From the book nook

• I just finished Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, written by the 37-year-old neurosurgeon as he was dying of cancer. His love and respect for both medicine and literature reflect conversations in our house, but the book is based on human connections even more fundamental than the subjects he studied. Like Montaigne, like Beckett, he is driven to identify what matters in life and how to go on in the face of death.

Straightforward in tone, the memoir made me wonder why I’d heard it was hard to read, even heartbreaking. Then I got to the last 50 pages and found the ending pulsing with sharp emotional flashes. It made me want to live better.

• Starting last week, S and I collaborated on a book that I’ve ordered in print. We made blind contour drawings to accompany a section of my late grandmother’s journal about her childhood in 1930s Indianapolis and young adulthood in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. All told, it took about four days, and I’m tickled pink.

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• This new biography is worth reading: Angela Merkel, Europe’s most Influential Leader. It caught my attention at the library last week, partly because I have my eye on Der Spiegel in addition to my usual online news rounds, partly because of Merkel’s humane, welcoming response to the Syrian refugees.

She’s exactly my mother’s age. Passages of note: “when Angela had become Chancellor Merkel, her attention to detail and her obsession with getting the facts right became almost legendary” (42).

Something that is sorely missing here in the U.S.: “that most German ideal of Bildung (education), the ideal that public servants should be intellectuals” (86).

• I’m finding some enlightenment in listening to the audiobook of The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer. (Available to read free here.) He’s a retired professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, knows a lot about why authoritarian leaders and followers are the way they are, and intentionally wrote in an accessible, straight-shooting manner.

Another audio book recommendation: John McWhorter’s Words on the Move: Why English Won’t –and Can’t–Sit Still (Like, Literally), read by the author. He advocates translating Shakespeare just enough so that the 10% of the Early Modern English text that is no longer intelligible to us would become clear again. Fascinating stuff.

The Paris Librarian by mystery writer Mark Pryor is a worthy winter break fireside read.

• Tana French’s mystery novel The Trespasser has been out for months and I’ve been saving it just for this break. It didn’t disappoint–she’s still one of the finest novelists working within a defined genre.

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Two happy things

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Christmas Corgi! Tasha got one of her Christmas presents early, a super-soft coat she’s not entirely sure about; she sits still in it, and minces carefully rather than running. It cracks me up–she’s like a little girl in a new fancy dress, afraid to move and spoil the effect.

The Seattle Sounders won the MLS cup! It was quite a game, decided in the end by penalty kicks, which amps the tension and subsequent yells of pride and disappointment. I even had a proxy cheering in the stands there in Toronto, student J. Someone should make a documentary on this season–there’s a lot of dramatic possibility. At one point, the Sounders were second to last in the Western conference, star player Clint Dempsey had an irregular heartbeat and couldn’t play the rest of the season, new star player Nico Lodeiro came on board, head coach Sigi Schmid was fired, the team rallied under new head coach Brian Schmetzer, they turned the season around, and in the end, won the Major League Soccer cup for 2016. It’s been called “the wildest season in MLS soccer” (Will Parchman).

I like the way the team is a microcosm of social liberal values in action; a confirmation that individual liberty requires a level of social justice, in which the good of the community is directly increased by supporting the individual.

We see this in the way the team is comprised of players from many different countries, working together in the service of something bigger than national identity.

MLS regulations permit teams to name eight players from outside of the United States in their rosters. However, this limit can be exceeded by trading international slots with another MLS team, or if one or more of the overseas players is a refugee or has permanent residency rights in the USA.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Seattle_Sounders_FC_players

International players regularly on the Sounders’ field include: Osvaldo Alonso from Cuba, Alvaro Fernandez and Nicolas Lodeiro from Uruguay, Oneil Fisher from Jamaica, Eric Friberg from Sweden, Andreas Ivanschitz from Austria, Joevin Jones from Trinidad and Tobago, Tyrone Mears from England, Roman Torres from Panama, Nelson Valdez from Paraguay, and keeper Stefan Frei from Switzerland.

When helping international players adjust to life in the US, “There is kind of a standard of care you could say,” said FC Dallas technical director Fernando Blavijo.

“Teams realize that players are their biggest asset,” said Richard Motzkin, an agent. “You should take care of your most important assets and in that vein, setting up systems to help facilitate those transitions are important.”

