Monday, January 31, 2005

Ted's Dilemma

Ted was one of the first people I met when I joined Temple Micah. He holds the distinction of having sung in the choir the longest of any member – 38 years! Ted is around 75. He graduated from Harvard in the days when there was a 10% quota on Jews in each class. He studied English and was a writer for most of his working career, holding some very important speech-writer jobs. Ted organized the Temple Micah ski club and went with the group to Europe each winter for the past 17 years. He volunteers to sing one of the solo parts in Yis’m’chu and always adds his little embellishments that drive Teddy (our choir director) crazy.

Ted and his beautiful wife Suzanne went with us on the Israel trip last spring. He was not well then, being diagnosed with pneumonia upon his return. He hardly missed an event and struggled to keep up with the group. Ever since he fell 18 months ago and cracked a vertebra in his neck, Ted’s health has been somewhat compromised. Recently he has become more and more stooped over. But I don’t think anyone was prepared to learn that Ted has Lou Gehrig’s Disease. For a person of his intelligence and someone who has led such an active life, the diagnosis could not be worse. He may live only two years.

He has come by himself to the last two Shabbat services. I go over and give him a big hug, but I have not been able to tell him how sorry I am to know about his illness. When we do the Mi Shebeirach (healing) prayer each week, I mention Ted’s name. That’s about as far as I get. The dilemma is really Ted’s and Suzanne’s, but it is so difficult for all of us to know what to say and do. I need some inspiration about how to give Ted the support he needs without seeming to pity him.

I can’t conceive of Temple Micah without Ted.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Temple Micah's Indian Ocean Fleet

Last week at Shabbat services, Danny (our rabbi) challenged us to buy boats – not just any boats, but replacement boats for those who lost their only way to make a living in the recent Tsunami. A “fully loaded” fishing boat goes for a mere $2,000 in that part of the world. He suggested that we shoot for buying 5 new boats, as just one tangible way of trying to help these unfortunate people. Last week $10,000 sounded like a big sum. He announced today that the check for the 5 boats was “in the mail” and more money was still coming in. That meant that a whole lot of people had contributed, because I know we gave only $27. This is a congregation that was born for social action of any positive sort! They always come through.

Laughingly we suggested that the boats be named the SS Genesis, SS Exodus, SS Leviticus, SS Numbers, and SS Deuteronomy in honor of the 5 books of Moses.

Mazel tov to us for putting 5 fishermen back in business!

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Knitting Tortoise Is Still in the Race

I had a very stressful morning at work. I am in charge of all the data processing for the largest survey in the US – 1/4 million questionnaires a month from now until eternity. Can you imagine how big a stack that would be? Today we were in crisis mode. I am also in the middle of a pissing match with an egotistical, macho Puerto Rican guy who is trying to tell me how to do my work. Now that I am eligible to retire, I find that I don’t take any crap from anyone. It still doesn’t make me feel very good to be in an adversarial position with anyone. By the end of the morning the production crisis was positively resolved. The situation with Alfredo (otherwise known as Freddie) was pending.

The good news is that my afternoon was reserved for knitting with my friend Mary. Mary was my last-ditch hope to salvage the miserable socks that had been restarted 5 times. My good-will offering was a batch of homemade very garlicky lentil soup and fresh fruit for lunch. Even Rachel, the garlic queen, would have approved of this soup.

After we had our hearty lunch (on a viciously cold day), we turned once again to my knitting. The first step was to unravel everything I had done the last time. Then Mary had me knit 2 rows and check the guage of the stitches (to see if my sock was going to fit, given the yarn and the needle size). That part checked out. We unraveled the test rows and began in earnest once again. She then showed me how to cast on stitches the right way. It turns out that that was the part I had been missing before. I cast on 72 stitches, split them between the 2 circular needles, locked the top stitches together, and I was off. I spent the next 45 minutes doing exactly one complete row – K2, P2, K2, P2, etc. I was not going to be wearing these socks any time soon. However, after I managed to get through the tight first row, I started to get a rhythm, albeit still pretty slow. I added 2 more complete rows, resulting in about ½ inch of the top of one sock, and decided to pack it in for the day – quit while I was ahead, so to speak. The ribbing was starting to be apparent. It was definitely going to be a sock some day.

Mary agreed to come back in the picture after I completed the next 6-1/2", because at that point the heel begins and it has some nasty twists and turns, it appears from the pictures.

While I was there, Mary pulled out her absolutely gorgeous Fair Isles pattern scarf that she was knitting. It looks like the type of thing you would pay big big bucks for. Maybe some day...

I am still quite humbled about this whole idea of knitting, but I am definitely not the miserable failure I was a week ago. My sock is going to happen, and then maybe I’ll start one for the other foot. By then, I will really know what I am doing in the sock department.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Breath -- The Connection between Body and Mind

Thich Nhat Hanh’s lesson of this evening concerned conscious breathing. He suggests that we actually think to ourselves IN on the inhalation and OUT on the exhalation as a way of making us focus on the process of breathing. The objective is not deep belly breaths, but achieving breath that is peaceful and gentle, not in any way forced.

He depicts the breath as the bridge between body and mind. Sometimes they are going in different directions, and it is the breath that allows them to work as one. He reminds himself about the importance of breathing with a sign in his meditation room which reads: “Breathe. You are alive!” He admonishes us to breath and smile in order to enjoy life in the present moment.

Several of us noted how the process of conscious breathing can often mitigate stress or anger. Just a few deliberate breaths take the edge off a tense situation.

Breathing is something we all do. I wonder how many breaths I have taken unconsciously in my lifetime of 56 years?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Andy Turns Rock into Water

Well almost... Andy Goldsworthy, famed Scottish environmentalist artist, has been commissioned to make a series of domes in a space adjacent to the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Domes with black holes in the center are his thing. He makes them out of leaves, wood, reeds, and now slate. The nine domes will fill the space previously occupied by a Japanese garden. When seen from above, they resemble swirling eddies of water.

I tried to go to a lecture by the artist on Sunday. Since it was the day after a big (for Washington) snowstorm, I thought there would be no problem getting in. WRONG! Only in Washington would there be 600 people ahead of me in line, when the auditorium holds only 533. Fortunately he agreed to allow the video of the lecture to be shown twice, the first time being today. There were probably 100 people in attendance.

The video included photos from many of his projects. He talked a lot about the black holes that form the boundary between light and darkness. One of my favorite projects was 5 HUGE snowballs that he constructed, mixing natural things like seeds with snow, keeping them totally frozen until the middle of the summer, when he placed them in various places in downtown London in the middle of the night. They took 5 days to melt completely, leaving behind the natural ingredients. I also liked the “shadows” formed by Andy and friends lying on pavement during a rain storm.

He talked about his design and choice of materials for the National Gallery project, called Roof. He visited three different quarries before deciding to use slate. He loves everything about slate. He brought 8 stone masons from the UK to construct the domes. They actually assemble the domes using no adhesive material, just by putting piece upon piece. They really look so COOL!

