Ma Belle Solange

Monday night ballet class is known as Ladies’ class, an oblique reference to the fact that few of us who appear on this weekday are des poulets de printemps. Some of us are former students returned, some are entirely new to the discipline, but most of us are here for the creampuff treatment. Unlike Thursday class, where Madame puts one through one’s gasping paces, the 7pm Monday class is designed to accommodate the experienced, the beginner, and the in-betweener. We perform about a half hour of barre exercise, followed by what Madame generously refers to as dancing. There is usually much chattering as we catch up with each other’s news. On most Mondays, there are one or two of her seasoned en pointe ballerinas to lead the way when we have derailed ourselves with our inattention. We watch their young, elegant backs as they jeté and piqué across the diagonal of the studio floor, and we mimic their steps as best we can. I am a latecomer to ballet, slowly corralled into the fold in my late 30s by the ridiculously charming Madame Solange Binda Maclean, who was teaching my young daughter at the time. Nearly 20 years later, I am slowing down a bit, but I come to class to stretch and condition, and to visit with Madame, whom I love. Madame would likely forgive me for saying that she is slowing down too, but she is not slowing down by much. She is 94 and sports a pair of bright aqua eyes, which are topped by a chic coiffure of soft silver-white waves. She is usually dressed in a flowing black tunic and trousers, unfailingly elegant and sharp. She calls out instruction like a crystal flute, except when she issues commands. In individual correction she maintains her ladylike lilt, but when harnessing a dozen pairs of feet, few of which remain in perfect turnout  (particularly on Monday nights), she injects surprising power into that delicate soprano. All heads snap to when that happens. She is a supreme teacher whose career and life constitute a tale.

Madame was born to Belgian parents on February 1, 1922 in the city of Chengchow (Zhengzhou), in the Hunan province of China, close to Peking, as she still refers to Beijing. Chengchow encompassed one of the colonial stations made possible by the treaties established after the Opium Wars, and the family lived in the Russian concession, the “prettiest one,” according to Madame. Chengchow was a small town at best, with few modern amenities, and the first child of the de St. Huberts was delivered into the world by a Japanese veterinarian. Her name at birth was Solange Jacqueline Elizabeth Constance de St. Hubert. Be sure you do not omit the de, the remnant of aristocracy that is evident in her features and manner, brought to her through her father, Georges de St. Hubert. Solange’s mother, Simone, a Red Cross nurse, married Georges in 1919. They met when in the French Riviera at St. Tropez, where M. de St. Hubert, an officer with the Belgian Cavalry, was recovering from mustard gas injuries acquired during WWI.

Before the second World War, Georges worked for a Belgian railway concern in China, and gradually rose through the ranks. In 1925 he began work with the Crédit Foncier d’Extrême Orient, a large credit union and mortgage banking institution, becoming a sous directeur (deputy director), and finally director in 1928. Solange’s brother, Christian, was born in 1927 in Tientsin (Tianjian). By 1928, the family had settled in Peking.

In the early 20th century, while China accommodated European trade within its borders, it was also fighting off regular incursions by the Japanese. For most of Solange’s early life, however, her existence was untouched by these perturbations. She lived opulently in what she describes as “fantastic” homes, complete with servants and a busy social calendar. Her family took the long journey back to Belgium every 3 years and spent 6-7 months on the home front, where Solange would attend Belgian school. Summers were often spent at beach houses. In China, she attended a German school, accounting for yet another of her several languages, and she grew up among the children of other European tradespeople and the diplomatic corps. Her family often hosted Belgian missionaries for weeks at a time, before they trekked into Mongolia.

Today she switches easily between her native Belgian French and adopted English like a lively painted songbird, but she also conducts complete conversations in Mandarin, which she spoke almost exclusively in her toddler days. Add to that farrago a spice of Italian. When she is searching for words in her voluminous vocabulary, she flutters her fingers and reaches for them in the air, and sometimes resorts to quixotic imitations of bubbling cheese or whatever phenomenon she is trying to describe. Most of the time, however, I believe she is thinking in the language of music.