And so we see that this is not bleeding-heart liberalism; this is action steered by compassion that is ultimately good for the organization–it is liberalism in the sense of largeness of vision, an understanding that putting resources toward individuals who need those resources will, in the end, benefit the large organization.

 

 

Safe

“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system” (53).

K avoided tragedy today but not trauma. Between classes a person in the same hallway had an assault rifle, at first concealed in a guitar case. As campus police shouted at everyone to get down and stay still, the person began running toward K’s end of the hall.

The suspect was arrested before anyone was directly threatened, and K was ushered out of the building safely.

As I talked with K this evening, I drew from a book I’ve recently finished: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, published in 2014. (You can read a terrific review here.)

It was lent to me by my colleague BH, and it’s a fascinating investigation into interpersonal neurobiology: “the study of how our behavior influences the emotions, biology, and mind-sets of those around us” (2).

On trauma:“Traumatized people have a tendency to superimpose their trauma on everything around them and have trouble deciphering whatever is going on around them” (17).

On how trauma affects the imagination: It curtails the ability to let our minds play and demolishes the mental flexibility that is the hallmark of imagination. (17)

Paradoxically, that seems to be one of the very things that can most help in overcoming trauma: as van der Kolk calls it, restructuring our inner maps. He explains, “It’s as if you could go back into the movie of your life and rewrite the crucial scenes. You can direct the role-players to do things they failed to do in the past” (301). Drawing pictures, writing stories, acting it out, recounting, “reexperiencing the past in the present and then reworking it in a safe and supportive ‘container’ can be powerful enough to create new, supplemental memories [that]…do not erase bad memories” (302).

He tells us that we stay traumatized until we can integrate the trauma into our lives and greet new experiences without outsized fear.

As for me, I’m so very glad K and everyone else on campus is safe. This is yet another incident that confirms the urgent need for vast reforms in gun laws. Washington’s attorney general is on the right track.

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.  is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass, as well as a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

November Happenings

Early in the month, we took the girls to see Portuguese Fado singer Mariza. This is the second time B, K, and I have seen her perform here in Seattle, and we found that Mariza’s style and substance has evolved.

This interview  partially explains her evolution to include quieter, intensely emotional songs. I was strongly reminded of Jacques Brel, whose “songs were written not to be sung but to be performed. He delivered them with such pained and profound emotion that he, famously, ended each concert dripping with sweat.” Fado expresses disquiet, longing, loss, and as sung by Mariza, it was a prescient expression of many of us in late November.

20161112_193953K won her category at the Puget Sound chapter Fall competition of NATS! We are so proud of her.

2016-11-17-19-00-2013 years old! A. recently read or heard about the concoction called Ambrosia Salad, and asked for that instead of birthday cake. 🙂

2016-11-20-13-16-15Opening gifts at his party here.

2016-11-24-09-35-01This year’s Turkey Trot was sloshy, muddy, rainy, and cold but our times were better than last year! S continues to be an encouraging and inspiring personal trainer–I’m so grateful for her positive attitude.

2016-11-24-14-02-45Peaceful, quiet, calm Thanksgiving afternoon with the nuclear family, including Tasha.

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Everyone (but Tasha dog) soaking up the beauty at the Bloedel Reserve.

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2016-11-25-12-47-32Gratitude when I wake, gratitude as I eat, gratitude as I walk, read, talk, write, ruminate, run, sleep. This is the way.

 

 

Identity

Personal identity: a concept worth investigating in nearly every work of literature and art.

The etymology of the word is an interesting angle; identity (from Latin idem) means “the same”, so I suppose maintaining the same characteristics over time gives us our identity.

The Picture of Dorian Gray raises the issue of exerting influence over others’ identities and being open to influence. K’s character, Sibyl Vane, undergoes a radical shift in her personal identity–from actress/chanteuse to beloved and lover of Dorian. This is the important take-away: In the first identity, she is an independent agent. In the second, she is dependent on someone else to help her maintain that identity. Therein lies the tragedy.

Look: K on the cover! The article inside neglects to mention Scott Breitbarth, the musical director and choreographer for the show, so this is my shout-out to the brilliant work he’s done!

2016-10-30-09-57-21We went to the 5th Avenue’s production of Man of La Mancha last night, and this was the question the play raised for me:

How does a person’s commitment to their personal identity play out for tragedy or triumph?

A truth about life: change is all there ever is. So does someone inflexible in their personal identity suffer? Similarly, does someone too malleable or changeable suffer?