For more information on this project:

Monday, January 24, 2005

Snow and Crocuses

What do snow and crocuses have in common? They are both beautiful for a very brief period of time.

Last week when the threat of a shitload of snow came, someone replied, “I am hoping for a shitload of snow.” To which I replied, “Who over the age of 12 wants it to snow?” She went on and on about the calming and cleansing qualities of snow.

I generally only like snow under the following conditions:
(1) I don’t have to stay out in it long enough to get cold.
(2) I don’t have to shovel it.
(3) I don’t have to drive in it.
This translates into watching it fall from my family room window, while I sit next to the fireplace. Not terribly realistic! As the snow fell the next day, I do admit to noticing its beauty, especially when the flakes became large and were swirling around in big gusts of wind.

But it took only a day to turn pristine white into ruts of brown slush and to coat the car windshield with salty yuck. I strained my back shoveling the driveway and needed a good massage. So the winter wonderland had a short shelf-life once again.

At least the crocuses wilt with no side-effects!

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Shabbat Shira -- Another Miracle

Once again, the service came together, this year despite the threat of a winter storm. God intervened to tune the violins and we made beautiful music.

I was concerned that the only audience might be those somehow related to the orchestra and choir members. But in fact most Temple Micah regulars turned out despite the snow for this yearly musical extravaganza.

As we concluded When You Believe/Ashira L’Adonai (from Out of Egypt), which featured our youngest singers, I looked out and saw several adults wiping tears from their eyes. The theme of the song is “There can be miracles when you believe” – a good thing to remember.

We ended the service with a rip-roaring-rocking Finkelstein Mi Chamocha. We had once again pulled off a miraculous service in the face of atmospheric adversity and were ready to deal with the now fast-falling snow.

The faces in the audience today reminded me of what a diverse and accepting congregation Temple Micah is. Among them were: Neil with his new boyfriend, looking ecstatic; Sabrina, who is black and gay and recently converted to Judaism; Jody with her bi-racial toddler in her arms; and one of the musicians’ fathers, with long gray hair past his shoulders. What an eclectic group of people! The truth is that no one even notices how very different we all are. It’s the differences that totally enrich this congregation.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Shabbat Around Town

We participated in another yearly Temple Micah event tonight. Shabbat Around Town is a substitute for Friday night services, whereby temple members have other temple members to their homes for dinner. For some reason, we seem to always be cooking rather than going to someone else’s house to eat.

We had 9 people for dinner tonight, including David and me, ranging in age from 3 to 89, and averaging well above our ages. But these elderly people are truly an inspiration.

Florence (89) is recently widowed. She is on a plane tomorrow at 7:30 AM bound for Argentina, where she will take a study-cruise around the tip of Argentina and up the Chilean coast. She asked to borrow a couple of good novels to read on the trip. And, oh yeah, she brought homemade chicken liver to the dinner.

Gail (86) is an accomplished pianist, who still teaches. She gave us a mini concert, in which she played some of the most challenging music I have ever seen. Her eyesight is no longer so good, so she just memorizes everything.

Mollie (75) is the daughter of German refugees who escaped just one week before Kristallnacht. She was a docent at the Corcoran and has a deep love of music. I met Mollie when her husband was terminally ill and we became close friends soon after his death. She brought 2 beautiful salads and a cake to the dinner.

Lora (around 60? and Gail’s daughter) is in the Opera House Orchestra as a clarinetist. She has taught for many years at the college level and privately and loves all sorts of music. She brought a beautiful homemade blackberry pie with a latticed crust.

Frank (Lora’s husband, who is not Jewish) and their 2 grandchildren, Danny (3) and Timmy (6), rounded out the guest list. Frank spent a lot of the evening keeping Danny and Timmy from killing each other, which was not easy. Danny bit Timmy twice and Timmy slammed Danny’s hand in the front door in retribution – tit for tat! I had gotten 2 boxes of “special toys” out of the attic. Seeing the boys play with them brought back memories of my own children playing with them.

We did the Shabbat candle-lighting, with all of the women saying the prayer together. Then we did blessings over the wine and bread. That was about the extent of the liturgy. When we do have a special Shabbat dinner, it makes me wish we had done this every week with our children, who probably never even think about the fact that Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday night!

We had a very simple dinner. One of the things I talked to my therapist Anne about this week was how to have more fun when entertaining other people. At her advice, I chose a menu that required very little work, could be made ahead of time, and could not fail – purchased challah, roast chicken with lots of onions and herbs, arborio rice cooked in chicken broth, asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, and fresh fruit. When people offered to bring things, I gladly accepted instead of my usual, “You don’t really need to bring anything.” Out of that I got the chicken liver, 2 salads, a pie, and a cake. David and I clearly decided who was doing what ahead of time and pretty evenly divided the work. In fact, he is downstairs cleaning up and I am playing on the computer right now. It turns out that most people really do like plain food like this menu. And the stories that both Florence and Mollie told about buying live chickens in Brooklyn in a bygone era were priceless.

The music was a most special part of the evening. Gail played two very difficult pieces. Timmy (who has been taking piano for a year) played “The Juggler” with his legs crossed at the ankle and not reaching the floor. Then Lora and I played piano-clarinet duets. It was her music, so I was sight-reading everything for the first time. If I had thought about it too hard for very long, I would have been intimidated. But instead I just played and enjoyed every minute of it. The very good news is that I think we might play again some time. And I am definitely going to play some 4-hand piano pieces with Gail. I’m still really into this idea of playing with other people! It is a great feeling.

This was a really good evening, partly because it brought together so many generations. It reaffirmed my love of Temple Micah because it is about so much more than just religion. These people are truly our friends.

Shabbat Shira -- A Preview

Every year at around this time, Temple Micah has a mostly-music service to commemorate the Jews crossing the Red Sea. The theme is Mi Chamocha, meaning “Who is like you among all the gods?” There is also a spot for Miriam’s song to recognize that Moses’ sister led the Jewish women in their revelry after the crossing.

There are probably as many people making music as there are in the audience. We have an orchestra of about 25 instrumentalists, including flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, tuba, violin, cello, guitar, and drums. The ages of these players range from 9 to probably 70. There is a youth choir of about 12 kids, a teen choir of another 8, and our adult choir of probably 16. Then of course there is the cantorial soloist, Teddy our director, and Justin who is playing the piano.

The most wonderful part of the orchestra is the trombone section, consisting of a grandfather and his 9-year-old grandson. The little boy’s trombone is almost a long as he is tall when it is fully extended. He intently watched his grandfather’s every push and pull during the rehearsal. And the trombone section was definitely not the worst.

We have only one joint rehearsal each year, just 3 days before we “perform”. The music consists of about 10 different versions or Mi Chamocha, Miriam’s Song, and all of the usual Shabbat service music. It climaxes in “When You Believe” from the recent Disney Moses movie, in which a young girl has a significant solo part. Teddy arranges much of the music and writes a part for every new instrument we add. He is a genius!

