Monday, May 25, 2009

Teaching Tips from Animal Psychologist Temple Grandin

(reflections on the book ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION by Temple Grandin with Catherine Johnson.)

Subtitled “Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior,” Dr. Grandin’s own story of growing up autistic is part of every chapter of this book. She “thinks in pictures,” and her experience and research lead her to believe that animals think similarly.

She also reports on results of brain imaging experiments.

The book ends with recommendations of what works and what doesn’t with pets, but, to my surprise, I picked up information more useful to teaching middle schoolers. I suppose that should not be so surprising. I can laugh at my students’ behavior (except when it’s malicious or dishonest) by remembering “they’re puppies.” And I don’t get angry at my dogs anymore, just firm.

Above all, we get this message, stated more succinctly in a review of the book that followed this one, printed in NYTimes: “Don’t stimulate rage, fear and panic if you can help it, and do stimulate seeking and also play.” (Garner, Dwight. "The Joys and Pains of Being an Animal." Review of ANIMALS MAKE US HUMAN. NYT 20 Jan. 2009)

Here are tidbits from ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION that have applications in class as much as to life with Bo my Lab and Luis my Lab experiment:

Adolescent males of species with complex brains engage in violence for its own sake, without any obvious evolutionary purpose. Example: chimp battles, dolphins destroying porpoises, pp. 150-152.

Breeding for one trait leads to unexpected behavioral results. She gives examples of rapist roosters, “neoteny” (perpetual adolescence) in dogs, increased skittishness of dalmations, decreased intelligence in border collies over just the past thirty years.

The neocortex is the part of the brain that automatically seeks connections, that makes mixed emotions and generalizations possible. Dogs generally don’t experience mixed emotions, but Grandin gives exceptions – such as curiosity mixed with fear in cows (p.91). Ritalin and other stimulants increase neocortical activity and inhibit playfulness (119).

My favorite bit concerns a piece of research that has been updated since I first heard about it in the 80s.

When electrodes are implanted into the curiosity / interest / anticipation system, animals turn them on and keep them on until they’re totally exhausted from all their frenzied racing around and sniffing…. Researchers used to think that this circuit was the brain’s pleasure center…

But now researchers see things differently. We have a lot of evidence that the reason a drug like cocaine feels good is that it’s intensely stimulating to the SEEKING system in the brain, not to any pleasure. What the self-stimulating rats were stimulating was their curiosity / interest / anticipation circuits. That’s what feels good: being excited about things and intensely interested in what’s going on – being what people used to call “high on life”!

Evidence? The animals act curious, searching, sniffing. Humans report feeling interested. But, for Grandin, the “clincher” is that “the SEEKING circuit fires during the search for food,” and stops when the object is found (p.95).

I’ve said this for years to students: The only real pleasure in life is learning new things. It’s better if it’s meaningful; it’s better if it involves cooperation with others.

She answers a qualified “yes” to the question. “Do animals talk to each other the way people do?” For example, prairie dogs’ communications varied according to their perception of dangers, including new “transformational” uses of patterns to describe unfamiliar stimuli that the experimenters presented(p. 274). Apes discussed objects that were not present in the room (275). A parrot, impatient for the nut that was to be its reward for identifying letters, repeated the usual formula, “I want a nut” but then added “nnn, uuu, tuh.” Spelling (282)!

Along the same line, Grandin sees music as a communicative element in animals and humans. Typically, she relates this to her own autistic behavior: She could hum tunes with her mother at the piano long before she could speak, and another autistic child confused the words of a song with its tune: he thought the tune was the message.

About animals, Grandin stresses the need to establish dominance. “Make the dog sit quietly before he is fed. The dog should learn that he eats on his owner’s terms.” Also, precede the puppy into rooms, touch food while the puppy is eating, and playfully turn that puppy over and rub that puppy’s tummy to establish dominance (p.169). To avoid dangerous dominance issues and “pack mentality,” she advises dog owners to own two dogs, but no more (p. 169).

Finally, for those of us who sometimes shudder to think how many chickens have died for our pleasure, she writes clear-headedly about vegetarianism (179-180). She wishes we had evolved to be plant eaters, but we haven't. She herself was unable to operate without animal protein. Besides, it's not death but suffering that animal lovers should decry. On a related issue, here's another excerpt from that NY Times review:

She worries about the “totally adversarial” relationship between animal advocacy groups and the livestock industry. She has kind words for companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s (she has consulted for both), which are forcing their suppliers to treat animals more humanely. But she also praises activists. “The big companies are like steel, and activists are like heat. Activists soften the steel, and then I can bend it into pretty grillwork and make reforms.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memoir by Singer Cleo Laine: Footnotes

(Reflection on CLEO, the autobiography of singer Cleo Laine, published 1995, and on her music and career).

