Wednesday, December 10, 2008

O Those American Values

I recently watched two documentaries: “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Bigger, Stronger, Faster.”

I selected “Taxi to the Dark Side” from Netflix because, based on the blurb, I thought it would be an examination of the U.S. government’s approach to torture. No, it was the typical bash Bush (George W.), young American soldiers are sheep - although one soldier admitted to kicking a detainee so many times that he had to switch legs - who should not be held responsible for their actions, detainee treatment on Gitmo is so terrible, etc. (I found the section on torture as ‘violation of cultural sensitivities’ especially hilarious.) For all that was oh-so-typical about this treatment on the subject of recent government actions, there is something that I always find shocking from both the left and the right: the expectation that the U.S. government just wouldn’t do such things. After all, it doesn’t fit with American values.

The climax of the film is how the false information al-Libi gave to interrogators created a cause for the invasion of Iraq. For those who don’t remember, he was the prisoner who claimed that Iraq was training al Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical weapons, the evidence that Powell provided to the UN in 2003 to justify the war on Iraq. The filmmakers conveniently underplay the fact that al-Libi was handed over by the CIA to Egyptian authorities to get that confession. In other words, they got the false confession the old-fashioned American way: not through some Bush administration redefinition of torture, but through handing him off to a foreign government that uses even more aggressive tactics to get info. Since I was once such a good member of Amnesty International (tongue firmly planted in cheek), I know that the outsourcing of torture is standard American practice, has been since early Cold War days. At least the Bush administration may have, in other cases, showed advancements in the American values of doing the job yourself and showing some personal responsibility.

But for the filmmakers, providing the actual facts could also expose the truth: the American government has always been willing to get its hands dirty in one way or another. After all, hasn’t Chile thanked us for Pinochet? Isn’t this the federal government that refused to do anything about terrorism against its own citizens – as long as it was done by other citizens - for over 100 years? Why in the world do we think this country is some type of moral entity that always acts in the good? It’s almost as if some have traded in belief in God for belief in this otherworldly America. I’m not as cynical as it may seem here, simply because I believe that government is usually just that – government. A neutral body, possessing no inherent morality, that functions to do the will of whomever is in charge of it. In a democracy, it then becomes a question of – why don’t those in power think exactly the same way I do? Well, because they are usually not exactly like you.

A much more fascinating perspective on those things called American values was presented in “Bigger, Stronger, Faster.” This documentary is a bit Michael Moore-style, with the filmmaker beginning by presenting his family portrait: three brothers raised on WWF wrestling in the age of Rambo, Rocky, and Schwarzenegger, who all become weight-lifters, body-builders, or wrestlers. Two of the three also end up as frequent steroid users.

But is steroid use really such a bad thing? Is it actually so much more dangerous than other prescribed drugs? The medical community says no. Most people who use steroids do so for medical reasons, and its use should not be recommended for adolescents (see East German athletes), but the incidence of complications from steroid use are surprisingly low, considering how vilified it is. As the filmmaker makes clear, our problem with steroid use among athletes is that is violates our sense of fairness in competition. Yet Olympic athletes train in high altitude conditions and cyclists sleep in chambers with lower-than-normal oxygen levels. In other words, athletes are poked, prodded, and trained with some of the highest technology available to insure maximum performance and all that is perfectly fine as long as they don’t consume one of the drugs that some committee has decided to ban, though they may consume a number of other drugs designed to increase performance. We don’t really think that Michael Phelps got all those medals by just swimming a lot of laps in some backyard pool, do we? And yet the use of specially designed material that reduces friction in the water and slightly increases buoyancy for swimming gear is A-ok.

There’s more to this documentary: how easy it is to make, advertise, and sell OTC herbal supplements and claim anything you want about what’s in them and what they do, since they aren’t tested by the FDA (we have Orrin Hatch, Utah senator to thank for that – I hope the Vikings’ Williamses and Deuce and Will Grant are harassing him right now). I learned a bit more about the weight-lifting and professional wrestling businesses than I knew previously, too. The principal focus however is how we have a “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” culture, and yet we want to admonish those who will do anything to win if it involved taking some pill, even though that pill’s only real benefits are to allow them to train harder, recover faster, and resume training more quickly. Their bodies still have to do all the hard work.

We have this idea of the Western frontier man, a John Wayne type, accomplishing what he does through hard work and grit alone. But he’s not an American hero unless he wins. Maybe the Bush administration was just old-fashioned. If the filmmakers of “Taxi to the Dark Side” are going to give a pass to soldiers violently beating up detainees because they were brainwashed by the military culture under the Bush administration, I’m going to give Bush and pals a pass for similar reasons: they were brainwashed by American culture.

P.S. I enjoyed watching the first documentary if only to see clips from Rummy’s press conferences again. He had a true gift for the one-liners and pithy comments.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Fries on the Brain

One of the challenges in studying learning and behavior is uncovering the neurobiological mechanisms that separate goal-oriented behaviors into those that provide a primary reinforcer (by satisfying a basic drive, such as the one for food or sex) and those that provide some as-yet-unknown experience linked to a primary reinforcer (cues). For example, an animal that has learned to associate food with a tone will work for the tone, even if no food (the primary reinforcer) is provided.

The ability of these cues to drive behaviors is not fully understood, although cues play a large role in the maintenance of many behaviors, including maladaptive ones such as addiction. How do we learn to work for money (and that the cue - money - will help us satisfy our more basic drives), or in the case of negative reinforcement, why does a yellow light turning red as we drive through it strike a tad bit of fear in us? These situations involve a complex series of associations that are in part linked to our biological survival.

The following sections from a recent Nature article summarize some new findings.

From John Whitfield’s article “The Essence of Happiness” in

Burke, K. A. , Franz, T. M. , Miller, D. N. & Schoenbaum, G. Nature advance online publication, doi:10.1038/nature06993 (18 June 2008).

Separating the cognitive (goal-oriented) and general (emotional) systems is difficult, because achieving your goal makes you feel happy. Schoenbaum and his colleagues achieved it by using an ingenious variation on classical pavlovian conditioning.

First, the researchers taught rats to associate one light with a grape-flavoured sucrose pellet, and a different light with a banana-flavoured pellet. Such conditioning makes the lights gratifying on their own — animals will work to experience the cue, even if they don't get a pellet.

Then, the team played sounds along with the lights. The 'grape' light with a sound still delivered a grape pellet. In this situation, animals tend to ignore the extra information and do not learn to associate the sound with food.