Every year I come out of the rehearsal thinking that it was virtually UNBEARABLE. Teddy is a real saint to listen to all those bad notes coming from young musicians and just respond with something like, “Maybe the violins could be just a little softer at this point.” Whereas if I were the director, I would probably say,”You, you, and you, just sit this one out!”

I know by now that the Thursday rehearsal is always disastrous, but that by the following Saturday morning, God intervenes to tune those violins and keep us all together, on the same page so to speak. Not to worry...

This year our real worry is the weather. We are going to be under a winter storm watch, with 4-8 inches of snow predicted. The good news is that it is not supposed to start until after our rehearsal call on Saturday. The bad news is that we may have a very difficult time getting home. So this year we need not only a God with a good ear but one who can mollify the weather.

More to come after the real thing. Let’s hope God remembers about the violins...

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Knitting Is a Humbling Experience

I have always been able to do just about anything having to do with sewing and needles easily and without a whole lot of effort. So after my recent knitting workshop, I went out and bought a book and yarn and needles, determined to make a pair of warm wool socks. I don’t think my 2-hour workshop prepared me for the intricacies of this project.

I have now started over 5 times and, although in this last attempt I was able to complete 2 rows, the end result is a pitiful mess of colorful yarn that in no way resembles the top of a sock. The sad truth is that this was supposed to be the easy part. There are the matters of the heel and toe which look far more challenging in the pictures. So I humbled myself and called the person who did the workshop and begged a lesson just to get me jump started.

I haven’t yet experienced the therapeutic effect of knitting that in any way matched the wonderful feeling of knitting in front of a roaring fire while drinking hot apple cider. The good news is that I was able to put the knitting down, save it for another day. I don’t know if this patience or just avoidance.

Sometimes it is good to get a lesson in humility. I will now have an even greater admiration for those who make the beautiful cabled sweaters, the really big stuff. Especially when I see that even the little stuff is not so easy.

Another Inauguration Day

For me most inauguration days are marked only by an extra day off from work. I don’t attend any of the parades or balls or other official hoopla. But one past inauguration day – 1981 Ronald Reagan – has special significance for me.

I was almost 9 months pregnant with my now 6-foot-tall son Daniel, having had a threatened pregnancy. It was a very cold day and we were out in a park walking our very stupid dachshund, Schnitzel (Schnizzie), when all of a sudden I felt water running down my legs and realized that it was time! We called our dog sitter, BP, and jumped into the car with my little suitcase to head off to Washington Hospital Center, where my wonderful Chinese doctor Maureen Chua practiced. We had worried about getting to the hospital if I had gone into labor during rush hour, since it is about 12 miles through downtown DC from our house. But on inauguration day, especially before the days of ultra-security, it was smooth sailing.

I was in a birthing room, which was like a bedroom, with a TV and soft light. I remember Dr. Chua being more interested in whatever the Redskins were doing on TV than in my contractions at times. I had hung a beautiful crystal focal point to look at when the waves of pain came and I breathed through them with David's help. I worried because they hooked Daniel up to a fetal monitor (meaning that they put some sort of wire in his head – gross!) in order to monitor his heart rate. I steadfastly refused to take any drugs. The pain was bearable.

About 6 hours later, Daniel was born. He was 7 pounds and 21 inches – an average size baby, although I must say that he felt like a basketball passing through my cervix. He screamed, scored well on the Apgar test, and was happy to nurse at my breast. Dr. Chua stitched me up and Daniel went to join the other babies in the nursery. One of the few advantages of being at WHC was that he was the only white baby in the nursery, so there was little chance of a baby swap.

BP didn’t fare so well with Schnizzie, who at one point peed all over the white bedspread on the bed where BP was supposed to sleep. For being such a small dog, she was a lot of trouble.

Inauguration day never rolls around but that I don’t remember this one. It was my inauguration into motherhood, much more significant to me than any President taking office!

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

That Maternal Tug of War

I just had a conversation with a 40-something-old mother which brought back vivid memories. She related that it had taken her two hours to get to work today because of a sick child. Hers is a 12-year-old special needs child who can’t stay with just anyone and who is difficult to manage at best. When the last chance babysitter bailed because of the weather, my friend drove the child to her house and then called her husband and vented.

The most dreaded words for a working mother as her child wakes up are “I’m sick.” All of a sudden, your day’s planned schedule of meetings flashes before your eyes and you start thinking back to whose turn it is to stay home, provided you have a spouse/partner who participates. I’ve been known (and I am not proud of this) to reach for the Children’s Tylenol or even offer special bribes to ease a sniffle or sore throat or reduce a marginal fever. It’s always tricky determining if this illness is real or just an invention to stay home.

My worst fights with David have been over precisely this issue. Inevitably he had an important course or trip or something that trumped my insignificant schedule (or so it seemed). I have a lingering memory of the time when Rachel had chicken pox at age 4. We searched high and low for a babysitter and finally ended up with an 85-year-old woman who could barely move. I was totally shamed when I came home that day and learned that Rachel had cooked her own lunch in the microwave. Bad mother!

Now that my children are grown, I no longer have them to invent reasons for my missing work. There are days when I would like to stay home and have a child to blame it on. We can’t ever seem to get the timing right on some issues!

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Someone recently passed these words along to me:

We dare to live openly, lovingly, and joyously.
We will live alive and awake,
Unashamed of our own glory and brilliance.
We embrace the wonders of our amazing lives
Declaring by our every action,
That we will never feed the lies of victimization to any being.
We will never feast
At the sweet poisonous table of victimization again!
We choose life.
We choose beauty.
We choose delight.
We dare to dance
The Dance That Reweaves the Mysteries of Life!

They are a positive and powerful statement affirming a life devoid of victimization. If all beings read these words daily, there would be no more self-doubt. We humans really are an amazing species!

Monday, January 17, 2005

Looking at Paper Clips in a New Way

I just came from seeing a remarkable documentary called Paper Clips at the old Avalon Theater. The story takes place in Whitwell, Tennessee, a small town of 1500 people about 20 miles northeast of Chattanooga. Whitwell is rather homogeneous – no Catholics, no Jews, very few blacks and hispanics. In 1999 the 8th grade class at Whitwell Middle School adopted a project to study the Holocaust in an effort to teach diversity and tolerance.

Upon learning about the fate of 6 million Jews, one student said that he couldn’t imagine what 6 million of anything would look like. They came up with the idea of collecting 6 million paper clips to symbolize the Holocaust victims. They learned that Norwegians during WW II wore paper clips to show their solidarity with the Jews who were being forced to wear yellow stars. The students wrote letters to everyone they could think of. But the project stalled at around 150,000 and they calculated that it was going to take about 10 years to reach their goal at the current rate. Then Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, former White House correspondents, who were also German, became involved in the project. Their publicity, an article in the Washington Post, and a piece on the NBC nightly news fueled the collection effort. Over the next year, the students collected over 21 million paper clips and volumes of correspondence and stories which accompanied them. They received letters from current and ex-presidents of the US. They began to get contributions from all over the world. One class in Germany assembled a suitcase in which they enclosed letters to Anne Frank, expressing their sadness over what had happened during the war. At one point a group of Holocaust survivors traveled to Whitwell to see what the children had done and to give their own first-had accounts of what had happened. The film was interspersed with heart-felt letters read by their authors.

