Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An Intimate History

When the kids were grown, I decided to go back to school and finish the degree I’d started 25 years before. A college-level Biology class was being offered in town, and though I hadn’t taken many science classes before, I signed up.

 I never realized that studying Biology would be a religious experience. Nor that the idea of DNA was as difficult to comprehend as the sound of one hand clapping. I could barely get my mind around the idea before it would vanish—a disappearing revelation.

 Now I learn (through the New Yorker) that there’s more to the stuff our selves are made of than just the double helix. Things that happen to us are recorded on a cellular level, permanently, on those little ladder things that bridge the strands of DNA.

 They are called histones, and modifications to them can change the activity of the gene without affecting the sequence. They are epi-genetic, over-genes, and they are the way a cell can record experience.

All this is discussed in a book by Siddhartha Mukherjee to be released this month, The Gene: An Intimate History. Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia University’s medical school, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for The Emperor of All Maladies, a book about cancer.

So Epigenetics is the hot new field of study in the biological sciences, and what is already known raises some revolutionary questions as well as posing some evolutionary problems. One question is whether those cell memories can be inherited. This possibility seemed to be resolved back in the nineteenth century when Darwin’s theories pretty much got those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (giraffes got those long necks by trying harder) laughed out of Science. Now the possibility—albeit remote-- is there again, since whatever happens to us is recorded on a cellular level. The cells multiply with this amended information, and our genes are of course passed on to the next generation.

Identical twins, such as Mukherjee’s mother and her sister, can become a great deal different from each other over time because of epigenetic information. A lot of things had been recorded in my histones between the 1950s in Tennessee and the 1970s in California. I was, as “The Music Man” had it, a sadder but wiser girl. So when we say “Oh, he’s a different person now,” we are speaking a scientific truth at a very fundamental level.

“Genes form the thread of the web (jaal) Hindu philosophers described as being,” Mukherjee writes. “The detritus that adheres to it transforms every web into a singular being. An organism’s individuality, then, is suspended between genome and epigenome. We call the miracle of this suspension ‘fate.’ We call our responses to it ‘choice.’ We call one such variant of one such organism a ‘self.’”

 That paragraph alone might well have earned the Pulitzer Prize.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Write On


         
              I think you should write your book.
            “But who would read it,” you ask?
            Well, you never know.
            I have been transcribing my old journals, intending to put them on a disc and leave them around somewhere. Partly I’m doing it because I want the shelf space all those diaries are using, and partly because I’m coming up to an 80th birthday and I can’t last forever.
            I found this entry for September 17, 1965: Letter from Henry Waters. “No one in the Waters family has written a book since Grandma Scott wrote Korno Siga in 1889. This is the story of Korno Siga, a mountain chief in the hills of Assam, where Great-Grandma Scott was a missionary. It had a very limited circulation!”
            On a whim, I Googled the title. After all, how many books could there be with that name? I found a book called Korno Siga, the Mountain Chief—Or Life in Assam. The author, however, was one Mrs. Mildred Marston, not Grandma Scott. I ordered the book anyway, and when it arrived, someone had written “pseud. Anna (Kay) Scott” under Mrs. Marston’s name.
            The book, a facsimile edition put out by something called “Forgotten Books”, was 200 pages describing the life of a lady physician, a medical missionary, in the mountains of India where the Biblical St. Thomas had met his end. Dealing with cholera, snakebite, addictions to various drugs, “Mrs. Marston” had also to teach sewing and cooking at the mission school. “Mr. Marston” had to deliver her three children, using tips from a midwifery book.
            One especially gripping scene had Mr. Marston walking into a group of vicious men who wore skeleton necklaces and brandished spears. He whipped out his violin—which he just happened to be carrying into the jungle—and played a hymn. The heathens—Grandma Scott’s word—fell to their knees, believing that the missionary was a god and that the violin was alive.
            There was lots of religion in the book, as one might expect, but also some surprising information on medicine, botany, Buddhism, and politics during the British rule some 50 years before Gandhi began actively working for Indian independence.
            So almost 150 years after Grandma Scott hand-wrote her account, on the wildest coincidence, it was reproduced and read by another grandma in Montara, California.
            My Aunt Ruth, who gave me my first diary when I was eleven or twelve, was very big on communicating. “Just write letters,” she told my mother. “If you can’t think of anything to say, say what you had for dinner.”
            I think it’s important. Say that you were here on this earth, and say who you were. It’s a bit like a message in a bottle. You never know who might find it and read it.


(My latest book, Caryatids, is available in Kindle and print editions through Amazon.com.)


Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Not-So-Merry Christmas


            This post is for the people who have too recently lost someone dear to them, or who are sick or in trouble, or who feel alone while all about them the halls are being decked and ho-ho-ho is in the air: The people for whom this Christmas and the winter holidays are really not all that merry.

