04/18/14

Spoon River: Smith, Goodman and Masters



VERY well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.
Edgar Lee Masters: Thomas Rhodes; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

What is is about poetry or musical lyrics that moves us so differently than just prose? So thoroughly? So deeply it can make grown men cry?

Why can we remember lyrics of songs we heard decades ago, poems we learned in grade school, yet can’t recall what we had for breakfast or what was on the shopping list? Lyrics, perhaps, are different from poetry in that they are interwoven with the rhythm, melody and harmonies of the song, which itself carves a rut in our memories. But both stick with us better than mere words.

Why can a song send shivers up our spine, raise the hair on our arms, sweep us away with its emotions, helpless like driftwood on a river? Why can it dredge up those emotions years later, outside any context?

(Listening to Trio Los Panchos playing La Malagueña Salerosa today brought goosebumps to my arms… but almost any version of that song does that. Perhaps it comes from hearing it played live, by buskers, along the malecon in a warm, romantic February evening in Mexico… and today, years later, it has the power to transport me there.)*

In The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin writes,

One characteristic of poetry and lyrics, compared to ordinary speech and writing, is compression of meaning. meaning tends to be densely packed, conveyed in fewer words than we would normally use in conversation or prose. The compression of meaning invites us to interpret, to be participants in the unfolding of the story. The best poetry – the best art in any medium – is ambiguous. Ambiguity begets participation. poetry slows us down from the way we normally use language; we read and hear poetry and stop thinking about the language the way we normally do; we slow down in order to contemplate all the different reverberations of meaning it contains.

Which strikes me as a singularly catching insight. I thought about those words recently while transcribing some Bob Dylan songs for our local ukulele group. Dylan is a master of ambiguity. Which makes his songs so much more memorable, I suppose. How odd, how amazing, I thought, that I can still remember the words and chords to his songs I learned to play 30 or 40 years ago.

And they are songs that have no particularly deep emotional contact for me – not necessarily songs I listened to with a lover, shared with a friend or simply found emotionally fulfilling. But I can simply pick up a uke and strum out Memphis Blues Again, It Ain’t Me, If Not for You, I Shall Be Released and The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest or a dozen others without giving much thought to words or music: they just spill out like old, familiar tunes, even though I haven’t likely played them for years.

It’s like the music is a meme; an intellectual virus that binds itself to your DNA. Like herpes; one it takes hold it never leaves and unfolds itself when called out. How and why does it do that? It’s the subject of many books, including Levitin’s.

I HAD fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.
Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.
Edgar Lee Masters: Blind Jack; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

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04/17/14

Tudor politics: Elizabeth’s struggle


Elizabeth bookDavid Starkey’s book, Elizabeth: the Struggle for the Throne, is the best book I’ve read on the period of Elizabeth’s life between the death of Henry VIII and her own coronation. It gives a clear, richly detailled picture of the machinations, the politics and the society that she lived in during the 25 years before she became monarch – 1533 to 1558.

And what a life it was. In and out of favour, imprisoned, in fear of her life, threatened, cajoled, living on her wits, political puppet and Machiavellian instigator… Elizabeth emerges as a canny, quick and lively actor in these events.

I have a passion for the history of the Tudors, in particular Henry VIII and Elizabeth. I still enjoy watching the 1971 BBC dramatization of the Six Wives of Henry VIII

Thanks to my brother-in-law’s former position in the National Archives, I was able to see and handle several historical items and documents from both monarchs, on my visit to England in 2011, including a famous letter from the Princess Elizabeth to her sister and Queen, Mary, over Elizabeth’s alleged role in the Wyatt revolt. She protests her loyalty and allegiance to Mary at a time when a charge of treason would have meant her execution.

(A photograph of that letter (not mine) appears below, right; my own photographs, taken in low light because a flash was not allowed, are generally not as good for reproduction, but are steeped in nostalgia anyway.)

It’s an indescribable thrill to hold such a piece of history in your hands, knowing its history, its age, and its author.*

Elizabeth's letter to MaryAlthough I’ve read a considerable number of books on both monarchs and their times, I have read few on the interim period – the reigns of Edward VI, Queen Jane and Queen Mary. This book captures that period nicely. It’s a rich time for anyone interested in both history and politics because it was at a critical time in England’s development, socially, culturally, politically and religiously.

It’s exciting stuff, full of plotting, mystery, uprisings, secret meetings, international diplomacy and war. And the young Elizabeth navigated these rocky waters deftly. Most of the time. She was the child of both Henry and Anne Boleyn, and both were strong, intelligent and passionate people; traits that emerge in Elizabeth at an early age.

The book also has some darker moments; suggestions of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Thomas Seymour,  when he was her guardian, but that get played here as more inappropriate and saucy than actual consummation.