But the 'banana' light plus a sound led to a different reward – a grape-flavoured pellet. So in this case, the sound adds information. The light means something nice is coming and the sound tells you what flavour it will be.

Rats like the two flavours equally, so the sound says nothing about the treat's value, only its details.

The team next tested the rats on sounds and lights alone. The animals, they found, will press a bar to obtain either the light or the sound on its own, even if no food pellet follows on. The generalized reward of the treat and the abstract property of its flavour were equally strong motivations.

But rats with damage to an area of their brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which is thought to be involved in decision-making, would work to see the treat-associated light, but not to hear the grape-associated sound. That is, they will work for a cue associated with positive emotions, but not one linked only to a specific outcome.

It's a bit like separating Homer Simpson's "Mmm… donuts", into a generalized expression of pleasure ("Mmm"), and the specific object of his desire (the "donuts"), and working out the brain regions responsible for each thought.

Schoenbaum suggests that the orbitofrontal cortex, which lies at the front of the brain, just above the eyes, is the home of the brain's cognitive reward system. It acts as a forecaster, predicting the value of different behaviours, learns which ones are ultimately rewarding, and triggers a corresponding emotional response.

Normally the two systems will give the same 'answer'. But the orbitofrontal cortex could also act as a kind of policeman, says Schoenbaum, diverting the pursuit of immediate gratification in favour of longer-term goals.

(The picture of fries is a cue, although I don't think it's sufficiently satisfying.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Our Lady, the Jealous Bride?

Now man, have mind on me forever
Look on thy love thus languishing;
Let us never from other disserver...
Take me for thy wife and learn to sing...
(The Virgin in a poem from the 14th century)

Giovanni di Paolo, Coronation of the Virgin, c 1455

One of the more interesting aspects of Marina Warner's Alone of All her Sex is the evidence she has found for devotions to the Virgin that became repressed during and after the Counter-Reformation. There is the repression of the devotion to the Madonna of Mercy and the Madonna's Milk; the traditional image of the conception of the Virgin when Sts. Joachim and Anne meet at the Golden Gate is banned in the 17th century. Especially interesting is the devotion to the Virgin as the bride of clerics and celibate men. According to Warner, this portrayal probably developed from the turn of the troubadours to more religious themes, and the Virgin as the "Highest Lady." There are images of her (both in painting and literature) placing a wedding ring on a young man's hand to indicate that she is his bride. Even more amusing and fascinating are accounts of the Virgin as a haughty, jealous bride who holds herself higher than all other women and who demands vengeance on any young man who would dare to spurn her for an earthly lover.

From Warner's book (pp 156-7):

In one of the fourteenth-century
Miracles de Notre Dame par Personnages, a young canon who had promised to serve the Virgin forever is told by his uncle that he has inherited a great fortune and must marry a girl his uncle has chosen. He remonstrates that he wants to take orders and serve Dieu et nostre dame but the girl turns out to be a paragon of weath, connections, and beauty. He gives in. On his wedding night, the Virgin summons John the evangelist and several angels, and in the haughty tone of a severely vexed suzerain announces she has some business on earth with [the young man].

How can this be, since I am who I am,
That you are leaving me for another woman?
It seems you're badly underrating
My worth and my beauty...
You must be drunk
To give your whole heart and all your love
To a woman of this earth?
And to leave me, the Lady
Of Heaven? Tell me true, where is the woman
With greater goodness and beauty than I?

She tells the cleric that since he has been unfaithful, he shall burn for it in hell. [The young cleric runs away, and his family finds this letter the following morning, that the Virgin was]

So jealous
Of him because she had made him a bed in heaven,
And he had unmade it by his great crime.

The young wife follows her husband and becomes a nun; the Virgin appears and takes the hero with her to heaven.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tiny moon Janus, seen before Saturn's rings, with massive moon Titan beyond. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech,

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Our Lady, the Bride of Christ

Coronation in Santa Maria in Trastevere
The Bride of Christ

Leva eius sub capite meo et dextera illius amplexabit me
Veni electa mea, ponam in te thronum meam
(Our Lady: His left hand should be under my head, and his right hand should embrace me)
(Our Lord: Come my chosen one, I shall place thee on my throne)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

God and Woman: The Annunciation

Correggio, c 1522-25 (drawing for fresco now faded)
Titian, c 1555-62

gods and Mortal Women: Danae

Correggio, c 1531
Titian, c 1545

Titian, c 1554

gods and Mortal Women: Io

Correggio, c 1532

Thursday, March 6, 2008

ID and science

To briefly continue a thought from here:
The second problem is that definition: what is science? Our current definition of science is quite narrow compared to all that ‘science’ was thought to encompass from the ancient world through the Renaissance. Our current definition of science involves examining mechanisms in a closed system. By way of crude analogy (that A.V. came up with), if a man brings a modern scientist a car and tells him that something is wrong with the brakes, the modern scientist will test out the brakes, examine the car, examine the brake pads, check the brake fluid, etc. If this man is coming in every week telling the modern scientist that something is wrong with the brakes, the scientist will continue doing the same tests to try to fix the brakes. The modern scientist will not begin to wonder if perhaps the man is a reckless driver with anger management issues who repeatedly hits the accelerator and then slams on his brakes during the drive home. The modern scientist makes the assumption that the answers are “in here” – under the hood of the car – and not “out there”–something is wrong with the driver. (Actually, most scientists would eventually begin to wonder if user error was the problem, which is where the analogy falls apart, but I think you can get the picture.) There is no room to teach ID or creationism in a science classroom – they are not science, as it is currently defined. Now if we were to expand the definition of science (and the tools science uses), it might be possible to teach these things as competing “theories.” (Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, after all, were both astronomers and Neoplatonists, without conflict, where the one informed the other.) But that would involve a larger debate about science, education, and our general philosophical approaches.

When the proponents of ID demand that it be taught in the science classroom, they concede to modern science all the points that matter: modern science, instead of being one way of knowing about some components of our universe, is the best way of knowing; truth can only be uncovered through empiricism, naturalism is the only correct philosophical approach. Most discussions by ID proponents don’t revolve around the problems of naturalism as a philosophical approach, but are instead attempts to say that ID should be included by association with naturalism, the rules of modern science. And that’s affirming that the philosophy behind modern science has superiority above all others for understanding truth.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Day with the Rosicrucians

Or not quite.

