Sunday, December 8, 2013


Sometimes it’s not about the quality of the music.  Sometimes it’s about the context.  And the power of the voice.

Before dying tragically in 1983, a month shy of her 33rd birthday, Karen Carpenter was part of a duo, The Carpenters, that achieved success in the 1970’s.  Karen and her brother Richard sang rather cloying love songs.  But syrupy as they were, their songs happened to be popular when, in my early teens, I began going to dancing parties.   And Karen’s voice was unique.  And magnificent.

Whenever Karen’s voice came on at a party it meant: slow dance.  So it was time to quickly find the girl you wanted to hold close, and take her out on the dance floor.  My first experiences holding a girl close with Karen Carpenter’s voice in the background were never to be forgotten.  Little did Karen know that she would provide the sweet soundtrack to unforgettable experiences, countless fantasies and wonderful memories.

I lived in Colombia at the time, but traveled to the U.S. often on family vacations.  To me, the United States was nothing short of paradise, and I knew that somehow, someday I would live there (happily it only took a few years).   In addition to being my de facto slow dance background, for some reason Karen Carpenter’s voice became the visceral representation of the United States.  I’m not sure exactly why it was her specific voice that became that, since I listened to all sorts of U.S. music during those years in Colombia, but it did.  Damn the radio network, to me, hers was the Voice of America.  As far as I was concerned, if the Statue of Liberty would suddenly burst into song, she would sound like Karen Carpenter.

So, Karen, wherever you are, you and your brother’s songs were sappy.  But that didn’t matter to the 12 year-old me.  And it doesn’t matter to the 52 year-old me either.  When I was feeling some pretty special things at 12, you were right there with me.  To this day your voice uniquely evokes those feelings.  And no one can ever take that away from you.

If I had been born in 1951, perhaps it would have been Judy Craig.  Or Leslie Gore.  If I had been born in 1971, maybe it would have been Bonnie Tyler, or Irene Cara.  But I was born in 1961.  So it was you, Karen Carpenter.  And still is.  Forever you.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dead End

In "Dave" (1993), Kevin Kline plays Dave Kovic, a kind, decent man who happens to be a dead ringer for the current President of the United States (also played by Kline), himself a corrupt, carousing, cynical politician.  When the President literally brings himself into a coma while sneaking a quickie with a sweet young thing, the chief of staff (Frank Langella), enlists Kovic as a temporary stand-in.  And stand in he does, eventually wresting control of the presidency from the cagey chief of staff, who has malevolent presidential aspirations of his own, and placing it in the capable hands of the vice president (Ben Kingsley), another kind, decent fellow.

“Dave” vividly illustrates a point repeatedly made by Stephen King, perhaps most obviously in the magnificent "The Stand": the world would be a far better place if led by those unassuming, decent people who would never, by their own devices, occupy positions of power.  In "The Stand", Stuart Redman, a quiet East Texan, is good with his hands and possesses loads of common sense, but never amounts to much.  However, when "Captain Trips", a superflu originating in a U.S. government biological weapons laboratory, fatally infects over 99% of the world's population and civilization ceases to exist, Redman's handyman skill set, considerate nature and unobtrusive intelligence make him an extremely valuable resource, a natural leader and a key contributor to the eventual triumph of good over evil.  If people like Redman would have been in charge to begin with, King implies, “Captain Trips” would have never even been developed.

"It is the man who does not want to express an opinion whose opinion I want", said Abraham Lincoln.  I would add (to coin a phrase), “It is the person who is not interested in power that I want in power.”  But although it was probably not difficult for Mr. Lincoln to elicit reluctant opinions, positions of power are rarely occupied by those who, like the fictional Kovic and Redman, do not actively pursue them but are most qualified to fulfill them.  Because the qualifications required to obtain power are different from those required to wield it fairly and effectively.  Besides, human nature is such that even fair and decent people who somehow attain power without seeking it will eventually end up abusing it since, in the words of John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

And that is our conundrum, our evolutionary dead end as a species.  We have evolved into intelligent beings and survived during the past 200,000 years, perhaps partly due to our greed and aggressive nature.  However, those same qualities seem destined to inexorably precipitate our downfall.   The combativeness, short-term thinking and callous disregard for others typical of humans in general and most particularly of those who attain positions of power have already come close to wiping out our species.  Even if we somehow avoid a large scale catastrophe, we will, due to those same qualities, make our planet inhospitable to us long before we develop the technologies necessary to either repair the damage or colonize elsewhere.  

