Sunday, February 27, 2011

Doctor Joan Who?

I had one of those dreams which are made of equal parts thought experiment and unconscious chaos. I imagined, or dreamed, of a well known woman in her early fifties. Let’s call her Joan. In this dream/ thought experiment I read a biography of her, which was, I must admit, so thick that I had expected more of it. The book was packed with tiny font type for nearly 1000 pages, but mainly it had nearly no personal details about what Joan was like. It was more a detailed and annotated account of her accomplishments, which is why despite its vastness; I could fill in the emotional blanks that the author left out. Since Joan is the invention of my imagination, I will not bore you with the same monotonous 1000 pages, but instead, just bullet points of a few milestones in her 52 year old life.

1.       Her Birth was not so exceptional, so I am not sure why I am including it, but she was born around the summer solstice of 1960, though that makes no difference to anything. Sorry.
2.       She learned to read at 3, and by the age of 5 had snuck a copy of that long Victor Hugo book about the history of world off of the shelf of her Francophile parents, and unlike even her parents, she read it, which was to shape her worldview by skewing it towards unrealistic dreams of empirical grandeur.
3.       At 6 she admitted to being able to read, but only “Ted and Jane” stories. Her parents quickly ordered a subscription to “Lisette”, which was a French children’s magazine, in French. Rather than going back to that long Hugo book to read in the original French rather than in translation, she chose the only French language book she could find in the living room, “Madame Bovary”. Why the author of the biography did not dig deeper into the long term psychological effects of numbers 2 and 3, I do not know.
4.    Her mathematical and musical abilities formed at around the same time, (also age 6) leading legions of unmathematical and unmusical people to make that tired argument, that music and math are the same thing, which I personally have never understood. This could of course be due to my own lack of ability to do either with the prodigiousness of Joan. Anyway, she played the usual Bach “Well Tempered Clavier”, but preferred to do improvisational deconstructions of Elvis Presley hit songs. Mathematically she learned arithmetic, but found it boring. She again sought out the library of her academic parents and found a book on linear algebra, where she succeeded in conquering  2 dimensional matrices nearly immediately, and moved on to the 3 dimensional variety, at this young age when most children didn’t even know there were 3 spatial dimensions. As a sidenote, but of relevance here, she later admitted that she did suspect even at that time that it was possible that there were other dimensions than the 3 spatial ones we were familiar with, but that they must be too small for us to see. This would mean that her mathematical intuition predated string theory by nearly 20 years, but who would have listened to such ramblings from a 6 year old?
5.    In high school, the enormity of her intellect was still mostly unknown, though she had shared it with one person, a boy, which the book only describes as average, but makes me (both the me of my dream, and the me reading the bio) suspicious, as I see no reason for an exceptional person such as Joan  to share her secret genius with an average person. As another sidenote this may be exactly what an exceptional person does which is why exceptional people are so hard to relate to, or so my thinking goes at this point in the biography, and actually at this point in this story.
6.       At age 21 Joan had the only extreme normal excess decadence recorded in all 1000 pages, which strikes me as strange for 2 reasons. First why she would be so normal as to celebrate such a common birthday with such a common thing as beer keg parties and shots of gin, but also because as my thinking goes, 21 wasn’t really 21 for Joan. I justify this as a calculation similar to the way people calculate dog years, though maybe not for the same reason. The dog year’s thing is depressing when you actually think about it. It is a way for children, and I guess all of us who love dogs, to justify their demise. Like that one year of the dog’s life was really worth 7 of ours. Which is also curious, as this would lead to me to wonder whether that means that it is actually the dog that is living the full life, as it takes us 7 years to do what we should be doing in 1 year.
7.       At age 21.5 Joan makes the major decision in her life which she is now famous for.  Famous is over stating it of course, but for which she is most well known amongst those who know of her at all. She decides that despite her deity like ability to do anything, she was going to use her skills in a place where it was most needed, and that was going to take her on a long journey across the ocean from her native Westchester County to London England. When in London she followed in a long history of European women of intellectual import, and changed her name to the masculine Georges, and though she was indeed in England she kept the French spelling in honor of her Francophile parents who were Stateside locked deeply  in the confines of tenure professorships, never to leave for the promised old world.
8.       Between the ages of 21.5 and 36 she went from hope to despair and back again, with a number of survival jobs, while she tried to find an approach to that ultimate release of her mind and body. Of her jobs, she was able to make enough of a living wage to move into a rather nice flat near Piccadilly Circus, by having a busker show where she calculated the day of the week each passerby was born on simply by knowing their birthdays.
9.       At the age of 36 she was finally approached by the BBC, for the very purpose she had emigrated for, and suffered all of those years. That is, she was asked to be a writer on the BBC show “Doctor Who”.
10.   Despite the 10 years between the old series and the new, Joan/Georges was able to use her “Doctor Who” knowledge and her own genius to predict everything from hurricane Katrina to the upset victory of the Red Sox in the 2003 World Series, though at the time, she kept this information in the confines of an anonymous blog,(yes predating the widespread use of blogs by 3 years) by the name of quantumfluxgirl. She is now happily back at work on the 6th season of the new series.

