Of apes and Alzheimer’s

August 8th, 2011

Mr. Improbable and I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” last night, and enjoyed it greatly. For one thing, it does a marvelous job of allowing viewers to fulfill their fantasies of what they would do if they had the strength and flexibility of a chimpanzee. If you’ve ever daydreamed during a staff meeting of leaping aboard the conference table, ululating, pounding your chest, crashing through the windows and heading for the hills — and I know I’m not the only one, people — this is your movie.

It’s also, once you get past the science fiction and special effects, a fairly poignant look at life in the sandwich generation. The human protagonist, biochemist Will Rodman (yes, I know) lives with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. When Will’s research on a cure for Alzheimer’s is halted, he winds up adopting a baby chimp from the drug trials.

Of course, it’s Will’s experiments that ultimately lead to the rise of the apes (as well as the most hilariously blunt and effective elevator pitch in the history of venture capital, when Will, riding the lift with his boss, announces, “I injected my father with it. It works.”). But Will, despite the phallic determination of his name, is no ego-driven mad scientist. He is motivated by love more than money, power, or even knowledge: he wants his beloved father, a classical pianist and Shakespeare scholar, back. And he wants to protect his adopted “child,” Caesar. In the meantime, it would be nice if he could get his boss off his back, and find time to romance his live-in girlfriend.

Sound familiar? Will is pressed from every direction, and criticized no matter what he does. Look at James Franco’s face when the home-health aide angrily tells him his father should be in a facility. When the veterinarian points out that Caesar won’t stay a juvenile forever. He knows. He is doing his damnedest as a caretaker, and he knows he is failing. He’s not the son, the father, the lover, the scientist he wants to be. Every choice entails a sacrifice — not only the big choices, like “do I inject my father with the experimental drug,” but the little ones, like “do I look my lover in the eye when she is talking, or do I scan the room to make sure Dad and Caesar aren’t in trouble?” And he makes wrong choices, and decisions with all kinds of unintended consequences.

And he loses his father anyway, despite his best efforts, like all of us do.

And his “child” gets involved with drugs, and radical politics, and finds a group of friends that Will can’t relate to. Maybe it was his fault for being too involved with his father, and his career. Maybe it was inevitable.

We do our best for those we love, and we pray to God that our best efforts won’t somehow make things dreadfully, dreadfully worse.

And we hope we’re praying to a God who looks like us.

More thoughts on werewolves …

December 9th, 2010

Part of the reason werewolves don’t get a lot of love, I suspect, is that they’re harder to work with in film or television. It’s hard to go full lupine. As this rather interesting article from the Onion’s AV Club points out, dogs are not good actors, and wolves are even worse. So producers usually go for a sort of wolf-ape hybrid thing with makeup and prosthetics, which never looks very good.

More than that, though, I think that lycanthropy is, oddly, a little too mundane to catch on as the next occult craze. Werewolves are neither superior to humans, like vampires, nor inferior, like zombies. They are simply different. They have a condition. They have time-management issues. Werewolves are probably really into Spoon Theory.

Somehow, I was reminded of all this when a friend of mine Tweeted, “One great benefit of being deaf is being able to shut out the cellphone blabbermouth behind me. I just take off my processors.”

I replied, “There’s a thin line between disability and superpower, isn’t there?”

And that’s kind of the story with werewolves. It’s a superpower sometimes, and a disability at other times. Being a blonde with symmetrical and childlike features may get you out of a traffic ticket, but will probably make it harder to be taken seriously in your career. Having Asperger’s syndrome makes figuring people out harder, but fixing their computers easier. Parents have the awesome power to create life – and then become hostages to fate forever after.

Zombies are all the other drivers in a rush-hour gridlock. Zombies are the people who write comments in response to YouTube videos. Zombies are the people you see on television at those rallies, the ones you disagree with.

Vampires are your insurance company, raising your rates for an accident for which you weren’t at fault. Vampires are your late-night drunk-dialing ex. Vampires are hidden fees, the person behind you who darts into the newly opened checkout lane, that guy at the bar who refuses to believe that you really do want to drink a martini and read The Economist in peace.

Werewolves are afraid of embarrassing themselves in company. Werewolves wake up thinking, “I don’t believe I did that.” Werewolves can be great in emergencies, but daily life poses greater challenges to them. Werewolves wake up every day not knowing if they have a superpower, or a disability.

Werewolves are us.

Are werewolves the next anything?