Homo Sapiens, then, is one of Natural Selection’s duds: a short-lasting species that will destroy itself while the cockroaches, sharks, tardigrades and lingulas (among many others) live on, oblivious to the appearance and disappearance of a species that was only around for a miniscule fraction of their own time on Earth, and that, despite its promise and potential,  turned out to be nothing more than an inconsequential footnote in the history of the planet.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Water Temperature

I’ve often wondered why the same temperature feels different in water than in air.  For example, if you’re walking around outside and the temperature is 70°F, it feels quite comfortable.  However, if you dive into a pool with a water temperature of those same 70°F, it will feel tremendously cold.  In fact, a water temperature of 50°F can result in death from hypothermia in as little as one hour!  Doesn’t seem to make sense.

Except it makes perfect sense, if you know the science.  It’s a matter of heat transfer, or the transition of heat (thermal energy) from a hotter object to a cooler object:

As long as the temperature of your body is higher than the temperature of the surrounding medium (air or water, for example), your body will give off heat. As soon as the surrounding temperature becomes higher than that of your body, though, you'll start to absorb heat.

The amount of heat that moves between your body and the surrounding medium and the speed at which it moves, both of which are important to the sensation of warmth or cold that we feel, depends on how good a conductor the medium is. The reason the water feels colder than air is because water is the better conductor of the two. When you hop into that 60-degree pool, heat escapes your body much more easily than it would if you were standing beside the pool in 60-degree air. Because the water takes more heat from your body, and quicker, it feels colder.  (Read the full text here.)

So, our bodies are either giving off heat (if the temperature of the surrounding medium is lower than our body temperature) or absorbing heat (if the temperature of the surrounding medium is higher than our body temperature).   But that begs a further question: if our body temperature is 98.6°F, why does it feel uncomfortably hot to be in 98.6°F air temperature?  You would think that there would be equilibrium between your body and the surrounding medium, resulting in no heat transfer, and total comfort, right?  Wrong.  

As it turns out, our bodies constantly need to disperse heat, and when the temperature of the surrounding medium is equal to or higher than our body temperature, we are unable to effectively do so, hence we feel hot and uncomfortable.  All else being equal, the human body operates most efficiently when the air temperature is about 70°F.  Again, it all makes perfect sense, if you know the science.

Things don’t make sense.  Until you know the science, and then they do.   The question is, how should we handle those things for which the science is beyond our current understanding?  Hopefully by working hard on the science.  And being patient.  No need for irrational constructs.  Or fairy tales.  Just sayin’.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Barbaric Times

Aliens land on Earth.  They are neither as intelligent nor as emotionally evolved as human beings.  But they are more aggressive, and brandish weapons that render the humans defenseless against them.  

The aliens target human children, since they are smaller and lighter than adults and thus less costly to transport.  They take them away from their parents, oblivious to (or, more likely, unmoved by) the parents’ horrifying screams of agony.  They capture many children, and ship them to their own planet.  

Once there, the children are placed in concrete cells, no larger than a typical jail cell back on Earth.  They are taught to perform for the aliens in large arenas with hundreds of spectators.  They only leave their cells when they perform simple, demeaning tricks that the aliens in the audience find amusing, but that assault the children’s dignity every time they perform them.  The children receive food and water only as rewards for a trick well executed.

As the children grow and mature, semen is extracted from males and used to impregnate females.  Just a few months after the females give birth, their children are taken away so that they can perform at whatever arena is in need of a cute baby in its lineup.   Again, the mothers’ heartbreaking cries of agony are ignored.

The aliens that interact directly with the humans, known as “trainers”,  grow fond of them and even respect them, but they are not aware of how they were captured.  Neither are they familiar with their previous life on Earth, so they cannot fathom the difference between how they live under alien captivity and how their life would have been had they not been captured.  The trainers generally fail to understand that the captive children are growing up in an environment that traumatizes them, frustrates them and damages them psychologically, as well as physically.  The managers of the companies that own the arenas, though, are well aware of these facts.

The humans are effectively ticking time bombs.  

There are many incidents at the arenas during which the humans act aggressively toward each other, and toward the trainers.  Most of the incidents involving the trainers result in minor injuries to them, but on a few occasions the trainers are maimed and killed.  The companies that run the arenas keep the incidents as secret as they can, and spin the facts of those they are forced to address to make it seem like the trainers were at fault.  Their ticket sales depend on the image their marketing teams have developed around the humans: they are beautiful, gentle creatures that are absolutely delighted to live in captivity, perform in the arenas and interact with their trainers.  Any story that challenges that image is squashed or spun.

