Sunday, December 30, 2007

Do not go gentle into that good night, unless you donate your body to science

One of my brothers-in-law gave me Mary Roach's splendid
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which I finished reading tonight. Cadavers are used in valuable medical, automotive, and criminal justice research, and organ donors ("beating-heart cadavers") actually save lives. Roach interviewed some of the folks who do this research; indeed, she watched some of it underway. She also discusses some of the unsavory history of cadaver research, and takes a detour through the grotesque topic of medicinal cannibalism. This could have been a dry, technical book, but Mary Roach has a wonderful sense for humor, which shows through on almost every page. On a few occasions, she appears over-eager to see certain events first-hand, grossing out even the professionals in cadaver research. Still, she is respectful of the human beings whose cadavers are being researched and of most of the people whose work she observed first-hand. This is a book that's well worth reading, though you might not want to be seen reading it in a restaurant, as I was earlier today.

Holy Moses!

It's conceivable that Moses would use an ATV to get up and down Sinai were he alive in our day, though it's equally conceivable that he wouldn't, as some environmental groups view them as environmentally unfriendly. Perhaps Moses would use a Hummer instead. Or, if he's like me, he'd just walk, as he did in Exodus.

My kids watching Blue's Clues on Christmas Day. Note that A is wearing his New Orleans Saints cap gangsta style.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas 2007--can we have a do-over?

blue! orange! elevators!
christmas day meltdown

father's heart breaking
brotherly compassion lives
brave little trooper

Christmas didn't go well for my little family this year. Everything was closed, including the McDonald's that's always been open before on Christmas day. T's entire local ritual is based on going to retail establishments either to shop or ride elevators, and he couldn't handle not being able to have the rituals that he anticipates and needs. A was a good sport about it all.

We never really had Christmas traditions when I was a kid. Every year, we'd drive from Oklahoma to Baton Rouge, where we stayed at my grandmother's house. We shuttled around the area to various relatives' homes, and spent a great deal of time with a set of relatives whom, quite honestly, I viewed as my inferiors--I mean, my mother made us wear shoes, for heaven's sake. Christmas day opened with us ripping open our packages, then waiting for the various and sundry relatives to arrive. The group was always very loud, and there were so many people there that chaos was the norm. The adults would watch meaningless football games on television with the volume turned up all the way, and the table talk was about scintillating topics like planning for retirement and how black people had a secret plan to take over the Deep South. The same pattern continued, only at our house, after my dad died and we moved to Baton Rouge. I would usually retreat to my bedroom with a book once the noise began to numb my brain.

DW's family is certainly not perfect, but they have relatively elaborate Christmas traditions. The children in the extended family perform a nativity skit, and presents aren't opened until pretty much everybody gets there. I did think it a bit odd that presents were passed out one at a time, to be opened in front of everyone, but it gave me a fabulous opening when DW's brother-in-law got so fascinated by his new electric drill that he didn't hear his name called on the next round. "Stop playing with your tool and get over there," I muttered to DW, who shouted my words out loud.

I think it would be neat to give my kids more memorable Christmases than I had, and DW would like to give the kids the kinds of Christmases she remembers. However, our reality is such that we have to adapt to our circumstances and do the best we can. The kids had some fun this time around, and they did like the merchandise Santa brought them, so it wasn't all bad--but my heart is still broken.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

There are Russians in the shower!

I bought a copy of David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises as a birthday present for myself today--happy birthday to me, btw.

Yes, Viggo Mortensen appears in full-frontal glory in a remarkable fight scene in a public bath, but the use of his nudity works well to show his vulnerability--especially as he was bare-handed against knife-wielding, coat-cladded professional killers. Nudity in movies, per se, has never bothered me. I do get annoyed when it's gratuitous and irrelevant to anything other than ticket sales. In any event, this was the most effective bare-handed fighting scene since the Jared Leto beatdown in Fight Club.

Eastern Promises is the story of a British midwife (Naomi Watts) who stumbles into a dirty little secret of the London Russian mafia, and of a Russian mob driver named Nikolai (Viggo), who seems to be the only mobster with anything approaching a conscience. I like how the movie was structured, and, as is the case with all of Cronenberg's films, there's not a moment or a word wasted. It's a very good crime drama. However, I liked the last Cronenberg/Mortensen vehicle, A History of Violence, just a little bit better. That film was a bit deeper, as it explored the corrosive and lasting effects of violence on individuals and families.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention a couple of insights I've had as to my love of violent entertainment and how I can hold that in my head in tension with a seemingly incompatable embrace of Zen Buddhism. I've had one series of dreams over the past few years involving knife-inflicted injuries, and, when I was around 10-11, I drew a series of decapitation drawings my dad found disturbing, but that my mother rightly blew off because I wasn't engaged in any patterns of behavior consistent with the violence depicted in the drawings. I suspect that my subconcious is now directing my attention to dissociation and having pieces of self cut off, isolated, repressed, and so on, just before the onset of puberty.

