Saturday, February 28, 2009

elephants don’t play well together?

In his book on music and the brain Oliver Sacks quotes Aniruddh Patel: “’[T]here is not a single report of an animal being trained to tap, peck, or move in synchrony with an auditory beat.’” As prophylactic against protests – how can he make such a categorical statement! – Patel says he visited an elephant orchestra in Thailand. “[E]lephants have been trained to strike percussion instruments and play on their own. … Patel [and a collegue] made careful measurements and video recordings of the elephants’ performances. They found, as they reported in a 2006 paper, that an elephant could ‘play a percussion instrument [a large drum] with a highly stable tempo’ – indeed a tempo more stable than most humans could achieve. But the other elephants in the ‘orchestra’ struck their instruments [cymbals, gongs, etc.] in seeming disregard of each other, without any hint of synchronization to the auditory beat of the drum elephant.’”

Oliver Sacks pulls back from primates to our own order: “’[R]hythm’ – in this special sense of combining movement and sound – appears spontaneously in human children, but not in any other primate.”

I’m not interested in arguing about whether there is a nonhuman animal what’s got riddim. What annoys me is this notion that writers have to ta-da – look folks, here’s something that only humans can do. That must be the thing that distinguishes us from all other life forms – after all, it’s not toolmaking, it’s not an opposable thumb, it’s not love, it’s not even laughter. It must be, uh, “being [able to be] trained to … move in synchrony with an auditory beat,” whatever that means exactly.

Is it so hard to hold back the definitive statement? Insert a “so far as we know” or “there was no example that we were able to find” or somesuch? Is a sentence like, “We were unable to find a single report of an animal being trained to tap, peck or move in synchrony blah blah blah”, so unwieldy? I mean, all it takes is one “single report” and you got egg on your face.

source: Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain, by Oliver Sacks

Friday, February 27, 2009

Tuesday turns to the right

In a discussion of synesthesia, that is the conjoining of two or more senses, as when one associates music with flavors, say (“G-sharp minor, for example, has a different ‘flavor’ from G minor”), Oliver Sacks includes a footnote in which he describes one man’s day of the week associations:

“Monday is green, Tuesday whitish-yellow – the ‘terrain’ here, as he calls it, ascends and turns to the right, Wednesday is magenta, ‘almost old-brick color,’ Thursday a deep, almost indigo purple, Friday, almost the highest point of the terrain, a birch color, Saturday ‘drops down, to a dark, murky brown.’ Sunday is black.”

source: Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain, by Oliver Sacks

Thursday, February 26, 2009

go to jail, go to school

* 75 percent were reading somewhere between the fourth- and sixth-grade levels.
* 90 percent never had a legal job.
* 90 percent were self-identified addicts.
* 80 percent were self-identified victims of sexual or physical violence as a child.
* 65 percent had been placed in a special-education class at some point.
* 75 percent were high school dropouts.

These numbers faced Sunny Schwartz back in 1990 when she was hired to create programs for the inmates of the newly built, newly organized county jail in San Francisco. She says, “These were incredible obstacles. If I thought about it for too long, I got depressed. … I knew this population could not afford to opt out [of taking classes] or they would be right back in our jails within months. … [C]lasses would be mandatory.”

Prisoners were unhappy. So were, to Schwartz’s surprise, some of the deputies who policed the jail, convinced the requirement would be so unpopular that the inmates would riot. “Some [colleagues] thought it was unconstitutional – that we couldn’t force the inmates to learn if they didn’t want to. … Every day in the jails, we strip-searched people, forced them to spread their cheeks, squat and cough, while a deputy sheriff inspected their anal cavity. None of the staff complained about the constitutional rights of inmates because of that security measure.”

Compulsory education? They didn’t get it as kids. Isn’t education the law in this land? I had to do 13 years. It wasn’t a total waste of time, though that’s not an endorsement. Convicted criminals being required to learn the three Rs? Uh. I’m okay with that.

source: Dreams from the Monster Factory: a tale of prison, redemption, and one woman’s fight to restore justice to all, by Sunny Schwartz

Thursday, February 12, 2009


word of the day: simultagnosia

context: “Her auditory environment was split sometimes into discrete and unconnected elements: street sounds, domestic sounds, or the sounds of animals, for example, might suddenly stand out and preempt her attention because they were isolated, not integrated into the normal auditory background or landscape. Neurologists refer to this as simultagnosia, and it is more often visual than auditory.”