I met singer Cleo Laine one time, a meeting that didn't make it into her autobiography, even as a footnote. But she is more than a footnote in my life. Since she modestly omits from her life story all discussion of the artistry that makes her important to mine, I'm adding some footnotes to her book.

1973 - "The New York Carnegie Hall concert was the first of all the other highlights I was to encounter in America. ...It was a one-of-a-kind peak...." (p.256) On the recommendation of my teacher Frank Boggs, I risked six dollars on the live LP recording of that concert. I started with side two, to hear "Send in the Clowns" by my hero Stephen Sondheim. I was disappointed. Her voice seemed breathy, sometimes raspy. The accompaniment wasn't faithful to Sondheim's original. I sighed, and turned the LP over to see if there was anything to like. Then, each track was a revelation: folk song "I Know Where I'm Going" sung a cappella, a swinging waltz version of Carol King's bland "Music" that -- unlike the original -- built in excitement. For the first time I heard and appreciated scat singing, as Cleo spanned four octaves in a single line. Then there was a forgettable pop ballad made beautiful by Cleo's smokey vocal timbre and dynamics. This was followed by rude blues in a rough - hewn voice, and a spectacular novelty number "Control Yourself." By the time I got back to "Send in the Clowns," I had converted. Now I appreciated the understated singing, especially now that I knew how much vocal power she was keeping under the hood. Now I appreciated the arrangement for opening up the song to less restrained emotion. From that time on, I sought out jazz interpretations of songs I knew well. Oh, yes: the next track was "Riding High" by Cole Porter, and I'd found a new composer to love.

1974 - recording of Pierrot Lunaire and Songs by Charles Ives (p. 332) - Cleo mentions this in her discography without comment. I was ready for some good old modernist dissonance and drama, but this shocked me. Schoenberg's twelve-tone song cycle in "sprechstimme" (sp? "speak song") made me radically uncomfortable. I waited for the eerie introduction and morbid poetry to end and the music to begin, in vain: the din just continued thirty minutes and stopped. Ives's songs, on the other hand, opened me up to the ideas of disjointed rhythm and disconnected tonality. I determined to understand this stuff, and I've pursued it through books and recordings, learning to love some of it. Also began to appreciate eclecticism in an artist.

1976 - "Ray [Charles] and I got on with each other right away. The atmosphere in the studio was one of joy bordering on love, for the music and for the artistry of all concerned" (p. 261). The two - LP recording of songs from PORGY AND BESS alternated between big band arrangements with strings and pieces that Ray Charles accompanied on key board with a small ensemble. In one fell swoop, I learned to love Ray, Gershwin, and the opera. That same year, Cleo recorded her "return to Carnegie," which included a Sondheim medley, but also a lovely piece by Noel Coward, "London Pride," introducing me to another composer and personality to love.

1977 - "But two productions have gone from the Stables [a summer camp for the arts run by Cleo and her husband John Dankworth] to the West End: Colette... and Side by Side by Sondheim." (p.318) Thanks again to Frank Boggs, I saw the original cast of SxSxS in NY (1977) and met Sondheim after the show. Two years later, I missed seeing Cleo in Colette, which opened the week that I left England during a wonderful summer as a literature student at New College, Oxford. While shopping in London that summer, I found Cleo and JD's recording "Wordsongs," a collection of art songs from poetry by Shakespeare, Eliot, and others. I also had the piano music from which I learned something about jazz riffs and arranging. (I've since reviewed the recording of Colette.)

1985 - "That Old Feeling." Cleo's recording, evidently made to fill up time while husband JD was on tour with the London Pops Orchestra, is extremely beautiful: with a friend at the piano, Cleo recorded songs in her own living room. I had prized her four octaves and thrilling scat singing. But here were standards, performed without ornament or improv, made intimate and credible. A new ideal!

1988 - Cleo Sings Sondheim - a dream come true. 'Nuff said.

1989 - A stray dog entered my home when I opened the door to my carport. She took over the house from the two males who lived there, my Yellow Lab Churchill and me. This puppy howled and whined with a four octave range. Her voice and her regal bearing led me to name her Cleo. (My lovely dog Cleo died painfully but with merciful suddenness of some undetermined internal problem, after a long and happy life, in 2003.)

ca. 1990 - Cleo doesn't mention a tour that brought her close to Washington DC at a time when I was chaperoning eighth graders there. Thanks to my friend Leesha Faulkner, her eighth grader son Buck Cooper and I were able to arrange to leave the school group to hear Cleo. (I forget if I drove a rented car, or if we rode in a taxi.) Leesha also had roses delivered to Cleo's dressing room, which was our "in" to go back to meet the lady herself. Here's what I saw in that brief encounter:

The dressing room was drab and crowded with other well - wishers. Cleo and husband John Dankworth were both tiny people, around 5'2". They were both obviously exhausted but up to giving each visitor some personal time. I got to say "thank you" for all the above, and to mention my puppy Cleo. Most interesting to me was an envelope I saw, on which the list of songs for the evening had been penciled in. I got the sense that Cleo and JD were keeping themselves fresh by changing up their repertoire, and that they saw themselves as teachers and sponsors for the young band members. During the concert, these two had made a point of introducing the members of their small combo, and of including numbers written and / or arranged by these young musicians. One arrangement was a premier, I recall.

I've seen Cleo and Dankworth two times since then at Spivey Hall south of Atlanta. One concert was memorable for Cleo's medley of songs that her father sang, including "Tea for Two" in a very slow tempo that made it deliciously sensuous. I'm afraid the other concert displayed Cleo's age. She nearly lost her footing on her high heels, she had some trouble adjusting her eyes to the spotlight, and her voice gave out on the encore -- as she quickly gestured to her husband to hit the note on his sax.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Arkadya: Place in WOLVES EAT DOGS

(reflection on WOLVES EAT DOGS, a novel in a series featuring detective Arkady Renko by Martin Cruz Smith. See my reflection on STALIN’S GHOST elsewhere in this blog.)

Place, not plot, makes this novel. The basic story is uncomplicated: the victim and his associate did something that angered someone else enough to wreak revenge, and the detective travels to the site of the second murder looking for that something and that someone. But the author enriches this novel through places that are both credible and surreal.

Series detective Arkady Renko explores these places. He questions the people he meets, he sometimes sympathizes, but he remains untouched. Oh, sure, in this novel, he’s beaten with hockey sticks, shot at, besotted with peasant alcohol called samogon, bedded by a radioactive beauty, and glared at by an intensely taciturn eleven – year old boy who needs a father. But Renko holds all of these people at arm’s length, either mistrusting or afraid that he himself can only bring unhappiness to the ones who want to be close to him.

WOLVES EAT DOGS begins in one memorable place, a penthouse that epitomizes “the New Russia.” Its owner, the founder of a security corporation called, fittingly, NovoRus, is the novel’s first victim. His home is trendy, all white and glass and spaciousness, high above the gritty Moscow street. It bristles with electronic security devices because the new Russian oligarchs can’t rise high enough to escape the underworld foundations of their wealth.

The scene shifts when another NovoRus executive is found far from Moscow in the Ukraine, throat slit, in the radioactive “Zone” surrounding Chernobyl nuclear reactor number four that spewed radioactive iodine dust into the world’s atmosphere around 1986. In Smith’s telling, it’s “a funhouse mirror world” (106) of monumental Soviet-era structures lining vast uninhabited town squares, huts where aged peasants raise livestock on radioactive feed, “hot zones” where looters can evade police to emerge who – knows – where, and a lake by the power plant where giant mutated catfish swim. The woods, encroaching on abandoned towns, are full of hedgehogs that have lost their fear of humans, and wolves that eat the guard dogs. “And where will we be when all the dogs are gone?” asks one resident of the Zone. “It will be the end of civilization” (168).

Smith mythologizes his Zone. One character provides historical context: “It’s a nice place. Full of murdered Poles, Jews, Reds and Whites, not to mention the victims starved to death by Stalin or hung by the Germans, but still nice” (269). The physicist named Alex tells the story of Chernobyl as “Russian stand – up comedy” (179), emblematic of the entire Soviet era, a story about self-interested bureaucrats, state secrecy that kept technicians from knowing the dangerous limits of the reactor, the government’s determination to go forward with a May Day parade in the open fallout, and the cover – up that spread radioactive death to dozens, thousands, or millions – depending on whether you accept official numbers or not. “When does this start to become funny?” his wife asks.

Smith uses a Russian folk tale as an allegory for the whole novel and all of Russian history. Early in the book, that eleven – year – old boy becomes animated (for once) as he reads aloud fairy tales about the witch Baba Yaga, who had “steel teeth” to eat her prisoners and a fence around her hut “festooned with skulls.” Listening as he drives the boy through Moscow, Renko sees
Moscow University, one of Stalin’s skyscrapers, built by convict labor in such a fever for higher learning and at such a wholesale cost of life that bodies were said to have been left entombed. That was a fairy tale he could keep to himself, Arkady thought. (17)
Later, talking to the boy via cell phone outside the derelict nuclear plant, Renko says,
I met Baba Yaga. In fact, I’m outside her house right now. I can’t say whether her fence is made of bones, but she definitely has steel teeth. …In her pond she has a sea serpent as big as a whale, with long whiskers…. I didn’t see her magic comb… but I did see an orchard of poisonous fruit. All the houses around are burned and full of ghosts. (177)