Solange began ballet instruction at the age of 5, studying under an expatriate ballerina, Mme. Agrippina Voitenko, a White Russian who had fled from the Reds in St. Petersburg and had settled in Peking. Madame continues to employ a modified “Russian method” as a didactic technique for her own pupils. The method loosely translates to “throw ‘em in the deep end, where they will learn to swim.” More precisely, she places adult newbies in moderately advanced classes, where they learn by doing, and she steers the shaky aspirants through the waters with corrective pointers that become more exacting as each student learns and improves. She can observe an entire class undulating and jumping through a dance routine and instantly pick out a failure to point toes or to properly extend an arm. (Note to students: Don’t hide in the back. This does not work. Don’t ask me how I know this.)

In 1937, Japan took Shanghai over the course of a three-month battle. Nanking followed, and a swath of cities afterward. As the armies advanced further, Europeans in the various concessions were issued armbands to indicate their nationalities. In 1941, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, China sided with the Allies, and the occupying Japanese promptly rounded up any Allied foreigners into prison camps.

“They came from the North,” said Solange, when I asked her how the Japanese announced themselves. She still remembers the dread she felt when she saw the concession flag being taken down and the Japanese flag put in its place. She and her family were taken to the Weihsien internment camp, an old Presbyterian mission in Shandong province whose dormitories and hospital wing had been gutted, surrounded with electrified barbed wire, and thus repurposed. Weihsien translates to “Court of the Happy Way.” Unhappily, there were no cots, chairs, or tables, nor was there running water available in the assigned rooms. Water had to be carried from a communal kitchen. Showers were taken in a common area and were greatly restricted. There was no kindling wood; internees carried small quantities of coal from a slag heap located a fair distance from the living quarters. Large dormitory-style rooms had one small coal stove, while smaller rooms rarely had one. There was a plentiful supply of near-starvation, sticky heat, summer monsoon rains that flooded the compound, bitter cold in winter, enforced squalor, and constant fear.

Resilient people survive by orienting their minds to something other than their present circumstance. Solange summoned her considerable energy and directed her artist’s eye to the task at hand, which was to improve her surroundings. She was in good company, despite conditions. The prisoners, in the main intelligent, educated, resourceful, and altruistic, gathered themselves and their limited supplies and made the most of their situation. Among them was Eric Liddell, the British Olympic runner, who died just months before the camp was liberated. Arthur W. Hummel, Jr., American Ambassador to China in the early 80s, and Alice F. Moore, principal of the Peking American School, were there as well. Solange’s brother, Christian de St. Hubert, later served as Belgian ambassador to a plethora of countries, including Costa Rica, Kenya, Uganda, and Panama.

The denizens of Weihsien formed a council, organized a school, assigned janitorial duties, and made do with what few facilities were available. They kept their culture alive with home-grown plays, musical recitals, and ballets. When the Japanese forbade musical practice, the musicians would continue their études by playing with silent gestures on their instruments. In what Solange and others termed the “black market,” Chinese neighbors smuggled in food and supplies, despite the risk of torture and death, both of which befell more than one sympathizer. Coal was scarce. Numerous survivors recall that one of the duties of the children was to collect precious coal dust and roll it into marble-sized balls for combustion.

Solange, and everyone who survived and wrote about Weihsien, would remember the overwhelming sensation of hunger. Parents crushed eggshells and fed the powder to their children to stave off rickets. Meat, often equine in origin, was rare, and most often rotten. Milk was sour. Solange did not experience permanent ill effects, but Christian suffered from spinal problems throughout his lifetime, which were likely acquired through malnutrition.