This past Saturday, A.V. and I visited the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and Planetarium in San Jose. The complex also features a peace garden, a temple, a meeting hall, and an outdoor reflection area that only Rosicrucian members are supposed to enter. (A.V. entered anyway and enjoyed standing under an Egyptian-inspired pavilion surrounded by bamboo. He also used to read the books in “hell.”)

The museum, which boasts "the largest collection of Egyptian-inspired artifacts in the Western U.S.," really does have quite an assortment of ancient Egyptian articles and reproductions. Especially well-done, though a bit old, were the models they had of the Temple of Karnak, a typical ancient Egyptian community, the Djoser step pyramid, and others; they also have a life-size walk-through Egyptian tomb. There were a number of unique voice-over exhibits: one featured an Egyptian birthing room and explained the customs and traditions for pregnant Egyptian women and their newborns (women in Egypt gave birth while standing and crouching with their feet on top of bricks); Akhenaten had an entire room dedicated to explaining his own religious views. Indeed, there was a lot of "explaining" throughout the museum: one could pick up papers in each room that provided more complete explanations of each exhibit in the room. Of course, I am way too smart and a veritable expert on ancient Egypt so I didn't bother doing that, but it was great to have the extra information available (it also made the museum extra kid-friendly, as the kids could even stamp their paper 'museum pass' in each room). The actual artifacts themselves weren't the most impressive I've seen, but the museum as a whole, though small and a teensy bit cramped-feeling – or maybe that was my aversion to all the children running around – was well done and a bargain for the price ($9 for adults) since the planetarium show was free. There was also an additional traveling exhibit on pollination and the importance of bees with lovely photographs of bees in various positions on flower petals, and scent boxes in case one wanted a strong whiff of lavender or vanilla.

I must also praise the gift shop – if you have ever yearned for a 5 inch statue of Anubis, or for one of those foot long reproductions of an Egyptian raft on the Nile complete with two dolls of ancient Egyptians inside – this is the place for you. These made in China figurines were the cheapest I've ever seen them. Less than $20 for a 9 inch tall statue of the goddess Bastet, and the faux gold paint job was still well done. (A.V. was delighted with the three-selection penny smasher.)

The real highlight was the 35-minute planetarium show - “The Mithraic Mysteries.” Anyone who has watched a documentary special on the nativity of Jesus knows that (ahem) December 25th was chosen as the birthday of the Messiah to coincide (ahem) with the celebration for Sol Invictus, a possible title for Mithras, not to be confused with the Persian god Mithra, who also, according to all those documentaries, bears an eerie resemblance to Jesus in his origin, life, and death. Mithraism (surrounding Mithras, who according to most recent scholarship was not directly related to Mithra) was a mystery religion especially popular among Roman soldiers; all that really remains is their iconography. The most famous example, the tauroctony, was the subject of the planetarium show. Derived from David Ulansey’s book, the show explains that the tauroctony may have had astronomical meanings – Mithras is actually Perseus, complete with Phrygian cap, gazing away from the bull (Taurus) that he kills beneath him. The other symbols – the dog (Canis Minor), scorpion (Scorpio), bird (Corvus), and snake (Hydra) likewise have their constellation counterparts. The two boys often featured on the sides, one with torch held up, the other with torch held down, correspond to the crossing of the sun through the celestial equator. Why would they depict the night sky in such a way? According to Ulansey, Mithraism developed in the first century B.C. in Asia Minor, shortly after the discovery by Greek astronomer Hipparchus of precession – the change in direction in the axis of the earth that most obviously causes our “North Star” to change over thousands of years, but also causes the celestial equator to cross the zodiac at a different location during the spring and fall equinoxes every couple thousand years. At the time of his discovery, however, it was believed that the earth was fixed, with various arcs and celestial spheres moving around it. Hipparchus had therefore discovered a new ‘force’ that moved the spheres around the earth, a force that may have been associated with Plato’s 'hypercosmic sun' existing outside the known universe. The tauroctony depicts the constellations that the celestial equator passed through during the Age of Taurus, about 5000 years ago. (The representations in the constellations most likely had additional meanings that played a part in the beliefs about the world and the rituals that believers performed.)

It’s a bit amusing to speculate that the participants in the Mithraic cult were actually worshipping precession, the silly pagans. But it also shows the spread and importance of the Platonic belief that the soul would descend at birth, and ascend at death, through the heavenly spheres to the One that exists outside of creation, and provides clues as to why Christianity may have been seen as especially attractive to converts.

We didn't get into any conversations with Rosicrucians, unfortunately. We did pick up their nice brochure, and peruse the books in the gift shop - nothing quite like books by 20th century mystics about the secret mysteries of Christ! - but the Rosicrucians got to keep their own mysteries.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Saturday, February 16, 2008

St. Mary's Vocation Boom

From an article in the National Catholic Reporter; I attended St. Mary's during my four years at Texas A&M:

St. Mary's Catholic Center at Texas A&M University is among the biggest and most dynamic campus ministry programs in the country. It's a vocations powerhouse, having produced 112 priests and religious so far, with 39 more Aggie alums currently in formation. Each year the center averages 8-10 vocations to the priesthood and religious life; last year's total was 16. By itself, St. Mary's therefore generates more vocations than many dioceses. The center's six weekend Masses regularly draw around 4,000 students. (Roughly 25 percent of A&M's student population of 45,000 is Catholic.) Konderla says that the unique ethos of A&M -- drawing students from rural, intensely religious parts of Texas -- is part of this picture. Paul Holub, a 22-year-old health education major who's considering a vocation to the priesthood, told me that it's not uncommon for Catholic and Evangelical undergrads to get "sidetracked" during study sessions talking about their faith -- pivoting especially, he said, on what it means to be "saved."

Friday, February 15, 2008

State Ballet of Georgia, Artistic Director Nina Ananiashvili

Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, February 14, 2008

Only recently have prima ballerinas become artistic directors of ballet companies. While there have been women in charge of ballet companies - Lucia Chase of ABT and Ninette de Valois of The Royal Ballet (British), who both had undistinguished careers as dancers – to have one of the greats, and much less one still dancing, directing a state-funded ballet company is quite novel. In interviews, Nina Ananiashvili* has stated how important it was to her, after the civil war in her home state of Georgia ended in 2004, to be involved in the rebuilding of the arts there. Her task has been made more difficult by Russian policies and covert efforts to target and harass ethnic minorities including Georgians in the Russian Federation, disrupting both the lives of native Georgian dancers there, and affecting performances opportunities for Georgian dancers (the company had to cancel performances in Russia nearly two years ago).

