Creativity, Words and Surprises

What if you lost the ability to talk? For someone whose moniker is tmacwords, the thought is pretty darn chilling. But would happen if, with language gone, your brain was now open to a flood of  incredible visual and auditory information? What would happen if the creativity and focus you put into words could be turned into mind-blowing art or music?

Thus is the story I listened to this morning on NPR’s RadioLab. The podcast I heard, Unraveling Bolero, was so stunning I had to listen to it twice.

The story is about a type of dementia that affects the left side of the brain, where our language and math skills live. This  disease attacked Maurice Ravel, best known for Bolero (Go on, sing along with me… “Dah dah, da da da da da da da Dah Dah) and, 60 years later, a brilliant woman named Anne Theresa Adams.

Adams started off as a top notch cancer scientist. In her 50s, she suddenly dropped science and started painting. A lot. She created painting after painting, focusing first on buildings, than on microbes, than on strawberries. Until she became fascinated by Bolero and painted her most famous work, Unraveling Bolero:

Adams work is all about repetition (as is Ravel’s piece). She created her painting by analyzing Ravel’s music, by note, tempo, volume and tone. She assigned a color to each element and then put it together into this work of art.

So here’s what kind of chilled my spine. A few years after creating this work, Adams started to lose her ability to talk. At first, she forgot words. Then she lost the ability to string together sentences. Then all words failed her. And a few years after Ravel completed Bolero, he started to lose his ability to talk. At first, he forgot words. Then sentences. Then all words failed him. They both passed away shortly after all language was gone.

Ravel and Adams suffered from a rare disease called frontotemporal dementia, aka Pick’s disease. Instead of dementia attacking the entire brain, only certain areas of the brain are affected. In this case, the language center. But with language shut off, other areas of the brain all at once can flourish. Instead of using words to talk about experience, the brain needs a new way to express the incredible flood of images its receiving.

This article in the New York Times  (totally worth reading, BTW) describes it better than I can:

By then, the circuits in Dr. Adams’s brain had reorganized. Her left frontal language areas showed atrophy. Meanwhile, areas in the back of her brain on the right side, devoted to visual and spatial processing, appeared to have thickened.

OK, so maybe I am a total nerd. But I am fascinated by this. Kind of like when people lose their vision, they say that their hearing becomes sharper. But times ten. (Yes, point taken. This disease kills its victim pretty quickly so it’s not all roses and joy. I do get that.)

And yet, think about the beauty that was created in the amazing minds of these artists, even as parts of their cortex was crumbling. I’m just plain blown away…

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Bookstores and My Soul

There’s a battle going on for my soul, and I struggle with it. On the one hand, I have a lifelong love of books and of reading. And bookstores? Oh my word. The wonderful smell, ambiance, contents of my neighborhood bookstore. Doesn’t this bookstore in the Loire Valley sum up everything wonderful about the eclectic nature of bookstores?

But I’m no snob. In its day, I loved Borders and Crown Books as much as the corner bookstore. And the airport bookstore saved me from hours of flight boredom so many times.

So now my confession. I was one of the first users to try electronic books, when the first readers came out 10 years ago. And I thought they were marvelous for two big reasons:

  1. No clutter in my house. This was huge for me, because we bought so many books that I had to fight the good fight to keep from qualifying for Hoarders with all of our piles and stacks of books.
  2. No bricks in my briefcase. My jobs always required significant travel, which meant lots of down time, which meant lots of reading, which meant taking lots of books, which translated into tight muscles and backaches.

Those early readers were clunky, with very limited libraries to draw upon. Conflicting formats became another problem. Frustrated, I gave up on my e-reader. Until the Kindle came out. And my life changed. And yes, when the iPad came out, I kind of fell in love with reading books on that wonderful backlit device.

Do you see my problem? E-readers solve my clutter and bricks problems. With wifi and Amazon’s very cool 3G downloads, I was never far from satisfying my reading jones.  I spend more for books now than I ever did before. I share them with our daughter and my husband. We all benefit.