As the collection efforts reached their end, the principal of the school remarked that what they needed was a German rail car which had been used to transport Jews to the camps to use as a holding place for all the paper clips. The Schroeders traveled to Germany and eventually located such a rail car and had it shipped to the US into the port of Baltimore. Ironically it began the slow journey from Baltimore to Whitwell on September 11, 2001.

The entire town came together to build a memorial around the German rail car – some planted, some made decorative sculpture, others organized. It was a community effort. The decision was made to store 11 million paper clips in the rail car, representing 6 million Jews and 5 million other victims of the Holocaust. Today the memorial is a focal point of the community. It is widely visited by groups from near and far away. The guides are students, who have learned about the atrocities of WW II and have vowed to work toward a greater tolerance of all peoples.

At the end of the film, one of the students poses this question to the principal, “When you touch these paper clips, can you feel the souls of all those who died?” Another student remarks, “I don’t think I will ever look at a paper clip the same way again.”

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Home Alone

I am home alone for two days. It doesn’t happen often. Daniel is back in Tucson at law school. David is driving Rachel and all her stuff back to Boston.

In some ways it is nice to reclaim our house after the kids trashed it in numerous ways. I spent the first two hours of my time alone carrying out garbage and cleaning out the refrigerator – moving all of Rachel’s special ingredients either to the downstairs refrigerator or the garbage can – doing laundry, cleaning the gunk off the counters. But then it was done. Things were all clean again and everything was so totally QUIET. No more boombox, cell phones ringing, random things being cooked with the dirty dishes often left in the sink.

Being alone also makes me acutely aware of how electronically challenged I am. I have never bothered to learn how to learn how to use any of the remote-driven devices in our home entertainment center. I had to call Rachel on her cell phone to ask how to play a cassette tape! I’m usually content with being able to do e-mail and use the Internet. I typically just listen to everyone else’s music.

If given the choice, I would probably prefer having Daniel and Rachel home, even if it means unwanted noise at night, more garbage, piles of laundry in different states everywhere, and random dishes and glasses sitting here and there. I long ago learned that a clean house doesn’t really make you happy!

Fortunately David comes home on Tuesday. So for now Dylan and Jake will have to keep me company.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Stitch by Stitch, Row by Row

I spent the afternoon at Healing Arts at a knitting workshop. It was a really great setting: a roaring fire and hot cider and cookies with 10 women of varying ages, who all had a desire for knitting therapy.

Ruth Ann, a massage therapist at Healing Arts, and her sister Meagan, both of whom are master knitters, were the instructors. They started by reading some really great quotations about the healing potential of knitting and the way knitting has affirmed and united women. They passed around books and samples of all sorts of yarn. The colors and textures of the yarn are so interesting.

We each introduced ourselves and said something about why we were there. I related my lack-of-patience story about how I stayed up all night crocheting a poncho because I just had to get it done. Rebecca keeps telling me that it’s the trip, not the destination. Obviously this is a lesson I need in other parts of my life as well. One person, who has obviously traveled a lot, mentioned how when she pulls out her knitting in a foreign airport, there is an instant bond with other women that goes beyond language.

Each participant started with a set of needles, a skein of yarn, and 20 stitches already cast on. We worked in twos and threes to learn the basic knit stitch. Once that was instinctive, we also learned how to pearl. That’s all there is – knit and pearl. Everything else is just a combination of the two. So then I started mixing them up and learned how to alternate stitches. It was all coming back.

We saw beautiful finished projects – sweaters, scarves, socks. I determined that I really want to make socks. This seems like a project that won’t take forever and will result in something I need. Maybe then I will take on a really big long-term project.

One quote that stuck in my mind was: Time is the only gift that we have. Meaning don’t push it, enjoy it. So maybe after all these years, I will learn to be happy with stitch by stitch, row by row, put it away, and do the same thing all over again the next time I pick it up.

Hope springs eternal...

Friday, January 14, 2005

Growing Old with Folk

Most every year we go to the World Folk Music Association benefit concert, this year at the Birchmere. For the most part, not my favorite kind of music, but one of the highlights of David’s musical year. Every year Dick Cerri MCs the concert. Even though his hair never changes, Dick is obviously aging. What is really interesting is that David and I are on the young side of the crowd. These are 60s folk die-hards who come out to the WFMA concerts and many of them are now grandparents.

If the audience is aging, what does that say for the performers? Some of them are REALLY old or dead by now. But the ones that show up to perform have the same enthusiasm as they pluck and tune. I really have no use for the twangy guitar players. But when a violin or a piano of any type is introduced into the act, I am much more interested. The highlights this year for me included Buskin and Batteau (The Boy with the Violin), Paul of PP&M, and David Mallett (The Garden Song).

It always sends a shiver through my spine when the entire audience of 600+ join together to sing something we have known forever. This year it was:

Garden Song
by David Mallett

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
Gonna mulch it deep and low
Gonna make it fertile ground

Inch by inch, row by row
Please bless these seeds I sow
Please keep them safe below
'Till the rain comes tumbling down

Pullin' weeds and pickin' stones
We are made of dreams and bones
Need a place to call my own
'Cause the time is close at hand

Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature's chain
Till my body and my brain
Tell the music of the land


Plant your rows straight and long
Season with a prayer and song
Mother Earth will make you strong
If you give her loving care


Kindergarten Nostalgia

When I was 5 years old, my parents gave me the difficult choice of kindergarten or dancing lessons for the coming year. Given my natural inability to dance, I rightly chose kindergarten. I think that was asking a lot of a 5 year old!

I recently came across a picture of our kindergarten graduation as I was looking through old stuff in the basement. It brought back a flood of 50-year-old memories of a good year in my life.

We went to Madeline Gore’s kindergarten, which was adjacent to her husband’s music store in downtown Panama City, Florida. Mrs. Gore (as we called her) had a husky voice, because she smoked like a fiend every time we had a break. She loved story telling and knew how to make wonderful playthings out of old throwaways. One of our favorite attractions at break was a box of “red rags”, which were strips of an old red bedspread which we used in very imaginative ways. We did a lot of singing and dancing also because Mrs. Gore was very musical (married to a jazz saxophone player, who was also an alcoholic).

The picture shows a row of 14 girls of quite varied sizes. Some feet didn’t reach the floor. Many of our legs are crossed at the ankles with full view of our crotches, mine included. I am sitting dead center with Freddie Lee on one side and Elinor on the other. Interesting that we would remain friends forever. There are 11 boys in the back row, of even more varied sizes. Mrs. Gore is standing behind the boys that were most likely to act up. She is wearing one of those typical 50s dresses that has sort of a halter neck and looking very elegant.