Nevertheless, Ms. Ananiashvili has taken her company on their first American tour (Berkeley, is the first stop, followed by trips to Los Angeles and New York). I attended the mixed bill program featuring:

George Balanchine’s Chaconne (music by Gluck)

Balanchine’s Duo Concertant (music by Stravinsky)

Alexei Ratmansky’s Bizet Variations (music by Bizet)

Yuri Possokov’s Sagalobeli (traditional Georgian music)

Overall company impressions, brilliantly shown in the opening Chaconne – the women are thin, but not the willowy, long-limbed variety that’s currently (over) bred at the Kirov and Paris Opera Ballet. They have the famous Russian backs – the gentle arch in the back, creating S-shapes from head through center through hips and legs, and the heads are thrust a bit more forward than I would like, but there is also a great deal of enjoyment in seeing a corps de ballet that seems to share the same training. The coordination of head, body, arms, and legs are similar throughout the company, lending a welcome uniformity (especially since I’ve recently seen corps work from Miami City Ballet, ABT, and the Joffrey Ballet, in whom, to me, the diversity in the training of the dancers was at times distractingly strong). The men tend to be big, with wide torsos and wide thighs. At first I enjoyed this aspect – most of the popular male dancers today tend to be tall and long-legged like their female counterparts, sometimes looking a bit overstretched, or they are short powerhouses. It was wonderful to see men of the type that comfortably danced danseur noble roles in the Soviet era. But the men here don’t use their physical size to maximum effect. They don’t move big, those wide thighs don’t translate into power, and they suffer from the slowness that larger bodies can often have (they suffer even more from unpointed feet). In many ways, Balanchine’s classicism in Chaconne was an ideal way to challenge those bodies, and make them work their technique, and I admire Ms. Ananiashvili’s decision to challenge her company in this way. Her own explanation for the inclusion of two Balanchine pieces was that Balanchine, though not native-born (he had never even been there prior to NYCB’s tour to the Soviet Union in 1963) was half Georgian through his father Meliton Balanchivadze, and he self-identified as Georgian, not Russian. This was a very clever reminder of the contributions of this tiny state to the world of art. (Though not in the program notes, the company was co-founded by George's brother, composer Andrei Balanchivadze, in 1935.)

Chaconne (originally choreographed by Balanchine for the Paris Opera in 1963 to music of Gluck’s opera “Orphee et Euridice” and re-choreographed in 1976 for his own New York City Ballet) begins with nine women garbed in flowing dresses, with their hair flowing down their backs, softly bourreeing around the stage, tilting their heads and arms. The location is Elysium, and the narrative is blessed spirits walking amongst the clouds. (Indeed, much of the dancing, even when we re-join the cast back on earth, focuses on ways of walking.) As the nine women slowly glide off-stage, a man and woman appear, circle each other, and then begin to test out the cloud-covered ground. To the extended flute solo, he helps her swoop, hover, and swim in the clouds. Anna Muradeli and Vasil Akhmeteli were the dancers here. Ms. Muradeli is a beautiful woman, and adagio is her range. Whereas Suzanne Farrell, the originator of the role for NYCB, conveyed a certain sadness and longing, Ms. Muradeli conveyed a sublime ecstasy in her walk in the clouds. Akhmeteli holds her in arabesque in his arms, and while she swims in the air, he walks her off the stage. A lovely beginning. (Ms. Farrell and Peter Martins can be seen here dancing the part.)

Suddenly we are out of the clouds and planted on terra firma at court. After a brief prelude featuring enjoyable dancing from the corps de ballet, a trio enter (Rusudan Kvistsiani, Ekaterine Chubinidze, Otar Khelashvili) to perform a little court dance – the women display their delicate footwork while the man dances behind, miming the playing of a lute. Here, the man lagged behind the women in his footwork and jumps, marring the image. Next comes a short dance for 5 women, and then a fast, athletic pas de deux (danced here by Tsisia Cholokashvili and David Khozashvili). Ms. Cholokashvili was an exuberant bounding ball of energy while still maintaining elegance of line. Khozashvili had a near major mishap in partnering, but overall did admirably well – she was so sprite it hardly looked like she could be caught. Finally, the king and queen (or consort and queen, as Balanchine probably would have described it) enter their earthly realm. Whereas in heaven her feet gently tested the clouds and then glided above them, here they stab at the ground to sharp accents in the music. He alternates between soaring (grand jetes) and small beats of the legs (entrechats, brises), indicating his own mastery of ground and air. And here is where our two principals started to falter. I didn’t expect Ms. Muradeli to have the same massive power and sweep of the legs and voluminous plush in movement of the hips and thighs that Ms. Farrell did (those were defining features of Ms. Farrell in action), but she should have been able to find her own wit. The pas de deux and variations are about the contrast between big and small, sweep and filigree. The ballerina role requires power and delicacy simultaneously (being able to hurl a leg like a thunderbolt - as Croce wrote of Farrell’s abilities - and then gently, with no loss of control, present it to the ground like a Lipizzaner). Ms. Muradeli couldn’t stay with the music (already at a ridiculously slow tempo to accommodate Akhmeteli), nor did she seem to be listening to the music enough to hear that she needs to move her feet strongly down on the beat in those soutenu turns and emphazise the swizzle effect – it’s in the music. Indeed, if she had poured less concentration into getting through the steps and more to following the musical cues/clues, she would have had an easier time of it. An easy time was certainly not in the cards for her partner, however. Even with a tempo slower than molasses he was straining to complete the steps, and was consistently off beat. He was working hard, very hard, and after awhile, one had to admire the fact that he was making a concerted effort NOT to sacrifice the steps, and not to take the easy way out by just smudging everything together (there was little else in his variations to admire other than his mostly quiet landings). Catch Ms. Farrell and Martins dancing this part here, and imagine the tempo for the variations decreased by about HALF, to LESS than the tempo for the pas de deux that begins the section. The sense of the dancers creating a whirlwind that they have complete control over was lost, and the final chaconne suffered accordingly – the ballerina had never established herself in her realm. Ms. Muradeli seemed to think she could get by with her prettiness and flirty looks and smiles at the audience (quite a contrast from Ms. Farrell’s impassivity), but there was no cohesion among the parts here. Also breaking my own mood was the look of the women’s dresses – on top, they had an odd circles and spiral effect that was mostly in pale blue, with a large white cutout below the right breast that extended around the side. In summary, they looked like leotards for rhythmic gymnastics dating from the Soviet Bloc era – distractingly unattractive. I did like the gold trim at the bottom of the skirts. Chaconne is a good opener, but the dancers looked like they needed a lot more work mastering this style of classicism, and the ballet received tepid applause (the reluctant “we can tell you worked really hard” kind).

