Category Archives: Whimsical Musings

Loss and Longing

goethe

Editors note. We are starting today with a note that came from Simone after she had submitted this new post. Something about how she is thinking….

“The way this one was born is sort of typical of how I start associating. I had watched a short documentary on Bela Bartok where he stood forlorn on a ship’s deck gazing mournfully at the sight of approaching New York. His distress was palpable. Then the song Knowest Thou the Land came into my head.”

LOSS AND LONGING

Knowest thou the land where lemon flowers bloom
The land of golden fruit and crimson roses
Where the breeze is fresh and birds fly in the night
There, father let us fare.

Goethe’s poem:”Kennst du das Land” inspired many artists, most notably Amboise Thomas who in his opera “Mignon” gives it a haunting melody. When Mignon sings “Connais tu le pays” you cannot help but follow her to her Paradise Lost. Forcefully removed from an idealized land, she conjures it as if in a trance.
This yearning for a golden past is also present in Verdi’s opera Nabuco. The Jewish People forced into exile to Babylon sing “Va Pensiero,” a lament of nostalgia for the sights and smells and feel of their far away land.

Throughout history, in ancient Greece and Rome, exile was a form of punishment imposed on enemies, non- conformists and political opponents. Napoleon was sent to Elba and then to St Helena, Victor Hugo to Guernsey and Solzhenitzyn was exiled from the Soviet Union along with many other “enemies of the regime.”

There is a category of writers who flourished in the Austro- Hungarian Empire and then also in Vienna between the two world wars, who have experienced a sense of dislocation when their safe and happy past disappeared in the distance. Stefan Zweig describes this feeling very well…a feeling of missing the happiness you once had, a feeling associated with a place and with days gone forever, of the world of yesterday. He calls the period before World War I:the golden age of security.

Many Austrian Jews who thought they had assimilated, were bitterly disappointed in the 1930’s when they realized they had been living in a fool’s paradise. They felt themselves forcibly expelled into a hostile world. The composer Bela Bartok was intimately tied to the land where he lived, to its folklore and music. He had transcribed 6,000 folk songs of Slovak, Romanian and Transylvanian origin. He left his home for the United States during World War II and found himself a man without a country. He felt unappreciated and struggled with sickness and poverty. Caught in the storm, he never recovered.

We know many other exiles from that lost world:
Mahler, Freud, Klimt, Kafka, Koestler. Some survived better than others but all had lost an essential part of themselves.

Not every plant can successfully be transplanted. Some roots are too deep and some trees are too well adapted to their terrain to thrive elsewhere. Similarly, some people are too embedded in their milieu to uproot successfully. Zweig and Koestler both committed suicide, torn from their connections and unable to face the unknown.

Today many exiles flee from war-torn countries. Their fate is even worse because of the brutality of their forced exodus and the physical dangers they face. They cannot even allow themselves the luxury of giving voice to their distress. They are too preoccupied with day-to-day and moment-to-moment survival.

Strength in Symmetry (part 1)

mandala1mandala2mandala3Does Nature love symmetry? Apparently so.

Animals maximize their survival chances because any departure from symmetry affects locomotion. If one leg is shorter than the other you limp and become prey to predators. Birds could not fly nor fish swim if they were not evenly balanced. Their equilibrium would be affected.

And symmetry breeds success…I understand that perfect symmetry helps horses win races.

So most animals are bilaterally symmetrical and their bodies are divided equally into left and right sides. There are always exceptions. (sponges have an asymmetrical body plan).

As I look out at the trees from my window, I notice that they too have approximate symmetry even though they are not going anywhere. Pines are perfectly balanced but in most trees the two sides do not match exactly, branches may protrude. But I imagine that they too are shaped so that they do not topple over.

Of course fruit and flowers have perfect radial symmetry as we can see if we cut an apple or an orange in half. Bees are said to have imperfect vision but they are drawn to flowers because of their symmetry. So this seems like an evolutionary advantage. And the fruit is probably prevented from falling prematurely because its weight is even.

Our bodies are also approximately symmetrical. We too have two legs, hands, ears etc. But then why do we have only one heart, liver and pancreas? Why do we favor one hand over the other? (and why is it usually the right hand?)

In arguments we like to assign sides by saying: on the one hand, on the other hand, yes or no, true or false, something or nothing. So if we were a millipede would we see one thousand alternatives to every question?

