Monthly Archives: May 2014

Maya Angelou – 1928 to 2014 – Rest in Peace

Nineteen years ago, on my birthday, my sister game me Phenomenal Woman, a little volume containing four of Maya Angelou’s most popular poems. The perfect gift from one woman to another!

That was not my first exposure to the author Maya Angelou. Fifteen years earlier, I had seen her in person, reading her poetry on a college campus. She read a poem I had spotted many years before that, in Seventeen magazine. I don’t know what it was called, but it described a young black woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful, because “dish water gives back no reflection”. How could I remember a line of poetry so long? Angelou was a writer of incredible skill!

She read another poem from which I still remember a fragment. It was a list of terms that can be added to the description of a woman’s skin beyond the term “black”. A list of descriptors, all positive. “Bubbling brown sugar” was one.

I don’t remember when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I remember so many details. One of my favorite parts was what she wrote about the role religion played in her life as a young woman. (Maybe this was actually in her second autobiographical book.) She was rational and “modern” and probably would not have described herself as “religious”, but she could not stay away from church, drawn in particular to the music. She would go to church, be swept up in the beauty and emotion, and join the choir… Her husband was baffled when a choir robe was delivered or her church brethren came to call.

(I am not checking on these remembered details, and apologize for any inaccuracy.)

I wonder what Maya Angelou thought when the term “black”, so fiercely claimed and energetically transformed into a badge of honor by Angelou and her contemporaries, was superseded by “African American”. She was not a woman to fear change, but might she have felt a twinge of loss?

I’m not particularly sensitive to poetry, and I seldom seek it out, but Maya Angelou spoke to me in a way that was stunningly memorable. I love the pictures of her that are being displayed today, the pictures of her in her maturity. She was grand, elegant and eloquent. Rest in peace, respected author and elder.


“Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections and Solutions” by G Tyler Miller

Why waste a good rant?! I wrote this for when they tried to sell me this book. My first blog entry in the “textbook” category.

This book has been around FOREVER. I taught from it in the 1970s. It was published in one edition after another, so students could not re-sell their used copies.

I don’t believe in text books. Anyone can learn more by investigating, reading and questioning. In the pre-internet days, perhaps there was some argument for putting together a compendium of related materials. But now, any student can find information that is timely. What a teacher should do is help the student figure out (for him or her self) the “connections” and “solutions” Miller is offering to spoon feed to the reader.

I’m shocked by the price of this book ($205). A student would do much better to spend the money on joining a professional or advocacy organization, or attending a good conference. Or buying binoculars or boots or whatever gear helps one get out into the environment we all want to preserve.

Students, if you absolutely must buy this book, try to get it electronically and save a tree.

Flannery O’Connor… Why?

I recently attended a seminar on two stories by Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People. I barely prepared for the discussion. I had read the first story a few years ago. I found a plot summary for the second story on the internet, and read a bit about O’Connor herself. A longish drive to the seminar event with friends completed my “preparation”.

O’Connor is the most depressing author I’ve ever read. In A Good Man is Hard to Find, a family you couldn’t possibly like (bitchy grandmother, henpecked son, bratty children) fall into the hands of the misfit. All are murdered. In Good Country People, an unscrupulous Bible salesman seduces a handicapped (and not very likeable) young woman and steals her prosthetic leg and eyeglasses to satisfy his perverted sexual fetishism. So much for plot…

Ugg. These stories put images into my head that I don’t want there. O’Connor described herself as a “Christian realist”, but I see no sign of any type of redemption in her tales. I was told her stories are allegorical, but I am a decidedly literal minded reader. O’Connor said (approximately) that readers who placed her work in the “horror” genre were generally reacting to the “wrong horror”. So there must be a point to these stories that I don’t get.

