Friday, February 27, 2009 2/27/09--Astaire, Rogers, and Acting

In today's excerpt-the legendary duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the art of acting. Do great actors feel more emotion than the rest of us? Or less?:

"However much American moviegoers loved them together, however earnestly each tried to put the best face on things, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, without despising each other, probably did not all that much like each other either. Although their social class origins were not so very different, he had climbed higher in the world than she, and she may have felt that he, with his socialite wife, his Anglophiliac manner and style, looked down on her. She was over-, he under-, stated. She was pure show biz, which is to say gaudy, in a way that he, though in show business all his life, somehow avoided being.

"Neither much liked the notion of being subsumed as part of a team: Astaire had already done that with his sister [Adele]; Rogers thought of herself as much more than a mere dancer (she did, after all, go on to win an Oscar for her role in Kitty Foyle), and doubtless sensed that, good as the two of them were together, Fred Astaire somehow outshone her. Astaire even wrote to Leland Hayward, his agent, after the success of The Gay Divorcee, that he wished never again to be part of a fixed team in his movie career, and especially not with Ginger Rogers. ...

"Astaire even had a contract drawn up with a clause that Ginger Rogers could not appear in more than three of the five movies he had signed on to do for RKO. In fact, they eventually did ten movies together. ...

"The relative longevity of their partnership is explained by their popularity as a team, which translated into heavy profits. The success of the early Astaire-Rogers movies--The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, Swing Time--was said to have been the single reason behind the financial rescue of RKO Studios. As a team they were long at or near the top of various popularity polls for movie stars. Astaire drew a salary of $100,000 for the earlier of his movies with Ginger Rogers and had a share in the gross, which made him a rich man. Money and fame are not bad reasons to bury tensions or even hide complicated feelings. Still, can actors completely fake charm of the kind that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers combined to exude in the marvelous movies they made together?

"My guess is that they can fake it, and that Astaire and Rogers did so supremely well. It's called being a pro. Many are the theories of acting--Stanislavsky's, the Actors Studio's, to name only the more modern--but an older theory of acting, one devised by Denis Diderot, the Enlightenment writer and editor of the great French Encyclopedie, holds that the truly superior actor, far from feeling more than the rest of us, far from being able to delve into the well of his deep feeling when it is required by his art, the truly superior actor actually feels nothing. In his Paradox of the Actor, Diderot writes: 'It is extreme sensibility which makes a mediocre actor; mediocre sensibility which makes the multitude of bad actors; and a total lack of sensibility which produces sublime actors.' The feeling man or woman, in other words, is likely to be the less successful artist. Feeling gets in the way; it isn't finally what the art of acting is primarily about."

Joseph Epstein, Fred Astaire, Yale, Copyright 2008 by Joseph Epstein, pp. 94-97.

Thursday, February 26, 2009 2/26/09--Extramarital Sex

In today's encore excerpt--data on extramarital sex from Jared Diamond, UCLA professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and winner of the National Medal of Science:

"People have many reasons to lie when asked whether they have committed adultery. That's why it is notoriously difficult to get accurate scientific information about this important subject. One of the few existing sets of hard facts emerged as a totally unexpected by-product of a medical study, performed nearly a half a century ago for a different reason. That study's findings have never been revealed until now.

"I recently learned those facts from the distinguished medical scientist who ran the study. (Since he does not wish to be identified in this connection, I shall refer to him as Dr. X.) In the 1940s Dr. X was studying the genetics of human blood groups, which are molecules we acquire only by inheritance. ... The study's research plan was straightforward: go to the obstetrics ward of a highly respectable U.S. hospital; collect blood samples from one thousand newborn babies and their mothers and fathers; identify the blood groups in all the samples; and then use standard genetic reasoning to deduce the inheritance patterns.

"To Dr. X's shock, the blood groups revealed that nearly 10 percent of those babies to be the fruits of adultery! ... There could be no question of mistaken maternity: the blood samples were drawn from an infant and its mother soon after the infant emerged from its mother. A blood group present in a baby but absent from its undoubted mother could only have come from its father. Absence of the blood group from the mother's husband as well showed conclusively that the baby had been sired by some other man, extramaritally. The true incidence of extramarital sex must have been considerably higher than 10 percent ... since most bouts of intercourse do not result in conception.

"At the time Dr. X made his discovery, research on American sexual habits was virtually taboo. He decided to maintain a prudent silence, never publishing his findings, and it was only with difficulty that I got his permission to mention his results without betraying his name. However, his results were later confirmed by several similar genetic studies whose results did get published. Those studies variously showed between 5 and 30 percent of American and British babies to have been adulterously conceived. Again, the proportion of the tested couples of whom at least the wife had practiced adultery must have been higher, for the same ... reasons as in Dr. X's study."

Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee, Harper Perennial, Copyright 1992 by Jared Diamond, pp. 85-86.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009 2/25/09--Business Information

In today's excerpt--writing in the late 1990s, the authors contrast the business leaders of the immediate post-World War II period to contemporary businesses leaders raised on a steady diet of business publications, management books, MBAs and consultants--and conclude that it is unadorned critical thought, not the current business fad, that brings business success. As T.S. Eliot lamented in Choruses from The Rock:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? :

"During the 1990s virtually an entire generation of top executives left their businesses, retired, or passed away. Many of these executives had achieved legendary status--[David] Packard at Hewlett-Packard, [Akio] Morita at Sony, [Sir John Harvey-] Jones at ICI, [Sam] Walton at Wal-Mart, and [Jan] Carlzon at SAS, to name a few. These leaders shared some notable characteristics that differentiate them from their successors. They lived through the Great Depression, which crippled the world's economy in the 1930s; they experienced the horrors of World War II; they served their business apprenticeships in the postwar rebuilding period of the late 1940s and early 1950s. But what may differentiate them most from their counterparts of today is the issue of management.This 'old guard' was the last of a breed of executives who developed their management skills almost entirely in the workplace. They were building businesses while management 'science'--if it can be called that--was still in its infancy.

