don't we, Mr. and Mrs. Jones?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Good Sport


We called it tackle football. It was played on grass, not in the street. For the pavement it was called touch. Two hands clearly placed below the waist of a member of the opposing team. Sometimes we made rule changes. Sometimes you could touch a runner's shoulders. Then there was flag football. Two strips of an old sheet, one on each hip would do the trick. Pull out one of those flags and the play ended on that spot.
We called penalties too. Couldn't always agree on what was holding, unnecessary roughness, or off sides, but we tried. Football was clearly a game of rules.
When I read about New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton being suspended for a year and the team receiving half a million dollars in fines for their "bounty program," I'm reminded of playing tackle football on someone's front lawn or in my local neighborhood park.
By way of definition, the bounty program involved certain players being paid cash bonuses to take out their opponents quarterback or any other player that might be enjoying a successful season. That's right, injure your rival and you get paid. It's been reported that the team kept a pool of $50,000 to dole out rewards of $1000. or $1500. depending on the severity of the injury and the extent to which the recipient of the hit would be disabled.
It's official. It happened. Consequences will be paid now.
What is most disturbing about this story? Could it be the sheer outrage that any standard of fairness and sportsmanship seems to have evaporated if you must now maim the other team to achieve success? Could it be that Payton, in a recent article, has been called "the best and the brightest" of the young NFL coaches? Maybe it's that the notion in the old sci-fi film Rollerball seems to be coming true. In Rollerball, all professional sports has evolved to a domed war between rivals who ride motorcycles and kill their opponents as they propel a giant steel ball into a goal. Oh yeah, there are no teams with names like Giants or Titans. All the teams wear corporate logos.
See what I mean, we just might be heading in that direction. Albeit slowly, but definitely rolling along.
So what happened to tackle football? What happened to sportsmanship and the love of the game? Cue violins here...Hell NO. Get righteously pissed and get the thug mentality out of professional sports or else face the consequences. When we set out not to play the game, but to take out someone from the game, what do we have left? What happens to the next generation of pro athletes who idolize their favorite players and emulate their persona, their sills, their game...everything about their game. Everything.

Monday, March 19, 2012

This Is Your Brain On...




Working my way through the Sunday Review section of the New York Times yesterday morning I came upon a fascinating pair of articles separated by only one page. Both are actually opinion pieces. On page 5 is a piece tersely called War Is Brain Damaging. Given recent events, it's not too difficult to discern that this is a piece about traumatic brain injuries incurred by soldiers who have experienced, "repeated exposure to the concussive force of improvised explosive devices-I.E.D.s- a regular event for troops traveling the roads in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The article goes on to detail the case of a woman veteran who can no longer recognize her daughter, and quickly finds its way to Robert Bales, the Army staff sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians. The author, Kate Wenner, concludes by asking us all if we too don't have a bit of a problem with our memories. "Aren't we all a little guilty of wanting to turn away from the shameful and painful reminders?"
I suppose so. The consequences of war, real war, never make the recruitment videos. PTSD sufferers don't usually want to march in parades, do they?
If war and exposure to the bi-products of war cause brain damage, what appears in this Sunday edition of the paper on the next page appears to do the opposite.
That second op/ed piece is called Your Brain On Fiction. Here, Annie Murphy Paul looks at some new research suggesting that the language-processing areas of the brain aren't the only areas that respond dramatically to words that elicit vivid descriptions. Participants in the study were given brain scans while reading detailed descriptions, evocative metaphors or an emotional exchange between characters.


Without going into elaborate scientific detail, the results are encouraging. Put simply, reading fiction (probably non-fiction too..creative non-fiction?) is good for our health. It not only can grow brain cells, it "improves us as human beings" according to the author. I'd add that it improves our writing skills too. That's because a metaphor like "he had leathery hands" rather than just a simple "he had strong hands" has the ability to rouse the sensory cortex.
Now if only our national budget would react accordingly.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Knock Knock


It was right at the end of the 60 Minutes piece on the Khan Academy, the online sensation that is having admirable success at teaching kids math and science. Sanjay Gupta, the CNN reporter/doctor was on special assignment for the CBS magazine. The piece was quite interesting, extolling the virtues of this apparently very successful method of online teaching that seems to be the future. After interviewing the founder, Salman Khan, and then detailing how Bill Gates endorsed and then publicized the method of one on one computer screen teaching, the feature ended with Gupta talking to a young Latino boy.
"Has anyone in your family ever gone to college," he asks.
"No," came the reply.
"So then you would be the first from your family."
"Yes."
"What do you think about that?"
"If I can get help from Khan Academy like this now, I think I can make it."
Gupta pauses, but we all know his ultimate response.
"I think you can too."
Curtain. I mean ticking stop watch.


