Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Soundtracks of Our Lives

Music is everywhere!  Sometimes thankfully and other times not so much.  I find that one place where I do not want to listen to music, largely because I cannot control my environment, is in the doctor's office.  For example, this morning I was having a carotid artery ultrasound.  It is not a very intrusive test, particularly after being subjected to extensive infusions of chemotherapy etc.  You lie on a table, somewhat awkwardly with your head a little lower than your back, and the technician runs her wand over the gel on both sides of your neck for about ten minutes.  The worst side effect is a little dizziness when you get up.  And the worst discomfort of the test (for me at least) is not being able to talk for about 10 minutes.
photo © 2009 craig Cloutier |
However, today I experienced an additional discomfort.  The technician had on a radio station playing music that I found to be the equivalent of nails scratching on a blackboard.  I do not mean to offend those who like this music, but the first song to which I was subjected was Queen's "Ooo, you make me live" which is ironic when you are getting a diagnostic medical test.  The second song I did not recognize other than that it sounded like the Who.  Again, not my favorite sound to be forced to hear.  But,  I have experienced worse.  For example,  at my orthopedic surgeon's office in the waiting room, they play techno music. Luckily I have learned to bring my iPod to drown it out when I have to wait the customary hour for my appointment.  And, I recall that I was subjected to loud but sanitized hip hop music when I was in recovery in a surgery center a few years back after a colonoscopy. 
photo © 2011 Ted 
I asked the technician today if she chose the music or it was piped in by the medical practice.  She got defensive (apparently my voice, like my face, does not play very good poker).  She explained that it was her choice and her radio and many of her patients had commented how much they appreciated and liked the music.  Of course, almost all of the people who get a carotid artery ultrasound are 50 and older so the Who and Queen are the sounds of their/our adolescence.  No wonder most of them like it.  Me, I would prefer silence.  Or classical music, like my dentist plays when I am trapped in his chair at his office. But I suppose my classical music is another person's Queen or elevator music or Pretenders.  

If I were Queen of the World, I would turn off the soundtracks of our lives.  Do we really need aural stimulation all the time?  With apologies to George C. Wolfe, bring DOWN da music, bring DOWN da funk.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how much I know there are so many things that I do not know. I have spent a good deal of my life learning things. I went to school forever, obtaining three graduate degrees. After a short stint in academia, I settled into a career in law, specifically litigation, where each new case, for the curious, is a bonanza of new information to be learned. I work now with technologies and the internet as well as copyrighted content. But what I know about technology is small compared to the experts I must frequently consult to explain the way the internet works. I also read a lot for pleasure -- mostly nonfiction rather than vacation novels, so I think that I am exposed to a lot of ideas.

However, this week twice I came across a term that was new to me. In two different articles, I read about arriving at or finding "Ithaca". To me Ithaca is a city in New York state, home of Cornell and one of my friends from college. I also recognized that it had some reference to Greek mythology, but I am not so well educated or well read that I understood the reference.

photo © 2010 Roland Turner (Ithaca, Greece)
In the first article, the reference was to a young man who was top graduating senior from UC Berkeley this year. This young man had dropped out of high school after his parents refused to let him take the SATs necessary to attend college. He made a living as a professional cellist for several years and then returned to community college until he could transfer to Berkeley. His studies lead him to an academic passion for sociology, his so-called Ithaca.

The second article in the LA Times by Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, concerned the familiar midlife crisis issue where the author, a physician, discussed the stresses of one of her patients. That patient, a woman in her 50s, had divorced and returned to school after her nest was empty to study screenwriting, an difficult occupation to enter especially as an older woman. At the end of the article, Chassiakos said that she herself was satisfied with her own life as a doctor, mother, wife and writer. She (the author) had "arrived at [her] own Ithaca (destination)".

I was grateful for the definition in the LA Times article because after reading the first article about the Berkeley graduate, I did some online research about "Ithaca". As I suspected, it was likely a Greek mythology reference to the Odyssey given that Ithaca was Odysseus' home to which he ultimately returned. That reference still did not make the usage completely clear but I also found  a poem entitled "Ithaca" by Constantine Cavafy which starts as follows:

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, 
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
This little exercise in understanding the reference to Ithaca has reminded me that, unlike Chassiakos, I have not reached my Ithaca. Hopefully I never will.  Whether my road is long (and I still grapple with that issue every day), I am intent on continuing to learn and continuing to have adventure.  May you all feel the same way.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Good Writer

I have a day job.  It is not unlike the day job of the character in the  TV series, The Good Wife.  I am essentially doing the work many times of a junior litigator in my studio lawyer position because we do not have any one else to do it.  My job is interesting sometimes and frustrating at others.  At least I do not have to deal with a public figure cheating husband.  But I do still do document review for discovery (a task too boring for TV) and (shudder) depositions.  At times I even get to do some policy work and am allowed to think for myself.