"In 1948 ... the Harvard Business Review had a robust circulation of fifteen thousand. That number had reached nearly two hundred fifty thousand by the mid 1990s. The Harvard Business School itself and the few other graduate business schools in existence in 1948 awarded 3,357 MBAs--a far cry from the 75,000 MBAs awarded forty-five years later. Even McKinsey, the best known of consulting companies, was a relatively small firm with annual revenues of under $2 million, compared with 1994 revenues of more than $1.2 billion. Management guru Peter Drucker was a youngster of thirty-nine. Seven-year-old Tom Peters was probably 'in search of' a new bike.

"The executives of [the immediate post-war] period were not uneducated--in fact, many were extremely well educated--but they did not learn their approach to business from a business school, a management expert, a celebrated management book, or an outside consultant. Options such as these were not generally available. These executives learned their business skills in the industrial jungle. ...

"The forty-year-old executive of the 1990s, by contrast, probably holds one of the tens of thousands of MBAs awarded each year. His formal management education is supplemented by dozens of business periodicals and hundreds of management books. If, however, a situation seems resistant to even this mass of management wisdom, there are several hundred consulting firms and more than a hundred thousand consultants ready to provide additional management skill and knowledge. In 1993 businesses around the world spent $17 billion for consultants' recommendations, and AT&T alone lavished $347.1 million on outside expertise.

"That does not necessarily mean that the business executives of the past were superior to those of the present. ... Still, we suspect that if those [managers] of years gone by found themselves at the helm of any of today's extraordinarily complex and competitive business enterprises, they would steer a straight and successful course."

Quinn Spitzer and Ron Evans, Heads You Win!, Fireside, Simon and Schuster, Copyright 1997 by Kepner-Tregoe, Inc., pp. 15-17

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 2/24/09--Mozart and Death

In today's excerpt--the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), death and happiness:

"Order is imperiled in Mozart's works but ultimately prevails: it is this sense of form that allows us in large measure to account for Karl Barth's profound observation that whereas 'darkness, chaos, death, and hell do appear [in Mozart's music] ... not for a moment are they allowed to prevail.' Barth continues his meditation:

" 'What occurs in Mozart is rather a glorious upsetting of balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall, though without disappearing, in which joy overtakes sorrow without extinguishing it. ... This feature is enough to mark Mozart's church music as truly sacred. ...Barth was right to suspect that the sense of life finding its embodiment in musical form had a religious dimension too. In a famous letter of 4 April 1787, addressed to his gravely ill father (Leopold died on 28 May), Mozart wrote:

" 'As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity (you know what I mean) of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that--young as I am--I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose or disgruntled. For this blessing I daily thank my Creator.'

"Too urbane and civilized to be morose or disgruntled in company, Mozart was yet no stranger to life's shadows. And while he wrote to offer his father encouragement, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of a faith that allowed him to consider death to be the true goal of our existence and the final consoling turn. Nor is there any reason to believe that this faith was formed only during Mozart's last years. Our most profound convictions are formed and reformed over an entire lifetime. The same conviction of 1787 is present, albeit inchoate and naively expressed, in a letter the fourteen-year-old Mozart wrote from Bologna to his mother in Salzburg on 29 September 1770:

" 'I am sincerely sorry to hear of the long illness which poor jungfrau Martha has to bear with patience, and I hope that with God's help she will recover. But, if she does not, we must not be unduly distressed, for God's will is always best and He certainly knows best whether it is better for us to be in this world or in the next. She should console herself, however, with the thought that after the rain she may enjoy the sunshine.' "

Karol Berger, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, University of California Press, Copyright 2007 by the Regents of the University of California, pp. 189-190

Monday, February 23, 2009 2/23/09--The Twilight Zone

In today's excerpt-Rod Serling (1924-1975), his groundbreaking anthology science fiction TV series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), and the unfamiliar and uneasy loneliness of the suburbs:

"During the postwar years, average Americans in ever greater numbers deserted small towns and big cities to embrace the emergent concept of suburbia. Rod and [his wife] Carol Serling made that move, following commercial success, to a notably upscale aspect of the new American paradigm. But like so many other young adults of the 1950s, Serling experienced an uneasy sense of dislocation.

"Something essential, however hard to define, had been lost en route; some aspect of innocence, perhaps, that at least to a romantic imagination, once existed in our towns. Each such place had been unique, organically created over decades, taking on a shape and style all its own. Suburbia, in comparison, was defined by Pulitzer-prize winning author David Halberstam as 'the new social contract according to Bill Levitt.' Reacting to rampant blandness, residents began to yearn for the good old days, if less the reality of a bygone lifestyle than what Richard Schickel called 'an imagined past.' Our growing hunger for this mythic America shortly informed 'much of the new popular culture.' What would eventually come to be called The Nostalgia Craze would prove essential to The Twilight Zone from its earliest episodes. ..."On [this dislocation, the myth of normalcy, the dehumanizing effects of commercialism, the angst of the nuclear age, and] other subjects, Rod spoke truthfully and fearlessly. One early observer of TV hailed him as the medium's 'angry young man.' The only other contender: Edward R. Murrow, whose interview show followed Zone on Friday nights (1959-1960). What Murrow achieved in CBS's newsroom--integrity!--Serling pulled off at that network' entertainment arm.

"Earlier in the decade, Serling and other top talents openly addressed important issues during TV's brief 'golden age.' Colleagues included Reginald Rose (Twelve Angry Men), Paddy Chayefsky (Marty), and J. P. Miller (The Days of Wine and Roses). All turned out smart scripts for 'live' anthologies that dominated TV drama from 1948 to 1955. Then the price of sets lowered and TV became big business for mass entertainment. Serious drama was out; predictable potboilers were in. From that point on, Serling necessarily presented politics and philosophy in a foxier manner. ...