I was always envious of Freddie Lee, who lived just a few blocks away and could walk to kindergarten. She was so independent, even at 5, being one of ultimately 10 children. My mother actually learned how to drive so she could take me to kindergarten. It was still a little tenuous because she never learned how to stop without lurching slightly. I was in a carpool with Angie and Mae Gray and they were ALWAYS late. This drove me crazy, but my mother would never rock the boat and suggest that maybe they could be on time. I had a great lunchbox, in which I took my snack of very salty Fritos and a thermos of juice every day.

I remember getting upset about three things in kindergarten. I never quite understood the lesson on crossing the street, getting the concept of green and red lights mixed up. Freddie Lee obviously knew this one since she walked to kindergarten. I had trouble remembering my lines as Rapunzel. And the dance where we had two circles that paired off 2 at a time, then 4, then 8 threw me into a panic. Even in kindergarten I could be a little neurotic!

But all in all I absolutely loved every minute of kindergarten. We were never bored, or scared, or competitive. It was a good way to start academia, that only went downhill from that point on.

It’s interesting to try to recall names for all the little faces. I am sure Freddie Lee remembers them all. When I see her soon, we will reminisce and add some more stories to this post. Maybe we will try to figure out what became of each of the children in Mrs. Gore’s class of 1955.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Remember to Smile

In our meditation reading last night Thich Nhat Hanh talked about the importance of smiling. It was an important add-on to last week’s message: Every day you have 24 new hours. Now he suggested a smile upon awakening. He talked about putting something visible in your bedroom that would elicit a smile every day as you opened your eyes.

It is true that it is difficult to hold onto negative thoughts when you have a smile on your face. As your face relaxes into a comfortable smile and the corners of your mouth turn up, they just slip away.

We talked about how smiles get onto our faces. Can forcing a smile make us feel it? Does a smile originate in our heads or our hearts? Or some combination of these?

One person mentioned the infectious power of a smile. She talked about how just that day she had diffused a potentially combative situation by changing the emotional charge and smiling in sympathy with a frustrated mail clerk.

It turns out that a smile is perhaps our most powerful weapon. It doesn’t cost anything and we have it with us (or at least accessible) all the time.

The reading ended with the following poem:

I have lost my smile.
But don’t worry.
The dandelion has it.

I don’t think I can possibly ever look at a dandelion again without smiling.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

When I was briefly in the Girl Scouts at age 11, I learned this song:

Make new friends,
But keep the old,
One is silver,
And the other gold.

I never thought too much about what that meant back then. But I have been thinking a lot about it lately. Part of my recent awakening has been to attempt making a few new friends and I have had mixed results. I have mainly looked to people with whom I associate in my various new activities. I now have coffee or lunch every few weeks with one evening meditation friend. She has a young child and enjoys hearing stories about older children (mine). A second person has not responded positively to several things I have suggested that we do. A third person outright rejected my offer, saying maybe one day. One out of three, hmmmm.

But the really good news is that I sent my BLOG site to some really good old friends this week. I have had rounds of e-mail messages with three of them. I am planning trips to visit two of them and a week-long summer chamber music festival in Canada with a third. It’s as though we never skipped a beat in terms of our ability to just pick up our relationships. I really love these women and at a time when I am not feeling too confident about my ability to make new friends, their care and concern for me is very gratifying.

I think I am starting to see what this song is all about...

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Creative Feedback Group

Last night I went to the first meeting of a new group, the purpose of which is for members to give feedback to each other on things they are doing. It was the brainchild of Bill, a bass player in the National Symphony. He came up with this idea after reading The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori. Loori talks about a group which suspends judgment on technical merit, but instead gives feedback on the feelings that the art, music, whatever evokes.

This group has been in the formative stage for about 2 months. This gave me time to read the book and start to think about what I wanted feedback on, which has meandered. Initially I wanted to learn how to play jazz piano, having played mostly classical piano for many years and never having done anything that involved improvisation. However, I realized that I am currently not in a position to be creative because I can’t do this yet, and may never be able to do it. Then I realized that I don’t even feel that creative when it comes to playing the piano by myself and interpreting someone else’s music. In the interim I played some duets with Bill and really enjoyed the feeling that comes with playing music together. That does involve creativity. So I started thinking more about creativity that comes from collaboration – not only involving music. I listed a several diverse activities in an e-mail to group members:

– Playing duets
– Singing
– Writing a poem in two voices
– Making greeting cards
– Making a small quilt

Only one person in the group even commented on my e-mail. So I started to question whether or not I was on entirely the wrong track with this.

Bill announced the first meeting and invited anyone who wanted to present to do so. Most of us were so unclear about the intentions and the format that we opted out for the first meeting. I really hoped that we would discuss the book and spend most of the first meeting talking about what we wanted from the group and how it would work logistically.

I was somewhat surprised when we skipped all the talking and basically turned to hearing Bill play the piano. Knowing what a superb musician Bill is, I half jokingly said before he began to play, “Don’t set the bar too high here, or no one else is going to want to do this!” Rebecca jumped all over this, saying “That is entirely the WRONG way to approach this.” Gulp! I really felt foolish, but quickly came back with “I am really looking forward to hearing Bill at his finest.”

Bill played the first piece, from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord. It was so incredibly beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. It reminded Marianna of her daughter’s wedding where she played the piece while her husband sang in his rich tenor voice. We asked him to play it again and it was even better. Bill was still just performing, though.

At our urging, he played another three pieces, also Bach, this time fugues. He really put himself into these pieces. We had a good discussion of his feelings about playing, our feelings about listening, and I think it went completely according to Loori’s formula.

I had actually considered a presentation that consisted of a group effort to add new tunes to the old Heart and Soul duet. I had thought it would be a good way to see how the group could work together on something. But the tone of the meeting was far too serious to do this. I hope in the future we can figure out how to add laughter and playfulness to this process.

Since noone else had something to present, we adjourned to drink champagne and eat cheese and crackers. Marianna and I lingered at the big piano. We played a hearty rendition of Heart and Soul. Then I played my 2-page Misty. But this all paled in comparison to what Bill had done.

Rebecca announced that she had come only for the champagne and did not see herself as a permanent part of the group. At least she was honest. She does tend to control any situation, so it was probably for the best.

A discussion of how the group would work ensued. I started having an anxiety attack about what I could possibly do that would be of benefit to me and the group. I hadn’t been able to elicit any support for collaborative activities. My heart wasn’t into playing solo piano. Everyone else was talking about what they planned to present, while I had serious doubts about whether I wanted to do this at all.

By this time two glasses of champagne on a stomach with only a banana for dinner were making me not think too rationally. It was time to go home.

I had looked forward to this meeting with such anticipation, hoping to be launched into the positive feedback situation, but instead felt myself spirally downward into the depths of self-doubt and depression. This is so unlike me. I have always felt confident about my ability to do things, maybe not to interact with people, but doing things has always brought me praise and self-assuredness. I decided to sleep on it and went to bed, feeling yucky.