Monday, February 7, 2011

How I Came to Hate Oprah

I did something that even as contrarian and controversial as I can be at times, I was embarrassed by. I wrote a comment on a website that I like very much called Black Art In America, where I criticized a perfectly talented and well intentioned artist who had organized a commemorative book of art for Oprah Winfrey. I did this with the following comment, among others “Oprah succeeds based on a basic and I believe dangerous delusion that fame and riches (or even happiness) can be achieved through magical thinking, like that which is promoted from books like the "Secret". This is relevant to artists, as the success of an artist would appear to be in the sole power of the artists' thoughts. This discounts so much of the great art that has not made the artist rich and famous, or even happy. “

After being spanked by many members of the website community, and even my friends for insensitivity, I was asked by a very close friend if any of this has changed my mind on Oprah, and I had to reply no. What it has done though is to make me think about myself a bit more, not likely the goal of the creators of this book.  Would the sensitive Oprah crowd want to see a vehement Oprah hater turned into a narcissist? Though it is nothing to be proud of, that is indeed what has happened.

Oprah represents more to me than I think I have let on in my blogging blasts of her, or my family fights with my Oprah adoring mom around the Thanksgiving day table. It  actually goes back to high school for me, where like most adolescents, my ideas emerged from intuition into full fledged viewpoints. Oprah’s show was new when I was in high school, and though I am of a different generation than Oprah, her show was aiming in many ways to find its identity as I was aiming at discovering my own. I have looked through some of those early season topics and can understand why every day in the Winter (as the Fall and Spring I was going to Cross Country and Track Practice) I would curl up on the sofa and watch Oprah at 4:00. Titles like “Trouble Getting a Date?”, or more provocatively “Snobby, overbearing, or just plain hard to deal with...Rude, obnoxious people turn off their friends”. I had both of these issues as a teenager, as many teenagers do. To hear an adult have a serious forum to discuss those issues legitimized my anxieties. There is no wonder that my generation has helped to make Oprah a billionaire. She was there for us when we needed her.

In the Television business when a television drama has lost its original intention it is said to have “jumped the shark”. Examples of this can be seen everywhere from “House” dating Cutty, to “Chuck” hooking up with the pretty FBI girl. This is why HBO and Showtime remain so good. They never Jump the Shark. In the “Sopranos” Tony never leaves the mafia. In the “Wire” drug dealers still kill, and cops still get drunk and drive around town hurling Bourbon bottles from their cruisers. Oprah on the other hand was not happy with connecting to us anxious, but rather normal rational people. Instead she jumped the shark in the most flagrant of ways. She started moralizing. She grew a heart, but that heart was so bogged down by superstition, and a realization that her every word would be followed, that the show became a religion. The problem in my view came in 1998 when she made an announcement that she would de-tabloid  her show. This is not such a bad thing, but instead of de-tabloidization she created a new type of sensation, which I would call pseudoscientification.  Oprah became the equivalent of L. Ron Hubbard who went from writing sci-fi novels to founding Scientology. America followed her down that path, and they enriched her along the way. By 2000 she had fermented her spiritual quest, and that evangelism became the focus of her career. The Wall Street Journal called this effect" Oprahfication", and explained that Oprah had embraced a public form a therapy.

What I hadn’t realized is that what she also did but jumping the shark, is left the rest of us in a tank full of piranhas. She had perfected a type of TV, but when she left to become a cult icon, we were left first with Jerry Springer, and then a myriad of reality show hell. There was no room for a 16 year old sitting on the sofa listening to honest, and interesting people talk about not being able to get a date. Instead it is now Oprah telling the world how to find an elusive inner being. Or giving credit to that now proven fraudulent anti-vaccine movement. Or Oprah guiding a delusion of free will and personal success, while the viewers are growing in frustration with their own unresolved lives. Perhaps this is why I am so anti-Oprah. She has left a void where there was simple questioning of normal issues to a disaster of false hope and naivety. That said “Skins” did not exist on MTV when I was 16, so perhaps I would have had something to watch after all.