December 9th, 2010

In case you haven’t noticed, vampires and zombies are big these days. Really big. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is the latest manifestation, and a fairly good one it is, too. (Although, as with “True Blood,” the show has garnered its share of critics who are willing to suspend disbelief on the question of vampires, witches, maenads, and were-panthers, but are fussily irritated at the inauthenticity of the actors’ Southern accents.)

Do you think werewolves are ever going to get their chance in the spotlight? I wonder.

Supernatural creatures work as metaphors. Vampires are superior to humans, but dependent upon them. They are takers, and a taker can serve as a metaphor for so many things: a decadent aristocracy, a demanding lover, an exploitative boss, a too-needy parent. (In “True Blood,” boy-next-door Hoyt is torn between his vampire girlfriend Jessica, who literally feeds on his blood with his joyous consent, and his controlling mother, who symbolically sucks the life out of him.)

Zombies are humans with no brains, and … well, you can kind of see how that could go in a lot of different directions. There’s a fundamental horror to the notion of facing another human being who can’t be reasoned with, whose motives are not fathomable to the normal mind. I’d submit that this is to a large extent the state of our political discourse today: both the left and the right seem convinced that the other side is brainwashed, unthinking, moved only by instinct and hunger.

So. Werewolves. What do they symbolize? What are they a meta for? And why don’t they ever seem to ride the wave of pop-culture glory as their supernatural colleagues do?

Happy Thanksgiving

November 23rd, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Good luck with that.

The ConductMom is in town for Thanksgiving, so posting may be light over the holiday weekend. But I’m always eager to hear from you. On the other blog, we’re talking holiday cards. What are your opinions?

And what are you grateful for this year? I think, in 2010 in particular, I’m very grateful that I’ve continued to get to know and deepen my relationship with my extended family, and also that Mr. Improbable and I seem to have survived the recession with our odd little careers more or less intact.

On Thanksgiving Day, we’re going to go see the Harry Potter movie. So … which Harry Potter character is your favorite, or whom would you play, if there were some community-theater version of the show? I think I’d be Minerva McGonnigle. I know she’s supposed to be in her early 70s, but I think that’s too old … I’ve always thought of the character as being in her 40s or 50s. (If they cast American actors, I’d put either Michelle Forbes or Katey Sagal in the role.)

Talk with me, talk amongst yourselves, talk with your mouth full — Happy Thanksgiving!

The psychology of stories

October 19th, 2010

On the Emily Rooney show today, I talked about stories: the story of “Mad Men,” the storytelling initiative at Central Square Theater, the stories drunken garden club ladies told a research psychologist back in 1976. (I’ll get a link up to the show as soon as possible.)

All these things — the kinds of stories we like to read, hear, or watch; the power of storytelling to build community and identity; the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves — are under the general umbrella of “narrative psychology.” For those of you who are interested, here are some recent articles of note on psychology and stories:

This study attempts to categorize people by their media preferences. The critiques in the comments are spot on: this is a very psychology-focused study, and disregards the whole field of media and communication research. Still, I do find it interesting — in my own dissertation, I tried to link up personality traits and reading preferences.

This New York Times article looks at recent research in how people tell the stories of their lives. We are willing to admit our faults, but need to believe we are continually improving.

Attempts to give an evolutionary explanation for storytelling are often embarrassingly bad stories themselves, but I liked this quite a bit.

This isn’t a study of narrative psychology per se, but of experimental philosophy. However, it’s about the use of stories to get at people’s moral intuitions (focusing more on the paradoxical nature of those intuitions than on the methodological problems of “trolleyology”).

Happy reading!

Mystery blog

August 25th, 2010

It’s quite clear what the blog is, I mean; it’s a blog about mystery fiction. I know some of my readers are fans — or even if not, many of you are all-around book people who enjoy a good review on its own merits. So check out Only Detect, which offers triweekly reviews of a variety of mystery novels, and a good blogroll, all against a tastefully retro wood-paneling background.

Best books of 2009, part II

January 20th, 2010

… and my further top five from 2009 (I’m enjoying your recommendations too, folks!)

6. The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I reviewed this here.

7. Rebuilt by Michael Chorost. See, here we go with that description problem again … this is a memoir by a man who got a cochlear implant at age 30. Yaaaaaawn. But it is, in fact, a brilliant, funny, honest and compassionate look at what it means to be a social being, the difference between hearing and listening, and the nature of relationships.