When I awoke, I had a new idea. I would focus on things that I made – sewing projects, cards, a quilt – and not on music, at least initially. I am still hopeful that at some time someone will want to collaborate, but I will wait for a volunteer. Meanwhile, I offered to give a brief presentation at the next meeting on February 7.

I’m still not totally comfortable with my role in the group. I must feel that I am an equal partner with the other group members in terms of their willingness to provide feedback to me and accept my feedback. I think this will get better as more people actually present and it becomes more than a forum for hearing Bill perform. With any group of people, I think there is a period of getting used to each other that must happen before the group gels and becomes really effective.

I have to keep reminding myself about my New Year’s resolution to believe in myself. I know in my heart of hearts that I am just as smart, capable, and creative as anyone in this group and I must approach this new activity with this as my firm belief. Otherwise, I will be my worst enemy.

Monday, January 10, 2005

My Little Garlic Clove

Rachel has always like garlic, but recently she has become addicted to it. Instead of using a clove or two at a time, she is now buying economy-size jars of crushed garlic and including it in just about everything that she cooks.

The other day I detected the next-day garlic smell that often accompanies orientals who use garlic as a staple in their cooking. I mentioned it to Rachel since not everyone is enamored by the garlic smell. She replied that she was brushing her teeth and that should take care of it and by the way, “Please stay out of my business.” What I have come to realize is that if you eat enough garlic, the smell comes through your skin, not your breath.

When I walked into my bathroom this morning, the garlic smell greeted me. So I have a dilemma: Ignore the one-more-week-till-she-goes-back-to-school smell or say something once again at the risk of being labeled an intrusive parent.

No one ever told me about these kinds of situations when I signed up to be a parent!

Giving Up Something to Move Ahead

Last week my therapist Anne made a statement that intrigued me: You must often give up something in order to move ahead. I started thinking about how this applies to an individual’s life and to the world in general and came up with the following:

– A child learning to walk lets go of her mother’s hand.
– A child learning to ride a bicycle rides on her own only when her father lets go of the bike.
– Really learning to swim requires one to give up the fear of drowning. (This obviously means that I have not REALLY learned to swim.)
– Experiencing sex requires the loss of virginity.
– Accepting a full-time job means the loss of leisure time.
– Having children (usually) means a diminished degree of spontaneity.
– Getting a pet means giving up freedom to travel easily.
– A reduced range of motion comes with getting older.
– (On a more positive note) Retiring from a full-time job means a loss of scheduled commitment.
– Our country gave up its clean air and water to move into the industrial age.
– I would like to think we will some day give up our reliance on fossil fuels to gain energy independence.

I will continue to add to this list. If you have ideas, send me a comment.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Heart and Soul Revisited

My summers as a child in Panama City, Florida, were not filled with camps and planned activities. There was a LOT of free time. I remember spending time doodling around on the piano, often playing duets with anyone who happened to be at my house. One of our favorites was Heart and Soul. We played it over and over and over again, basically with three variations on the top part: Heart and Soul, Blue Moon, and Stormy Weather. It never occurred to me that there are an infinite number of other tunes that fit equally well with the simple chord structure of the bottom part.

I started thinking about childhood duets recently after mentioning the idea of creative collaboration in an e-mail to some of the people involved in a creative feedback group that is just getting started. Marianna had remarked that she had fond memories of playing chopsticks on the piano as a child and more recently with her 10-year-old nephew.

One of the things I would like to try with the creative feedback group is a spontaneous group effort at coming up with new variations on Heart and Soul. Just yesterday I added One Fine Day, Just the Way You Look Tonight, and a few others. I think this would be a fun way to illustrate how collective thought is often more creative than the thinking of an individual.

If you are reading this and you have a tune to add to the list, please make a comment!

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Angels We Have Heard on High

I just came from a Folger Consort concert entitled “When Notre Dame Was New,” that featured the Norwegian Mediaeval Trio. I went by myself because I couldn’t interest family or friends in renaissance music. It was interesting to be by myself – almost like a mini-word-fast that Rebecca talks about. For 3-1/2 hours, no speaking, reading, or writing, and listening only to Latin and medieval French. I really think that talking to other people would have spoiled the atmosphere.

Strings plus wind instruments plus the voices of three angels. This was the sound that was sucked into the vortex that swirled upward among the Christian iconography of the National Cathedral. It was such a perfect setting for this type of music. I could close my eyes and imagine that I actually was in Notre Dame and when I opened them I was not at all surprised. The cathedral is perched on a hill and yet reaches still higher toward heaven. So it really was like sitting amidst the angels, who were accompanied by lyre and flute.

What was most amazing about the sound was that within a piece it never stopped. It was almost like a bagpipe where the sound is sustained by the constant flow of air. The three soprano voices acted as one voice which from time to time split into close harmony. They seemed to get their pitches out of thin air. It was yet another wonderful example of collaboration that resulted in a hauntingly beautiful sound.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Calder-Miro -- A Balancing Act

I have recently been thinking a lot about the creativity that comes from collaboration. What better way of illustrating it than the Calder-Miro exhibit at the Phillips Gallery that Rachel and I visited today. For years I had admired the work of these two superb artists, but I had never realized that they were lifelong friends who served to inspire each other.

Alexander Calder and Joan Miro met in 1928. They shared many artistic interests organized around common themes such as the circus, bestiary, universe, and constellations. They both aspired to create monumental works for public spaces, being quite willing to break with tradition in doing so. They combined color, shape, and line in ways never before imagined. Although they worked independently, they had a lifelong correspondence which served to reinforce each other’s vision.

A common theme for both artists is balance. Calder’s mobiles all depend on intricate systems of weights to maintain their shapes and integrity. Miro frequently uses the image of a tightrope in his abstract paintings. They sensed a necessary balance in life that goes beyond the canvas or the metal pieces of the mobile.

I am touched by the poem Miro wrote to his old friend upon his death:

(Translated from the French)
Your face has become dark,
and, upon the day’s awakening,
Your ashes will disperse themselves
throughout the garden.
Your ashes will fly to the sky,
to make love with the stars.

Your ashes caress
The rainbow flowers
That tickle the blue of the sky.

Joan Miro

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Peace Is Every Step

My Wednesday evening meditation group just started focusing on this book by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the first reading, he reminds us that every day we are given a gift of 24 new hours. He suggests that during that time if we work toward establishing peace within ourselves that it will be infectious to the rest of the world.

My problem in finding that peace is figuring out how to rid myself of angry feelings. Until recently I was not even aware of my anger. Now I can at least sense it and feel it. But I am clueless as to how to dissipate it. The message I hear from Anne, my therapist, is that if I can experience the anger (whatever that means) that it will go away. So far my experience is that there is a new wave of the same anger waiting to fill in the void. I obviously have a lot of work to do on this.

As we ended our sit last night, the anchor suggested that we were part of a much larger group of people who even at that very moment were also meditating, trying to find that elusive peace. I am intrigued by this idea of a world wide web of meditators who in some way are connected to each other.

I will continue to search for peace...