(next time, more symmetrical thinking)

Better or Worse?

Simone & Daughter Dina

Simone & Daughter Dina

Recently my daughter Dina and I were talking about how some things had improved in our lifetimes and how some had gotten worse. Were things better in the “olden days” or today? So we made lists. Some changes are for the better – such as opportunities for women and some things have gotten worse – political discourse seems out of control. Some changes are more important than others, but it was fun to try to list them – major and minor both.

Simone: I love Google and the Internet! In my work as a librarian I specialized in computer information retrieval. People filled out search request forms and we had to find the information for them using an algorithm designed to give them as comprehensive a listing as possible and at the same time eliminating extraneous information. The end product was usually a bibliography, which is a list of sources. Sometimes it included a digest. Rarely was it a full-text result.

Google finds the actual information and seems to have an in-built intuition of what is wanted. We have designed it to reach beyond what we can do, as an extension to our senses and capabilities, just like a microscope or a telescope can look further and deeper. A caveat: We still have to assess the reliability of the source of information. Wikipedia itself warns us to sometimes look further. In general, though it’s two thumbs up for Google.

Dina: Women’s lives have been vastly improved by the development of the birth control pill, which gives women a lot of control over their own bodies and reduces unwanted pregnancies.

And look at the improvements in medicine including vaccinations. No longer are chicken pox, mumps, measles, and rubella (German measles) a normal part of childhood. Other conditions have been eradicated by the vaccines for Hepatitis A and B, shingles, pneumonia, and flu. Cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence.

Simone: But where have all the doctors gone? In my childhood the slightest ailment, a sore throat, an earache, caused a doctor to materialize. Equipped with a big smile and a black bag of miraculous cures, he would touch, probe and declare reassuringly that everything will be much better “tomorrow.” Now health care is a cumbersome bureaucracy. It takes a long time to get a doctor’s appointment. So instead you go to an emergency service where you are placed on a conveyor belt and moved from one station to another, with repeat questions and no real diagnosis. You also get a big bill afterwards. In France, doctors still make house calls at a modest price.

Dina: We both feel that one thing that has deteriorated is service! We are both bothered when work that used to be done by trained employees has now been turned over to us. The first thing to go was the gas station attendant. If you are in a hurry, nicely dressed, tired, ill or old, you are out of luck. How do “little old ladies” put gas in their cars?

In supermarkets, we still have a choice between regular check-out and “self-service” check-out.” How long will this choice last? Most of us do not know the code for Belgian endive.

Worse still are the airlines. No longer does the nice clerk behind the counter print out a boarding pass. You are now expected to do this yourself at a “self-service” computer even if you are holding a squirming two-year old, keeping track of all your luggage, or don’t know English.

Simone: There are several establishments I use often that have greatly reduced their services: The Post Office and the Banks have cut back on their employees. The result is empty service windows and long lines.
At the Public Library, you can now check in your books, pick up your holds and check out without any human interaction. I must admit that after an initial period of resentment I am now used to this but I miss the niceties of personal contact.
The telephone tree is an abomination the likes of which has seldom been seen. Its originator should be shot on sight without benefit of a trial. Who in their right senses would replace contact with a warm human voice with even a modicum of intelligence, by prearranged messages that have no relation to your information needed? It is a dehumanizing experience.

Dina and Simone: We both love email!

Simone: Let me end with a recollection from my childhood in Lebanon. It wasn’t considered a luxury at the time, but I certainly miss it now…Even though our family was not wealthy, we did not buy clothes in stores. Instead we had a seamstress who had our measurements. What we provided was material and patterns and she sewed clothes to our requirements, adjusting hems with pins while we pivoted this way and that. At the time, I longed for store-bought clothes not realizing that garments made to order would be a luxury some day.

What do you think? Which things were better during your childhood and which ones are better now?

A note from the Editor…Your comments on this blog are like a nourishing rain. You are encouraged to put in your two-cents worth. -ed.

Musicians Without Borders

George Frederic Handel

George Frederic Handel

Yo Yo Ma

Yo Yo Ma

Before “globalization” people mostly lived and died in their own little corner of the world, only dimly aware of famine or pestilence elsewhere. But there always existed a class of wandering minstrels, happy to make music wherever they went. Musicians speak a universal language and can be understood and appreciated in many diverse lands. These musicians run the gamut from energetic and talented street musicians to some of the more illustrious musical wanderers I will mention here.