Solange’s girlhood friend, Jolanda (YoYo), was brought to the camp in 1943, two years after the arrival of the de St. Huberts. Married at 15 to an Italian officer, she had her small son with her. In a brief memoir, she writes of the icy cold day of her arrival, and of her intense fright and confusion. Her anxiety was instantly soothed as she registered with great surprise the sound of Solange’s tinkling, melodious call from far across the camp. She could scarcely believe her good fortune. Late in the evening of YoYo’s arrival, the incoming prisoners were secretively instructed to come to the boundary wall, where in the darkness they were handed bundles of supplies, liberal outpourings of whatever anyone could spare—pots and pans, blankets, a soup plate. Solange had even included for YoYo a rag puppet, for the little boy, Valerio.

While the Allied prisoners were kept separately from the Axis prisoners, the two factions found ways to meet. YoYo and Solange often crossed the brick wall separating the camp sections. On one occasion, after delivering some promised vegetable seeds to YoYo, Solange became trapped in YoYo’s room when the guards sprang a surprise inspection. Big Head, a guard so named in reference to his fat cranium stuffed into a small green cap, muscled his way into the room just seconds after Solange had slipped under YoYo’s bed. Petrified, YoYo picked up Valerio and sang him a lullaby as Big Head ordered one of his men to search the room, pointing his flashlight behind curtains, beneath sheets, and under the bed where Solange was hidden behind bricks and balls of coal. All the while, YoYo repeatedly sang her lullaby tune, but her Italian words were: Don’t you worry, my dear friend, all of this will very soon end, please don’t move my dear friend, they will leave and all will end. By sheer luck, Solange was not discovered, and hid until darkness fell and the guards disappeared into their huts.

On August 17, 1945, an American B-2 bomber buzzed low over the camp, and from its rear doors it disgorged seven parachutes: six paratroopers and one translator. These were members of the OSS dispatched from Chungking (Chongqing). Upon reaching the ground, they accosted the camp commander and relieved him of his duty without resistance. The rising sun flag was lowered and an American flag was raised in its place. In a matter of months, the camp was evacuated and many prisoners were repatriated to their respective countries. Given the turmoil that persisted in Europe, however, the de St. Hubert family remained in China for some long months as they rebuilt their lives.

Prior to entering Weihsien, the family had given many of their household goods to some Russian friends, who had held them in safekeeping. They returned to their home and resumed a somewhat normal life. Beautiful Solange did not lack for suitors, and at the well-chaperoned social events, she encountered many American Marine officers who wished to dance with her. She struck up a close friendship with one of them, William Maclean, Jr. He eventually asked her to marry him, but she declined. Instead, she married another handsome Marine, Jeffrey Binda, and soon found herself following her husband to points around the world: Boston, where Binda’s family lived, New York City, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Wiesbaden, the Hague. Son Mark was born in 1950, and daughter Carinne in 1954. Mr. Binda, however, was not the person he had seemed to be in China, and Solange struggled with the knowledge. Her Catholic family frowned on divorce, and she tried very hard to make things work. In 1955, however, she took the leap and divorced, an unusually courageous decision at the time, particularly as she had two young children.

Solange had not attended university, but she was surpassingly well educated, multilingual, and a complete ballerina. It was not long before she established herself as a teacher through sheer willpower. Before founding her ballet academy, she taught French at the Kilmer School in Arlington, as well as at her home, and was soon adding ballet to the curriculum for her language students. She established the Ballet Academy of Northern Virginia in 1951, in the city of Falls Church. Over the decades, which are well represented in the photos that line her studio, she has sent many pupils on to successful careers in dance. Her own daughter, Carinne Binda, enjoyed a long career as a soloist with the Boston Ballet. Carinne’s daughter, Alexandra Cunningham, now dances for the Sacramento Ballet, which is incidentally directed by Carinne and her husband Ron Cunningham. Carinne’s son, Christopher, did not heed the call to dance, but his tall good looks would have lent themselves well to the stage.