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

On Turning 56

Happy birthday to me... Today was my birthday. It was mostly just like any other day. I went to work. I went to meditation. No one knew it was my birthday. I told Anne, my therapist, who of course said, “And how does that make you feel?” to which I gave my usual reply, “I’m not sure.”

I got an e-mail greeting from David at work and a phone call from my good friend from childhood, Mollie, who has become an airline stewardess after her mid-life crisis. Mollie sang to me over the phone. I was hoping for a few more e-mail messages from friends and acquaintances that just didn’t happen. I sent messages to Freddie Lee and Guerry, my birthday soul mates who are exactly to the day my age. (The next day I got a wonderful newsy e-mail greeting from my long-time friend BP. Two days later I heard from Mollie and Ina, another good old PC friend. I also heard from LM, my best neighbor-friend.)

But my family really came through in a big way. I woke up to find a gift from Daniel of a book of 100 favorite classical piano pieces. He had even correctly gauged the level of difficulty. David had made me a homemade computer card with The Little Mermaid on the front. My 90-year-old mother-in-law sent me a beautiful card. Later in the day I found a Tiny Jewel Box gift of a really cool pearl necklace on a black chain – David and Rachel collaborated in choosing it. Rachel had made me one of her famous weird modern faces in pastels. I will need to get it framed. After much discussion they made a late reservation at Ceiba so I could go to meditation first. We ate and ate and ate some more and I am totally stuffed, but very content to be with the people I love who have been so nice to me today.

David also baked me a chocolate cake because he had written in his Palm Pilot last year that I really wanted one. Unfortunately we are all way too full to eat it tonight. It may just need to wait until tomorrow.

It was one of the better birthdays I have had because my family all made it a special day. I am so grateful for them!

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Meditation Can Change Your Brain

A recent study of Buddhist monks who were serious practitioners of meditation revealed that their brains had been permanently changed to allow different levels of awareness. Meditating on unconditional compassion induced sustained and robust gamma-band oscillation in their brains. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) far exceeded the activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety).

Maybe this explains why I feel so drawn to meditation. It’s the only thing I do that allows me to go in with negative feelings and come out with a whole different outlook on life. This isn’t always the case, but it has happened frequently enough that I know that it is possible.

Meditation Alters Brain Structure

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Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning -- SCIENCE JOURNAL By SHARON BEGLEY - November 5, 2004

All of the Dalai Lama's guests peered intently at the brain scan projected onto screens at either end of the room, but what different guests they were.

On one side sat five neuroscientists, united in their belief that physical processes in the brain can explain all the wonders of the mind, without appeal to anything spiritual or nonphysical.

Facing them sat dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monks in burgundy-and-saffron robes, convinced that one round-faced young man in their midst is the reincarnation of one of the Dalai Lama's late teachers, that another is the reincarnation of a 12th-century monk, and that the entity we call "mind" is not, as neuroscience says, just a manifestation of the brain.

It was not, in other words, your typical science meeting.

But although the Buddhists and scientists who met for five days last month in the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India, had different views on the little matters of reincarnation and the relationship of mind to brain, they set them aside in the interest of a shared goal. They had come together in the shadows of the Himalayas to discuss one of the hottest topics in brain science: neuroplasticity.

The term refers to the brain's recently discovered ability to change its structure and function, in particular by expanding or strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely engaged. In its short history, the science of neuroplasticity has mostly documented brain changes that reflect physical experience and input from the outside world. In pianists who play many arpeggios, for instance, brain regions that control the index finger and middle finger become fused, apparently because when one finger hits a key in one of these fast-tempo movements, the other does so almost simultaneously, fooling the brain into thinking the two fingers are one. As a result of the fused brain regions, the pianist can no longer move those fingers independently of one another.

Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder whether the brain can change in response to purely internal, mental signals. That's where the Buddhists come in. Their centuries-old tradition of meditation offers a real-life experiment in the power of those will-o'-the-wisps, thoughts, to alter the physical matter of the brain.

"Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism," says neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Dalai Lama agreed, and he encouraged monks to donate (temporarily) their brains to science.

The result was the scans that Prof. Davidson projected in Dharamsala. They compared brain activity in volunteers who were novice meditators to that of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. The task was to practice "compassion" meditation, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings.

"We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts," says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics.

In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators "showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature," says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.

Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.

"It feels like a total readiness to act, to help," recalled Mr. Ricard.

The study was published (Available Below) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We can't rule out the possibility that there was a pre-existing difference in brain function between monks and novices," says Prof. Davidson, "but the fact that monks with the most hours of meditation showed the greatest brain changes gives us confidence that the changes are actually produced by mental training."

That opens up the tantalizing possibility that the brain, like the rest of the body, can be altered intentionally. Just as aerobics sculpt the muscles, so mental training sculpts the gray matter in ways scientists are only beginning to fathom.

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Long-term Meditators Self-induce High-amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice

Practitioners understand “meditation,” or mental training, to be a process of familiarization with one's own mental life leading to long-lasting changes in cognition and emotion. Little is known about this process and its impact on the brain. Here we find that long-term Buddhist practitioners self-induce sustained electroencephalographic high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations and phase-synchrony during meditation. These electroencephalogram patterns differ from those of controls, in particular over lateral frontoparietal electrodes. In addition, the ratio of gamma-band activity (25-42 Hz) to slow oscillatory activity (4-13 Hz) is initially higher in the resting baseline before meditation for the practitioners than the controls over medial frontoparietal electrodes. This difference increases sharply during meditation over most of the scalp electrodes and remains higher than the initial baseline in the postmeditation baseline. These data suggest that mental training involves temporal integrative mechanisms and may induce short-term and long-term neural changes.

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Long-Range Synchrony in the Band: Role in Music Perception

Synchronization seems to be a central mechanism for neuronal information processing within and between multiple brain areas. Furthermore, synchronization in the band has been shown to play an important role in higher cognitive functions, especially by binding the necessary spatial and temporal information in different cortical areas to build a coherent perception. Specific task-induced (evoked) oscillations have often been taken as an indication of synchrony, but the presence of long-range synchrony cannot be inferred from spectral power in the range. We studied the usefulness of a relatively new measure, called similarity index to detect asymmetric interdependency between two brain regions. Spontaneous EEG from two groupsmusicians and non-musicianswere recorded during several states: listening to music, listening to text, and at rest (eyes closed and eyes open). While listening to music, degrees of the band synchrony over distributed cortical areas were found to be significantly higher in musicians than non-musicians. Yet no differences between these two groups were found at resting conditions and while listening to a neutral text.

*** *** ***

Free Download:

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Long-Term Meditators Self-Induce high-Amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice
Antoine Lutz, Lawrence L. Greischar, Nancy B. Rawlings, Matthieu Ricard, and Richard J. Davidson - cgi - doi - 10.1073 - pnas.0407401101 PNAS - November 16, 2004
vol. 101 - no. 46 - 16369–16373 - NEUROSCIENCE

The Study in PDF - 5 pages/430 KB

Download Now

Monday, January 03, 2005

Struggling at the Poverty Line

For the past 12 years I have headed up efforts to reach out to local families in the Suitland, MD, area who are at the poverty level or below. My idealistic idea was to identify families that were trying hard to rise up out of their situations but just needed a boost. In reality, we have made a temporary difference, but for the most part poverty is breeding poverty faster than we can do anything about it.