8. Still Woman Enough by Loretta Lynn with Patsi Bale Cox. I’d planned to write about Loretta Lynn’s second autobiography — the one she wrote after her husband died, when she could really tell the truth — when I first read it, but shortly after that, the Roman Polanski scandal broke and I couldn’t, because I couldn’t wrap my head around Ms. Lynn’s marriage at age 13. Months after I’ve read the book, I still don’t know what to make of it. Ms. Lynn’s intelligence and ignorance are both on astonishing display as she recounts her improbable life.

9. Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond. Yes, finally, like the rest of the world, I read this classic of “Why Everything Is the Way It Is and Not Some Other Way Entirely, and by the Way It Has Nothing to Do with Race.” Good book, although a number of folks in one of my chats mentioned that it’s fairly repetitious, which indeed it was.

10. Under the Dome by Stephen King. I said I liked King on a wide canvas? Here, he gives himself an entire Maine town to characterize — and kill. It’s no spoiler to say that 300 pages in, I was already beginning to wonder if enough people would survive to finish the 1,000+-page novel. Whatever your politics, the first 400 pages or so after “the dome” of the title descends will make you angry — either by reminding you of the Bush administration, or by painting an unfair picture of it. Then the action kicks in. Don’t make any social plans after you hit page 600 or so.

Your reading recommendations

January 19th, 2010

…. and what were some of the best books you read in 2009 — fiction or non-?

Best books of 2009, part I

January 19th, 2010

Every year, I keep a running list of the books I’ve read, with an asterisk beside the ones I particularly like. In 2009, I had a pleasingly rounded list of 10 asterisked books, with an even more pleasing symmetry: both the first and the last books I read in 2009 were starred, and both were by Stephen King.

Here are my first five top books from 2009. I’ll post the second five later today or tomorrow.

Please only comment if you’ve read these and want to discuss them — I’ll put up a post where you can leave your own recommendations shortly, just to keep things convenient.

1. The Stand by Stephen King. I like Stephen King on a wide canvas, and he gave himself one here. Not everything rang true to me psychologically, but the story is riveting and mythic in its power to stick in memory.

2. Intuition by Allegra Goodman. Ms. Goodman got her start writing about the arcane and claustrophobic world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and she’s even better here, limning the intellectually spacious, yet physically and emotionally cramped, world of elite academic science. (My friend Amazing Genius Science Girl thought Goodman got it right, who am I to argue?)

3. The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Unfortunately, there is no way to write about this without making it sound like a horrible gimmicky rom-com: alternating chapters of two different futures for the heroine, in one of which she stays faithful to her husband and one in which she begins an affair with a friend, a raffish but loving snooker star. Somehow, the book is far more compelling than any description of mine, thank heavens.

4. The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. This is significantly weaker than her earlier novels The Position or The Wife, but Ms. Wolitzer’s eye for detail is spot on. There’s a lot to object to — I’ll leave “mommy war” critiques out of it, but I was taken aback by the notably short shrift given the book’s Asian couple, and their stereotypical upbringings. Still, mediocre Wolitzer is better than good nearly anyone else.

5. The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim. No, I did not star this out of atonement for the casual racism of Ten-Year Nap, it just worked out that way. Calligrapher’s Daughter, the story of a Korean family at the turn of the last century, was published by my own publisher a few months before MCMoM, and the publicist gave me a copy. The author was inspired by the life of her mother, but decided to write a novel rather than an historical book or biography. Her research shows, though; I learned a lot. This is a contemplative book — you can read a chapter or two a night before going to bed and not stay up all night finding out what’s going to happen next. But its images and conflicts hang on.

Why “Children of the Soy” is just wrong

October 27th, 2009

Here’s a Halloween-themed post for you all. I’d gotten into a horror-fiction kick a while back, and noticed that every New England gothic that deals with the human or supernatural evil of some little farming town — it’s always about corn. From “The Lottery” to Children of the Corn to Harvest Home. Corn is the basis of the community, the source and/or excuse for the evil. So I figured, hey, I know someone who manages a farm, I wonder what Verena would say about this. I mean, get two women together, one of whom did a dissertation on literary genre and one of whom is a farmer, and surely we could figure out this “evil corn” thing, right? I had a few ideas of my own, so I shot them off to her. Here they are, and her responses:

1. Coincidence. Corn is a native crop to New England, which happens to be where America’s literary horror tradition got started. If the tradition had started in the midwest, it would have been “Children of the Wheat.”

Verena replied: That seems plausible. Corn’s native to the whole continent though (including Central America). Wheat was introduced from Europe, and doesn’t do well in the N.E. climate (fall rains come in just as the crop is ready). Wheat is also much shorter (not quite like lettuce, but still short). Wheat is romantic (“Days of Heaven”). You can’t really romp with your lover in the cornfields like you can in the wheat. Wheat is soft.