But. I’m disloyal to bookstores now, and that troubles me. Worse, I don’t know how bookstores can survive. I see them going the same way music stores did once the iPod came on the scene. Oh, I try to patronize my neighborhood store, with books for my grandchildren, travel journals, wine diaries, etc. But they can’t survive on that kind of business, and I know it.

Books and my conscience. I want to support writers. I want to feed my habit. I want to be kind to my back and keep my house neat and tidy. But bookstores? I’m so, so sorry, but I don’t see a bright future. Which makes me very sad.

And I’d Want to Eat Head of Veal Why?

Because if you can convince me, I know where to get the best head of veal in Paris. Or so I’m told.

I just hope that, when served, it doesn’t look like this:

Lest you think I have no sense of adventure, I did – albeit very reluctantly – order pigeon at a wonderful three-star restaurant, Le Tour, in Sancerre. It’s yet another example of why it’s so important to, dare I say, follow your gut.  I couldn’t look at the dish without think of disgusting pigeons in the park, and then when the song, Feed the Birds, popped into my head, I knew I was pretty much doomed not to finish the plate.

But despite these two sketchy incidents, the food in France was wonderful. Some of our best memories are around food, both at restaurants and put together ourselves. I’m convinced that no one makes cheese like the French, and that their baguettes are to die for. Throw in the absolutely extraordinary produce we found, add some great wine, and you, too, can eat like a king!

I know I’m skipping ahead a little, but I did want to share with you how we ate lunch and breakfast everyday aboard the boat we piloted through the Loire Valley:

This was a wonderful way to see the French countryside and have a relaxing midday meal, unless one of your group is in a hurry to get to the next stop, and insists on driving the boat during lunch. This may have been a fine idea, and perhaps our friend, Doug, really wasn’t drinking too much wine, but when he veered to the far right to avoid a boat coming the opposite direction, the result was a small collision with a large tree branch. Food and wine went flying everywhere!

Quelle tragédie! Wasted wine! Oh no!

So the food was fantastic and memorable. The other experience that we just loved, and that I’d recommend to anyone going to Paris, was our side trip to Giverney, Monet’s home and the place he painted his famous water lilies.

Green, gorgeous, tranquil, and filled with flowers, Giverney takes you back in time. You can see, smell and feel how Monet was inspired. It was extraordinary.

Part of the visit is a tour of Monet’s home. For me, it was like visiting the holiest of all shrines.

Feasts for the stomach and for the eyes. Pretty darn cool. Next week, the long-awaited story of the Metro thief who chose the wrong tourist to pick.

A Sketchy Guide to France

For months, all I had to do was look at my email to see the confirmation for our trip to Paris – and I was happy. And rightfully so.  We just returned from France, and the trip was everything we hoped it would be. Sights, amazing food, good friends – even a thwarted pickpocket! How could you ask for more? Our trip was divided into one week in Paris, and one week boating down the Lateral Loire Canal.

My friend, Joani Porto Bartoli, suggested to me that I keep a sketchbook as my diary during the trip. Inveterate doodler that I am, I instantly loved the idea. Sketching was fun, and I hope you enjoy some of the results (I’ll spare you all 35 of them) – it’s a great way to tell the story.

So a warning to my faithful readers – I’m going to divide this up into a series of blogs.  I get into some of the juicier stuff later on, but what the heck – there are tidbits in this entry as well!

Our story begins at LAX, where we realized that traveling through Washington, DC on September 9 might not be the cleverest idea. Security was a nightmare…

But we made our flight, met up with our friends and family in Paris, and decided that since it was just midday, we couldn’t possibly waste a day in the world’s most gorgeous city. So we dragged our sorry, exhausted butts to Notre Dame. Where one of us (OK, my brother-in-law, Alan) fell asleep in the pews – look for him in the bottom left of the sketch.