"Casting a seductive smile, Serling alone continued to convey on TV what every other serious writer wanted to say but wasn't allowed to. High-profile sponsors now acted as self-appointed censors, making certain that their products were presented in a context that offended no one. So Serling 'said something' by doing so indirectly, dropping confrontational realism for parable. During The Twilight Zone's five-year run (1959-1964), he employed imaginative/allegorical fiction to comment on (and sharply criticize) postwar America. 'On Zone,' Peter Kaplan claimed, 'the nightmare side of American life was opened up,' ... all the more frightening because stories took place close to home rather than in distant Transylvania. ... What initially seemed to be out-of-this-world dreams of darkness reflected a shadow-world existing on the edge of our brightly lit suburbs."

Douglas Brode and Carol Serling, Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone, Barricade, Copyright 2009 by Douglas Brode and Carol Serling, pp. 1, xv-xvi

Friday, February 20, 2009 2/20/09--The Last Great Economic Crisis

In today's excerpt-the last great economic calamity in U.S. history: the recession of 1981-82, a very different crisis than the one we now face. In the late 70s, inflation in excess of 10% was ravaging the economy, the result of loose monetary policy, oil shocks, and Vietnam-era spending. Some surveys of that time show that an astounding 70 percent of the Americans cited it as the major problem. By the mid-80s, inflation had returned to low levels after Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, a Jimmy Carter appointee, had attacked it with high interest rates, and then-president Ronald Reagan had allowed Volcker's approach. But the cost was high:

"Americans detested inflation. We seemed to have lost control, both as individuals and as a society, over our fate. ... Among government officials, there was a widespread fatalism about continued inflation. President Carter often seemed forlorn at the prospect. Early in 1980, he was asked at a press conference what he planned to do about the problem. He replied, 'It would be misleading for me to tell any of you that there is a solution to it.' His resignation was common. ... Later, Carter himself judged that inflation had been the decisive issue [in his election loss], more important than his mishandling of the Iranian hostage crisis. ...

"Inflation was rationalized as a reflection of the deeper ills of American society. It was not a cause of our problems; it was a consequence of our condition. Specifically, it was said to show that the nation was becoming ungovernable. Americans had more wants than could be met. ...

"Volcker [took the view that inflation was simply a monetary phenomenon-the government had printed too much money, and] took a sledgehammer to inflationary expectations. He raised interest rates, tightened credit, and triggered the most punishing economic slump since the 1930s. In December 1980, banks' 'prime rate' (the loan rate for the worthiest business borrowers) hit a record 21.5 percent. Mortgage and bond rates rose in concert. By the summer of 1981, consumers had trouble borrowing for homes and cars. Many companies couldn't borrow for new investment. Industrial production dropped 12 percent from mid-1981 until late 1982. In many industries, declines were steeper. In autos, it was 34 percent (from June 1981 to January 1982), and in steel it was 56 percent (from August 1981 to December 1982). By 1982 the number of business failures had tripled from 1979. Construction starts of new homes in 1982 were 40 percent below the 1979 level. Worse, unemployment exploded. By late 1982, it was 10.8 percent, which remains a post-World War II record. ...

"There was an outpouring of bills and resolutions to impeach Volcker, roll back interest rates, or require the appointment of new Fed governors sympathetic to farmers, workers, consumers, and small businesses. Rep. Jack Kemp (D-N.Y.), a prominent Republican 'supply-sider,' wanted Volcker to resign. In August 1982, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the Democratic floor leader, introduced the Balanced Monetary Policy Act of 1982, which would have forced the Fed to reduce interest rates.

"Reagan's popularity ratings collapsed. In May 1981, early in his presidency, Reagan's approval had reached a high of 68 percent. By April 1982, it was 45 percent (46 percent disapproved); by January 1983, it was 35 percent, the low point (56 percent disapproved). ...

"Even now, the social costs of controlling inflation seem horrendous. Over a four-year period (1979-82), the U.S. economy's output barely increased. Since 1950, there had been nothing like that. Unemployment peaked in 1982 near 11 percent-a figure that, a few years earlier, would have been widely judged inconceivable. ... The number of business failures in 1982 (24,908) was nearly 50 percent higher than in any other year since World War II, and it would double to 52,078 by 1984. From 1979 to 1983, farm income declined almost 50 percent."

Robert J. Samuelson, "Lessons from the Great Inflation," Reason, January 2009, pp. 51-5

Wednesday, February 18, 2009 2/18/09--Brain Cells

In today's excerpt-the brain can grow new neurons, but these disappear unless cognitively challenged:

"Fresh neurons arise in the brain every day. ... Recent work, albeit mostly in rats, indicates that learning enhances the survival of new neurons in the adult brain, and the more engaging and challenging the problem, the greater the number of neurons that stick around. These neurons are then presumably available to aid in situations that tax the mind. It seems, then, that a mental workout can buff up the brain, much as physical exercise builds up the body. ...

"In the 1990s scientists rocked the field of neurobiology with the startling news that the mature mammalian brain is capable of sprouting new neurons. Biologists had long believed that this talent for neurogenesis was reserved for young, developing minds and was lost with age. But in the early part of the decade Elizabeth Gould, then at the Rockefeller University, demonstrated that new cells arise in the adult brain--particularly in a region called the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory. ...

"Studies indicate that in rats, between 5,000 and 10,000 new neurons arise in the hippocampus every day. (Although the human hippocampus also welcomes new neurons, we do not know how many.) The cells are not generated like clockwork, however. Instead their production can be influenced by a number of different environmental factors. For example, alcohol consumption has been shown to retard the generation of new brain cells. And their birth rate can be enhanced by exercise. Rats and mice that log time on a running wheel can kick out twice as many new cells as mice that lead a more sedentary life. ...

"Exercise and other actions may help produce extra brain cells. But those new recruits do not necessarily stick around. Many if not most of them disappear within just a few weeks of arising. Of course, most cells in the body do not survive indefinitely. So the fact that these cells die is, in itself, not shocking. But their quick demise is a bit of a puzzler. Why would the brain go through the trouble of producing new cells only to have them disappear rapidly?

"From our work in rats, the answer seems to be: they are made 'just in case.' If the animals are cognitively challenged, the cells will linger. If not, they will fade away."