Thinking of Oprahfication as a new cultural norm has become an excuse for me, and by its very popularity made me an elitist. It is tempting to think that this was not the case.  Oprah programming of old was mainstream programming. Still it is not those early programs but the extremity of Oprah's success and popularity in the days since that separates me from large portions of American society. In fact, tracing my own personal development I can start in 1991 when Oprah had the dating, and fighting friends episodes and watch as my life has unfolded in direct opposition to hers. Of course she has become a billionaire, but that is only the most obvious of the divergences. The greater one is a move away from banality towards two opposing, yet strongly profound world views that separate my psyche from an Oprah psyche more than politics, class or even religion.

Aging is of course different for everyone, but the struggles of acknowledging physical limitations, and how we deal with illness and fear is what may be the biggest divide in the Oprah worldview, and in my own. Like most people I have faced sickness, and tragedy, to a greater extent than some, but to a much lesser extent than others, Oprah included, who suffered so greatly as a child that I can’t even fathom the pain and repercussions. Still, these sicknesses and anxieties have shaped me, as I am sure her suffering has her. The difference is that for her they have given her a belief that everyone has a power that extends beyond themselves. For me, I am everyday humbled by the opposite. I am humbled by the fact that I am powerless, yet still loved and alive. I don’t need an inner strength, or a strength from God. This is where Oprah’s world and mine differ. We both want to conquer fear and mortality, but I think that the only hope comes through physics and material action, she believes it comes from spiritual and supernatural strength. These views are so different that they are a line in the sand of existence, which Oprah herself has helped to draw, and I am happy to take my place on the other side.

I titled this blog, “How I came to hate Oprah”. This is meant to be provocative, and a little ridiculous. There is no reason for me to hate Oprah, and I don’t. She is clearly a deeply sensitive and caring person. Maybe a better title would have been “How I came to hate Oprahfication”, but that is too sociological, and not personal enough. So in retrospect I think the best title should be “How I came to know myself in the age of Oprah.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Designing my Epiphany

By Karen Starr
There is a design department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This is not recent news, as it has been a department since 1943, yet for some of us it has taken years to seamlessly move from VanGogh to Stickily. This for me is even the same within my own home, where I tend to nearly universally ignore design, while embracing art. I have contemporary art and Chagall, all on boring white walls, with a range of furniture bought from Ikea, Sears and Jennifer Convertibles. I don’t take pride in this, or even consider it a grand aesthetic choice. I like nice furniture, but for the price of that nice furniture I could buy a painting by a young artist that I admire. For me that choice has always been easy to make. When my long, long long time friend Karen Starr started her business, I began to change the way I thought. Suddenly it was possible for me to think about both design and art, without necessarily a compromise on either. I have done nothing about this, because I tend to over analyze the decision. Last week when I visited Hazel Tree, Karen's business, I had a bit of a catharsis in regards to design as not only an aesthetic choice, but also an environmental and sociological statement. Karen’s site explains this clearly so often that I must have been especially thick to not have recognized it’s point. I think though that it came, like so many things, from a convergence of momentary experiences.

I have worked for many years in industries that have questionable reputations. For instance I have worked with, and teach polymer technologies. That is plastics and rubber, which we all know have a detrimental impact on our environment. I have justified my involvement as I work on research and on instrumentation that can make these products better, and on educating students who can come up with newer and more sustainable ideas. At the same time I have rejected recycling as a useful solution for a world with too much plastic. I have said that small moves like recycling can do one of two things. They can make people feel like they are being productive, when they are really doing very little. This is not so terrible, but feels a bit like we as a society are lying to ourselves. The larger problem is when recycling actually does more harm than good, such as paper recycling in rural areas. The carbon footprint of the recycling process is larger than the that of using new paper. So knowing all of this, I have had to think of ways in which a future of polymer manufacturing, and new polymer products will result in a net gain for society, both in life style and environmentally.

After visiting Hazel Tree and after speaking extensively with Karen, I realized that our goals were not only similar in an abstract way, but even symbiotic. After all, furniture is made of materials, and the use of those materials is not insignificant. Karen has done something which is very different from recycling, which is reusing. I don't like antiques or old things in general, so I have not been attracted by them, even though they broadly fall into the category of reused. What Karen does is to re-imagine and revive while reusing. This is the type of system that benefits society and the environment and serves as an inspiration to me. Before long I will have a lab where we reuse old concepts and materials, and a house with redesigned,  and finally beautiful furniture.