Many trainers, once they understand the realities of their jobs, leave the arena companies and speak out against them, saying things like:  “I’m not at all interested in having my daughter, who is 3 and a half years old, grow up thinking that it’s normalized to have these intelligent, highly evolved animals in concrete cells… I think it’s atrocious.”

And: “There’s something wrong… when you have a relationship with an animal and you understand that he’s killing, not to be a savage, he’s not killing because he is crazy, he’s not killing because he doesn’t know what he is doing, he’s killing because he’s frustrated, and he has aggravations, and he has no outlet for them.”

And, referring specifically to an incident where a human mother was separated from her child: “That’s heartbreaking.  How can anyone look at that and think that that is morally acceptable?  It’s not.  It is not OK.”

And:  “In 50 years we’ll look back on this [the human arena shows] and go “my God what a barbaric time”.

An alien government agency sues the arena companies for placing the trainers in dangerous working conditions, and wins.  During performances, the judge determines, there must be a physical barrier between the humans and the trainers.  The arena companies appeal the ruling.  The appeal is pending at this time.

There is some public outcry against the arena companies.  However, millions of aliens continue to flock to the arenas, convinced that what they are seeing are gentle creatures, joyfully interacting with their trainers, and thrilled to have the opportunity to perform for the alien audience.

Those millions could not possibly be more mistaken.

The foregoing tale is not fiction. It is a true story, and it is happening now.  Except,  the “aliens” are humans.  The “humans” are Orcas, also known as Killer Whales.  And the “arena companies” are SeaWorld, Sealand of the Pacific and Loro Parque.

The story is based entirely on the outstanding documentary “Blackfish”  by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which was recommended to me by my daughter.  It is shocking, and heartbreaking.  Anyone considering a visit to SeaWorld should watch it.  And so should everyone else, for that matter.

You can watch it right now, on amazon.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Relics of a Bygone Era

My 15 year-old son tells me he’s pretty sure that, in a few years, the N-word will lose its negative connotation.  He bases his belief on the way the word is used in his high school, among kids of all races and backgrounds, but mostly among African-Americans, who feel comfortable utilizing it in a totally different manner than its traditional, abhorrent use.

I find my son’s theory hard to believe.  The word is so entrenched in our culture as an unconscionable insult and has been charged with hatred for so long, that I just can’t imagine it somehow shedding it’s vileness.  However, as I listen to the hip-hop music my son favors and watch shows like The Wire, which seems to be accurate in its portrayal of the vernacular of Baltimore’s inner city gangs, I do understand what he means.  The hip-hop guys, as well as the Baltimore inner city kids, use the word freely in a non-insulting manner.

In a situation with some similarities, an event took place a few days ago commemorating the first anniversary of the death of Canadian artist and poet ManWoman, who had been trying to “take back” the swastika since the 1960’s.  During the event, tattoo parlors around the world offered free swastika tattoos to the public, not as anything to do with the Nazis, but on the contrary, as part of a campaign to “reclaim” the symbol, which for thousands of years served as a Hindu and Buddhist sign of luck, peace, and strength before Adolf Hitler appropriated it as the symbol of the German Nazi Party.  Jewish groups were predictably (and perhaps understandably) outraged.

Can symbols like the swastika and words like the N-word be “reclaimed”?  If, as Theunis Bates indicates in his article on The Week, only the victims of offensive words and symbols have the right to reclaim them, will those victims ever do so?  It seems that at least some sectors of the African-American community are doing exactly that.   I don’t see anything of the sort going on with Jews and the swastika.  But maybe at some point it will, since it seems to me that wresting the evil away from a formerly benign symbol would effectively countermand its nefarious appropriation.   Imagine if, in our grandchildren’s history books, the swastika would be described as a Hindu and Buddhist sign of luck, peace and strength, temporarily and illegitimately appropriated by the Nazis as a symbol of the opposite.

I don’t know if the N-word will ever become an inoffensive part of our mainstream vocabulary, and I don’t know if the swastika will ever symbolize anything other than hatred.  But I do hope both things happen someday.  Because words and symbols have no power unless we bestow it upon them, and what we can bestow, we can remove.  If those victimized by the N-word and the swastika are somehow able to sap their evil, then maybe we would be closer to having moved on from those particular atrocities, and the heinous connotations of that word and of that symbol would become relics of a bygone era.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Day of Darkness

A colony of ants lives peacefully in the nest they’ve industriously built in the grass, a few feet away from a suburban sidewalk.  They are happy there and go merrily about their business, metamorphosing from larva to pupa to adult, caring for their queen, maintaining and growing the nest, foraging for food.