                                                                    ***

            There must have been a tree and stockings and presents the Christmas of 1943, but if there were, I can’t remember them. The country was at war, and my little brother was dying of leukemia.
            That was the year I learned about shame when I wet my pants at school and had to walk all the way home in soggy socks and squishing shoes.
            It was the year I learned about anger when I, who had never been beaten, had never hit anyone, punched a schoolmate in the nose and was sent to the principal’s office.
            It was the year I learned the big word sacrilegious. Helping my father dig a garden, I found a cluster of roots that looked like a beard, and I was assembling a twig crucifix with a bearded Jesus when my father put down his hoe and went to get my mother to deal with me.
            It was the year of my disillusionment when Mother told me the dancing lights I was seeing in my room were definitely not fairies. My parents wouldn’t discover how nearsighted I was for two more years. And somebody at school had told me that there was no Santa Claus, a fact my distracted mother and father could not or would not confirm.
            I don’t associate that Christmas with Joy To The World or Silent Night. Instead, for some odd reason, that December brings up the serious and sober strains of Beethoven. Specifically, the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony, where the same repeated note of melody rides atop the minor harmonies. Where did I hear that piece of music? Certainly not at home.  But in response to my begging, I had begun piano lessons, so maybe my teacher, Miss Ethel, had played the theme for me.
            The worst thing of all, the thing that never should have happened, was when my poor mother in her grief said that I had made my little brother sicker by yelling at him when he took my doll. Certainly she didn’t mean it, would have taken those words back if she could have, forgot saying them the moment they were spoken.
            But I became convinced that she was right, that I was killing my brother, that my parents didn’t love me any more, that I was a bad girl, a dirty, sacrilegious, guilty and violent seven-year-old.

            There is an expectation that we should have some kind of amnesty from tragedy and misfortune during the holidays. “How horrible,” we say in response to sickness, death, homelessness, poverty, “especially at this time of year.” But hardship and dismay do not take vacations. Surely it must seem to some people that everyone except them is happily celebrating while they are alone in their misery.
            Verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching says “Everyone else is busy, but I alone am aimless and depressed. I am different.”
            But maybe we should just let the holidays float over us without any expectation of what they might be like, should be like.
            There was a moment of grace during that frightful Christmas. Staring out the window, as miserable as I was, I could see small lights in the dark, lights which became beautiful flickering hexagons, shifting and glowing. They were not fairies; my mother had been very definite about that. But despite everything, somehow I was filled with the sweetest sensation that something good was about to happen.



Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sound and Fury

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth)


            The sounds of chainsaws, leaf blowers, snoring and jackhammers aren’t exactly music to our ears. But the ghostly noise that drove me wild was none of these.
            It started at six o’clock Saturday morning. Beep-beep-beep, then pause and repeat. Like the warning of a truck backing up, except that it went on and on.
            “What kind of alarm goes off at six in the morning?” I fumed. “Surely there is some kind of noise ordinance about things like that.”
            When work started at the home construction site nearby, the beeping seemed to stop. Some kind of security alarm, I thought. The hapless workers at the site were already on my hate list because of the horrible two days of sawing and chipping when they cleared trees to make room for the new house.
            The sound was back early Sunday morning. Beep-beep-beep. I posted a complaint on NextDoor, which is Complaint Central on the Internet. None of the neighbors had heard the noise, but they advised me to call the sheriff.
            When the beeping started again Monday morning, I was fit to be tied—or to call the sheriff. I went out front and glared at the construction site. I tried to make a video documenting the noise. I went into the back yard to see if it was louder there, and it was.
            The noise was coming from my garden shed, from a plastic bag. Omigosh, an old smoke alarm, ear-splitting, and I couldn’t get it apart to remove the battery.
            So I turned the hose on it, and it was like the scene in 2001 Space Odyssey, where the dying computer Hal sings “Daisy, Daisy” and says “I’m afraid, Dave.”
            The smoke alarm gasped and sputtered and then just clicked, tick-tick-tick, until I put it in a bucket and filled the bucket with water. The thing had been beeping on and off for at least 48 hours.

            I was really glad I hadn’t called the sheriff.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Extra, Extra: Read All About It!



I discovered that the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the newspaper that formed the model for the fictional Knoxville Times of my novel, Byline, had an alumni page on Facebook. Although I didn’t recognize any of the member names, I asked to join the closed group and was accepted. I posted an image of my American Newspaper Guild card on the site.

Scrolling through the posts, I found dozens of pictures of co-workers from the mid 1950s and early 1960s, pictures of newspaper people whose descriptions and traits I had borrowed for my book. Here was the sweet-natured cartoonist. There was the scary news editor. Here was the smiling face of the morgue—now called the library—manager.

So many of my colleagues stayed on after I left, first for Spokane, Washington, then to Greece, New York, San Francisco.

It was a sobering discovery to learn that almost all of them have died. The one live person I knew was a red-haired photographer who was only a couple of years older than I, and he proved to be the website’s administrator. I remembered his strolling out of the teletype room, waving a piece of paper and saying, irreverently, “Pope’s pooped” when Pius XII expired.

This fellow drove me, in 1963, to get an interview with someone involved in a Congressional inquiry. She was visiting relatives at Christmas, and I faked my way into her house by carrying wrapped gifts, as if I were a family friend. The story was picked up by the wire services, Newsweek and Time magazine, with my name. It was my Brenda Starr moment...such a big deal at the time, and such a forgettable deal 50 years later. The photographer didn’t even remember me.

