Archive for February, 2005

The Gates

Sunday, February 27th, 2005

I went to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s huge Central Park installation today. Tomorrow they take it down and I didn’t want to miss it. I had the following three reactions in quick succession while walking through the orange canvas arches:
1) Big effing deal.
2) In sheer quantity and scope, impressive.
3) Bored now.
The best thing about “The Gates” was seeing the hordes of humans who turned out on this beautifully sunny, cold day. It’s nice to see the city drawing so many tourists, and to see so many thousands enjoying the Park.

Book Review: Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2005

Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace recounts in time-shifting chapters the author’s depression, pharmaceutical cure, and subsequent formative experience as a freelance war correspondent reporting from the siege of Sarajevo in 1993-4. The parallel stories are interesting and vividly told. But readers expecting something heavy, along the lines of William Styron’s depression memoir Darkness Visible, will be in for a surprise. Falk’s fast pace, breezy style and sense of humor make this relatively short book a quick and worthwhile read.

John Falk had at least two advantages over many depression sufferers. First, he had a large and supportive family. Second, his mother, having dealt with the illness previously in her family, appreciated his sufferings and tried unceasingly to help. The author’s relatively good luck is the reader’s as well, for it causes his story to shine an unusually clear light on depression’s most insidious aspect: the way it directs the victim to blame himself, to feel his pain and detachment as a personal failing rather than an illness, and to cut himself off from potential sources of help.

I knew I had a big problem… but never once did I think even the word depression. To me, it was the life I was leading, a life in serious need of an overhaul. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t different… It was my fault… I was the one who had built this prison for myself.

And when Prozac helps his sister, he reacts not with hope or even sympathy but with defensive anger:

“Sara, listen to me: I’m not taking any fucking drug… I’m not gonna cheat.” Then in the most obnoxious way I could, I whispered, “Prozac’s for losers.”

Falk’s good at giving the reader a feel for what cannot be expressed in words:

“It’s hard to describe accurately what complete hopelessness feels like because ultimately it’s a perfect void, a state of nothing. There’s nothing at stake. Reason doesn’t apply, logic is useless, and faith is something for fools.

But he’s also adept at reporting on the real world. Not coincidentally, immediately after his rescue by the antidepressant Zoloft he made a beeline for one of the worst places one could be at that time: Sarajevo, a ruined city with a terrified population surrounded by snipers. (Not a bad correlate for a depressive’s brain, actually.) Falk’s depiction of the way Sarajevo’s families tried to continue normal life under hellish conditions – constant danger, no electricity, food shortages – is both heartbreaking and inspiring. In spite of their own hardships, several families took him in, and lasting friendships resulted; Falk eventually helped three young Bosnians escape to attend school in America.

Falk writes with humor:

The highlight of the trip was getting stopped by four Serb soldiers… A little on the pudgy side, they were dressed in purple-and-blue tiger-pattern fatigues that could only have been useful if they were fighting their way across Liberace’s living room.

and with evocative color:

The two [Bosnians] … were scheming together to sneak through the siege lines and make it to London.

“God,” the short one said to me. “Will you look at that. It’s almost pretty in a way, isn’t it?” He was pointing out the window with his Gauloises at the tracer fire I had noticed earlier, only now there were green tracers as well as red arcing across the sky.

“I believe the green are ours,” the tall one said.

But occasionally the language jars, as when Falk refers to a group of young women as “chicks,” or sacrifices grammar for colloquial familiarity: “my inner thighs burned so bad it felt as if I’d just dismounted a Brillo pad.” This inconsistency of tone is a small flaw, however, and doesn’t persist after the first few chapters. A bigger problem is that both stories – Falk’s battle with clinical depression, and his wartime adventures – seem a little sketchy. The Bosnian tales are so interesting (the most dramatic of them became the HBO film “Shot Through the Heart”) that one wishes they’d been told at greater length. And the memoir of illness and recovery, while intense and dramatic, leaves one wishing the author had gone deeper.

Of course, depression is an illness that can leave long stretches of one’s life essentially blank. It may be that we should be grateful for people like Falk who have good enough memories, and write well enough, to even partially convey what the depths of the illness are like. There are so many sufferers who can’t speak for themselves, locked in their own thoughts as they are – or dead of it.

Musical Happenings

Monday, February 21st, 2005

Heard some incredible music from Steve Gorn last night at the Knitting Factory’s Concert for Darfur. Steve’s a master of the bansui, a bamboo flute from India. Accompanied by a second bansui player and the large, droning stringed instument called the tambura (played by a somewhat distractingly beautiful woman, but that’s just me), Steve played a long, late-night raga that sent the audience swooning into clouds of relaxation and beauty. I’m sure glad we didn’t have to follow him on stage; it would have been a jarring transition to Halley DeVestern’s music. Fortunately, Terre Roche was scheduled in between us, and meeting her was something of a thrill since I grew up listening to the The Roches. Her voice was as high and strong as ever.