Solange’s dynastic talent, perhaps absorbed in her native China, found rich rooting in America. She singlehandedly supported her young family, and even took in her elderly Tante Suzanne, whom many Monday “ladies” remember sitting by the piano in the basement studio, where they took instruction as children. Tante Suzanne figures into an iconic family story.

In 1964, the handsome Marine colonel, Bill Maclean, who had once danced with Solange in China, was living in Arlington, Virginia. One evening he found himself dancing with a Belgian lady. Bill remarked on her accent, as it was hauntingly familiar to him, and he described to her his experiences of 20 years before. The lady, by amazing coincidence, happened to be acquainted with Solange. Upon discovering this, Bill asked the lady for Solange’s address. The lady took pains to caution him, for no reason I can fathom: she warned him that Solange was greatly “changed” due to her “hard life.” This statement proved to be of little deterrence to Bill. With what I imagine to be a high degree of dispatch, Bill set about planning to ring her doorbell in Falls Church as soon as he dared. Now, it must be noted that Solange and Tante Suzanne had a strong family resemblance, particularly in the bright aqua eye department. As Bill stood patiently on the doorstep, waiting for the door to open and possibly speculating on just how hard Solange’s life had actually been, Tante Suzanne answered the doorbell and trained her ancient blue peepers on a perhaps ambivalent man. I further imagine Bill’s immense relief minutes later, when Solange appeared behind her. So greatly relieved he was, that in 1966, he married her.

Countless students have passed through the academy’s doors, many of them having gone on to careers in dance. Today Solange flies across the continent regularly to watch her granddaughter spin away on the boards in Sacramento. She can easily watch 4 or 5 performances of the same ballet over a few days’ time, and return to the East Coast with minimal jet lag. In her basement in Falls Church, there are hundreds of ballet costumes in a variety of sizes and colors, most of which she has designed and sewn herself. While she has finally retired from staging full-scale recitals, she does plan mini-recitals for the little ones, and most of her “ladies” have assisted her once or twice in the grand enterprise of extracting, and then re-inserting, the tutus and headdresses and streamers and vests, from and into their labeled boxes. On the walls in her second home in Aldie, VA hang some of her accomplished watercolors, and upstairs, her sewing machine sits in a large room lined with fabrics. Having evolved from her costume-sewing habit, she has repurposed yards of fabric into scarves for her students, and I have several in my closet, some fringed with beading, others shot theatrically with gold thread. There have been many babies over the years, and to greet each one Solange has created innumerable, sumptuous, ribbon-bedecked bassinets. She still makes tender Belgian crepes that are beyond description. Each evening after class, there are two spoiled poodles to let into the yard. There is still that handsome Marine colonel to kiss goodnight.

Solange et al 2016

When my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2009, I managed to attend class most Mondays, as we endeavored to maintain a routine as much as possible throughout his palliative treatment. I could feel Madame’s eyes on me as I went through my steps, and as 10 pounds rapidly slipped off my frame. She immediately stepped up her crepe regimen, frequently sending me home with a baking dish or two, in addition to her healthful potages made with all manner of green leafy things. When Chris died in late 2011, however, I withdrew into myself, completely exhausted by grief and the arduous months of caregiving. Undaunted, Madame had me to Thanksgiving dinner three weeks after Chris’s death. She threw me a birthday party 9 months after that. She called me from time to time, and sent me warm and inviting notes in her exquisite loopy cursive writing. I would promise to come back to ballet, soon, soon, soon. While I had resumed working, walking 6-7 miles every day, and biking many miles in the temperate months, for the longest time, on most evenings I was too spent to attend a one-hour class. Nearly three years elapsed before I quietly returned to her Falls Church academy, stepping over bags and books and the detritus of young ballerinas who were finishing up the 6:00 class. As I changed my clothes in the anteroom, I heard Madame’s voice in the studio, calling out steps. I could scarcely believe my good fortune.

 

 

 

 

 

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Travels with my Aunt

I lost my aunt Edie in August 2015. She was getting close to 90 and had beaten back lung cancer, but she had begun to falter last year. She took her first and last breaths in the sooty arms of fabled Brooklyn.