BUT these stories kept the seminar group talking! We ran 45 minutes overtime. People had plenty to say, so if one criterion of good literature is that it supports extended discussion, O’Connor’s stories are good. Another occasional criterion of good literature is that it takes people outside of their “comfort zone”. Flannery O’Connor goes WAY outside…

I found myself thinking about Steven King, whose autobiography On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft I discussed in a blog post on December 21, 2013. King embraced the “horror” genre 100%, and it made him rich. He seems to have disdained plot in favor of his “characters”, who, if I understand him correctly, often do things their creator finds surprising. What makes King so sensationally successful? I guess I will only find out by reading him, but for now I am taking a break from fiction.

If YOU have read a Stephen King novel, or seen a movie based on one (like The Shining), I’d love to hear what you thought of it! Meanwhile, I’m not recommending Flannery O’Connor, unless you are looking for something really gothic and creepy.

“The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg” by Nicholas Dawidoff

On May 1, I wrote about my visit to The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. One featured player was catcher Moe Berg, and I read this biography to learn more about him.

Berg was a strange and interesting individual. He was uncomfortable with being Jewish, not surprising in the 1920s and 1930s. He had many valuable skills, but he never chose a profession, never “worked”, except during World War II.

Berg’s wartime service (with the agency that preceded the CIA) was part of the American effort to find out whether Germany was close to developing an atomic weapon. Berg was a high powered autodidactic and could gain a working knowledge of a field like nuclear physics on the fly. 

Intelligence reports about Germany’s “nuclear weapon” were consistent: it was never close to production or use. However, American spymasters kept returning to the issue.

Berg was sent to a conference in a neutral country where he heard a speech by physicist Werner Heisenberg. His orders were to assassinate Heisenberg on the spot if it seemed that his research would lead to production of a nuclear weapon. Berg was expected to kill himself rather than be captured after the murder. Berg made no attempt on Heisenberg’s life, and history proved his judgment to have been correct. There was no imminent German bomb. 

(This cuts close to the bone! I studied chemistry. Heisenberg is/was an iconic figure, originator of quantum mechanics and the Uncertainly Principle. Most of his groundbreaking work was accomplished before WW II, but what ideas might have been lost to us if he had not lived until 1976?)

Berg had a tough time readjusting to post war life. He often implied that he worked for the CIA. He had no occupation and no fixed residence. His personal charm was considerable, and he lived off his friends in many cities. The later part of this book disintegrated into a list of anecdotes – Berg seen here or there, Berg visiting with one person or another. I stopped reading. He ended life impoverished.

The best thing about this book is its coverage of intelligence activities in Europe during World War II. I would recommend it to historians of that period, and to those with a special interest in the interface between science and military policy.

“God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible” by Adam Nicholson

As a family, we have concluded that the best (audio) books for travel are non-fiction. (The exception being Arthur Conan Doyle, and we’ve got him memorized…) Faced with a trip of ten hours duration over a two-day period, we chose God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicholson. It kept us interested.

The creation of the King James Bible contradicts the notion that nothing good can be done by a committee. The churchmen involved did not think of themselves as writing a new translation of the Bible, but rather were told to reconcile inconsistencies so everyone would share the same text. Nicholson says “It…is one of the greatest of all monuments to the suppression of ego.” 

When I hear passages from the King James Bible, to me they sound and feel “right”. Why? I think the Bible I heard as a child was the King James version. Often I wasn’t really paying attention, but I believe it settled into my subconscious, and I recognize it unwittingly.

Oddly, when I was given a Bible in Sunday school, it was NOT the King James but the New Revised Standard.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who is curious about the Bible. In our public discourse, it is so commonly referenced, but to me it seems to be rather little read.

If YOU read the Bible, I’d love to hear what version you use, and why!