I identified families in need of assistance by contacting the local elementary school. They always know who comes to school hungry or without a jacket or just doesn’t come to school at all on a regular basis. And believe me there is no shortage of families that meet all of those criteria. I always insisted that the school have the parent (most always a single mom) call me to indicate a willingness to partner with the Census Bureau. We would then meet at a local fast food restaurant of her choice to construct a list of children, including their names, birth dates, and sizes. Our goal was to recognize Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter with nonperishable food items and grocery store gift certificates. At Christmas time, we obtain a wish list for each child and purchase and wrap gifts. We make Easter baskets. We collect gently worn clothing. We collect summer activities – games, books, toys. We get lists for back-to-school and buy school supplies. We serve as an emergency source of money for things like car repairs. We recognize each child’s birthday in a special way – a cake or presents or bowling with friends or some combination of these. We actually furnished an entire apartment for a woman who had been living in a car with 4 children. We often tutor or mentor the children. All of these things mean that the parent will perhaps be able to keep paying rent and electric and telephone bills.

Invariably the families consist of a mom and from two to seven children who are closely spaced in age. If the mom works at all, her job pays just above minimum wage. The food stamps run out before the month is over. Many of the children have learning disabilities. Many of the moms and children are overweight and have poor diets. There is often no car in the family.

The thing that amazes me most is just how easy it is to get support for this program from my colleagues. I established a list of around 100 people who are committed to this program. Time after time they respond to my messages asking for their help. They now know when they are cleaning out their houses that there is a ready destination for their castoffs.

The real question is has this made a permanent difference in the lives of these families? Two families out of the probably 12 we have helped suggest that it has. The second family we helped was able to move out of the Suitland area to a much safer neighborhood, where they purchased a small house. Two years ago the mom called at Thanksgiving to offer two big bags of groceries, which we gladly accepted. This woman could have written a book about how to make your grocery money stretch. She was never unemployed and was constantly fighting to get child support from the children’s deadbeat father, who by this time had a new family. A second person came to work at the Census Bureau soon after we became acquainted. She is feisty and can tell hair-raising stories of what she has seen while living in this area. She has held young men as they died from gunshot wounds. She has helped police pursue known murderers. She doesn’t put up with crap from anyone. She has gradually bettered her position at Census, and just recently was able to move away from Suitland into a house in a quiet neighborhood. She must now get a ride to work since she can no longer walk across the street.

The rest of the families have gladly accepted what we could offer, but never seem to be able to get out of the poverty spiral. And even in the case of our second success story, the oldest daughter (at 17) recently had a baby of her own. She is unmarried and did manage to graduate from high school. But she is headed down the same path of struggle.

It is remarkable too that fathers are so totally absent. They father these children and then just walk away, leaving women saddled with the responsibility of feeding, clothing, and housing a growing number of children.

After 12 years of this, I no longer have high expectations. I continue to do this for the sake of the children who never asked to be born into poverty. I have seen some big smiles on the faces of children whose birthdays have never been very special. I wish I knew how to really make this work.

New Year's Resolution

I went to a yoga nidra (otherwise known as “yoga sleep”) session on New Year’s Day. Marianna systematically talked us through every part of the body and helped us visualize the various shakras that comprise the human body. Perhaps the most important thing she did was to ask each of us to come up with the equivalent of a New Year’s resolution, or mantra, that we came back to repeatedly during the session. It was a profoundly effective way to start the new year.

My mantra for 2005 is “I will believe in myself and my actions.” I have typically looked to the feedback from others to legitimize my actions, often falling into the pit of imagining negative feedback that really doesn’t exist. I have to work to convince myself that everything I do is with honest and well-meaning intentions. If others perceive it differently, so be it.

I hope that this will be a resolution I keep for life!

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Why Pay Full Price?

Dan and I just returned from seeing Pericles at the Shakespeare Theater. The bard must have been a genius to write so many plays that continue to draw a packed audience. We paid $10 apiece for standing room tickets that entitled us to no more than a chance to stand against the back wall and watch this fantastic play, which we did for the first half.

However, I had spied out a couple of empty seats, so at intermission I claimed a seat in the center of the first row (can you believe it?) and Dan did the same in the center of the second row. I was literally 10 feet away from the stars of the cast at the end of the play. The seats were so good that they made us totally forget the pain of standing up for the first hour and a half!

The play was my kind of play. It was not silly with the clowns that Shakespeare tends to use in his comedies. But it had a happy ending, unlike the blood-and-guts tragedies when everyone dies in one way or another. The special effects of storms at sea and glitter out of nowhere were really well done. The costumes were strikingly beautiful. The live dog behaved himself.

All in all a real bargain. I would bring my book to read and wait for the cheap seats again. Why ever pay full price?

Saturday, January 01, 2005

New Year's Eve: Good Friends, Mediocre Food, and a Sobering Movie

We spent New Year’s Eve with our friends L & M, as we have for many years. This year Dan was with us. Rachel was clubbing in NYC with school friends.

Our evening started off at Bangkok 54, a new upscale Thai restaurant in Arlington. They had gone to a lot of effort to make it look like western New Years! There was a band playing what sounded like Vietnamese music; we could have done without the music. The food was plentiful and flavorful, but definitely missing the spiciness that makes your mouth burn as you reach for another bite. Panang curry demands to be spicy to be authentic. Maybe next time we need to be explicit that we are not western spice wimps and we want it HOT!

We came back to our house and decided to watch a NetFlix movie: Maria, Full of Grace, at L’s request. Maria is a Colombian girl who finds herself pregnant and quits her flower industry job to become a drug mule. This involves swallowing as many as 70 wrapped pellets of cocaine / heroine and then getting on a plane bound for New York. One danger, among many, is the chance that one of the pellets comes unwrapped in your stomach resulting in a grueling death. Maria almost gets snagged by customs, but evades an X-ray because she is pregnant. Another girl, Lucy, feels ill from the minute she gets on the plane and eventually dies in New York. The story deals with Maria’s dilemma of what to do in this big new world, as she carries around 62 pellets of heroine and tries to survive. She eventually contacts the drug guys who more than willingly take the heroine off her hands and then wisely elects to quit her new job and stay in New York.

This was just a story, but it too clearly depicts a situation that is quite real. Young girls are promised more money than they have ever seen to do a disgusting and dangerous job. They are just pawns for the drug lords. What can society do about this in the face of a hungry market for these drugs?

As the movie ended, the ball on Time Square began to drop. We held up glasses of bad Prosecco and toasted in 2005 as we kissed and hugged each other. The good news was that there would be no hangovers in the morning because the wine had been so bad that no one drank it. Mark it down that I didn’t sleep through the movie (as L did) and I stayed up past midnight – it doesn’t happen often.