Duo Concertant followed the intermission. This work, choreographed by Balanchine to Stravinsky’s music for violin and piano, features two dancers along with a violinist and pianist, all on stage. The dancers at times listen attentively to the music, move away and begin dancing, and then come back and listen again. Nino Gogua and Lasha Khozashvili, arms resting on the piano, immediately caught the eye. Ms. Gogua is small and thin and has the huge eyes and small mouth associated with perpetual adolescence (especially her pale skin contrasted with her dark hair and eyes), but she is not frail looking. Khozashvili has a mop of very curly dark hair that makes him look more boyish than his dancing turns out to be, and lean muscles and lines – he does not fit the big man Georgian mold the other male dancers do. From the beginning, they knew how to relate to each other, the music, and the choreography. She turned out to be a technical whiz – fast and light, flexible and yet soft. He likewise showed so much attentiveness to the phrasing and the small details that I was astounded. They also had a real rapport, making the final section of this ballet reverberate even more. In the final section, the dancers turn from relating to the musicians to relating to each other. Just as they were inspired by the music, man is inspired by woman, Balanchine seems to be saying. Having seen this ballet live twice with NYCB principals Yvonne Borree and Nikolaj Hubbe, this performance blew those two away. It deserved the loud applause it got.

Bizet Variations by Alexei Ratmansky followed. Ratmansky is the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre but plans to leave that position later this year to pursue more choreographing opportunities. He has already received much praise for ballets he has choreographed, and this evening was the American premiere of this work. He follows the lush romanticism of Bizet’s work too closely. The ballet is for three men and three women, and my first distraction was the costumes – shades of shimmery purple with turquoise accents. The women wore royal purple, lavender, and violent dresses with turquoise underskirts; the men wore purple shirts. There were a lot of sequins in the headdresses and on the bodices. I alternated between finding them acceptable considering the overly dramatic music, and thinking they looked like bad outfits for an ice dancing competition. The story is something like: there are two guys and two girls. Another guys comes along, both the girls think he’s a real hunk and go after him, much to the displeasure of the two guys. All of a sudden, another girl, the prettiest one at the ball, comes in, and the three fellows want her, but of course the hunky guy gets her, while the other two go back to their previous rejects. But then the five, in their excitement, run off and leave the prettiest girl alone. She’s sad, dejected, dramatic. Then they come back, the hunky guy takes the prettiest girl in his arms again, and all is well. Gimmicky, largely forgettable, clichéd, lacking in texture, were all words I wrote in the program. At one point all three men even fall to the ground and slide on the stage towards the women doing tendu back. Yes, that clichéd – I think Susan Stroman used it in her utterly awful “ballet” for the teen movie Center Stage. I was really disappointed, even though the ballet featured Ms. Ananiashvili as the prettiest girl. She’s big-eyed, has a clearly readable face, and her dancing is still detailed – one feels she could tell an entire story just with the unfolding of a leg. But it wasn’t enough in this work that had the feel of a throw-away piece.

Sagalobeli (pictured above), also an American premiere of a work by San Francisco Ballet’s resident choreographer, Yuri Possokhov, was the closer. I wanted to stay for this piece if only to listen to the Georgian traditional music (a taped performance by the Sagalobeli Ensemble). In the program notes, Possokhov comments that he did not want to make a Georgian folk dance, yet what he accomplished seems to me to be a work that uses the ballet idiom but has a folk dance aesthetic. The women, wearing long dresses, dance in pointe shoes, but they move in bourrees – a feature of Georgian dancing for women – or in heel motions. There’s a lot of sinuous arm movement and hip swaying that goes on too. The men, in their outfits that look like a less sado-masochistic version of the Bolshoi’s Spartacus costumes, do a lot of the flexed foot, wide stance, fast jumps associated with folk dances from the Caucasus. While they never actually start doing the lezghinka, the aesthetic is there. The music was a mish-mash, lovely but lacking in cohesion. The dance was the same way – I don’t think the audience knew when the ballet ended. And yet, even with the lack of cohesiveness, I enjoyed the work and felt with a bit of re-tooling, it could be quite a good work and perhaps a signature piece for the company. The dancers clearly have a natural feel for this music – they were rhythmic and expressive in a way that was lacking in the Balanchine piece. Of course, this work was also not as technically challenging, but they really impressed me with their level of assurance and the authority they conveyed - one could see a proud stance even in the position of their shoulders. Both Ms. Gogua, this time for her beautiful floating adagio, and Khozashvili again really impressed me – the eye is drawn to these two. Khozashvili has a marvelous upper body for a male dancer – capable of being sinuous and expressive while never becoming effeminate. He’s also an incredibly clean dancer who can jump high while still maintaining his lines. This was also a piece that showed off the men, and they really took to this take-off of male folk dancing. It reminded me that folk dancing is regarded as a very masculine activity in Eastern Europe and the Asian steppes, and most of the great male ballet dancers from those areas had their start as young boys in folk dancing classes.

Final note: the lighting throughout all the ballets was absolutely awful. At times it was too dim, then the spotlight would be on the wrong person or on the wrong area of the stage. I felt lucky to be sitting fairly close so that it wasn't TOO distracting, but gosh, that was an extremely poor lighting job.