Tracey J. Shors, "Saving New Brain Cells," Scientific American, March 2009, pp. 47-48

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 2/17/09--The New Century

In today's excerpt-as the twentieth century unfolded, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and other artists reacted to the unprecedented and accelerating pace of change by repudiating the past and grasping for something new:

"The heroic daring of [the new] century lay in its conviction of absolute, unprecedented novelty. This is what the exhilarating notion of modernity meant: canceling all the accumulated wisdom of our forebears. ... Valiantly eager for the future, the Bauhaus instructor Oskar Schlemmer decreed in 1929 that 'One should act as if the world had just been created.'

"A new-born universe called for fresh tenants. Virginia Woolf accordingly reported, as if she were pinpointing an actual, verifiable event, that 'on or about December 1910 human character changed.' Rites of passage made this enigmatic transformation visible. How do human beings usually announce an altered identity? By changing the way they wear their hair. Men who wanted to be ruthlessly modern shaved their skulls, like the Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky or Johannes Itten, an instructor at the Bauhaus in Weimar. In the hirsute nineteenth century, sages - aspiring to the shagginess of Old Testament prophets - grew beards. For the glowering, bullet-headed Mayakovsky, the cranium was a projectile, made more aerodynamic by being rid of hair. For Itten, shaving announced his priestly dedication to the new world which the designers at the Bauhaus intended to build. ...

"Women had their own equivalent to those drastic masculine acts of self-mutilation. In 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story, 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair,' about a timid provincial girl for whom bobbing is a transition between two periods of life and two historical epochs. The new style ejects her from Madonna-like girlhood, when she was protectively cocooned in tresses, and announces her sexual maturity. Bernice fearfully acknowledges the revolutionary antecedents of the process. Driving downtown to the mens' barber-shop where the operation will be performed, she suffers 'all the sensations of Marie Antoinette bound for the guillotine in a tumbril;' the barber with his shears is an executioner. The French revolutionaries sliced off the heads of bewigged aristocrats in order to destroy an old world. Bernice, however, has her own hair chopped to fit her for membership of a new society: bobbing conferred erotic allure on girls who were previously dismissed as wallflowers. ...

"James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 testified to the change in human character announced by Virginia Woolf. Bodies now did things which, at least according to literature, they had never done before. A man ponders his own bowel movement, relishing its sweet smell. Later in the day he surreptitiously masturbates in a public place and takes part in a pissing contest, proud of the arc his urine describes. A woman has a noisily affirmative orgasm, or perhaps more than one. The same people did not think in paragraphs or logical, completed sentences, like characters in nineteenth-century novels. Their mental life proceeded in associative jerks and spasms; they mixed up shopping lists with sexual fantasies, often forgot verbs and (in the woman's case) scandalously abandoned all punctuation. The modern mind was not a quiet, tidy cubicle for cogitation. It thronged with as many random happenings as a city street; it contained scraps and fragments, dots and dashes, like the incoherent blizzard of marks on a modern canvas which could only be called an 'impression' because it represented nothing recognizable. "

Peter Conrad, Modern Times, Modern Places, Knopf, Copyright 1998 by Peter Conrad, pp. 14-15

Monday, February 16, 2009 2/16/09--America's Initial Position on Vietnam

In today's excerpt-France, essentially bankrupt in the aftermath of World War II, had lost its colony of Vietnam (Indochina) during the war, and wanted that colony back. But it with no military strength of its own, it needed the U.S.'s support and approval to reconquer Vietnam:

"Franklin Roosevelt had been especially opposed to the return of Indochina to French rule after the war. He had made a point of opposing colonialism in the Atlantic Charter and hoped to replace the colonial regimes in Southeast Asia with international trusteeships. On January 24, 1944, he told Secretary of State Cordell Hull that he did not think Indochina should go back to France. 'France has had that country--thirty million inhabitants for nearly one hundred years,' he said, 'and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning.' ...

"[Yet when] Truman came to office, French sovereignty over Indochina was recognized. But in 1945 the United States made it clear to the French foreign minister, Georges Bidault, that Washington was not happy with French colonial practices. Self-government looking toward 'eventual independence' was the favored American outcome. ... The State Department's Office of Far Eastern Affairs strongly argued that Washington should support Asian nationalism and oppose French colonialism--a continuation of Roosevelt's policy. But the Office of European Affairs cautioned policymakers to pay attention to France's central role in European affairs; ... this meant taking care not to alienate French policymakers or put too much pressure on the French government. ...

"With the outbreak of fighting in the north between the Viet Minh [Vietnamese nationalists] and the French troops in late 1946, [Undersecretary of State Dean] Acheson called in French ambassador Henri Bonnet that December. He told Bonnet that Washington would be prepared to use its good offices to facilitate a settlement in Indochina. He also urged the ambassador to tell the Foreign Ministry that any attempt by the French to reconquer the country through military force would be wrongheaded. ...

"Early in February, Acheson and Secretary of State [George] Marshall instructed their ambassador in Paris, Jefferson Caffery, to remind the French that colonial empires 'are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.' On the other hand, Caffery was informed that 'we do not lose sight [of the] fact that Ho Chi Minh has direct Communist connections and it should be obvious that we are not interested in seeing colonial empire administrations supplanted by philosophical and political organizations emanating and controlled by [the] Kremlin. Frankly, we have no solution of [the] problem to suggest,' Acheson admitted. The United States, in short, was determined to remain outside the conflict. ...

"[However, France believed that] granting full independence to Vietnam would set a precedent for France's negotiations with its other colonies, especially Tunisia and Morocco. French public opinion would oppose the collapse of their empire in such a short time, and therefore the government would fall, endangering the other policies that France was carrying out [in accordance with U.S. desires] in regard to German sovereignty and European unity."

James Chace, Acheson, Simon and Schuster, Copyright 1998 by James Chace, pp. 262-266.

Friday, February 13, 2009 2/13/09--Crying

In today's excerpt--sad crying versus protest crying:

"Some researchers now say that the common psychological wisdom about crying - crying as a healthy catharsis - is incomplete and misleading. Having a "good cry" can and usually does allow people to recover some mental balance after a loss. But not always and not for everyone, argues a review article in the current issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. ...