In the early years, her sister Mary is almost a cast-out: her mother rejected, her religion denigrated, and she forced to serve as maid to the baby Elizabeth (while Anne was queen). That changed as her father’s marriages changed, and when Edward took the throne she was living alone (albeit in state), but one suspects it was a humiliation she never forgot.

The real story, the real excitement, gets into high gear when Edward VI dies, and Mary is crowned. Initially popular, “Bloody Mary’s” conservative Catholicism and intolerance towards any form of Protestantism, as well as a series of poor decisions and polices, turned the populace against her. And the Protestant Elizabeth looms as a greater threat as Mary ages and proves unable to bear an heir. It’s gripping stuff.

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04/17/14

What do we know about Bell’s Palsy?


Bell's PalsyBell’s Palsy is one of those rare ailments, and one that annoys more than threatens, but can be difficult and socially awkward for sufferers. It’s also one that still baffles researchers as to its cause. And also for an effective treatment.

According to facialpalsy.org,

The name ‘Bell’s palsy’ comes from 19th-century Scottish anatomist and surgeon Sir Charles Bell, who discovered that severing the seventh cranial (or facial) nerve causes facial paralysis.

It has no vaccine, no known method for prevention, and the treatment is still uncertain.

Wikipedia tells us:

Bell’s palsy is a form of facial paralysis resulting from a dysfunction of the cranial nerve VII (the facial nerve) causing an inability to control facial muscles on the affected side… Bell’s palsy is the most common acute mononeuropathy (disease involving only one nerve) and is the most common cause of acute facial nerve paralysis (>80%)… The hallmark of this condition is a rapid onset of partial or complete paralysis that often occurs overnight.

It also says:

It is thought that an inflammatory condition leads to swelling of the facial nerve. The nerve travels through the skull in a narrow bone canal beneath the ear. Nerve swelling and compression in the narrow bone canal are thought to lead to nerve inhibition, damage or death…
Some viruses are thought to establish a persistent (or latent) infection without symptoms… Reactivation of an existing (dormant) viral infection has been suggested as a cause of acute Bell’s palsy. Studies suggest that this new activation could be preceded by trauma, environmental factors, and metabolic or emotional disorders, thus suggesting that a host of different conditions may trigger reactivation.

Which, in essence, doesn’t tell us a lot about the actual cause or why it recurs; mostly it remains guesswork. Bell’s Palsy affects about 20 people per 100,000 population, and the incidence increases with age and with certain medical conditions.

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04/9/14

Oooh, shiny….


Godin MultiukeReligious texts are full of admonitions about avoiding temptation. The Lord’s Prayer tells God to “lead us not into temptation.” Fat lot of good that does. We can find the way ourselves, thank you.

Not only do we lead ourselves there, we go willingly and eagerly. Pushing and shoving aside those who stand in our way to reach temptation. Ever see the crowds in the mall on Boxing Day?

Psychological texts, magazines and sites are full of secular advice on resisting temptation, too. It’s our brain’s “executive control” functions that  fail use when we succumb to our impulses. And fail they do, with disconcerting frequency.

Religious temptation, Wikipedia tells us, is the inclination to sin. Well, I can’t get into the whole notion of sin, relativism cultural and social bias, and situational ethics here. Maybe another post. For now, I’ll leave it to the theologians to wrestle that particular set of demons into the mud.

I’m talking about the average daily, run-of-the-mill temptation, the sort  that makes you pull out your wallet when you come across an unexpected sale on power tools, when you went to the store for a bag of potting soil. The sort that makes you go to the grocery store and come back with mangoes, exotic cheese, avocado and ice cream instead of just the milk you went to get. The sort that makes you go onto Amazon’s website just to look up something and end up ordering a half-dozen books and that first West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band CD you’ve always wanted in your collection (okay, okay, but I had the other two already so I had to complete the set).

Temptation, Wikipedia says,

…is the desire to perform an action that one may enjoy immediately or in the short term but will probably later regret for various reasons: legal, social, psychological (including feeling guilt), health-related, economic, etc… actions which indicate a lack of self control.

Godin MultiukeIt’s tough, you know. We live in a rich, consumer-oriented society in which we are bombarded daily by thousands of ads all screaming “Buy me!” Promising a better, richer, more fulfilling life if we just give in and pull out our wallets. We are born and bred to be consumers.

We live in a world full of music stores replete with ukuleles just hanging there on the walls singing like sirens when you walk by. Hear that? That’s the voice of a solid-koa Koaloha sweetly calling my name… and that dulcet voice? That’s a Martin… Oooh, what’s that shiny one?

And then when we get the credit card bill, we start regretting it. But how to resist? Should we even try? Are we doomed to fail? But… is life to short to live without another ukulele?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde has his character, Lord Henry, say,

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.

And when you do, inevitably, yield, you are then beset with those nagging questions, the voice of your conscience nagging, scolding. What was I thinking? Why did I do it? Why did I buy it? What will she think?