“Rosemary Cottage” by Colleen Coble

Beach reading… you know, the not-quite-trashy romantic novels you read to relax…

This book had the advantage of a beach setting, a town called Hope Beach, much like Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  A man and a woman have died a few weeks apart, apparently accidentally. But a relative believes there was foul play, and the fun begins. The story pivots around a baby, a pretty year-old girl named Raine, daughter of the deceased woman. Raine is kidnapped, and the tension rises. Ultimately, Raine survives and her uncle/guardian finds the woman of his dreams to complete their family.

If you dislike politicians, you will savor the downfall of the bad guy, who fathered Raine and would not acknowledge her. Add blackmail and the plot thickens.

Good fun, when you are in the right mood.

When I want to read fiction set in North Carolina, I usually turn to Margaret Maron, whose “Bootlegger’s Daughter” series, less “romantic” and more oriented towards criminal mysteries, has kept my attention for years.

“A Fierce Green Fire” – a documentary history of environmentalism (part 2)

Another friend got into the discussion (also very slightly edited):

I won’t argue with Kant or Chomsky (since I haven’t studied them in great depth) but I see a few problems with your hypothesis for the lack of engagement in activism, namely the Sierra Club, among the young. The brain may not lack an organizing capacity for historical reflection. Just because we’re “hard wired” as it were for immediacy doesn’t mean we aren’t also predisposed for reflection; we just shouldn’t try to do it all the time like when we’re escaping predators. But historical reflection will allow us to cut down on encountering predators.

I’m not sure if you mean the perceived lack of engagement is for the local chapter of the Sierra Club or if they are having a national crisis for membership. I can see alternative explanations for either case. Let me address your points more directly.

1. “Possibly related is the blandness of recent history.  Technology may be roaring ahead, but great upheavals that engaged most of the public (world wars, depressions, natural disasters) have not occurred in the lifetimes of most people living today.  So the disturbing events that might gravitate people toward a consciousness of impending climate (and other) disaster aren’t happening.”

Our recent history has not been bland. Our students are well aware of economic depression, since 2008 they have lived during one. They have also lived through three different US wars in the Middle East, two of them lasting almost their entire lifetime. The impact of natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina and more recently Sandy also affects them. They are also concerned with other global issues such as genocides in Darfur, wars in Georgia, Syria, and now Ukraine.

2. “A proposed explanation is the difficulty in CONNECTING with young people – since they have lost the ability to read/listen/study: an effect of media overload, media dumbing down and the technological poisons of background music, electronic games, texting and face-booking.”

This sounds like the charge Socrates made against the youth of Athens. There have always been distractions from what other people consider important. So let’s look at what today’s youth considers important. It’s not always entertainment as your hypothesis claims. Locally, I know our students have a great concern for employment. They seem genuinely disinterested in anything I have to say until I connect it to them getting a job. This isn’t unreasonable since they have just started on their careers during the worst depression the US has seen since the 1930s. They don’t come from affluent families so the current trend in higher education of graduating students with a crushing debt is an ever present worry for them. They are also the first ones in their family to go to college. For many, especially the women, this is in itself is a form of activism. They are fighting a cause more dear to their hearts than the environment — class struggle and freedom of education. 

The media outlets you bemoan are not the problem in and of themselves. It’s who else is using those media outlets. Most news sources and networking sites inundate youth with worrying messages about their future in terms of jobs and debt. The environment is drowned out as a long term worry while economics is presented as an immediate problem; this triggers the part of the brain that deals with “escaping the predator.” What does an 18-22 care about the earth dying in the next 100 years if he has no idea where he will live or how he will eat when he turns 23?

Many environmental organizations do use these digital and social media outlets to get their message across and the youth do respond. I think the 5th point of the movie, globalization, underscores this. Perhaps the lack of interest isn’t about the environment but just the Sierra Club. Youth may be looking for more global platforms. How does youth membership in Green Peace and World Wildlife Fund compare to Sierra Club? Or other types of political activism such as Amnesty International? 