Meanwhile, at one of the homes on the same suburban street, Kyle, 15, and his brother Jeff, 12, get ready to go to school.  They finish their breakfast, grab their book bags and head out the door.  Their school bus picks them up at the corner, so they need to walk half a block.  They hit the sidewalk and start walking.

There is much activity at the ant colony.  Leaves brought in by foragers must be cut into pieces to be placed in fungal gardens.  Larvae must be fed.  The nest needs constant maintenance.

As they walk down the sidewalk, the boys push each other around, as brothers are wont to do.   They playfully jostle each other all the way to the bus stop.  As they near the stop, Kyle gives Jeff a hard shove, causing the 12 year-old to stumble off the sidewalk.  Jeff’s sneaker comes down...

Suddenly, day turns into night at the nest.  But it is much too early for that, and it happens much too quickly.  The ants look up in astonishment and wonder.

… and lands right in the middle of the nest.  

Catastrophe.  Devastation.  Unspeakable destruction.  The darkness that impossibly descended from the sky hits the nest with indescribable force.  Most of the nest is destroyed.  There are millions of casualties.

The school bus arrives.  Kyle and Jeff climb aboard.

As they slowly rebuild their nest and mourn their dead, the devastated, bewildered surviving ants try to make sense of what happened.  Some say the crushing darkness from above was sent down by their Creator, in punishment for their non-belief.  Others are convinced that the ants that were killed must have been targeted by the Creator for their non-traditional ways, or non-traditional thoughts (in the case of those who did not display any wayward tendencies).   Although a small number of ants do not subscribe to either of those theories and fervently hold that no ant truly understands what happened or why, they are drowned out by those who believe in the various punishment scenarios.  

The minority of ants who refuse to believe that the “Day of Darkness”, as the event is now known, was a divine act are ostracized by the others.   They begin to be called “The Apostates”.  Some of the more fanatical ants begin to circulate a theory: the Creator allowed some of The Apostates to survive the Day of Darkness so that the surviving true believers would recognize that non-belief was its true cause.  The Creator, say the fanatical ants, who call themselves “The Knot of Truth”, made it clear through His actions that there is only one way to appease Him and make absolutely sure that there will never again be a Day of Darkness.  The ants must “purify” the colony by eliminating The Apostates and their heresy.

Although the “Purification” plan put forth by The Knot of Truth is initially met with some opposition, the fear of another Day of Darkness trumps everything else.  The Apostates are rounded up and summarily executed.  The Knot of Truth becomes the spiritual leadership of the colony.  Belief in The Creator becomes law.

The colony’s new dogma states that the ants had strayed from their Creator’s teachings, with the Day of Darkness the inevitable consequence.  They have purified the colony and are now living their lives in accordance with their Creator’s plan (as interpreted, in detail, by the Knot of Truth).  They will therefore never face another Day of Darkness.

The next morning, Kyle and Jeff walk out of their house on their way to the bus stop.  As they walk down the sidewalk, the boys push each other around, as brothers are wont to do.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Shamed at Dunkin'

I enjoy a small coffee (plenty of cream, no sugar) at a table by a window.  There’s a Starbucks across the street, but I like Dunkin’s coffee better, and, more importantly, Dunkin’s Internet connection is far superior (which is not saying much, but still).  While sipping the thick, creamy beverage I read “A Wanted Man” (Jack Reacher #17) by Lee Child, which, as usual for Reacher, is going much too fast.  In the book, Reacher muses, while driving, about numbers.  The number three, in particular.  “Take any three consecutive numbers, the largest divisible by three, and add them up, and then add the digits of the result, again and again if necessary , until just a single number is left.  That number will be six.”

Obviously I have no choice but to stop reading, switch over from the Kindle app on my Nexus 7 to the Calculator app, and check this out.  Amazingly, it works.  Every single time.  Pretty cool.  

While marveling over this mathematical quirk, I notice the homeless man standing in the sidewalk across the street.  Filthy.  Mumbling to himself.  Passers by swing wide to avoid him.  The homeless man crosses the street and walks into the Dunkin’ Donuts.  Sits at a table.  Just sits there.  Blank eyes looking forward, at nothing.  Still mumbling.  Hair tangled and stuck in place by its filth.  The skin on his face like old, yellowed paper.  His mouth partially open, revealing a handful of rotting teeth.  His stench fills the restaurant.