Our set went extremely well. Maybe this is a non-p.c. thing to say, but I’m beginning to think the key to a really successful Halley DeVestern show is having a few black people in the audience. You New York readers are invited to catch Halley and me with The Hot Button All-Stars at Cornelia St. Cafe this Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 10 PM. (We’re preceded by Little Toby Walker, a wonderful country-blues wizard I’m proud to have in my line-up.)

More on Summers and Women

Friday, February 18th, 2005

Harvard President Lawrence Summers has released the full transcript of his controversial remarks about the paucity of women in tenured positions in science and engineering. A quick reading shows that Summers posited three primary causes of the disparity, as follows in decreasing order of importance: the “high-powered job” hypothesis – that the disproportion comes from choices women make; “availability of aptitude at the high end,” which is the controversial point; and “different socialization and patterns of discrimination.”

The question of aptitude ought to be scientifically testable. What I find more interesting, and surprising, is Summers’s low ranking of socialization. Many of the women I know, from many walks of life, strongly believe that as children they were “socialized” out of – in effect, discouraged from – taking an interest in science and math. And not just older women who one could say were raised in a different era; their discouragement may have taken more active forms than occur today, but passive forms seem to have persisted.

Can these women be wrong? Is this anecdotal evidence leading us astray? I’m finding that very, very difficult to believe.

Another point:

Larry Summers: women may not have the same aptitude as men in certain mental areas. Buffy Summers: The Vampire Slayer. Coincidence?

Less Is Not More

Friday, February 18th, 2005

It will be news only to the very few in my large circle of friends and acquaintances who missed the Whisperado show last night that our drummer David sprained his ankle just before the gig, so Patrick and I performed as a duo.

We did have a little vocal help from the redoubtable Halley DeVestern, who has been the subject of heated discussion on The Velvet Rope this week (but that’s another, albeit probably more interesting story).

I’m sure I learned valuable lessons from having to play our music in unfamiliar circumstances. I’m sure I did. Honest. Really valuable ones. Lessons, I mean. That I learned.

The only thing I really noticed, though, was that my tolerance for alcohol seems to have dropped to virtually nothing. I couldn’t even finish the single beer the bar bought me. My semi-nightly glass of red wine has been throwing me for a loop recently too. Something horrible has happened! This can’t be. This Can’t BEEEEEEEEE……. Halley’s quit drinking for health reasons and now she can’t stand the smell of alcohol on anyone’s breath, including mine. Could I be becoming an involuntary sympathy-teetotaler???

Competitive Bidding: What a Concept!

Wednesday, February 16th, 2005

The MTA’s decision to seek competitive bids for the Hudson Rail Yards undercuts Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for a West Side stadium for the Jets, and puts a damper on the city’s hopes for netting the 2012 Olympics. Maybe I’m just a big contrary grouch for not wanting the Olympics, but many people feel the same way, and opposition to the Jets stadium itself is just common economic sense.

Ironically, it was “common economic sense” on the part of the city’s population that put this Mayor in office. We needed a guy who could handle money matters rationally, and that’s what we got – except, apparently, where sports teams are involved. I don’t know enough about Mayor Bloomberg’s personal history (other than as a businessman) to know for sure, but could this be the revenge of the unathletic nebbish?

Interestingly, both the Jets stadium plan and the one for the Nets in Brooklyn depend upon rail yards. In not entirely unrelated news, President Bush’s budget calls for pulling the rug completely out from under Amtrak. Good thing, too; who needs a high-speed, efficient transportation system that’s not entirely dependent on the oiligopoly and its boy in the White House?

Max Schmeling, German Boxer, Is Dead at 99

Friday, February 4th, 2005

Max Schmeling’s death at the age of 99 conjures up a rainbow of feelings. Joe Louis’s famous knockout of Schmeling occurred in 1938, right around when my parents were born and exactly a generation before I popped into the world. Schmeling was born in 1905, the same year as my grandfather Martin Panzer (whom I seem to resemble in more ways than I could ever have thought).

As a child and teenager in the 1970s I was fascinated by the great heavyweight boxers of the day, the mythic figures Frazier, Foreman, Ali, even Ken Norton and Leon Spinks. The end of my adolescence coincided with the ascendancy of Larry Holmes, a great but boring fighter about whom there was nothing – except for his longevity – remotely mythic. Holmes seemed almost a corporate entity, blandly efficient, compared to the rascals and characters who preceded him. Not until Mike Tyson did character return to the heavyweight arena in a big way, and unfortunately that character was nearly 100% despicable.

I don’t know if heavyweight boxing will ever again be as exciting as it was in the 70s, or during the time of Louis and Schmeling, when the boxers sometimes represented far more than their sport. Maybe these things come in waves. Schmeling’s death doesn’t mark the end of an era – his era ended many decades ago, and how many of us even knew he was still alive? (I didn’t) – but it certainly does make you reflect on how important boxing was to the culture of the whole 20th century – and before – and probably after.