3. You used the phrase “my generation.” An important point to keep in mind is that in terms of just numbers, your generation and the baby boomers simply outnumber Generation Y and the Millenials (today’s youth). So what may be perceived as a drop off because people aren’t engaged may just be a drop in young people even existing. Can’t engage what doesn’t exist. 

You really want to engage the youth in political and environmental activism, connect it to them earning a living. Occupy Wall Street is a good example. Many young people are starting non-profit corporations that target environmental issues (such as installing solar panels at low cost) rather than joining huge public protest movements. Perhaps your perception of what constitutes political/environmental activism needs to change.

“A Fierce Green Fire: the Battle for a Living Planet” – a documentary history of environmentalism (part 1)

I didn’t see this film, but a friend offered the following discussion (very slightly edited):

The film “A Fierce Green Fire” (by Mark Kitchell, 2013) was shown on April 25 at an event organized by two municipal “green” committees, followed by a discussion led by a professor in a local college’s Sustainability program.

The movie organizes  environmentalism into five historical phases: (1) land protection following the loss of California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley (1902), leading to the Sierra Club’s entrapment to approve Glen Canyon Dam in the 1970s, (2) awareness of deadly pollution – by DDT (Rachel Carson ‘s “Silent Spring”) and the toxics in Love Canal – 1970s, (3) ecological lifestyle alternatives promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog and proponents of renewable energy sources, and including Greenpeace activism, to which I would add Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” (1975), (4) globalization: mostly efforts to save Amazon rainforest by organizations large (World Wildlife Fund) and small, and (5) opposition to Climate Change by the likes of  There were close-up interviews of many current players and survivors.

There was much to discuss, but I’ll concentrate on one issue that bothers me exceedingly.  Several people bemoaned the difficulty of recruiting young people into political activism.  A proposed explanation is the difficulty in CONNECTING with young people – since they have lost the ability to read/listen/study: an effect of media overload, media dumbing down and the technological poisons of background music, electronic games, texting and face-booking.  I certainly recognize this disconnectedness in my college students: they have lost whatever interest students of my generation had in taking notes in lectures, and their attitude toward the history of my subject (genetics) borders on disgust.

I propose this insight: my undergraduate major was Philosophy and Science, and my senior thesis was titled “The Influence of Immanuel Kant on Physiology.”  In his “Critique of Pure Reason” (1781), Kant proposed the existence in the brain of a priori organizing capacities such as space and time.  Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar would be a recent proposal for such an organizing capacity.  

My suggestion is that the brain LACKS an organizing capacity for history.  It’s an acquired taste, and only rare people have it – and have the capacity for it.  Human evolution may even have opposed it, since survival often required instant and instinctive reactions to dangers that would have been delayed by historical reflection.  If a capacity for appreciating history is problematic, then so is the capacity to plan for the future.  Thus the problem of Environmental History.

Possibly related is the blandness of recent history.  Technology may be roaring ahead, but great upheavals that engaged most of the public (world wars, depressions, natural disasters) have not occurred in the lifetimes of most people living today.  So the disturbing events that might gravitate people toward a consciousness of impending climate (and other) disaster aren’t happening.  We’re like the frogs in a gradually heating kettle of water.

“The National Museum of American Jewish History” in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is lucky to have this Museum! My son invited me to celebrate Spring and the start of baseball season by visiting the National Museum of American Jewish History to see its special exhibition “Chasing Dreams – Baseball and Becoming American”.

The exhibit takes you from the familiar (like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg) to the obscure. Baseball is treated, not just as a game, but as a cultural phenomenon that meant (and still means) a great deal to immigrants and minorities. Many types of artifacts are displayed – uniforms, balls, press clippings, baseball cards and old photographs. A friendly docent shared additional information about baseball and World War II.

We took our time enjoying “Chasing Dreams” and didn’t see the rest of the Museum. The core permanent exhibition begins with the first settlement of Jews in America, more than 100 years before the founding of the USA. I think I’ll need a few more visits to appreciate this Museum and the stories it tells.