There are a few other customers sitting in tables, and a few more in line.  No one pays much attention to the homeless guy.  At least it seems that way.

I go back to Reacher.

I am once again distracted, not by anything in the book this time, but by someone speaking loudly. I look in the direction of the voice.  It belongs to a man that was in line when the homeless guy came in.  He hands the homeless guy a Dunkin’ Donuts brown paper bag, and a paper cup.  He says, “Here you go, buddy”, and walks out the door with his own paper bag and paper cup.

The expression on the homeless guy’s face reflects at first incredulity, then delight, then appreciation.  His demeanor while opening the bag is not unlike that of a child opening a present on Christmas morning.  The contents: ham and cheese on a french roll.  He gulps it down in four large bites.  After a few minutes he leaves the restaurant, sipping the contents of the paper cup.  Eyes a bit less blank.  No longer mumbling.

By no means are any of his long term problems any closer to being solved than they were a half hour ago.  But, for a few moments at least, maybe more, he is satisfied and happy.  

My feelings are complex.  I’m happy that the homeless guy got a good meal.   I wonder if he comes here often, sits down, and waits for someone to take pity on him and give him some food.   If so, I wonder how often he is successful.  I admire the man who took it upon himself to simply do the right thing, without making a big deal out of it.

But mostly I feel shame, because, upon seeing a fellow human being clearly in dire straits, my own reaction was to go back to my book.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Movie Review: Enough Said

In baseball, as in most sports, if you can’t remember anything about the umpiring crew, it generally means that they called a good game.   The same goes for most aspects of moviemaking.  When the work is done well, it magically disappears.  Well conceived costumes become clothing.  Well designed sets become places.  Effective props become things.  Most importantly, characters become people, and the screenplay dissolves into what those people do and say naturally, being true to themselves as they deal with the situations life brings them.  Achieving that magic, as difficult as it is, only results in the potential for a great movie, since the situations and interactions still need to be engaging, and we must understand and care about the people.

Enough Said” succeeds in each of those aspects.

The fact that you are watching actors play roles from a screenplay falls away completely.  Instead, you are watching interesting people that you care about deal with fascinating situations.  Real life is unfolding before you.  There are laugh-at-loud moments, tear-jerking moments and awkward moments.  And they all ring true.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose comedic talent belies her significant dramatic depth,  plays Eva, a middle aged, divorced massage therapist with a daughter (Ellen, played touchingly by Tracey Fairaway) about to leave home for college.  Her married friends, Sarah and Will (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone, respectively) take her to a party where she meets both a potential client (Marianne, played by Catherine Keener) and Albert (James Gandolfini, in one of his final screen performances), who later asks around for her phone number.  For those of us who knew Mr. Gandolfini primarily as Tony Soprano, his endearing performance here showcases his versatility as an actor and exacerbates our sense of loss at his untimely passing.  The dedication that appears in the end credits is emblematic of the movie itself.  It is neither pretentious nor grandiose; just simple and heartfelt: “For Jim”.  

Eva and Albert, who has a college bound daughter of his own, hit it off on a first date that quickly evolves into a comfortable, playful relationship.  There is a quite predictable plot twist that challenges the relationship, but instead of milking it endlessly for cheap laughs the film simply allows the situation to play out in a manner true to the characters, giving us even more insight into their fears and insecurities.  There is a scene in which Eva is “caught” in a bit of a deception, and Ms. Louis-Dreyfus artfully resists the temptation to  ham it up, sitcom style, and instead reels us in with sympathy, not only because of the pain she is feeling at that moment, but also because we understand exactly why she had no choice but to place herself there.   We identify with and care about Eva, and the same goes for Albert and his reaction to the situation.  

In addition to the relationship between Eva and Albert, there are several interesting, evocative subplots involving Eva and Albert’s relationships with their daughters and their exes, Eva’s uncertain treatment of Ellen’s needy friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson), Sarah and Will’s layered relationship with each other and with their maid and Eva’s daily travails at work.

In case we had forgotten, “Enough Said” emphatically reiterates that a movie can be hilarious without stooping to the laziness of gratuitous vulgarity, and can deal with sexual topics with restraint, maturity and intelligence.   The film is as satisfying as we genuinely hope Eva and Albert’s relationship will turn out to be.