Edie was born into modest means, which turned into poverty; her father died a young man, leaving her mother to raise three children in a series of tenements and small apartments. Coming of age during the Depression, Edie loved to run track, read, and sing. She used to sneak into church services so she could stand in the back and raise her voice in song, because the only one who is allowed to sing in the synagogue is the cantor. She also told me that young American half-wits would ask her to pull back her hair to reveal her Jewish horns. (Anyone who complains about political correctness these days should only know from real prejudice, to use a Yiddish turn of phrase. They should only know how it feels to deal with rank ignorance.).

My aunt took my mother, brother and me into her small Brooklyn apartment 47 years ago, our arrival crowding the 7 of us into 5 small rooms. I was 10 going on 11, trying to make sense of my world exploding. One day I was living in a plush suburban house with two parents, and the next I found myself sharing a bedroom with two cousins in a stark linoleum warren. Both of my parents were lost. One was AWOL, the other was living in the same apartment, but inside a liquor bottle. My aunt held us all together somehow, working I-don’t-know-how-many-hours per day. I rarely saw her in that apartment for the year that we lived there. She was busy surviving after having left an impossible marriage, and I was busy fitting in with a new school, dreading my days with a monstrous teacher who loved to get under my introverted skin, encountering the new, regular experience of getting mugged for a dime on a sunny day, learning the rough ropes of East New York, a competitor with Bedford-Stuyvesant for one of the most murderous places in the city. Years ago, I wrote a few stories about those days, ones that my daughter used to co-opt for high school essays, adding her inventive spin to them. There are many more tales to tell. But PTSD therapists are starting to learn that it is counterproductive to go over old trauma repeatedly. That’s something I first learned from Edie, who had figured that one out on her own. She shipped off from a dreadful shore and while it took many years of Sisyphean effort, she succeeded in building a new life, steering straight ahead.

Another thing I learned from Edie was the vital importance of unconditional love. I certainly needed it, and was at times saved by it, locked as I was into my shy personality, dealing every day with a volatile mother who regularly pursued death via alcohol and tranquilizers, sometimes at home, sometimes in a speeding car, oftimes with my brother and me in the back seat. I gripped that love while I worked hard in school, maneuvered through the daily upheavals, earned a state scholarship to attend college, and got the hell out of hell. Over the years she couldn’t always intervene for me, because to do so often invited even more trouble onto my crowded agenda, but she managed to put her hand in at critical times. I could always count on her bolstering praise: “How are you, my beautiful girl?” was her standard greeting. She loved to hear me talk about my studies and my work, and she would tell me how proud she was of my accomplishments. I could also count on her honest assessments: “You’re too skinny, your hair is too dry, would it kill you to wear a little eyeshadow? And what is with those clothes?”

Edie started to decline rapidly this past summer. I had a very busy upcoming schedule with NASA and other travel, so in mid-July I took a quick train up to New York expressly to see her in her rehab facility, where she had been off and on since she had suffered a pneumothorax in June. I stayed with her son on Long Island, and drove his car to Sheepshead Bay one afternoon, where I visited with her in a Cadillac-grade nursing center for a couple of hours. She was sitting in her wheelchair, wearing a gray sweater and a full application of makeup. Anyone who had never seen her put on her face in the morning, nose thrust into a lighted magnifying mirror, had missed an opportunity to witness theater of the highest caliber. Surrounded by pots of color, her exacting brushwork rivaled that of Michelangelo on his scaffold. We had a good talk, and she got a bit teary toward the end, recounting that a close friend of hers had just died. She knew what was afoot for herself, and while she was tired of suffering, she was also ambivalent. It’s hard to leave this life.