While I have concerns about teachers being replaced with computer screens, I say whatever works. Those concerns are a topic for another time. Perhaps math and science are so successful taught by Khan Academy because they are math and science. Until human interaction in the form of simulations, debates, Reader's Theater, poetry slams and the like are better done online, I won't worry. What strikes me most is how this young man is daring to think about college and he's barely out of middle school. I like that.
College. It's such a solid word. Like an architectural column from an old museum...college; it rhymes with knowledge. It's a good thing, no?
Not to Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who recently called the President of the United States a snob because he has the audacity to believe that everyone should go to college, or at least aspire to.
Perhaps it's not as anti-intellectual as it looks. I get that not everyone is cut out for the amount of study and dedication that most college graduates have to put in. I know all about learning styles, disabilities, resistances. But not to aspire for a thorough education scares me a bit. Especially in this age of computers replacing people in the work place at an alarming rate.
Maybe it's that rugged individualism part of the American character that Santorum is referencing. I have a few friends who still like to use the term the "school of hard knocks." Knocks over knowledge,is that the issue here? No, I don't think so.
In fact, I'm open to some serious change. Aside from the alternatives the computer presents, I recommend another way of reaching a degree.
There are a few colleges in existence today that use the 100 books theory. St. John's College (in Maryland and New Mexico) comes to mind. If you read and discuss or otherwise represent your knowledge of 100 chosen books, that's equivalent to Freshman through Junior year of college. I was thinking how many books I read in college; certainly more than 100, but then I was a history major with an English minor. It's fascinating to think about what some of those hard knockin' books on the top 100 list might be. But then it's only a list; when one thing is added others are not. The St. John's College list is composed mostly of what some would call "ancient" literature. Lots of Greek, Roman, Medieval, 16th 17th 18th century stuff. Nothing wrong with that. In the end, it's the reading rather than the titles that's probably most important. 51% of Americans didn't read a book last year. What list is that?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Feeble Attempts


After my father-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, we marveled at how he was able show so much grace under so much fire.
His symptoms and behavior were atypical from the git go. Aphasia took his story telling skill and ultimately his voice. He was left with only familiar short words and phrases. Uh huh...that's right, yes, No! uh huh.
In the last few months he was able to drive, he carried the x-rays of his brain in the trunk of his car. Logical explanation: he was part of an ongoing study and had decided to donate his brain to further research when the time came. But the x-rays inhabited the trunk for a good while, rarely seeing the light of day. As a doctor and then a professor of public health, he understood the need for research. His participation was complete.
But he joked with the smile he never lost.
Sometimes, when we'd sit with him alone, he'd attempt a small conversation.
"I need a new brain" he told us with a shrug of his shoulders and the look of an imp.
So we gave him one.
A small, fit in the palm of your hand, bright blue, rubber, brain that he carried with him in his pocket. He loved it.
We all knew it was a stupid thing to do, but we all enjoyed it just the same. Even though there was plenty wrong with the brain he now possessed, he retained so much that remained healthy.
It was a feeble attempt at humor. We attempted feeble humor. Humor attempted: feeble. It is still humor.
Like the floater that now inhabits my left eye, I make a feeble attempt to wipe it away. It is on the inside, it's on the inside...unreachable. Casts a shadow, becomes the bouncing ball to follow...learn all the words and then you can sing your feeble attempt.
Every morning I put four quarters into a newspaper box in front of my favorite coffee shop. The daily is so thin, on occasion, that I have to be careful not to take two. The concept of newspaper as we know it is dying. I can accept this. I don't like it, but I know it's inevitable. That's why I want to buy a newspaper from a coin box before the practice stops completely. How soon before that happens? No doubt sooner than we think. Another feeble attempt. A weak exercise in futility. Like pennies in my pocket, the newspaper is no longer useful for news.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

On The Surface


A couple of weeks ago, on a Friday night, I turned to put something back into the refrigerator. Pivoting around to the counter to retrieve my dish, I noticed what appeared to be a stray hair over my eyelash. Not so. Maybe a bug or a stray gnat. Nope. I decided to wash my face. That didn't help either. Then it hit me. It's a "floater."
Yup, I've developed a floater on one of my eyes. In case you don't know what that is, I'll tell you. A floater is a microscopic bit of protein that breaks away inside the eye. They normally occur as one ages. Floaters can take a number of forms; some see shapes or circles, some see spots or cobweb like shadows. Mine is dark gray to black. It's buggy in every sense of the word. Not too bad when I look straight ahead, like drive or watch TV. When I read it really bothers me. It's like a bug moving with your eyes.
I went to my eye doc a few days ago and got good news. My eyes are healthy. That helps. But now it's a waiting game. Perhaps it will go away in time. Perhaps it won't get worse. I've heard that some people are dealing with bursts of floaters like a pepper shaker spilled all over your field of vision. Then there is that wonderful organ, the brain. Our brains will compensate for things like floaters. After a while they can train themselves to look past and beyond. I hope that happens.
Some little disturbance that suddenly appears is a good way to put your life in perspective in a hurry. Sure I'm frustrated. My little flying friend is circling the screen as I write this, reminding me of its presence constantly. But it could be worse.
I guess it's a good thing that I can't get too much sympathy from my friends and family. They quit asking about it early on. My doc says that the considerable amount of reading or time online that I spend really will not affect this condition. Sure it affects eye strain, but it can't do damage according to her.
I, however, am still looking for the message. Does this mean I need to make a change? I certainly could get more exercise now that the weather is changing and Spring seems to be on the way. Does it mean that I really should do more fishing? I think so. Going to get my fly rod out this week. I'm going to clean the fly line and fondle my flies. That's right, I like to look at them, ruffle the hackle a bit and arrange them in boxes designated for specific streams and lakes I like. Pretty soon I'll be the floater...staring straight ahead.