"In her book 'Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment,' Judith Kay Nelson, a therapist and teacher living in Berkeley, Calif., argues that the experience of crying is rooted in early childhood and people's relationship with their primary caregiver, usually a parent. Those whose parents were attentive, soothing their cries when needed, tend to find that crying also provides them solace as adults. Those whose parents held back, or became irritated or overly upset by the child's crying, often have more difficulty soothing themselves as adults.

" 'Crying, for a child, is a way to beckon the caregiver, to maintain proximity and use the caregiver to regulate mood or negative arousal,' Dr. Nelson said in a phone interview. Those who grow up unsure of when or whether that soothing is available can, as adults, get stuck in what she calls protest crying - the child's helpless squall for someone to fix the problem, undo the loss.

" 'You can't work through grief if you're stuck in protest crying, which is all about fixing it, fixing the loss,' Dr. Nelson said. 'And in therapy - as in close relationships - protest crying is very hard to soothe, because you can't do anything right, you can't undo the loss. On the other hand, sad crying that is an appeal for comfort from a loved one is a path to closeness and healing.'

"Tears can cleanse, all right. But like a flash flood, they may also leave a person feeling stranded, and soaked."

Benedict Carey, "The Muddled Tracks of All Those Tears," The New York Times, Health Section, February 2, 2009

Thursday, February 12, 2009 2/12/09--John Frum

In today's encore excerpt--Richard Dawkins, in his highly controversial book The God Delusion, writes about the "cargo cults" that arose in Pacific Melanesia and New Guinea during the 1930s, some of which are still in existence today:

"My main authority for the cargo cults is David Attenborough's Quest in Paradise, which he very kindly presented to me. The pattern is the same for all of them, from the earliest cults in the nineteenth century to the more famous ones that grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. It seems that in every case the islanders were bowled over by wondrous possessions of the white immigrants to their islands. ... The islanders noticed that the white peope who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as 'cargo' in ships or, later, planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk shuffling papers was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then, the 'cargo' must be of supernatural origin. ... Anthropologists have noted two separate outbreaks [of cargo cults] in New Caledonia, four in the Solomons, four in Fiji, seven in New Hebrides, and over fifty in New Guinea, most of them being quite independent and unconnected with one another. ...

"One famous cult on the island of Tanna ... is still extant. It is centered on a messianic figure called John Frum. ... It is not known whether he ever existed as a real man. ... He made strange prophecies, and he went out of his way to turn the people against the missionaries. Eventually he returned to the ancestors after promising a triumphal second coming bearing bountiful cargo. ... Most worryingly for the government, John Frum also prophesied that, on his second coming, he would bring new coinage, stamped with the image of a coconut. The people therefore got rid of all their money of the white man's currency. In 1941, this led to a wild spending spree; the people stopped working and the island's economy was seriously damaged. ... In the 1950s, Attenborough ... met the high priest [of the cult], a man called Nambas. Nambas referred to his messiah familiarly as John, and claimed to speak to him regularly by 'radio,' ... which consisted of an old woman with an electric wire around her waist who would fall in a trance and talk gibberish, which Nambas interpreted as the words of John Frum. ...

"It is believed that the day of John Frum's return will be February 15th, but the year is unknown. Every year on February 15th his followers assemble for a religious ceremony to welcome him. So far he has not returned, but they are not downhearted. ... [One cult devotee] says, 'If you can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ to come an' 'e no come, then I can wait more than nineteen years for John.' "

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Mariner Books, Copyright 2006 by Richard Dawkins, pp. 234- 238

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 2/11/09--The Demise of Kings

In today's excerpt--World War I had brought the demise of five emperors and eight kings--replaced by democracies, dictators and communist regimes--and so the British royal family felt obliged to reinforce the relevance of royalty. So the future King Edward VIII went on a 1919 goodwill tour of America, with an overwhelming reception not unlike that shown Princess Diana decades later. Edward gained lasting fame in 1936 when he abdicated his throne for his American bride, Wallis Simpson:

"With the collapse of the European dynastic system, the aristocracy in retreat, labour on the march and nationalism on the rise in the Empire, it was judicious to keep the Americans on board the royal bandwagon. As the King's advisers saw it, this was best accomplished by following Walter Bagehot's dictum that the monarchy needed to be visible, 'to acquire importance and popularity by being seen' ... The tour of the Prince of Wales to the United States in 1919, which followed on from an official visit to Canada, was a remarkable demonstration of this policy, though not without worries for the royal family and palace officials, who were well aware of the Prince's petulance and unreliability. ...

"To the Washington Press Club, he made an innocuous speech, which impressed his audience for its democratic air. ... More to the Prince's taste, for he was a mediocre speaker, were the dances laid on in his honour, at which many a debutante left in a swoon. As one of his aides said of him, 'he holds very strongly that he can influence American feeling even better by dancing with Senators' daughters than by talking to Senators.'

"The Prince was given a rapturous welcome without any unseemly incidents [in New York], though on one occasion a girl broke through the Broadway crowd and kissed him on the cheek. ...The British ambassador in Washington said that the Prince created 'a feeling of personal affection' in New York. For many Americans the affection had to do with his modernity, and his being the world's most glamorous bachelor. On departing from the United States on November 23rd, the Prince not only left a trail of adoring women in his wake but also inspired a romantic comedy, Just Suppose, by the playwright Albert E. Thomas.

"Whether the tour persuaded many Americans that the British monarchy was relevant to the modern world is questionable, but ... he became a major player in the emergence of America's obsession with fame, offering an exclusive and classy contrast to the instant creations of the media.

"For the American media, the Prince had iconic status; he was a celebrity who commanded respect and veneration less because of his actions than because of his royal descent. Edward did as much as anyone of his generation to foster the culture of celebrity in the United States. In turn, America's emerging popular culture propelled his fame worldwide."

Frank Prochaska, "A Prince in the Promised Land," History Today, December 08, pp. 15-19.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 2/10/09--Fred Astaire

In today's excerpt-charm, and the charming and iconic movie star Fred Astaire (1899-1987), whose dancing and singing put him at the very top of the Hollywood box office:

"Gifts come from God, presents from men and women. Serious talent is largely a gift from God. Charm is a present men and women bestow upon one another. No one is born charming, though charm comes fairly easily to some and is apparently quite impossible for others.