I tried to keep the conversation upbeat while I watched all the signs, sitting between us like vengeful gods flashing their everlasting lanterns. Love was thick in the air as I ripped open bags of condiments and prepared her lunch (kosher hot dog and fixings), and urged her to drink a can of Ensure (even though that stuff is vile). Nurses filed in and out to dispense her medications and check on her lunch tray. I finally made movements to depart. I bent down to hug her, and she looked up at me from her diminished vantage point. I briefly glimpsed her as the woman who once towered over me in her stiletto heels, dressed to the teeth for her decades of unsung work in a tiny, dusty office on Nostrand Avenue. “Joanie,” she said in her entrenched Brooklynese, “you’re a beautiful woman, but ya gotta get ya neck done. It’s all wrinkly.”

Yeah. I’m pushing 60. My neck is definitely wrinkly. But no one loves me like Edie loves me. That’s what I remember thinking. She died a little more than two weeks later. I was not mentioned as a relative at her graveside service, but I was and always will be the daughter of her heart.

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Works and Days

logan kitchen logan moice

No agricultural advice today, or moralizing. Hesiod took care of that a couple or three millennia ago. Though do check him out, because his Theogony is a thorough account of the early gods, Greek version.

In my semi-retired state I have plunged into a habit of mostly doing and rarely saying, something most beings on the Internet should do much more often. Never that talkative in my youth, I appear to be re-establishing that persona in my dotage. For the last couple of months, aided by a very chilly, eternal-seeming snowy winter, I’ve been reading, knitting, and being. Now that I have Logan, my 13-week-old grand-dog, on my daily schedule, being smells very canine all the time. Mochi is a good mentor, beleaguered but patient. There is much wrestling, growling, yapping, cheek-pulling, whomping and flailing. I stalk the corridors of my home equipped with a spray bottle of Resolve and a roll of paper towels. Each morning I jam two restive, four-legged octopi into the front seat of my car and spend hours attempting to civilize one of them. I have been here before. It’s amazing I’ve gotten anything done at all. Doing is everything, I remind myself. I am making a good dog.

Got on my bike for the season’s first ride yesterday. According to my spotty record-keeping, I haven’t ridden since late September 2014. Twenty miles felt roughly like the circumference of the Earth (24,901 miles). But it’s just the beginning of the season. There was still a smattering of ice and snow on the trail. No frog song yet in the swampy byways. I saw a few swollen buds here and there, however it appears that few are fooled by this warm spell. Except the first Concord-purple crocus I spied in my front yard today.

We are T-minus 17 days until Varin’s wedding. She is currently employed at an interventional radiology practice, wearing the scrubs she bought 4 years ago when she was working as a medical assistant at a surgery practice, preparing for graduate school. She landed a good position, especially for a fresh-out, at one of the best hospital systems, if not the best, in Virginia. Pardon my obnoxious bragging, but if I had kept that one in any longer, I would’ve said something much much worse. I blame the Internet.

on the needles knit rabbitknit mouse

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Now We Are Two

DSC05630

It’s hard to believe, but 28 months have flown by like one of the manic, shouting crows that populate our neighborhood. Varin has completed all the requisite hard work, and in 5 days we will be attending her commencement ceremony in New Haven. Cat is flying in this Friday, and on Saturday we will be Amtraking up the East Coast to meet up with her grandparents and Andrew’s parents. Promptly on December 9th, she and Andrew will be loading up my mom’s old French provincial coffee table (who knew she would like this relic?) and driving home to the warmer embraces of Reston, VA, where they now have a very nice apartment. It will be good to have her around again!

Mochi celebrated her second birthday on October 20th, which seems to have stimulated her consciousness in several ways. She is far more affectionate, playful and bossy, as well as obsessed with Jack the parrot, whom she had successfully ignored for lo these two years. Now it appears that she wishes to eliminate him, with extreme canine prejudice. Over the past week I have spent some part of my day, though increasingly less often, grabbing her by the collar and steering her away from becoming the snarling, snapping virago that appears when she passes his cage. For Jack’s part, I believe he is secretly amused, buffered as he is from her attempts on his life by sturdy metal bars.