*I haven't written more about Ms. Ananiashvili because a lot of biographical material about her and reviews of her dancing are easily found online. She is also featured in a number of videos. A quote from a recent interview with her:

I think we do this for people, because life has become so computerized, we have forgotten how to talk to one other. We do this for the future, for our kids. Ballet brings back human love and human life — we need to have contact with each other during these crazy times. If you see good theater, good art, you don’t want go out and kill people, you know? If you get inspired, you want to tell other people, to share it. Once, a postman told me he used to love opera the most, but then he saw me dancing on television, and he began to really like ballet. That is why I do this job—to make people happy. There are times after a performance when fans will come to me and say that they feel lucky in their lifetime to have seen me dance. This is wonderful. It reminds me that as a dancer, you really don’t live for nothing. You live for something.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Interpretation as Doctrine

There is a moment in the central adagio of Balanchine’s Diamonds where the ballerina is in fourth position on pointe and then tilts her head back ever so slightly, places her right palm against the back of her head, and extends her left arm parallel to her upturned sight-line. For two decades, this pose became the source of endless speculation, with people suspecting that it gave hints of the mystery at the heart of this pas de deux. It proved that Balanchine was writing in movement the story of the chaste goddess of the night, Diana, on a hunt, showing her bow – the jutting right elbow – and her arrow – her extended left arm. Or it revealed that Diamonds was Balanchine’s take on A mon seul desír: a maiden walking in the woods, unaware of all around her, but so enticing that a unicorn would lie in her lap – see, the ballerina’s hand at the back of her head is a position of lady-like authority from the 19th century ballet Raymonda, and the extended left arm is the unicorn’s horn. Or it was similar to the arm positions that the trapped maiden Odette makes and “Diamonds” was Balanchine’s Swan Lake fantasy with a happy ending.

And then Suzanne Farrell, the originator of the ballerina role, wrote about the origin of the pose in her autobiography: she was standing on pointe, and since Balanchine had not told her what to do with her arms at that moment, she decided, “oh, I'll model the beautiful headpiece Karinska (the costume designer) is going to make for me.” Balanchine didn’t disapprove of the unorthodox epaulement, so she repeated it several times and it remained in the ballet, to be debated over by a whole generation of critics and balletomanes. And one can see immediately, once knowing this, that this is the type of glam-girl pose a 20-year-old (as Farrell was at the time) would strike to show off her beautiful headpiece – slightly petulant and haughty, meant to draw attention to her face and head. Balanchine hadn’t created that pose and Farrell wasn’t thinking of any high-brow notions when she tossed her head and arms that way; it probably could have been any number of poses at that moment without disturbing the ‘meanings’ within this non-narrative ballet.

In one sense, the actual reason behind this pose doesn’t matter – what matters is the meaning the audience draws from it in the context of the ballet; in other words, what matters is what the audience feels. But I think it’s also a good example of our tendency to see greater meaning in moments that are entirely practical – the romanticism that Arturo speaks of. Reading a forum for Catholic traditionalists several weeks ago, I was struck by one thread about the ‘meaning’ behind each part of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite (as it is now known), linking each part with the Passion narrative. Ironically, one of the few religious books my grandmother owned also had text explaining the ‘meaning’ of what the priest was doing, and unsurprisingly, the ‘meaning’ of various parts of the Mass differed from the descriptions given on the forum. All of that is fine and dandy, but I noticed the tendency to treat the lack of these exact moments as the reason the Novus Ordo was invalid – it didn’t show the Passion like it should, the priest HAS to kneel three times here to show that Christ fell three times, etc. It took something, that from my reading, was a late medieval inclination to provide explanations for events in the Mass in terms of the Passion narrative, and turned it into dogma, part of the faith once delivered.

Another example was with a family member, who thought that the sanctus/sacring bells HAD to be rung during the Mass, because that was the way, according to the Psalms, that the angels and the Holy Spirit knew that Christ was about to be present on the altar. No sanctus bells, no Holy Spirit, and no angels. Sanctus bells of course have an entirely practical and earthly purpose – they are rung at the epiclesis and at the elevation of the Host and Chalice. When the priest is speaking softly in Latin and at a distance (if viewable) facing ad orientem, it would indeed be difficult to know when the former moment had arrived without the ringing of bells, a non-noxious attention-getter. And of course, at a church with side altars, the congregation knows when the Host is elevated in one part of the church through the ringing of the bells. However, a pious nun, probably hoping to enrich her students’ participation in the Mass, had taught my relative that the angels came to earth at those moments, and the Holy Spirit wouldn’t know to come down without the bells. Such thoughts are worthy of meditation and remind one of what is occurring in the Mass, but they are not part of the deposit of faith and were not intended to be, and their lack certainly does not automatically render one practice (or liturgy) superior to another.

I also notice that this tendency towards romantically treating moments for meditation in liturgy as if they are Tradition seems to be especially prevalent among converts and those who grew up in a Protestant milieu. I wonder if they don’t know from where to get tradition (with a small t). All tradition must be Tradition, because one has never really seen tradition, in action? Everything that happens during the liturgy must have a separate grander purpose than what we see/hear that is filled with rich meaning, because we lack an organic sense of how to be religious in our lives? I grew up in an area of the country where everyone attends Novus ordo Masses and we also have elaborate, saint-filled Churches, Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s altars, processions on Palm Sunday and Corpus Christi (even around the whole town!), St. Rosalie Festivals, white-washing of tombs for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, blessings of the fishermen’s boats, etc. Perhaps the French in southern LA, feeling superior to American Protestants, never quite capitulated to Protestantism the way it seems many Irish and Italian immigrants did within a few generations, letting their traditions die. Perhaps it’s just New Orleans Creoles and Cajuns being particularly ornery when it comes to their own French and Italian-derived Catholic traditions. And while there’s plenty of longing, it isn’t “oh, we need rediscover what it is to be Catholic in this way that has been lost to us….” You just pray, participate in the activities and live your life. The way for those in southeastern Louisiana doesn’t have to be the way everyone else does it – never has been – but it also doesn’t necessarily have to be expressions from the past treated as apostolic practice.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Notes on Watching Dance on Video

Galina Ulanova in Swan Lake

Some critics have described dance as the most ephemeral of the arts. It exists only at the moment of performance, and unlike even another performing art such as music, which can be recorded and give one a good idea of the performance, if not the performer-audience pact, recordings of dance can be, at best, decent and at worst, wholly misleading. But recordings are the primary (sometimes the only) way that most people are exposed to great dance, especially for those that don’t love in a city large or diverse enough to maintain a dance troupe, be it Western classical or Indian or Irish step. So we are stuck with video.