On the alumni website, I saw pictures of the old copy desk, the newsroom, the composing room, the pressmen with their newspaper hats. I saw pictures of the presses being moved with heavy equipment when they became obsolete. I saw the typewriters go and the computers come in, saw copy boys become writers and editors, marry, have children, retire. Saw the assimilation of the rival newspaper, the move to a new campus, the launching of an on-line edition.

The old News-Sentinel had four editions every day, back in the day. When a big story broke—the death of the Pope and Kennedy’s assassination both happened when I was on the copy desk—an Extra would be put out. The newsboys on the street really would shout “Extra, extra, read all about it,” just like in the movies. The paper’s circulation was huge, among the top one hundred nationally.

I can only assume that the newspaper, like all newspapers, has downsized. One alumnus, responding to a photo of the old pressmen in their newspaper hats, remarked that the broadsheet newspapers are now too narrow to make those hats...but then there are no ink-spattered pressmen either.

When I wrote my novel, I drew a map of the old newsroom and made a list of all the editorial employees, pretty surprised that I remembered those things when I can’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday. I am glad I wrote my novel, trying to describe how it was in the glory days of newspapers. But I found all the information on the alumni page disquieting. I was left with mixed emotions, as if I had experienced some odd sort of time travel, more than fifty years of the road not taken.

(The novel Byline is available on Amazon.com)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

No Strings Attached



I’ve always been amazed at how some string players can be both attached and detached from their instruments. They may love their fiddles and bows as if they were family members. Sometimes I think of Nicodemus’s cello as his wooden wife. But on the other hand, the same players will casually hand over a valuable violin or cello or bow to another player, saying “Try it for a while.”

Case in point: N has made about 15 cello bows. Materials are expensive; the pernambuco wood alone costs about $300 a pop, and the hours he spends planing, sanding, polishing and bending are uncountable. He doesn’t do the hair, so he has to pay someone to put that in. He has sold a few of these bows, has kept a couple, and the rest he has just given away.

We had a nice violin on which I had a few lessons before I gave up. Someone had almost ruined it with polyurethane and gave it to N in a fit of pique. He refinished it and sent it up to Carlos to fit it out with bridge, sound post, tail piece and new strings. Then he handed it over to one of the Coastside Community Orchestra scholars, saying “Use this for a while.” So that scholar gave his own violin to a younger player, who returned his loaner.

Another orchestra member had an extra violin. Still another violinist saw it at our house and traded it for his old Sears violin. The Sears violin—intended to be “my” violin if I ever get back to Go Tell Aunt Rhody—sits, partly sanded, in a battered wooden case left over from when N assembled the Frankenfiddle for yet another young player.

This is small-time trading. In the big-time string world, there are few major orchestras which don’t have players using borrowed instruments, instruments often valued in the millions of dollars. Jascha Heifetz’s priceless Guarneri violin has been regularly played by concertmasters of the San Francisco Symphony. In the off-season, you can see the beautiful “David” in its glass case at the Legion of Honor Museum and listen to a recording of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, which had its premiere on that same violin in the nineteenth century.

I only know of one instance where someone took advantage of the no-strings-attached trust. Eventually, Interpol was called in and the instrument was found and returned to the person who had lent it. The owner was so disgusted by the theft that he said he didn’t even want to look at the violin.

The yogi Subramunya used to urge his students to practice affectionate detachment, and string players, I think, are past masters in detachment of a high order. But I am no string player, and I was attached to that violin N gave away, even if I couldn’t play it.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Critics


After he had told me everything he thought was wrong with my book, he suggested I should withdraw it from publication, rewrite it, and try again.

At first, he had not known what became of one of the characters. I e-mailed him a list of page numbers which described the character’s demise. Then last night, he said he thought I had published BYLINE too soon. The characters were not developed, he said, and there was no suspense in the book, and why didn’t I do more with the villain’s grandmother? He didn’t find anything to like.

I was curiously unmoved. “So what do you think?” he asked.

“I think I’m done with that book. I’m already working on something else,” I said. The whole thing made me glad I had not agreed to do any book signings.

I have had some generous five-star reviews from my friends. And I’ve had suggestions from others. The main character was too ingenuous, one said. She had worked on school newspapers; she should have known more about the big metropolitan newspaper. The story about the centaur was too long, another said. I killed off her parents too soon, someone said. There were too many characters. Who were all those people?

It should have been longer, someone said. A few people read the book in one sitting; others apparently couldn’t finish it.

Oh, well.

It made me think of a college production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni a friend once directed. He made the opera a Gothic horror story, murky, dark, sinister. Nobody understood what he was after, and a lot of people had a lot of criticism to offer. “Nobody once asked me what I was trying to do,” he said.

“What did you learn from this experience?” Last night’s critic wanted to know.

“I learned that everybody reads differently,” I said.

I thought about something my friend Sue said in response to an earlier spate of criticism. “I suppose you didn’t write the book he wanted to read,” she said, kindly.