I am working less and knitting more, but still have some NASA duties. A bit past the New Year I mean to ramp up my workload with another contract. Christmas will be in Tucson this year, with my children and Chris’s parents. I am looking forward to cacti, coyotes and long walks in the sunny mornings.

Meanwhile my dear darling Linnea remains in splendid form, kicking keister on her latest trial drug. She says the agent has been affecting her cognitive functions, but her functions are evidently too sophisticated to be entirely put out.  Linnea has spoken eloquently on behalf of an organization called GRACE:

GRACE, by the way, is an excellent online resource for lung cancer patients, run by the redoubtable and infinitely kind Dr. Jack West. I contribute heavily to the cause every year in Chris’s memory.

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Unlocking the Air

Mo 2014

I’m borrowing today’s title from one of Ursula K. LeGuin’s story collections. This collection is mainstream as opposed to sci-fi, but really LeGuin is neither. She has always defied categorization. She has written about how one man’s dreams transform the world at the behest of a power-mad psychiatrist (Lathe of Heaven) and about an extraterrestrial world without genders (Left Hand of Darkness). Many of her works deal with memory, reclamation, time-bending and recycling versions of reality. Her mainstream fiction plays with verb tenses and identities, shifting scenes from different perspectives without shifting personae. Wish I could do that.

One of the latest theories regarding consciousness seems to allege that everything we know is wrong: that is, consciousness is at best a flawed model of reality. We are constrained by our physical senses and central nervous systems as to what and how we perceive. At the most basic level, this is easily demonstrable by a glance at our eyeballs, through whose lenses travel an upside-down, side-wise-wrong representation of a scene, which is then trained onto our retinas, to be further processed by our brains for righting. And if one of our retinal cells blackens out a pixel or two, our brains fill in the missing information from our memories. This visual processing is an incomplete transformation, though. Next time you’re sitting at a stoplight, look at your rearview mirror. Chances are that the driver will be resting his or her left hand on the steering wheel. Looking at the mirror, however, your brain will tell you that the driver’s hand is a right hand.

In the model of reality, the past is present. Or as Faulkner said: the past isn’t even past. But it is true that moment to moment, the ever-changing conditions of life would best the best of us, so the brain builds a world from choices gleaned from all its previous moments, and hangs onto that world for dear life, purposefully dismissing the whirling backdrop. If this were not so, we couldn’t drive cars at 60 mph or even take a walk down a winding path. Life needs to attend to that which propels it forward most efficiently and ignore the chatter. Some believe that autism is rooted in sensory overload, resulting in the inability to attend to “reality” because all sensory inputs compete for attention at once, perhaps due to the incomplete neuronal pruning that occurs during development. The brain can’t select its most important criteria because too many neurons are firing at once, therefore the being gets caught in a blender of sound, sight and tactile sensation, unable to interact with its surroundings in a useful way.

office stuff

Lately my world is in a manageable sort of flux- I am girding myself for a much tighter budget and an office-less existence. I didn’t think I would miss my little box inside a bigger box on Eisenhower Avenue, but I will. Budget-wise, I have few concerns, having learned how to make pennies shriek in my undergrad days. But office-wise, I will have to transfer my Hot Wheels Mars Science Lander (gift from editor Scott), rubber Earth (NOAA), polished stone Buddha (Varin), chick candle (??) and periodic table (Internet) to another desk. This past is past, to be swallowed up and re-oriented by the rolling present.

To sum up the last few weeks, Varin blew through a couple of times and now has a job offer with a local orthopedic surgeon. Wedding plans are gelling and invitation lists are compiling. My Swiss brother-in-law Mike briefly visited while in town for an NIH meeting. I had a settee reupholstered and have ordered new bookcases for my bedroom. On Monday, Andrew took my old bookcases downstairs to the garage, single-handedly, while I clutched my chest and Varin bit her nails and did a little dance.