First note about video: dance, a three-dimensional art, is flattened into two dimensions. Thus, movements toward upstage and downstage are not really seen with the same impact as side to side and up and down (in both Western and Indian classical dance, the stance of the hips and feet are designed for maximal movement in the major eight 8 directions from the body). In addition to the lack of correct spatial orientation and correct viewing of the angles, it deprives us of one of the most important aspects of all dance – breath. All forms of dance that have a school of steps have an attitude, for lack of a better word, about breathing – how to deal with the necessity of it, how it should be done, how it should determine the other movements of the body and be coordinated…. But on video, dancers usually don’t look like they’re concealing inhalation and exhalation - they simply look like they don’t breathe at all. Whether we recognize it or not, this changes the meaning of the dance for the viewer of what is being seen. Instead of seeing the human body, we feel that we are seeing some robotic form that appears human. We relate to the image and what that image is doing differently. As one critic put it, all dancers look disembodied on video.

In video, there is up and there is down. But there is not ground or air. A Western classical dancer rising up onto a single pointe does not look like she is defying gravity, using strength and balance to hold a pose – she just looks like she’s doing something that would be painful – all her weight on that one spot! An Indian classical dancer sliding a flat foot along the ground and then bending the working leg behind her high into the air just looks like she’s showing off her flexibility. Since we are not experiencing the effect of gravity alongside the dancer overcoming its effect, movements that utilize ground and air (and all dance does) look merely like technical feats.

And then there’s the problem of camera work. I don’t need to point out that the camera views images in a different way than the eye sees, and differences on the technical side of recording can really impact one’s enjoyment of performances from, say, nearly a century ago. At another level, individual shots/dances look better than group shots, and if there are a lot of dancers about, when they move around on stage for a long time during a wide shot they just look like ants. (It always amazes me how powerfully meaningful the dance for a large corps de ballet can look on stage, and how awful it typically looks on video.

In summary, dance that favors straight lines, crisp movement, and lots of quantitatively measurable elements looks great on video when compared to dance that doesn’t feature these elements. (It is also favors thin-bodied dancers – they make for clearer lines.) The classical ballet roles look fantastic on video compared to some works of contemporary choreographers. (A William Forsythe piece stands out as being particularly bad – with two dancers low to the floor/ground, involving lots of unorthodox turns and spins with the torso bent, it was nearly unwatchable. It may be unwatchable on stage too, but it’s really impossible to judge.)

Am I suggesting that all video of dance should just be burned because it is a substitute so inferior it shouldn’t be used, or as Suzanne Farrell once commented, viewing dance on video is like watching ghosts? Considering that Farrell is my favorite dancer and she retired from performance a full decade before I even became interested in dance, of course not. For me, the great dancers still look like the great dancers even without being able to see their spontaneity, although those with less than ideal bodies can’t be fairly judged – ballerina Lynn Seymour is a great example. Dances are recognizable, if deprived of some of their impact and meaning. I have seen recorded performances that were better than live performances. The recorded performance below, of Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeyev in 1940, is the greatest performance of the Act II Swan Lake adagio I’ve yet seen - one can watch it on youtube, even though it is danced as a recital piece in front of a curtain, and thus robbed of its context.

So what I would suggest to people watching recorded dance performances is to be open-minded about what they are seeking. Recognize and remind yourself of the limitations and insufficiency of the medium for capturing dance, and try to re-create in your mind a proper stage space and orient to the movement. Even breathe in and out with the rhythm of the music, to have some feel of the motions that the dancers are doing. This should never replace attending live performances, but at times, it is the best we can do.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Alien Music

Spacescaping: (according to Terry Riley) combining the sounds of plasma waves in space with a string quartet and chorus

On stage are small metal rods of varying heights; these rods have lights along their axes and at each tip that illuminate to a blue-white glow. The backdrop is a screen that fades from dark blue at the top to light blue at the bottom. A man carrying a violin walks on stage, sits down, and waves his bow over his music stand. A point of bright green light appears, and we hear a large bellowing sound, like a deep voice in a huge underground cavern, that fades away gently to a whisper. A few seconds pass, and the man repeats the sweep of his arm. This time the sound is an electronic twitter that ends abruptly. A man holding a cello walks onto the stage, settles down, and waves his hand behind him over a rod. Again, a point of green light. The sound is an unearthly mid-range chirping. Eventually, as these two men continue their arm sweeps, a violist and another violinist join them on stage, and all four men take part in these motions and each time they do sounds are heard. Eventually, the first man on stage brings bow to string, and the familiar sounds of a violin began, as the screen shifts from blue to a display of different geometric shapes. For those who don’t know, they are close-up pictures of the “how to play” instructions on the gold record sent on the Voyager space craft in 1977 that contains sounds from Earth – to those out there, this is how we sound.

Thus begins Terry Riley’s Sun Rings, a ten-part work performed by the Kronos Quartet and the Stanford Chamber Chorale at Stanford on January 18. The work was commissioned in 2002 for the Kronos Quartet by the NASA Art Program, among others. The work is a multimedia presentation – visual design by Willie Williams, lighting design by Laurence Neff, and sound design by mark Grey – that utilizes sounds of plasma waves from outer space, string instruments, human voices, and pictures of stars, swirling orbs, mathematical equations, the solar prominences, and life here on Earth.

The sounds from space are from the collection of physicist Don Gurnett, a builder of plasma-wave receivers sent on interplanetary spacecraft. Plasma, ionized gas, can propagate waves caused by the movement of a series of electrically charged particles and the response of those particles to electromagnetic fields. The waves that a plasma can support can reveal a great deal of the characteristics of that plasma. The waves themselves are detectable with an electrical antenna and a radio receiver. Thus, we know that lightening and the Northern lights make whistling sounds, electrons trapped in magnetic fields (such as those surrounding most of the planets) make bird-like sounds called chorus, and the place near Jupiter where the solar wind (high velocity plasma) meets Jupiter’s magnetic field sounds like a sonic boom.

The work uses those sounds, looped rhythmically or played in response to a hand movement from the musicians. The musicians sometimes duplicate those sounds, at other times the sounds are the background for rapid-fire arpeggios. At all times, the sounds from the stage are accompanied by visuals on the screen behind the musicians and by the lights of the rods. At one point, as the musicians begin playing music so lush it could be a Brahms string quartet, the rods light up at their tips and the screen reflects the blackness with twinkling light from the stars - the night sky. This drifting into space dissolves as the violist plays increasingly dissonant sounds, and the screen becomes fiery red, and then fades into orange and yellow as the violins repeatedly play a 6-note lullaby.

At another point in the piece, human voices join in and duplicate the space sounds: in a choral feat, while holding long notes, they manage to sound like chirps and eerie whistles. They sing words that cannot be identified, but as the musicians stop playing and the screen goes black, they begin to flatly speak sentences – a cacophony of the various phrases that we, through radio waves, constantly send out into space.