Man of LaMancha reminded me of 1984, which I’m re-reading right now. The scene with the Knight of the Mirrors who disabuses Quixote of his illusions is strikingly similar to the later O’Brien scenes with Winston Smith. Smith, who looks in a mirror and has a difficult time coming to terms with the person he is, or was, or will be.

 

 

Late October

2016-10-22-14-43-06Grading: this is currently my favorite set-up. Screenless.

2016-10-25-16-39-02Really thoughtful student S made cookies for us!

2016-10-25-16-46-01Quince jelly from the Bs. This is the most amazing concoction. Like honey and wine and sunlight.

I spent Friday evening (the pay-what-you-can show) and Saturday (the opening night) at BHS’s fall play The Picture of Dorian Gray:

2016-10-27-20-08-54This is K singing Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as Sibyl Vane in a desperate and bereft state. It absolutely works–K and the rest of the cast are superb, the script is a brilliant adaptation by my colleague K Polinsky, and the period costumes are delightful.

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2016-10-01-12-50-48This is K at 6 days old–mouth, nose, eyes, all the same. Fiery spirit, intense personality, love of flannel, all the same.

I’d given my Sounders playoff ticket away so I could go to the Thursday Dorian Gray show; a good decision–while B was on his way home from the match, I watched the highlight videos of Valdez’s score and Frei’s saves more than once. Soccer is strange in the way that life is strange–many slow stretches and then things happen very very quickly. It’s a relief to watch the re-play, to analyze, to dissect, to understand.

Watching Valdez and trying to determine whether he was offside makes me think of recent class discussions. I’ve been teaching The Winter’s Tale in AP Lit and talking with my seniors about epistemology–how do we know what we think we know? Sometimes it’s because we trust our eyes, our senses. Sometimes we reason something out. Sometimes we trust an authority’s say-so. Sometimes there is a strong, bright feeling, an intuition.

Lull

We’ve weathered one storm system without too much damage, and now this is the lull before the big storm. Alexander McCall Smith graciously kept his speaking engagement here at the BHS commons this wet and windy afternoon, and it was entirely delightful!

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(Fun connection to my life: He is the grandson of the doctor who founded Hokianga Hospital in Rawene, NZ, G.M. Smith.) His gentle wit, the way he giggles at his own tales, the string of anecdotes from around the world–I could listen to him for a couple of hours, even though in principle I agree with his view that no one should go on about anything for longer than 50 minutes.

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He spoke about his writing process: Wake at 4 a.m. and write for two or three hours, turning out an average of 1,000 words per hour. This is very unusual for a writer, and even more unusual because he very rarely revises. For him, the stories just come out the way  they are meant to be; he taps into a subconscious part of his brain that is constantly examining and questioning the world.

He said he doesn’t hear the characters’ voices, but rather hears rhythms and fits their words to the rhythms.

I’ve a penchant for noir, and McCall Smith doesn’t really write noir. His mysteries are gentle, almost employing the genre as a pretext to examine the humanity and warmth that we are capable of, rather than the dark complexity of, say, Mankell’s world. That being said,  I’m a big fan of McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana, and the Isabel Dalhousie Mystery series, set in Edinburgh. Today he told some stories from his 44 Scotland Street series, and I’m intrigued–they’re on my to-read list.

The New York Times reviewed his short story collection recently–I love the way that review ends: “These stories trust in the liberal, humane values that are at the heart of all McCall Smith’s fiction. Can one have too much of that hopefulness? I doubt it.”

McCall Smith’s themes are above all, compassionate.  His books are soothing, even lulling. Though comparatively sweet and therefore seemingly less important than fiction that exposes a grim and splintery world, I would argue that right now, we’ve all had enough of that.

A ‘lull’ can connote a false sense of security, but it can also mean a welcome relief from a storm. Thank you, Alexander McCall Smith.

 

 

Family photos

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A surprisingly bright October morning at Fay Bainbridge with a fabulously talented photographer friend = family pictures to share!

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The family picture wall in our house is full of the kids as babies and really young children. Photos can be a sort of stagnant story we tell ourselves, and it’s time to update the visual story.

Part mythology, part mirror, portrait photographs have the potential not only to capture a particular moment, but also to show us who we are.

I’ve been reading and analyzing Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray with my seniors, so a portrait’s potential symbolism has been on my mind.

Some of K’s senior photos! We love this beautiful person so very much.

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Photo credit: M. W. at http://www.falafelandthebee.com