"Charm has to do with pleasing, light-handedly, sometimes to the point of fascination. He or she 'turned on the charm,' we say, by which we mean that a man or woman cast a spell, however fleeting. Temporary enchantment is the state to which a charming person brings us. Charm is a performance of a kind; it is virtuosity of the personality. Charm is confident, never strained, always at ease in the world. Charm is not pushing; it has a fine sense of proportion and measure, never goes too far, never stays too long. Charm is Noel Coward, entering a party wearing an ordinary suit, discovering every other man in the room dressed in white tie and tails, and blithely announcing, 'Please, I don't want anyone to apologize for overdressing.' ...

"Charm is elegance made casual, with emphasis on the casual. Charm mustn't seem too studied, forced, overdone. As Fred Astaire knew in his light bones, charm is bright, breezy, pleasing in and of itself. Charm knows when to turn itself off, when to depart, which is why it is invariably wanted back. Charm puts things interestingly, amusingly, surprisingly, sometimes originally, but never heavily, never too insistently. ...

"So many traditions of charm are European or Asian in their provenance. English charm, French charm, Italian charm are perhaps the chief variants. ... Americans can be amusing, hilarious, winning, immensely attractive, yet seldom full-out charming. ... Charm tends to the aristocratic, and American charm, in the nature of the case, doesn't quite qualify. When it attempts an aristocratic tinge, it comes off as fake English or stuffily European. American charm, to be truly American, has somehow to combine the aristocratic with the democratic, while straining out all traces of snobbery. ...

"American charm, at least as on exhibit in the movies, was best portrayed by Fred Astaire. Although he dressed English-aristocratic, in his movies Astaire always bore boy-next-door American names such as Pete Peters or Huck Haines. In most of Astaire's movies, his manner was sometimes just slightly big city wise-guy, but also gee-whiz small town. ... Once he is on the dance floor--just him and the night and the music--his charm kicks in, the girl is his, the movie's over, you walk out of the theater (or, more likely nowadays, rise from your couch before the television set), and, humming the flick's final song, wonder why in the hell it wasn't given to you to be able to move as lightly, as wonderfully, as absolutely charmingly as Fred Astaire."

Joseph Epstein, Fred Astaire, Yale, Copyright 2008, pp. 53-60

Monday, February 09, 2009 2/9/09--Socrates

In today's excerpt-Socrates. The popular image of Socrates as a man of immense moral integrity was largely the creation of his pupil Plato. If we examine evidence of his trial, argues Robin Waterfield, a different picture emerges, of a cunning politician opposed to Athenian democracy:

"We are blessed by having more extant words written about Socrates than any other man of his time, and cursed by the fact that we cannot tell which, if any, of these words are true. We can be certain that Plato and Xenophon were not committed to factual reporting. ... Socrates himself wrote nothing, and the work of his immediate followers, after his death, is not historically reliable.

"Generations of classical scholars ... [have] chosen to privilege Plato's portrait over those Xenophon's or anyone else. And so the Socrates who is likely to be familiar is Plato's Socrates: the merciless interrogator, committed to nothing but the truth, and determined, by means of incisive argument, to lay his own and our moral lives on a foundation of knowledge rather than opinion; a specialist in moral philosophy and moral psychology; a man of immense moral integrity, who was unjustly put to death (by drinking a cup of poison hemlock), aged sixty-nine or seventy, by the classical Athenian democracy under which he lived.

"But the uncomfortable truth is that little or nothing of this picture of Socrates may be accurate. Plato's description of Socrates' philosophy was actually a clever way of outlining and introducing Plato's own philosophy.

"In the course of his speech 'Against Timarchus', the politician Aeschines referred to Socrates' trial, saying that the Athenian people condemned him for having been the teacher of Critias. Aeschines was speaking in 345 BC, fifty-four years after Socrates' trial. ... Critias was one of the leaders of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic junta which Sparta imposed on the Athenians in 404 BC after defeating them in the Peloponnesian War. The Thirty aspired to turn Athens into a hierarchical, Spartan-style society. They restricted the number of citizens to 3,000, disarmed everyone else, awarded themselves the power of life or death over all non-citizens, and expelled all non-citizens from living within the city itself. Non- citizens were to be the farmers, manufacturers and merchants for the elite 3,000, while all political power was effectively vested in the Thirty and their henchmen. In order to see through their radical program of social reform, and in order to raise much needed cash (the city had been bankrupted by the war), they murdered about 1,500 people in a few weeks. Many more fled into exile.

"The Thirty were soon defeated. Critias was killed and the rest fled or were allowed to leave. But Critias had long been a friend and student of Socrates, who had became tainted by the association. [Socrates] tolerated even the excesses of the Thirty because he was, at least to a degree, sympathetic to their aims ... of favouring a Spartan-style society over Athenian democracy.

"There can be no doubt, then, that Socrates' trial was politically motivated, and there can be no doubt that, from the point of view of the Athenian democracy, he was guilty as charged. He was no true citizen of the democracy. There can be no doubt, either, that attention to the historical facts surrounding the case must lead us to qualify the Platonic-Xenophontic portrait of Socrates. He was put on trial as a political undesirable, and his radical political vision was indeed anti-democratic. This is not the Socrates with whom we are comfortably familiar, but it is more likely to be closer to the truth than the fictions that permeate the literary evidence."