Further definition from “Patients can recognize objects or details in their visual field, but only one at a time. They cannot make out the scene they belong to or make ... a whole image out of the details. They literally cannot see the forest for the trees.”

An agnosia (according to is “(a-gnosis, ‘non-knowledge’, or loss of knowledge) … loss of ability to recognize objects, persons, sounds, shapes, or smells while the specific sense is not defective nor is there any significant memory loss.”

source for context quote: Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain by Oliver Sacks

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

“A multitude should gather for such an edifice.”

I’m reading Anne Sexton’s Complete Poems and I come across this charmingly irreverent praise for the erect penis:

“It is complete within seconds, that monument.
The blood runs underground yet brings forth a tower.
A multitude should gather for such an edifice.
For a miracle one stands in line and throws confetti.
Surely The Press is here looking for headlines.
Surely someone should carry a banner on the sidewalk.
If a bridge is constructed doesn’t the mayor cut a ribbon?
If a phenomenon arrives shouldn’t the Magi come bearing gifts?”

source: “That Day”, which also appeared in Sexton’s Love Poems

Monday, February 09, 2009

Steely Dan

OK, maybe you know that the rock band Steely Dan took its name from a dildo in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. But have you ever read the passage that inspired them? Most of the sex in Naked Lunch is between men, though it’s often surreal, violent, and mucky. But in the ‘Steely Dan’ passage it’s het sex, of the pegging variety:

“Mary is strapping on a rubber penis. ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama,’ she says, caressing the shaft. Milk spurts across the room.

“’Be sure that milk is pasteurized. Don’t go giving me some kinda awful cow disease like anthrax or glanders or aftosa …’ [ellipsis in orig.]

“’When I was a transvestite Liz in Chi used to work as an exterminator. Make advances to pretty boys for the thrill of being beaten as a man. Later I catch this one kid, overpower him with supersonic judo I learned from an old Lesbian Zen monk. I tie him up, strip off his clothes with a razor, and fuck him with Steely Dan I. He is so relieved I don’t castrate him literal he come all over my bedbug spray.’

“’What happen to Steely Dan I?’

“’He was torn in two by a bull dike. Most terrific vaginal grip I ever experienced. She could cave in a lead pipe. It was one of her parlor tricks.’

“’And Steely Dan II?’

“’Chewed to bits by a famished candiru in the Upper Baboonsasshole.’”

Then Mary works Steely Dan III into Johnny’s ass “with a series of corkscrew movements of her fluid hips.”

Pop music!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Best Poems of 2008

As I read I keep ready a stack of placemarks. When I read something I want to reread, I poke in a placemark. Used to be I only did this with poems. Nearly 20 years ago I started a personal anthology to answer for myself who might be my favorite poets. When asked, I couldn’t drop names with confidence because there were poems by poet X that I liked, but there were also poems by poet X that did nothing for me, or that I disliked. Could poet X be a favorite? I decided what I needed was a pool of poems that worked for me, a collection only of those poems I looked forward to returning to again & again. When a poem proves itself over a few readings – proves itself a poem I want to continue to live with – I copy it out by hand. Some years I copy out a lot of poems. This year? No.

I read 48 books & magazines in 2008 which contained poems, from these I copied a total of 18 poems* by 16 poets.

Juliette Chen … “Tao Po Mei”
Jean Yoon … “The De-Militarized Zone”
Jean Yoon … “Direct Translation”
Alicia Ostriker … “Anxiety About Dying”
Sue Owens … “Lullaby”
Gregory Corso … “Last Night I Drove a Car”
Gregory Corso … “Don’t Shoot the Warthog”
Valerie Worth … “Cat Bath”
Dean Young … “Bright Head”
Dean Young … “Noncompliant”
Marc Elihu Hofstadter … “Paris”
Joanne Kyger … “October 28, Take It Easier”
John Giorno … “Tear Gas”
Alan Bern … a senryu from “Secondi Passi”
Emily Dickinson … 1563 “by homely gift”
Darlyn Avina … “Deep Eyes”
Jerry D. Miley … “Memories”
Geof Huth & mIEKAL aND … 19 pwoerms from Texistence

The habit of placemarks has come in handy with Dare I Read, too. I have a batch of books leaning against each other near the computer, each with a marker indicating something I want to bring up. All the books currently standing by bring up difficult issues. So some of them have been waiting awhile. I wanted to talk about gay visibility, for instance – you can be out & proud but if people don’t see you as gay, you can’t influence their idea of what a gay person is; or depictions of gay people in a couple novels from the 1930s – not good, but not wholly bad? Have we come a long way or not?