In light of my day job, I have this fantasy that in my spare time I could be a writer.  So I started this blog to write little essays on issues, frequently with a personal twist.  It has been fun but I have not really been able to build a particularly large readership.  I do very much appreciate those who do read what I write.  I would love to have more people to appreciate.

© halighalie 2007- Joyce Carol Oates
It occurred to me this weekend that perhaps it takes a lot more than what I have to be a "good writer".  I am  listening to Joyce Carol Oates' new nonfiction book, A Widow's Story, A Memoir I marvel at her choice of words to describe certain events many of us have experienced.  For example, I loved her characterizing her and her husbands' reaction to a car accident as being flooded by cortical adrenaline.  Most of us would not add the descriptor that the adrenaline was "cortical" and yet it sounds so much more precise and important than calling it merely adrenaline or epinephrine.  I am not sure what "cortical adrenaline" means and cannot find a readily available definition.  Adrenaline comes from the adrenal gland.  Cortical typically is used for cortex which brings to mind the brain, but in fact merely means the outer part of an organ. So there is, for example, an adrenal cortical part of the adrenal gland.    The adrenal cortical gland does not, however, secrete epinephrine aka adrenaline.  The adrenal medulla does that.  Anyway,  while I obsess and linger over the precise meaning of words, Oates makes her experience sound oh so different from the rest of us who have experienced sudden stress.  Her use of language carries over into the more central story of the book, her coping with the death of her husband of 46 years from an illness.  I hear her descriptions and somehow the grief from loss seems so much more palpable and the mundane events such as bad parking jobs and decisions to go to the emergency room much more dramatic.

Writing is simultaneously an act of precise use of words and the use of smoke and mirrors to create an impression. I would love to be able to give up my Catholic school girl need to be pristine and submerge myself in the mud bath of elegant, if not always accurate, expression. Readers, are you listening? It's me, Margaret.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What a Difference Forty Years Makes

As I watch my daughter explore the joys of attending a large prominent university, such as the numerous and affordable study abroad programs and the interesting interdisciplinary majors such as Peace and Conflicts Studies,  I am filled with nostalgia for those days when I was getting ready to attend college forty years ago.  I noticed the other day that my alma mater had assigned the book, Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, to incoming freshman to read.  I remember getting, in the late spring of 1971, the list of books to read before attending Smith.  I believe we had to read several books although I cannot remember any of the names of the books I read except for one, The Feminine Mystique.

Betty Friedan had also attended Smith College and had studied psychology, which wound up being my major although in 1971 I thought I would major in American Studies.  Her book had a profound effect on me which permeated my college experience and has influenced my life as I became part of what my daughter tells me is called the second wave of feminism.  See also here.  I skimmed a summary of the book this morning and noticed that it was also likely the source of my distaste for Freud in my studies of psychology, despite the views of some of my friends at Yale.  (I remember reading Freud in a car while waiting for a friend at Yale one summer during college.  I read it quickly and dismissed it even more quickly because I was intent on embracing the scientific model of understanding human behavior)

Friedan's book also talked about self realization as a higher goal and caused us to disdain our poor mothers who gave up their own lives to be stay at home housewives who could only live through their children's accomplishments.  I resolved never to be like that and found myself working throughout my children's childhood because I needed to do something other than raise children.  However, NEWS FLASH, I have concluded that a mother never completely has her own life and I still cannot avoid embracing my children's accomplishments.  When my son graduated magna cum laude  from college I could have burst with pride. And my daughter's acceptance into Berkeley evokes the same feelings.  Their accomplishments provide me overwhelming joy as if I had done them myself.  

It is interesting, however, to consider also what will influence the women going to Smith College now based on what they have been assigned to read.  One could view the current selection as much a reflection of the times and history as the assignment of the Feminine Mystique was to my cohort.  The Feminine Mystique reflected social change as a result of civil rights movements to improve the lot of particular groups in society such as African Americans and women.  Today, while we have problems that affect us globally--human rights violations, environmental changes, economic uncertainty-- a book like the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks focuses its magnifying glass on issues of individual rights vs. the pursuit of science.  Lacks' cancer cells were incubated without her permission in 1951 and continue to exist today.  Their propagation has been  the source of significant scientific discoveries in cancer, hemophilia, Parkinson's disease and even lactose digestion and human longevity, according to author Skloot.  The book also touches on another big issue of our time, the juxtaposition of religious faith with science.  Lacks' daughter is exuberantly religious, believing that her mother's spirit continues to influence events such as Skloot's writing of the book.

The young women of 2011 are facing a different world than I did in 1971.  Given the overwhelming proliferation of electronic information and educated people's almost obsessive trust in science, the examination of the ethics of an even earlier time, 1951, in taking someone's cells without permission which, in turn, would yield so much valuable information for humankind, is an interesting exercise.  My view of 1951 was through the lens of how the post war period affected women's lives and, as I have said, had a profound effect on my own life. Hopefully for these women the consideration of ethics in science (particularly in view of the fact that Lacks was African American) will have an impact on their future and their view of the rights to dignity and self determination of all people.  Someday their children may describe that view in a wave theory.