This work reminded me of the necessity of the experience of live performances – the immediacy of it, the thrill of being part of an audience participating in the event. I don’t think I would have enjoyed this work (indeed, I’m not a big Terry Riley fan) listening to it on cd or watching a clip on youtube. Some things need to be able to pierce you or engulf you (visually and aurally). And it’s partly because of the features of live performance that I cannot recall the last time art left me so optimistic. There’s a certain sunny innocence in our explorations of the other planets and further out into deep space, in our desire to send out little feelers and try to see and hear what’s out there, and wanting whatever it is out there to know what’s back here – the desire to communicate as a basic human yearning.

The final part of the work begins with the well-known image of man and woman on the Pioneer plaque, his hand waved in a friendly gesture. The work ends with the words “One earth…one people” spoken over and over again, as various images from earth show up on the screen. And the final sound is a human voice saying, “one love.”

This record represents our hope and our determination
and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.

- Jimmy Carter on the Voyager record

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why I love Jesus

Response to a very old meme from Crimson Catholic, so it gets a very long post

1. Because my mom taught me to. When I was a very young child and my older sister was off at school, my days were spent entirely with my mom, just the two of us. Our schedule began with her coming into my room, singing “Good morning to you!” Then after the usual morning activities (getting dressed, eating breakfast), she’d dab some Holy Water on my fingers so I could make the sign of the Cross and off we were off…to church. My mom attended (she still does) daily Mass, and I’d play with her crystal and blue rosary, or look at the statues, or read my picture books on the Virgin Mary or the saints – my parents allowed us to bring books to Mass, but only if they were about religious figures – and she would do the responses, the kneeling, and so on that I couldn’t follow. I’d have to move from my odd positions sitting on the kneeler, arms across the pew (as young children often get into strange positions when kneelers and pews are available) when she came back from Communion, and then I’d watch her and she’d kneel down, place the first and second fingers of both hands on her temples, cover her face with the rest of her hands, and bow her head. She would go on praying like this for three minutes or so, and I’d wonder what she was thinking or saying. Then her head would lift and she’d gaze at the tabernacle.

After Mass, we’d pray the Stations of the Cross; rather, she would pray them while I would walk back and forth, up and down, from the Resurrection to the Fourth or Seventh Station, repeatedly, because it was taking her so long to crawl on her knees up those stairs, and I liked the blinding effect of the sudden sunlight at the end of the Stations (on the roof) compared to the darkness on the stairs inside the building. After the roof, we went back into the building that looked like a blue cave for a statue of the Virgin.

Then we would go and run the daily errands. In addition, often we would visit a nursing home, where the elderly would pinch my cheeks or tug on my pigtails, and come March, bring me lots of fig and sesame cookies from the St. Joseph’s Altars that were set up in many Catholic nursing homes. I hated the smell of the old people and would ask not to go there, but my mom would say, “You don’t know how happy it makes the people there to see you. Do it for Jesus.” And oh, my mother’s constant refrain to any report of discomfort (after a quick lookover): “Offer it up for the poor souls in Purgatory.” As I got older, I realized that we already prayed, every night, for the poor souls in Purgatory, so I asked my mom would I should continue offering up my small sufferings for them – wasn’t praying for them enough? With a look of subdued horror and infinite patience that I think only mothers can perfect, she said to me, “AG, many of the poor souls don’t have anyone to pray for them.” I thought it was so awful, all these people wandering around in Purgatory with no one to shine a little prayer light on them, and I’d nearly start crying and pray for them even more.

As I got older, my mom began spending much of her time with other people’s young children, teaching them their colors and shapes, how to read and how to count. She taught these children in their homes, wrecked by a combination of teenage pregnancy, poverty, substance abuse, and incarceration. She’d also clean the houses, wash laundry, and prepare dinner for older people who were homebound – people she had learned of through Church who didn’t have family nearby, and who everyone else seemed to have no time for – and she would do these things for free, of course. I would sometimes get annoyed when she was away for 5 hours cleaning someone’s house – “How long does it take you to do that?” And she’d reply, in her way, “I can’t just do those things; it’s very important that I stay and chat with them and sit and have a cup of coffee. That’s what matters the most to them.”

My mom taught me other things too – she read the children’s Bible to me, she taught me all my prayers, she pointed to the Virgin and told me that she was my mother too – but it was her example that made its imprint. What does it mean to receive God? It means to bury one’s face in one’s hands and pray intensely, and then extend one’s gaze in contemplation at His earthly dwelling. Why in the world would my mom, who in my estimation has always been as far from a great sinner as night is from day, get in her knees and crawl up stairs while meditating on the Passion? How in the world could my mom clean the house of an ornery elderly woman who was given to making nasty statements about blacks (unware of my mom’s race), and then even come home and make cookies for this woman because she thought the woman would appreciate a homemade treat? What could move her to do that?

2. Because of the examples of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. The twin pillars of light of my early childhood. The images of Mother Teresa holding sickly children and comforting the dying. Why would anyone choose such a life? And oh, John Paul II. I wasn’t moved by him just because I wanted to be pope one day, and he was keeping the chair warm for me. When this Polish guy with a round face and charismatic smile stood amongst a million people, holding a Crucifix and said “I love you! Christ loves YOU!” I could feel it to the tips of my toes. He didn’t even know me, but through Christ, he loved me? How amazing is that! “How much do I love you?” “This much!” with an arm span that can wrap around the whole world. I have no real patience for those who harp on the pastoral decisions of John Paul II during his pontificate, when the man yelled to the world over and over again that life is love, the Cross is love, suffering is love. His cry is the response to our cynical age, so it’s no surprise that cynics can’t hear it. If Mother Teresa was what love looked like in the small spaces of suffering and death – My arms can tenderly hold the least of you - John Paul II was what love looked on the big scale where love is never-ending and keeps giving of itself– My arms can hold all of you.

3. Because of Mother Mary and the saints. Enough said.

4. Because in the above three points, I began to understand what Jesus was all about, to use modern slang. What could lead these people to do the things they did? They showed me that it’s not about them, but about Jesus in them. And they are examples of the most mind-blowing fact of our existence – that Jesus works on the individual level, in each of us; He’s the one who makes it possible for us to give of ourselves, He loves us perfectly and unceasingly, and He gives us everything and can move us to every good thing. And not just me, but everyone.