Part of the adventure was getting three couples – our old, dear friends Doug and Peggy, my sister and brother-in-law, Joan and Alan, and us, of course – to travel well together. We knew everyone, but the other two couples had never met.  Each and every one of us is a Type A, opinionated sort. I was, with the exception of Peggy, the least so – and if you know me, you can only imagine what the other personalities were like!

I chose not to illustrate how this storming, forming, norming worked, but if I did, the sketch would have a lot of schnauzers top-dogging each other. Fortunately, we figured it out, and the sniffing, snapping and yapping settled down. The key was realizing we didn’t all have to do the same thing, and with that freedom, we could each explore Paris in the way that made each of us happy.

One thing we all agreed on was that the Musee d’ Orsay was top of our list. I was fortunate enough to spend a day here on an earlier business trip to Paris, and I was itching to go back.  One of my favorite paintings – the one by Cezanne with the hidden pig in a nun’s habit – hangs there.

So on a rainy Sunday, off we all went, and it was every bit as glorious as I remembered it. The greatest collection of impressionist art in the world. The collection is so big that we had to take a break for cafe au lait and pastries – not exactly a sacrifice!

There is no shortage of sights in Paris. And we did our very best to see them all. Including, yes, the Eiffel Tower.

Where I had a height-driven panic attack, and found myself clinging to an inner wall, sweating profusely. Every party needs a pooper, and that was my role for the day. Click on the picture and look at the top right – you’ll see me in my full, anxious glory!

I’ve rambled on long enough for today. And if this hasn’t scared you off, there’s more coming.

Next week: The highlight of my trip: Giverney. Plus musings on why anyone would want to serve head of veal. And why butter and garlic with NO moderation is a very good thing…

Mornings with Public Radio

With the recent hot weather, the Boo and I tend to strike out early on our daily three-mile hike through my hilly neighborhood.  She’s smiling and wagging the whole way, smelling delicious odors that (fortunately) escape me, rationing a few drops of pee for each deserving spot. I’m entertained as well, but while it’s Boo’s nose that keeps her occupied, it’s my ears.

My morning companions are American Public Radio’s The Story, Ira Glass’s This American Life, and the marvelous podcast, The Moth. This summer, I listened to the story of a marathoneer who, at the age of 23, found she had a potentially fatal heart condition, and I followed her through her eventual heart transplants (yes, she had two) and her special relationship with her cardiologist. Incredible.  I learned about the habits of ants (!), and why being a guy ant is not such a terrific idea. I was privileged to hear about the life of a rap singer who studied Bach in Africa, and the story of a man who grew up poor, never realizing that his threadbare, eccentric uncles were worth millions – and would one day leave it all to him.

I’m also a fan of the New York Times Book Review, where Sam Tanenhaus keeps me up to date on what’s new, including lots of books that I’ll never read, and a few gems that I never would have known about were it not for the podcast.

Slate Magazine’s Culture Gabfest endlessly entertains me. I love the camaraderie of the host and guests as much as I enjoy their review of music, books, movie and TV.

And finally, who can get by without listening to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air?

I don’t listen to everything, mind you. If it’s depressing – no way. If it’s aggravating – forget it. If I find myself getting stressed out, as I did when listening to a recent episode on false confessions that ran on “The Story,” I stop listening.

Yes, I know there are bad things that happen out there, but when I’m out walking my dog, I want to be at least as happy as she is.  I want to be uplifted, thrilled, amazed, and humbled. I want to learn about the best of us, not the worst.  I want a happy ending, when you get right down to it.

Sometimes I can barely wait to get home to download a new album or book. (I suppose it’s a sign of my age that I have to keep repeating the name of the work to myself over and over so I won’t forget by the time I walk in my front door.) Other times I can’t take off my headset until I finish the episode, so I wander around my house puttering and listening until the story concludes.

There’s so much great content out there (Oh, no! I forgot to mention the Ted lectures!) that I never worry about running out of interesting material. And I’ve been known to sneak my iPod into bed at night, when I’m having a hard time sleeping, and catching up on a “Fresh Air” episode or two (I feel like an 8-year old child, reading with the flashlight under the covers!).