Another dream series, happening simulaneously with the first series, suggests a yearning to integrate everything into a healthy ego. It struck me recently how perfectly the Zen concepts of nonduality and interdependence fit with that second series of dreams. I started the whole meditation thing purely as a mental health exercise. Still, the recognition and realization of those concepts is a natural side-effect of Zen sitting. I don't know why that insight was unsettling--it really should be a good thing to understand that I backed into something that fits so exactly with what I need. Maybe it's because I've never believed in fate or predestination, and this is one of those things that seems like fate. Very weird.

So what does this all mean? Hell if I know for sure, but it's possible that my subconscious mind is telling me that I need to go back in time, find whatever pieces of my psyche have been split off, then deconstruct myself and put myself back together into a new and improved person. That sounds a whole lot like the first two seasons of Dexter.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bloody British Barber

Well, you had to know that I would go to see Tim Burton's movie version of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, a musical featuring a serial-killing barber played by Johnny Depp. Lots of blade work, blood, and cannabalism too! What's not to love? This is an absolute must-see for anybody with a love of violent cinema--one older gentleman staggered down the stairs during the film as if he was going to the bathroom to vomit. Of course, I loved the film.

Seriously, though, this is a terrific movie, with great music, great acting, and a fair amount of humor. The storyline is operatic and tragic--a family is destroyed by an act of injustice, and, later, a potential family never comes to be due to deep flaws in the would-be mother and father. Both characters have fatal obsessions--him with the judge who took his family and sent him into exile; she with him. His rage leads him to kill people; her obsession with him leads her to concoct an interesting method of disposing of the bodies. She is interested in having a future with him and an urchin she takes in; he has no interest in any future with anybody except the judge he wants to murder. The urchin sees her as a potential mother, but begins to suspect that Sweeney is bad news. The parallel storyline involving an optimistic young sailor and Sweeney's daughter is interesting too; as they come closer to freedom and a life together, Sweeney is desending into insanity.

Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are fabulous as usual. His singing voice starts off a bit weak--especially up against the actor playing the sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower), whose voice is simply gorgeous. Depp's singing, however, gets much better as the movie goes along. It could be that he became a better singer through experience, or it could be that he only really finds his voice once he starts slashing people. Alan Rickman (Snape in the Harry Potter films) is the evil Judge Turpin, and his performance is as good as one would expect. I was very impressed by the child actor Ed Sanders, who played the urchin Toby. His almost-mother/son scenes with Bonham-Carter are convincing and heartbreaking, and the look in his eyes in the movie's final scene is both sad and terrifying. Indeed, his eyes look very much like Sweeney Todd's. I noticed that Sweeney Todd was nominated for a few Golden Globe awards before it was even relased. It wouldn't surprise me to see the film also nominated for a number of Oscars.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Daily Zen, freezing cold

For any gentle readers experiencing actual winter weather:

In field or mountain,
Nothing stirs
On this snowy morning.

- Chiyo-Ni

Monday, December 17, 2007

Child of God


Well, T's purchase of a King David action figure a couple of weeks ago may not have been an isolated incident. He is showing an interest in some of the formal aspects of the Sunday mass, and he may be trained to play a part in that. Yesterday, we bought him Moses, Samson, and Jonah action figures as Christmas presents to go along with David. Jesus was sold-out (by some WalMart Judas, I suppose). Whether his interest in religion progresses further is something on which we'll wait and see. In any event, it appears that something in that realm is connecting with T on some level. I suppose that if God can manifest Himself to folks like Moses, Joseph Smith, and St. Teresa of Avila, He can manifest Himself to a kid like T in a way that T can understand.

Shiznit, dogg! A be da gangsta!

This past weekend, A wore a ballcap promoting my undergraduate university, whose football team will be playing for the collegiate national championship in a couple of weeks. I put the cap on him bill-forward, but he soon changed it to bill-backward, then sideward, like a gangsta rapper.

Smells Like Teen Spirit?

I noticed a display at WalMart the other day suggesting that Tom Brady wears the same aftershave as I do. However, said aftershave lotion has not made me 6'5", athletic, and able to have my way with supermodels. Dang! I have to wonder whether other NFL players snort and giggle as they walk past the Stetson displays at their local stores. Probably not, given the way the Patriots are playing this season. The product Brady advertises seems to work well with my natural skin scent, and I have an odd ability to sniff out such things. But I don't think it would do well for me to go around telling other men (or women, for that matter) that they should use product that is more/less citrusy, woodsy, powdery, musky, etc., to complement or mask their natural scent.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Christmas Angels

Check out the little man in the swimming pool on the second page.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Lions and Tigers and Endogenic Retroviruses, oh my!

A few months back, I read an article in a scientific journal using statistics from genetic studies to propose a theory that autism in some children--particularly in families with more than one child with autism--may be caused by genetic mutations that enter the germ line (sperm and egg) and that are passed from generation to generation. Thanks to Gentle Reader Ros, Ph.D., for helping me interpret that article. The article suggested that those endogenetic mutations most likely were passed down through the female parent, something that my non-scientific brain wondered about. After all, my wife has five sisters, none of whom have children with autism--and we're talking about women who have between two and four kids.