Robin Waterfield, "The Historical Socrates," History Today, January 09, pp. 26-29

Friday, February 06, 2009 2/6/09--Arabian Nights

In today's excerpt-The Arabian Nights or Tales of 1001 Nights, dating from over one thousand years ago, did not include Alladin, Sindbad or Ali Baba until added by the Frenchman Antoine Galland three centuries ago:

"So which Nights are they, the Arabian, or the Thousand and One? ... The dual title neatly illustrates the hybrid nature of the work: it is part of Arabic and European literature, it contains stories and motifs that may be traced to Sanskrit, Persian and Greek literature, it hovers between the oral and the written, the popular and the highbrow, the pious and the scabrous, realism and fantasy. 'Arabian,' an epithet it acquired in Europe, is a misnomer, for it was neither conceived nor written in Arabia and the great majority of the stories are set in Iraq, Egypt or Persia rather than the Arabian Peninsula. The original Arabic title, Alf layla wa-layla, translates as 'A Thousand and One Nights' - but one should be cautious using the term 'original,' for the earliest mention in Arabic refers to a Persian book called Hazar afsana, 'A Thousand Tales.' An Arabic version, including the frame story about the resourceful and eloquent Shahrazad and the murderous misogynist King Shahriyar (a story that may be of Indian origin, whereas the names are Persian), was around in the tenth century, but the text is not preserved, presumably because it was deemed to be 'silly stuff,' in the words of a tenth-century scholar. It was anonymous, its language was not sufficiently polished, and it was too obviously fictional and fantastic in parts, all of which precluded its acceptance in highbrow circles. At the same time it was never as truly popular, in the sense of widespread among and beloved by the illiterate, as the monstrously lengthy and equally anonymous epic tales such as Sirat Antar or Sirat Bani Hilal.

"Then, in Europe three centuries ago, the Nights rose to the pinnacle of critical esteem when Antoine Galland produced his French translation, which spawned numerous other European versions. The Nights came to belong to World Literature, loved by children, novelists, poets and the general reading public, in the process contributing much to the formation and malformation of the Middle East in Western eyes. Galland did more than merely translate: he shaped the text into what became a more or less canonical form; as a result the Nights are as much a part of Western literature as of Arabic. To Western readers, the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad belong to the core of the Nights and are among the best-known tales; but they did not belong to the Arabic text until Galland added them. There is, in fact, no known Arabic text of the Aladdin and Ali Baba stories that predates Galland, and elements in the story of Aladdin suggest that it may have been a European fairy tale rather than an Arabic one. ... It was only in the course of the twentieth century that the Arabs themselves, in the wake of the Westerners, came to consider the Nights as something to be proud of and to study seriously instead of enjoying it in secret as a guilty pleasure. Many reactionary Muslims still consider it an unedifying text that ought to be banned or at least expurgated; but on the website, where a wealth of Arabic texts may be consulted and searched, the Nights have the highest number of hits (I should add that the Koran is not listed there). "

Geert Jan Van Gelder, "Naming of parts-or not," The Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 2009, p. 7

Thursday, February 05, 2009 2/5/09--Africa and Quinine

In today's encore excerpt--the mad scramble for Africa, during which western European powers took over essentially the entire continent in a thirty year period:

"For centuries, Europeans found penetration of Africa to be almost impossible: various diseases endemic to the tropical parts of the continent, especially malaria, restricted slave-trading Europeans to coastal enclaves free from the disease. By the nineteenth century, steamships may have permitted access to the interior on Africa's various rivers, but malaria still killed most of the explorers. Although the cause of malaria was not discovered until 1880 and the means of transmission by mosquito not uncovered until 1897, a process of trial and error led to the realization by mid-nineteenth century that the bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contained quinine, a substance that prevented malaria. British military personnel then successfully planted cinchona seeds in India and by the 1870s had greatly increased the supply of quinine to their troops.

"The subsequent 'scramble for Africa' may have been initiated in the 1870s by French insecurities from their defeat by the Germans in 1871, by the bizarre ... scheming of Belgium's King Leopold II, and by British determination to protect their colonial interests in India, but all of those motivations would have been irrelevant had it not been for ... quinine, ... for steamboats, or for new technology in weapons that killed more efficiently. ...

"The American Civil War and a European arms race in the 1860s and 1870s revolutionized guns. ... The pinnacle of perfection came in the 1880s with the invention of a reliable machine gun, named after its inventor Hiram Maxim. ... Africans put up a valiant and stiff resistance [to Europeans], but their technology was no match for the Maxim gun. The most famous and perhaps deadly instance was at the 1898 Battle of Obdurman where British troops confronted the 40,000-man Sudanese Dervish army. As described by Winston Churchill, ... 'The charging Dervishes sank down in tangled heaps.' ... After five hours, the British had lost 20 soldiers; 10,000 Sudanese were killed. As a saying had it:

"Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun and they have not.

"With such a technological advantage, by 1900 most of Africa had been divided up among a handful of European powers, in particular Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, with Portugal hanging onto its seventeenth-century colonial possession in Angola. Only Ethiopia, under the extraordinary leadership of King Menelik, defeated the weakest European power, Italy, and thereby maintained its independence."

Robert B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World, Rowman & Littlefield, Copyright 2006 by Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 142-144

Wednesday, February 04, 2009 2/4/09--Charlie Chaplin

In today's excerpt--Charlie Chaplin, who started in film with Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios and went on to make movies such as The Little Tramp and Modern Times, was by 1917 being paid $820,000 per year--$13 million in today's dollars--and had become the world's most popular entertainer. He had a very precise point of view on his craft, and was the first director to make extensive use of multiple takes to assure himself of the best possible outcome. Here he describes his methods:

"Comedy [movies] were an instant success because most of them showed policemen falling down coal holes, slipping into buckets of whitewash, falling off patrol wagons, and getting into all sorts of trouble. Here were men representing the dignity of the law, often very pompous themselves, being made ridiculous and undignified. The sight of their misfortunes at once struck the public funny bone twice as hard as if private citizens were going through like experience."Even funnier than the man who has been made ridiculous, however, is the man who, having had something funny happens to him, refuses to admit that anything out of the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity. Perhaps the best example is the intoxicated man who, though his tongue and walk give him away, attempts in a dignified manner to convince you that he is quite sober.

"He is much funnier than the man who, wildly hilarious, is frankly drunk and doesn't care a whoop who knows it. Intoxicated characters on the stage are almost always 'slightly tipsy' with an attempt at dignity, because theatrical managers have learned that this attempt at dignity is funny."For that reason, all my pictures are built around the idea of getting me into trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman. That is why, no matter how desperate the predicament is, I am always very much in earnest about clutching my cane, straightening my derby hat, and fixing my tie, even though I have just landed on my head. ...