Small pleasures. Big rewards. I’m totally a public radio addict!

My Muse Has Been On Strike

I spent the month of January being good.  Really good.  I worked a ton of hours, went back on Weight Watchers, and cut scotch out of my diet (again).

The result is that there’s three pounds less of me to love (which is a little discouraging – with my food and alcohol sacrifices there should be at least 20 pounds less of me to love, according to my calculations), and our checking account is looking a bit healthier.

The downside is that all creative thought seems to have vanished from my brain. I attribute this to a fixed-sum game of ideas – my project, which was a ton of fun, forced me to funnel my clever and witty side (!) into paying work. And you, dear readers, have paid the price, with fewer and less amusing posts from yours truly.

But perhaps it’s lack of proper nourishment rather than that zero-sum game.  Do you think ideas are related to a bad diet?  I swear I do.  Surely fast food and liquor light up the creative brain cells. How can anyone be expected to be clever when lunch consists of pita bread, 19 cups of lettuce and two scrawny pieces of turkey bacon (PointsPlus = 5)? And when an afternoon snack is either a bowl of blueberries or a bag of carrots and sugar snap peas?  Topped off by the insult of saying “no” to a wee dram.  Is this the kind of diet that Mark Twain existed on??  I ask you!

OK, so I wasn’t exactly Mark Twain to begin with. Details.

If you’re not buy the work or diet theory, let me try floating this one – I’ve been listening to The Teaching Company’s series on Medieval England.  Has getting this college-level history piped directly into my brain via my iPod while out walking the dog somehow damaged the right-side of my brain?  Have I become so intellectual and such a brainiac that I’ve, heaven forbid, lost my ADHD, fun-loving, flibbertygibbet side?

Oh pish, posh.  I don’t buy it.  Sometimes the writing well just runs dry, and all you can do go back to the keyboard and try one more time.

Come back, my muse!  I’ve missed you!  Haven’t you missed me? Just a little?

Yes! The Hippopotamus!

OK, so I made lots of mistakes as a mom.  And without question, starting on Prozac 20 years before I finally gave in would have made our household much calmer and more pleasant for all concerned. But even so, there are a couple of things that I’m proud of, and reading to my kids is one of them.

Reading together was my great joy.  I loved it, the kids loved it, and we had a nightly routine built around it. We started with Hop on Pop (Dr. Seuss, of course), and worked our way up to The Hobbit, the last book we read together as a threesome.  In between, we covered so many great books, even if some took a little editing (It took me years before I could read out loud the entire Babar the Elephant book, because the mom dies early on and it would choke me up.).  If the Harry Potter books had been available when I was raising my kids, they would have had a place of honor on our reading list.

So perhaps my favorite discovery from my trip to the UK last month was seeing that our reading out loud tradition had moved onto the next generation.  As I listened to Carolyn do a dramatic reading of Not the Hippopotamus, I just beamed.

After all, I am a self-diagnosed drama queen, and reading those books out loud with great expression both vocally and facially was the best part of saying goodnight!

Lucas plainly eats it up.  He brings tattered, beloved cardboard copies of numerous Sandra Boynton books (she is the best!) to hear over and over and over again. Lucas is lucky to have the Pigeon books available to him – they weren’t around when our kids were little and they are just marvelous. (Thanks to my niece, Amy, for introducing us to them.)

Fun to read and plainly fun to hear.  We were also delighted that Carolyn and Juan Carlos are starting to introduce Lucas to Dr. Seuss (Red Fish, Blue Fish anyone?), mostly because I’m dying to read him Horton Hatches the Egg, my all time favorite children’s book.

Other favorites?  Goodnight Moon, of course. The Going to Bed Book, another Sandra Boynton classic. When the kids were older, we loved reading The Secret Garden together, using the old version with Tasha Tudor’s lush illustrations.

I have to stop because I love this topic so much that I’ll lose you before I get to the most important part.  What were your favorite books growing up? Do you have memories of your mom or dad reading out loud to you?  What books have you read out loud to your children?

Share, please!