She being the spouse, of course (at least in my case). The one who sits in judgement on the new toy, the new pet, car, TV set, ukulele, motorcycle, personal watercraft, riding lawn mower, that bag of specialty cheeses… did I mention ukulele? Did I mention it was shiny?

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04/8/14

The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement


Measles outbreakMeasles is on the rise in Canada. There have already been many cases in 2014: in PEI, London, Ottawa, southern Alberta, Regina, Qu’Apelle, Calgary, Fraser Valley (320 cases), Hamilton, Halton, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Waterloo, Nanaimo and other locations. Eleven cases in Ontario this year alone. Nine in Alberta.

That ancient, deadly foe we recently believed we had conquered, is coming back. And it’s going to kill children again, this time with the complicity of their parents.

Fifty years ago, science found the cure and made a vaccine for it. In 2000, the United States optimistically declared ongoing measles transmission had been eliminated. But it’s come back.

So have mumps and whooping cough – both easily and safely prevent by vaccinations. Both are deadly threats to children again.

Who’s to blame? And why is this happening? Why are people putting children at such risk?

It’s because of the anti-vaccination movement, a cult of pseudoscience, anti-medicine sentiments, gullibility, fear, superstition and mostly quackery promoted by witless and devious celebrities and greedy marketers, then spread on the internet to people who jump on every passing bandwagon. Parents who get their medical advice from unreliable online sources – mostly lies, rumour, gossip and unfounded allegation, like all conspiracy theories – or from quacks, not doctors.*

Health Link Alberta tells us how easily measles can spread:

Close contact with an infected person is not necessary to catch measles.
It is an extremely contagious airborne disease that can spread by coughing and sneezing, and through air currents.
Although there is no specific treatment or cure for measles, it can be prevented through immunization.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization program in Alberta.
Children should receive their first MMR dose at 12 months and the second between the ages of four and six years. Both doses are required to be fully protected.

The anti-vaxxers are creating a public health disaster. Rather ironically, North American parents have that in common with the Taliban:

In Pakistan, polio remains an epidemic because the Taliban has banned aid workers from vaccinating children. They say they fear that vaccination efforts are simply a ruse meant to disguise espionage. Health workers attempting to distribute vaccines there have been attacked and killed. A total of 101 polio cases have been reported in the country as of mid-November, and another 240,000 children have not been vaccinated.

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04/7/14

April’s early breads


Artisan bread no. 1April has begun with three loaves of bread; generally successful efforts, although there’s still some tweaking to do with the recipes. As always. But I’m encouraged to try more – and of course experiment more with recipes and ingredients.

The first loaf of the latest batch was an artisan loaf made at the tail end of March. Started with an overnight poolish and the standard artisan recipe I’ve been using for a while now (derived from one found online). All unbleached white flour in the mix. A little less salt than was called for, but otherwise pretty basic bread.

The result was excellent. A little canned applause might be inserted here.

Artisan bread no. 1As you can see, it held a good shape, and rose well without flattening. It shows a nicely aerated crumb. Crust was fine; a little crunchy and chewy at the same time.

I was extremely pleased by this loaf – look, texture and taste all combined to produce one of the best loaves I’ve made to date. It didn’t last long: we ate it in a few days.

I might let it rise a little longer next time to boost the aeration. Or perhaps increase the hydration by a percentage point or two. Both can improve aeration. But too much water and the dough is too wet to hold its shape during the rise.

Artisan bread no. 1The second loaf was another artisan-style boule, but this time I went back to the “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day” master recipe. And I stuck to the recipe – although I reduced all the ingredients to 2/3rds of what was called for, to make one large loaf rather than the two smaller loaves in the book.

It wasn’t as good as this recipe has produced in the past. I think it had a lot to do with the salt.

The recipe calls for 1 1/2 tablespoons of coarse (kosher) salt. That’s a lot. Even reduced for my smaller effort, it’s still a full tablespoon of salt for 4 cups of flour. I hesitated, but in the end opted to use what was called for.

My mistake. I’ve tended to reduce salt in most recipes in the past and had good results.

Artisan bread no. 1Salt adds to the flavour, but it also inhibits yeast growth. Dough doesn’t rise as well when the salt is high. I suppose to compensate, the authors call for a full tablespoon of yeast (or rather 1 1/2 tbsp for the original recipe). That’s a huge amount.

The recipe also calls for putting the yeast and salt in the warm water before mixing. Again, I did what it said, but I think that’s another mistake. Putting yeast in the water is meant to awaken it, to start it growing (putting a little flour in the water also helps that). I believe that much salt in the water will inhibit, even kill some of the yeast.

The dough is allowed to rise, untouched (no folding or kneading) for a few hours, then placed overnight in the fridge where it continues to ferment but much more slowly. The result was a dense bread, stubbornly resisting rising.

And the final loaf was way to salty for either Susan or my palette to appreciate. So I decided to try that one again, but with reduced salt.
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