Through another character, dying of radiation sickness, Smith draws parallels between this strange land and the modern world:

History moves in funny ways, right? We’ve gone through evolution, now we’re going through de-evolution. Everything is breaking down. No borders, no boundaries. No limits, no treaties. Suicide bombers, kids with guns. AIDS, Ebola, mad cow. It’s all breaking down, and I’m breaking down with it. I’m bleeding internally. No platelets. No stomach lining. Infected. (265)
Smith populates his world with some memorable characters. There are the Woropay brothers who roam the zone on in-line skates and Hockey gear brandishing sticks and guns. There’s Eva, doctor and cancer-scarred “Mother Theresa” of the Zone who once had a “radiant future” (237), before the Chernobyl accident. Her sudden and intense affair with Arkady complicates his relationship to his guide Alex, who also happens to be Eva's husband. He's the one who points out that Arkady is like those insouciant hedgehogs in a dark world of wolves – neatly tying every motif of this novel together.

But it’s place that makes the novel.

Crazy as Smith’s imagined world of the Zone is, rife as it is with Smith’s ironic black humor, it is authentic.

I know, because I’ve met an eyewitness, also named Arkady. Arkady Shvetsky was a nuclear engineer at the time of Chernobyl’s disaster. He told me how there was a sudden cloudburst in town, of the sort that brings people to their windows to marvel at the deluge. Strangely, this one didn’t abate in a few minutes, but continued for a weekend, and Arkady suspected that iodine in the clouds was the cause. Then he was summoned to Moscow for an urgent meeting of nuclear experts, only to be told at the meeting, “Never mind,” and to be sent home without explanation. Arkady told how he later learned of a friend of his who was approaching the entrance to the Chernobyl reactor number four for routine maintenance, unaware of what was transpiring. When radioactive air blew out the entrance, the friend and his co-workers were knocked down and instantly charred. Arkady removed his family to Israel, then to the US, where I taught his son Eugene. Arkady told how looters raided the abandoned towns in the Zone, selling contaminated furniture and electronics throughout the former Soviet Union.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

We Need More Shaw in our Lives

(reflection after seeing ARMS AND THE MAN by Polk Street Players Theatre Company in the basement of St. James, Marietta.)

For twenty years, I spent some of each summer at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, seeing lots of Shakespeare, and, once in awhile, Shaw. I always left feeling that the Shaw was the best of the plays. I remember especially seeing MISALLIANCE with student Josh Cox, who turned to me at intermission and said, "This is amazing. I want to write down every single line!"

I feel the same way. I laugh, and I follow the logic of each person's arguments, and I'm inclined to agree with every speaker -- even when they argue outrageous things.

We should have more of that. Maybe we could have a Shavian talk radio program?

Shaw had admired Ibsen for addressing social problems in plays. But Shaw's early efforts failed to make much impression. The only one I know by name is MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION, about a madame.

Shaw decided, with ARMS AND THE MAN, that he could more effectively break down audience conservatism by writing comedy.

Seeing ARMS AND THE MAN again, I'm reminded how refreshing Shaw is. There's a plot, its elements all taken from popular theatre of his day. An enemy soldier on the run hides briefly in a girl's bedroom. She saves him from the soldiers pursuing him, and she feeds him chocolate. Months later, when her father the General and her fiance the Captain return, her help for this enemy soldier comes back to embarrass her. That's the plot.

The fun is how Shaw sets up every character one way, and then lets them be undercut. The heroic captain? Actually, he was terrified when his horse ran ahead into danger. The virtuous daughter? Actually, just about everything she says that she believes is a lie, and she gradually recognizes this. The war itself? A farce.

The audience was a bit timid about laughing. But Shaw got laughs with sure - fire Bulgarian jokes. The social - climbing mother brags how she now washes her hands once a day. The General speaks in hushed tones about something their house has that no other Bulgarian house has -- a library. Later, the mother boasts how their family's wealth is nearly historical, going back twenty years.

These are lovable, laughable characters who -- as is commonplace to say -- all talk like Shaw.

Contrast to an opera I walked out of, LA CENARENTULA (sp?) or Cinderella, by Rossini. The prince meets the girl of the cinders about ten minutes into the opera and they fall in love. So far, I was charmed. But the librettist kept inserting unfunny, unnecessary, and tedious complications to keep the thing going. It's the first time that I haven't enjoyed a Met Opera HD broadcast, and the fault was mostly Rossini's. He was just killing time with that one.