Best Poems of 2007

Best Poems of 2006

Best Poems of 2005

Best Poems of 2004


* lumping all the pwoermds together

Monday, February 02, 2009

“no spiritual meaning to the Bible”

In the April 16, 2007 issue of The New Yorker there’s a profile of the linguist Dan Everett and the Amazonian Indian tribe, the Paraha. The Paraha speak a language with characteristics that seem to defy some current theories about what makes language language. Plus which it’s very difficult to learn. And the Piraha themselves aren’t much interested in anything the outside world has to offer so don’t try to learn anybody else’s words. You want to talk to them, you gotta learn their language, which they don’t seem averse to teaching if it’s not too much trouble.

Everett began his linguistic career as a missionary. He married a devout woman whose family had done missionary work. When he attended an evangelical program for learning linguistics (goal: translate Bible into every language in the world and save dem souls!) he experienced a joy akin to being born again. Everett showed so much promise he got a real tough assignment – the Paraha. Though previous missionaries had worked with the tribe, none had succeeded in getting Christianity across. In this tradition Dan Everett’s own success with the Piraha language is not matched by Piraha interest in Christianity.

Long story short: a second degree later, plus a personal crisis or two and Everett faces the Piraha with new resolve:

“He threw himself into missionary work, translating the Book of Luke into Piraha and reading it to tribe members. His zeal soon dissipated, however. Convinced that the Piraha assigned no spiritual meaning to the Bible, Everett finally admitted that he did not, either.”

One of the many things that’s long puzzled me about Christianity is the idea that you need it. Billions of people around the world don’t need it. What about all the billions over the last two thousand years who’ve never heard of it? I mean Jesus, the very son of God, the only one, the only son, the only God, pops out of a virgin in a deserty little property off the Mediterranean, a sea more like a lake than an ocean, traipses around muttering and expostulating for a few years (was it even that long?), turns a little water to wine, brings a dead guy or two back to life, then gets nailed to a couple of boards. He dies, presumably in agony. It’s a story, all right.

However great the Jesus trip was, on a global scale it looks pretty small. Get a globe. A big globe. So big it won’t fit in your lap. Touch Israel with your pinkie and you’ve covered more ground than all that Jesus saw in his lifetime. Christianity, as a global phenom, lucked out when it got adopted by the Roman Empire. So the Roman Empire was poised for Dark Ages, at least it had the dim light of Christianity to squint by. Right?

Meanwhile the rest of the world – China, Mesoamerica, India – doing just fine, thanks. Waiting for Christianity to break free of stinky ol’ dirty Europe? Dying to be swept up in the Jesus craze? No. Really not.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The War on Drugs is in essence a religious war

"The War on Drugs is in essence a religious war. That is why drug offenders get longer prison sentences than violent criminals. A drug user is worse than a criminal -- no punishment is too severe, because drug users are heretics."

That's from Dale Pendell's "Amrta: the neuropharmacology of Nirvana" which appears in The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, edited by Andrew Schelling.

Pendell has produced books focused on psychotropic plants, Pharmako/Poeia and Pharmako/Dynamis. I have at least one of these upstairs, currently lost in the disorganization of the library.

"Drugs, as a general term, is an obfuscation of the War on Drugs. We hear the phrase 'alcohol and drugs,' as if alcohol were not a drug, and as if by drugs we all know what is being talked about. Addiction is an issue with tobacco, alcohol, and the opiates, but is not at all a property of the entheogens. Addiction to alcohol, a cellular poison, is characterized by physical and mental deterioration that is virtually absent in opiate addiction. Tobacco kills nearly half a million Americans each year, but there are no recorded deaths from marijuana. Each of these plants and substances has distinct properties, promises, and dangers. All that is served by lumping a group of them together is a government program of spiritual and political oppression aimed at cutting off all dialogue."