2. Structure. Cornfields are taller than people and make a scary rustling sound and you can hide in them, so you can set cool plot sequences in the cornfields that might not be possible in other agricultural settings. You pretty well have to be Peter Rabbit to get a lot of suspense going in a lettuce patch.

Verena replied: I think you’re totally right that big cornfields are easy to hide in and get lost in. That’s pretty scary. And unlike woods or mountains, there’s a man-made uniformity to a cornfield, so you can’t get your bearings. A corn field does have this weird human-like quality to it…hayfields are tall and uniform, and make rustling sounds, but you never feel like you’re standing in some kind of vegetable army.

Okay, doesn’t the phrase “vegetable army” just freak you out right there?

3. The Uncanny Valley. It is easy to make disturbingly human-looking poppets and fetishes out of corncobs and husks.

Verena replied: Yeah, kids love that! We always do husk doll making with little kids and it’s a blast. They all turn out so amazingly different.

That was pretty much all I knew about corn and why it might be scary, so I went on to ask her, “Is corn so important that in a given farming community it might not be just a crop, but the crop, much as potatoes were in Ireland? So that the needs of the corn become paramount and it’s treated in a sort of idolatrous fashion?

“Is corn so temperamental and hard to grow that a human sacrifice now and then might not seem like a bad idea? (I mean, do you sit around with your farmer friends and talk about ‘The Lottery’ and joke, ‘Well, of course it would be wrong, but don’t say you’ve never wondered if it would actually work …’)”

And that’s when it got really scary! (Okay, I’m cuing the music and holding the flashlight under my chin now.) She said corn isn’t really hard to grow, and that up until modern times there wasn’t an issue with monoculture that would lead to the kind of dependence I was wondering about … but then … she wrote …

sacrifice – here’s a thought – Blood has a lot of nitrogen in it (remember those school stories about how Native Americans planted a fish head at the base of every corn mound). Great fertilizer. You can buy “blood meal” as an organic fertilizer – it’s just dried blood and it’s the best thing you can get. A sacrifice that spilled blood all over your corn WOULD actually make it grow better.

So how about that!

Readercon: Because it’s not enough that I look like Spock

July 7th, 2009

Guess where I’ll be this weekend? Readercon!

You either know what that is and are thinking that I am even cooler than you had suspected, or you don’t know what it is and that vague feeling of pity you’ve been having for me lately is growing.

No worries. Readercon is a science fiction convention here in the greater Boston area–Burlington, to be exact. From the website:

Readercon is, depending on your point of view, either an annual literary conference (except it’s infinitely more fun than that) or an annual science fiction convention (except we’ve stripped away virtually everything except talking about and buying books).

I think this sounds absolutely terrific, and not just because 1) I look like Spock and 2) SF fans are unlikely to judge the Golden Rod Rainbow Stripe Shawl Sweater Shrug Cardigan. (Of course I’ll need it. The convention’s at the Burlington Marriott. Have you ever been to a summertime convention at a Marriott that wasn’t freezing?) But also because the program sounds fascinating. Check out this talk, for example:

Minds differ, and nothing reflects those differences more directly than the use of language. When a story’s first-person narrator has a mind significantly outside the norm, their altered diction provides a (sometimes purposefully cloudy) window into their altered thought processes. What are the protocols and challenges of reading a text where the narrator is autistic (Peter Watts’s Blindsight or Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark), insane (Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit”), mentally slow (Flowers for Algernon), impossibly brilliant (Camp Concentration), or unclassifiably damaged (Liz Hand’s Winterlong)? How do we infer the mental states from the altered and often unfamiliar diction? And what does that tell us about the relationship of mind to language?

Or this one:

Is Darwinism Too Good For SF? This year marks the sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species and the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. Considering the importance of the scientific idea, there has been surprisingly little great sf inspired by it. We wonder whether, in fact, if the theory has been too good, too unassailable and too full of explanatory power, to leave the wiggle room where speculative minds can play in. After all, physics not only has FTL and time travel, but mechanisms like wormholes that might conceivably make them possible. What are their equivalents in evolutionary theory, if any?

This is exactly the kind of thing my friends and I like to talk about!

And, well (blush), I’m doing panels too! One on my PhD research, which was on the psychology of storytelling:

Narrative Psychology and Science Fiction If a character gets shot, it’s a mystery story. If a character gets shot with a phaser, it’s science fiction. But are there elements to science fiction that go deeper than the surface tropes? Psychologist and writer Robin Abrahams discusses what cognitive psychology and her own research say about mental models of literary genres — including science fiction, fantasy, and horror — and what personality factors correlate with a liking of different kinds of stories.