In between work hours, NASA, gardening, reading, Mochi walks, and re-introducing myself to soft pastels and endless colorful dust, I have been enjoying spending my time with Howard, who is a realtor, movie buff, fellow writer, heckuva guy, and my significant other of several months.

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Entanglement and Evidence

september bouquet

It’s been a while. Much is going on in my home and in the world. Between both spheres, I have had little time or inclination to cogitate on the state of things. Of most recent note, we have beheadings, the resurgence of the most grotesque racism and entitlement issues, government financing of pinheaded, self-appointed vigilantes, media obsession with overvalued morons who punch out their girlfriends, the intellectually lazy habit of blaming the victim, and the worldwide acceptance of violence against women. There is a lot one does not wish to think about. I do have hope that social media will make more use of its beneficial side, and continue to illuminate the brutality that is so clearly making headway in both the developing and developed world, and that is routinely ignored while all those upstanding, profit-minded humans look the other way.

I regularly receive bulletins from Medscape, a good source of clearheaded thinking on the latest clinical practices. The subject yesterday was why medical literature is so often “wrong.” While the discussion was worthwhile in terms of uncovering the usual statistical fallacies (confusing association with cause, for example), it didn’t take into account the fact that everything is changing, all the time. The assumption of stasis is more a comforting philosophy than a reality.  It takes effort to keep up with change, to carefully think, to remodel on the basis of new evidence, and to refrain from falling back on unexamined beliefs and mental habits. We are evolving, as are the commensal organisms that make up 90% of our cellular conglomeration; that latter percentage is the most recent estimate of the number of bacteria and fungi that live in and on us, and interact with us on a daily basis. Those cells reproduce much more frequently than we do, and those multiplying generations represent a vast number of mutations that defy combinatorial calculation. Medical literature can be “wrong” due to misinterpretation and inadequate analysis, but it also becomes outdated as its subjects inexorably change, perhaps more rapidly than we know. That’s the story of humans on the barely understood cellular level. On the multicellular social level, it is impossible to calculate these interactions in a useful way. However, we have powerful brains that do an enormous amount of the work for us, without much conscious intervention on our part. It is worthwhile to step back and test ourselves, with some regularity, to check for normal operation and deeper understanding. We may not be able to understand conflict, but we all have it within our power to practice compassion for people, animals and planet, even in the face of opposite practice. Hillel said it, as have many others: if you do not stand for others, who will be left to stand for you? Altruism in its most self-interested sense, for you concerned capitalists out there.

Autumn is coming back, and I have seen a few indicator trees at the edges of the woods starting to turn to shades of rust and yellow. On my rides I can see ripened sumac, milkweed seed pods, and the mile-a-minute vine berries turning shades of turquoise. My garden is still producing lush bouquets of dahlia, zinnia and snapdragon, and I even get a stray gladiolus once in a while. Andrew, who has been living with me the last few weeks, will be moving to a new apartment this weekend, feathering the nest with a few pieces of my furniture, in preparation for Varin’s return to Virginia in just a few months. She flies home and Andrew flies up to Connecticut on alternating weekends, so the house is busy. I will no longer have an office job in November, as a 20-year contract finally comes to an end, thus I will be a pure free-lancer once again, and will take on more NASA work. Mochi will see more of me, which will suit her fine. She has made a morning habit of joining me on the bed, circling her circles and plopping down against my hip, happily groaning (and awakening me). During the day she makes sure that I am okay by shadowing me in every room. That dog has learned to sleep with great alacrity- something we will soon have in common as we age in place.

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#58

Chris limestone overlook

As I drove to work on the Beltway this morning, I noticed an Indy Blue Mini with white top in my rear view mirror, a bit hard to ignore because it was tailgating me at 72mph. The driver was hunched over the wheel, wearing a hat crammed down over his ears and a laser-focused expression. That had to be a sign.

Happy Birthday, Chris.

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