Yesterday, I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker about the field of paleovirology, or the study of ancient retroviruses. Because retroviruses encode themselves into the DNA of their hosts, they are the only viruses that theoretically could enter the germ line and be passed down intergenerationally. It turns out that numerous retroviruses became endogenic over the years, and that harmless fragments of those retroviruses are in our DNA. It also turns out that a retrovirus may have been responsible for the development of the placenta, which allows mammals to have live births instead of hatching from eggs.

Molecular biologists have been able to piece together some of these ancient retroviruses and reconstruct them (somehow in a socially responsible way that allows them to reproduce only once) for use in research to assist in finding cures for modern retroviral infections. For instance, millions of years ago, other primates became infected with a retrovirus called PtERV, while humans did not become infected. We have a gene called TRIM5a, which produecs a protein that destroys PtERV. Other primates also have TRIM5a, but it works differently in them. In the Rhesus monkey, TRIM5a destroys HIV. Reserachers took the human gene and modified it to work like the monkey gene. What they discovered was that the gene can destroy PtERV or HIV, but never both. So, theoretically, if a medication can be formulated that will work the monkey gene, while not messing up the human one, there may be an effective cure for HIV diseases. It's a well-written article, as any scientific writing must be for me to make heads or tails of it.

The New Yorker article got me thinking about the article I read earlier about autism and its possible endogenetic causes. Could it be that there are dormant genetic mutations carried by both the female and the male of the species, that, when combined after X number of generations of mutation, create a sort of genetic perfect storm? I have no idea. This mad scientist stuff sure is interesting.

ETA--Senator Clinton is pledging to spend $700 million annually towards autism research and suppot services if she is elected president. I'm not endorsing; I'm just saying. Hopefully the other presidential candidates will make similar commitments.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tyler Durden, Pretty in Pink

Brad Pitt has become a benefactor of the Lower Ninth Ward post-K:

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

My daemon

I haven't seen The Golden Compass, and I probably won't. Nevertheless, I submitted information to determine my daemon--a sort of shape-shifting alter-ego. Let me know whether you think it fits.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Myth, Fear, and Magic

My dreams are filled with Jungian archetypes, but none of them take the forms of mythical, fairy tale figures. Nor did I really ever have a developed sense of magic and wonderment when I was a child. DW, OTOH, has always had a love of the magical, wonderous, credulous side of childhood. Last night, we got around to watching Guillermo del Toro's brilliant Pan's Labyrinth on DVD. She totally got everything about the film, while I had to fill in some gaps by watching the director's explanation of the power of childhood mythology. This is a film about choice, disobedience, belief, and coming of age into a very nasty adult world. That the true-life side of the story was really part and parcel of the fairy tale was something I didn't figure out until the very end, when the two clearly come together. This is a great movie, one that may be viewed in my home as many times as GoodFellas or Network.

Of the movies I saw that were made in 2006, I'd have to put Pan's Labyrinth and Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men atop even my beloved Martin Scorsese's The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine, a movie I still adore.

Life, Death, and Football

An older friend passed away last Sunday. His son--my best friend from LSU--called me with the news. CG was a very successful ophthalmologist and a humble guy. Despite hiving piles of money, CG lived in a modest-but-comfortable home and bought his clothes at Sears. He shared my interest in 20th Century history, and he owned a fish camp at which I enjoyed spending weekends. The family moved to Florida several years ago, in part so CG and his DW could be closer to their Disneyworld. CG grew up impoverished, but he indulged his love of Disney animation later in life, and with ample money to do so. His own reproductions of Disney animation cells were gorgeous in and of themselves.

CG had what I thought was a fun habit of probing for weak points of pride and/or arrogance the first time he met somebody. If he found one, he would poke at it relentlessly for his own amusement. I just laughed as he tried this with me. He didn't find what he was looking for, and we got on just fine.

CG's son MG told me that he realized Friday before last that CG would not leave the hospital alive, in light of his vital signs. So MG prepped CG for the LSU/Arkansas football game by putting an LSU hat on him and dressing him the jersey of a former LSU linebacker/friend of the family (whom I also happened to know) who died at a tragically young age. MG also placed an LSU pennant in CG's hand, and the two watched the game together. CG's vitals would perk up whenever LSU scored, and MG said that his dad "redlined" at the end of the game, which Arkansas won, evidently knocking LSU out of the national title picture. At least he was able to watch his last LSU game in a grand style.

Ironically, LSU may still have a shot at the title. With no. 1 Missouri and no. 2 West Virginia both losing last night, the teams ranked between no. 3 Ohio State and no. 7 LSU all have defects that could see my alma mater leapfrog over them. No. 4 Georgia came in second in the SEC's eastern division, while LSU won the SEC championship game. No. 5 Kansas came in second in the Big 12 northern division, and therefore didn't play for its conference championship. No. 6 Virginia Tech lost to LSU 48-7 earlier in the season. I love the Bowl Championship Series, mostly because it seems to get thrown into chaos every year, despite however much the formula is tweaked to avoid whatever fiasco occurred the previous year.