… and one based on Mind Over Manners:

IDIC for the Pre-Federation World: Coping with Diversity (Robin Abrahams). The Vulcans allegedly had a slogan “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” which is pretty big talk for an entire race of people who all have the same haircut. In the 21st century, however, diversity is increasing — and increasingly hard to deal with. Robin Abrahams, writer of the Globe’s “Miss Conduct” social advice column and the new book Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners, discusses diversity of values, priorities, and experiences. Can we really say that nothing human is alien to us? How do we cope with the “other”? And how can we use science fiction to help us address contemporary social dilemmas?

If you like to read science fiction too, I hope to see you there!

In the country of network television

June 19th, 2009

… the one-eyed man is “Kings.”

In other words, the show’s not perfect, but it’s a remarkable effort for network TV. Let’s talk about what works and doesn’t work in “Kings.”

What works, surprisingly enough, is the show’s theology, which is probably the main reason that it got cancelled. We like our religion in this country, but nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to deal with the God of the Hebrew Bible. The moody, sacrifice-loving God of “Kings” acts in on human events, but obliquely, conveying his wishes through double-yolked eggs, extinguished candles, and the like. He seems to have very particular notions about border control, and few thoughts at all for the soldiers and civilians who die defending those borders. He is a God far more concerned with building a nation than with constructing a moral code. He is infinitely involved in the minutia of the lives of the elite–the king and his family, the priests, the arms merchants–and utterly indifferent the vast population of “Gilboa,” who, presumably, worship and offer sacrifices just as their leaders do.

“Touched by an Angel” it’s not. There’s a reason that nobody, with the possible exception of a few fringe elements in the Israeli settlements, worships this idea of God anymore.* This is the God of national honor and glory, not universal peace and justice. So kudos to “Kings” for actually trying to grapple with a vision of God that is deeply disturbing and unappealing to modern sentiments–and that’s right there in your Bible in black and white. It’s a bold choice. “Kings” does a much better job than “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica” ever did of setting out the rules of engagement with the supernatural from the beginning. You know starting off that God is real, that he has a plan, and that he communicates with certain people but that it is possible to misinterpret his wishes. Both “Lost” and, most egregiously, “Battlestar Galactica,” tend to pull in the supernatural elements whenever they can’t explain a plot point logically, a narrative gap-mending role less appropriate to God than to grout.

Perhaps the producers are still relying too much on the show’s Biblical conceit, however, because the alternative-universe elements of the show are a great disappointment. God dropping hints to his favored ruler like so many mints on a hotel-room pillow? Fine, I can believe that. An absolute monarchy in a nation with a free press? Now that strains my credulity. Although “Kings” works well as a family drama, the show fails to flesh out the kind of nation that Gilboa is. How much power does King Silas really hold? Do all Gilboans believe in God, and do they all agree on what God wants from them? Why was Gilboa at war with Gath? What does God think about Gath? Is he their God too? Why was the king’s son allowed into direct combat? (I seem to recall this being a controversy overseas when Prince Harry signed on for Afghanistan.) What was the form of government in Gilboa before the monarchy? How did Shiloh become so technologically advanced? Was Queen Rose being literal when she said that Silas took Gilboa from virtual hunter-gatherer existence to the 21st century? How the hell did that happen if so, and why aren’t more people walking around looking like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer?

It’s good theology. It’s really, really bad science fiction. It’s bad television writing overall, really. One of the themes of modern high-quality television is going beyond the character or small social group to look at the larger world in which the dramas play out. “Deadwood” and “The Wire” are more about the founding of civilization and the nature of institutions, respectively, than they are about any given character. “The Sopranos” invites viewers to compare and contrast the ethics and etiquette of the Mafia with that of affluent middle-class America. “Battlestar Galactica” painted a nuanced picture of a society in which women’s rights were a given but social class left scars so deep they almost functioned as caste markers. “Kings” only focuses on … the king, and his God, and his family, and his rival. It would have been a better show if they had named it “The Kingdom.”

*Modern Jews do not worship the God of the Hebrew Bible (aka the “Old Testament.”) A common misconception among non-Jews is the idea that Judaism kind of stopped after Christianity began. This is like thinking that English history ended in 1776, because we have America now. Judaism continued to evolve, write a whole ‘nother holy book, and developed a concept of God that goes well beyond the violent tribalism of the first five books of the Bible.