"I not only plan for surprise in the general incidents of a picture, but I also try to vary my individual actions so that they, too, will come as a surprise. I always try to do the unexpected in a novel way. If I think an audience expects me to walk along the street while in a picture, I will suddenly jump on a car. If I want to attract a man's attention, instead of tapping him on the shoulder with my hand or calling to him, I hook my cane around his arm and gently pull him to me. ...

"I am often appalled at the amount of film I have to make in getting a single picture. I have taken as much as 60,000 feet in order to get the 2,000 feet seen by the public. ... It would take about twenty hours to run off 60,000 feet on the screen! Yet that amount must be taken to present forty minutes of picture."

Charlie Chaplin, "What People Laugh At,"American Magazine 86 (November 1918): pp. 34, 134-137

Tuesday, February 03, 2009 2/3/09--The Annaprasan

In today's excerpt-the annaprasan, the Hindu rite-of-passage ritual that marks the weaning, an infant's first intake of food other than milk. The ceremony invokes blessings from the gods with Vedic Mantras, and culminates in a finale which seeks to find out what career awaits the child. The author Jhumpa Lahiri's characters Ashima and Ashoke, who are in Boston thousands of miles from India and their relatives, hold the ceremony for their infant child Gogol:

"By February, when [the boy] Gogol is six months old, Ashima and Ashoke [hold] Gogol's annaprasan, his rice ceremony. There is no baptism for Bengali babies, no ritualistic naming in the eyes of God. Instead, the first formal ceremony of their lives centers around the consumption of solid food. They ask their friend Dilip Nandi to play the part of Ashima's brother, to hold the child and feed him rice, the Bengali staff of life, for the very first time. Gogol is dressed as an infant Bengali groom, in a pale yellow pajama-punjabi from his grandmother in Calcutta. The fragrance of cumin seeds, sent in the package along with the pajamas, lingers in the weave. A headpiece that Ashima cut out of paper, decorated with pieces of aluminum foil, is tied around Gogol's head with string. He wears a thin fourteen-karat gold chain around his neck. His tiny forehead has been decorated with considerable struggle with sandalwood paste to form six miniature beige moons floating above his brows. His eyes have been darkened with a touch of kohl. ...

"The food is arranged in ten separate bowls. Ashima regrets that the plate on which the rice is heaped is melamine, not silver or brass or at the very least stainless-steel. The final bowl contains payesh, a warm rice pudding Ashima will prepare for him to eat on each of his birthdays as a child, as an adult even, alongside a slice of bakery cake.

"[His mother] wears a silvery sari, a wedding gift worn for the first time, the sleeves of her blouse reaching the crook of her elbow. His father wears a transparent white Punjabi top over bell-bottom trousers. Ashima sets out plates ... of the biryani, the carp in yogurt sauce, the dal, the six different vegetable dishes she'd spent the past week preparing. The guests will eat standing, or sitting cross-legged on the floor. ...

"Gogol's feeding begins. It's all just a touch, a gesture. No one expects the boy to eat anything more than a grain of rice here, a drop of dal there--it is all meant to introduce him to a lifetime of consumption, a meal to inaugurate the tens of thousands of unremembered meals to come. ... The child opens his mouth obediently for each and every course. He takes his payesh three times. ... And then the grand finale, the moment they have all been waiting for. To predict his future path in life, Gogol is offered a plate holding a clump of cold Cambridge soil dug up from the backyard, a ballpoint pen, and a dollar bill, to see if he will be a landowner, scholar, or businessman. Most children will grab at one of them, sometimes all of them, but Gogol touches nothing. He shows no interest in the plate, instead turning away, briefly burying his face in his honorary uncle's shoulder."

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, Mariner, Copyright 2003 by Jhumpa Lahiri, pp. 38-40.

Monday, February 02, 2009 2/2/09--Acheson and Palestine

In today's excerpt--in the late 1940s, the possible establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine quickly became the most intractable foreign policy issue for President Harry Truman, for legendary U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and for the United States and United Nations diplomatic corps. The immediate issue involved whether support a plan to partition Palestine between the Arabs and Jews, which would lead to a Jewish state, or endorse the British plan to hand their mandate over Palestine to the United Nations:

"Acheson was never sympathetic to the establishment of a Jewish state, fearing that the mass emigration of Jews from postwar Europe into Palestine would lead to protracted war with the Arabs.

"Acheson ... believed that an Arab-Israeli conflict would then threaten American interests in the region and could lead to an American military involvement there. ... Nonetheless, ...Truman was becoming committed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In the wake of the Nazi persecutions of Jews, the moral issue was paramount for the president. ...

"In 1946, when Truman met with America's Middle East diplomats who warned him of the threat to American prestige because of statements indicating sympathy with Zionism, Truman responded: 'I am sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.'

"As undersecretary of state, Acheson had to contend with the Department's almost overwhelming opposition to American support for a Jewish state, [yet] ... on Yom Kippur, October 4, 1946, Truman declared his ... support for 'the creation of a viable Jewish state in control of its own immigration and economic policies in an adequate area of Palestine.' In effect, he supported the idea of partition. Acheson ... helped him prepare the statement. ...

"For Truman, what was most pressing was to make sure that the British let one hundred thousand refugees emigrate to Palestine. ... Once Israel was created in May 1948, Acheson came to believe that the unstinting efforts of the UN mediator Ralph Bunche to dampen the conflict through cease-fire and negotiations was the only viable American policy. Soon after he became secretary [of state] he offered Bunche the job of heading the Middle East desk as an assistant secretary; Bunche, however, declined the invitation, tired of struggling with unsolvable problems. 'His most heartfelt wish,' Acheson reported, 'was for relief from them, not deeper involvement.'

"Acheson fully sympathized with him, commenting in later years, 'How often I was to remember and echo his wish.' "

James Chace, Acheson, Simon and Schuster, Copyright 1998 by James Chace, pp. 131-132.