Jean Baptiste Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence in 1632. He was a dancer, guitarist and violinist. At age 14 he moved to France at the invitation of the young Louis XIV. There he wrote court ballets, collaborated with Moliere (He wrote the music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.) and became director of the Royal Opera.
He died of gangrene in 1687 having struck his toe with the big stick he used for conducting.

Luigi Boccherini (1743 -1805) was a composer and cellist born in Lucca, Italy. His father was a cellist too. They were both employed as court musicians in Vienna. In 1770 he was invited to the court of Charles III in Madrid. There he lived, married and composed. He was inspired by Spanish music, especially the fandango, wrote elegant chamber music and developed the string quintet.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), born in Thuringia, Germany traveled to Hamburg where he became a violinist at the Opera. He later went to Italy at the invitation of Prince Ferdinando de Medici. When in Hanover, he met George Louis who was later to become King George I of England and who took a liking to him and enticed him to England. It was for George I that he wrote the famous and hugely successful Water Music which was performed on barges on the Thames. I like to think of those two expatriates conversing in German since neither was fluent in English. After the death of George I, Handel composed large scale anthems for the coronation of King George II and his consort Caroline, an occasion of great magnificence.

Jacques (born Jacob) Offenbach 1819-1880 was born in Cologne, Germany. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and remained in France for his entire musical career. Paris at that time offered a more favorable atmosphere for European Jews. Offenbach was a violinist and cellist and played in the Opera Comique Orchestra. He then shifted to composing operettas and opened his own theater Les Bouffes Parisiens. He is remembered mostly for Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Helene and his last unfinished work Les Contes d’Hoffman.

Yo Yo Ma (1955- ) is a Chinese-American cellist born in Paris to parents who were both musicians. He spent his school years in New York. Ma was a child prodigy and started performing at age five. Although we think of him in the context of classical music, he has been called “omnivorous” by critics because of his eclectic repertoire. He is interested in American bluegrass, Argentinian tango, Chinese melodies and Brazilian music. Ma was invited to the White House by several Presidents. He and Itzhak Perlman both performed at President Obama’s 1st Inauguration Ceremony.

May these wonderful artists continue to wander among us.

(Editor’s note….Simone has several thousand loyal followers and readers and we are very proud of that. But let me take this opportunity to ask you to respond and comment on her blogs. Her thoughts expand your world and your response will greatly expand hers. Just click below on “leave a comment”)

How We Learn #3 – Science, Humans and The Infinite

Previously I mentioned that in my school days the sciences were taught so as to never kindle any interest in me. Our teachers seemed more interested in laying traps (Gotcha!) than in imparting knowledge. I thought of physics and chemistry as bitter-tasting medicine that had to be swallowed. No more.

Nowadays sciences which were strictly separate seem to have coalesced and melded together. Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” combines anthropology, history and geography. Diamond links the human trajectory through time and space to climate, terrain , invasions, scientific discoveries and other unpredictable elements.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an Oxford Professor of Public Understanding of Science and an excellent teacher with a gift for making the esoteric comprehensible. I like his proposition that we humans are only the disposable wrapping that allows our genes to travel on without us. I think that is what immortality really is.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Natural History Museum in New York. He follows in the footsteps of Carl Sagan whose television show Cosmos helped to debunk the idea that we humans are at the center of the universe. Sagan showed that we and our planet are but a tiny dot in the immensity of the cosmos. Tyson notices children’s natural curiosity about the world and observes how it can be drummed out of them by making them adhere to a structured way of learning. This famous scientist encourages daydreaming.

I now leave the familiar sphere altogether with Physicist Lisa Randall. She explains dark and light matter, black holes and introduces us to the Large Hadron Collider which reenacts the Big Bang by accelerating particles and simulating the birth of the Universe. She also explains the recent discovery of Higgs-Boson, an elementary particle that gives other particles their mass and is sometimes called the God Particle. In her latest book she explains how meteorites deposited the seeds of life on earth, and how the dinosaurs disappeared making possible the birth of mammals.

My mind is stretched to its outer limits. Dizziness is imminent as I am desperately trying to hold on to these new ideas. I shall stop with this slippery and elusive knowledge before it totally eludes my grasp.

In Part 4 I will attempt to understand time/space and dwell on our very limited senses.