Thursday, October 1, 2009

Who is Andy Warhol?

From the review What is an Andy Warhol in the NY Review of Books.

...Warhol realized that you don't need to make art for an audience brought up on film and television in the way Kenneth Clark defined art. [Marilyn Monroe] and [Warhol] grasped that in the modern world, presentation counts for more than substance. The less you do, the greater may be the impact....

A silk-screened image is flat, and without depth or volume. This perfectly suited Warhol because in painting Marilyn Monroe he wasn't painting a woman of flesh, blood, and psychological complexity but a publicity photograph of a commodity created in a Hollywood studio. As Colin Clark's anecdote suggests, you can't look at Warhol's Marilyn in the same way that you look at a painting by Rembrandt or Titian because Warhol isn't interested in any of the things those artists were—the representation of material reality, the exploration of character, or the creation of pictorial illusion.

Warhol asked different questions about art. How does it differ from any other commodity? What value do we place on originality, invention, rarity, and the uniqueness of the art object? To do this he revisited long-neglected artistic genres such as history painting in his disaster series, still life in his soup cans and Brillo boxes, and the society portrait in Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times. Though Warhol isn't always seen as a conceptual artist, his most perceptive critic, Arthur C. Danto, calls him "the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced."

[In the Red Self Portraits (1965)] Warhol presents himself as insolent and impassive, in the take-it-or-leave-it stance of the hustler or gangster. Out of register, like a color TV on the blink, the person in the portrait is a new kind of human being, one trapped in some fathomless, unreal televisual space, without physical mass or emotional depth. The dead, unseeing eyes in the self-portrait suggest that he was perfectly serious when he said, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How dangerous is pot?

Much to the dismay of my "everyone has done drugs!" former boss, I have never done illegal drugs. I have never even smoked pot, unless you count secondhand smoke. So I don't have a "pot is so great!" take on marijuana, other than to say that there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that it is a gateway drug (biologically).

The scientific literature on the dangers of marijuana is a bit thin. The first report on possible harmful effects of cannabis use is the oft-cited Swedish Army study, where conscripts who reported a heavy use of cannabis in adolescence were six times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia in adulthood than non-users (1). There have been a few other studies suggesting that adolescent cannabis use is a risk factor for psychosis (e.g. 2). The most damning evidence is a longitudinal study by Dutch researchers that found a dose-response relationship between reported cannabis use and psychotic symptoms over a three-year period (3). And now a group has asked that cannabis use be included as a risk factor for psychotic illness in the Global Burden of Disease. (The article is in PLoS, so available for free. Isn't PLoS the greatest thing ever?)

From the article:

Some commentators may well argue that it is premature to conclude that the relationships between cannabis use and psychosis are causal, which raises the question of what the standard of proof should be causal inference. Some may argue for “proof beyond reasonable doubt,” the standard implicitly used in the last iteration of the GBD. It is rare, however, to meet this standard of proof for noncommunicable diseases other than smoking-related diseases. What has changed since the last iteration of the GBD? The broad approach to all risk factors has been to set the standard of proof at “more likely than not,” rather than “beyond reasonable doubt.” If the latter was the standard of proof, then no adverse health consequences of cannabis would be considered apart from dependence.

If we had treatments that resulted in complete, immediate, and sustained remission for all individuals who develop psychosis, then the role of cannabis as an aetiological agent may attract less attention. But schizophrenia remains a poorly understood group of disorders. Even our best treatments are suboptimal. In the absence of better treatments, the most effective way to reduce the disability associated with schizophrenia is to prevent its occurrence when we can. Thus, when considering potential risk factors for schizophrenia, we argue that candidates that offer the opportunity for public health interventions should be accorded more attention (e.g., education about the potential risks of cannabis use). Even exposures that may account for a small attributable fraction of those with the disorder warrant scrutiny.

As the quoted section above alludes to, there is no firm evidence that cannabis use causes psychosis. Could adolescents who are at risk for schizophrenia be self-medicating through use of marijuana? I do not think any of the studies have examined whether those heavy users who showed some type of psychosis later in life also had family histories of psychoses. Are those who experience psychotic symptoms self-medicating with marijuana (use of the drug is more common with those who report psychoses), similar to the abuse of nicotine among schizophrenics? Or is the marijuana use really causing psychosis or compounding its effects in a small population?

Either way, consider yourself forewarned the next time someone says marijuana use is "safe" and passes you a joint. And don't do drugs.

1. Andreasson S, Allebeck P, Engström A, et al. Cannabis and schizophrenia: a longitudinal study of Swedish conscripts. Lancet 1987;11:1483-5.

2. Arseneault L, Cannon M, Poulton R, et al. Cannabis use in adolescence and risk for adult psychosis: longitudinal prospective study. BMJ 2002;325:1212-3.

3. van Os J, Bak M, Hanssen M, et al. (2002) Cannabis use and psychosis: a longitudinal population-based study. Am J Epidemiol 156:319–27

Look what monarch butterflies do with their antennae

I have a little personal history with monarch butterflies: my grandmother used to catch them with my sister and me with a huge butterfly net, then kill them with Raid and put them in flower arrangements. So I rather like the little creatures, and am disappointed that their Mexican fir grove wintering grounds are being destroyed by stupid Mexican workers who only care about money, though what else can you expect with those people.

Anyway, scientists have wondered for years how monarch butterflies are able to find their way back to those forests. Even if you take a migrating monarch and move it to a completely different part of the country, they will still figure out the correct direction to travel. Now we have a big piece of the puzzle.

In a new article in Science, researchers have found that the monarchs contain some type of circadian "clock" in their antennae (independent of their brain) that they use to track the sun's movement, and then determine the correct direction based off of that information.

From a summary article here:

The researchers next covered the antennae in black paint, effectively blocking light sensing by the antennal clocks. Those butterflies homed in on an incorrectly fixed direction: the insect's brain could sense light but couldn't adjust the timing of the sun's movement across the sky in order to steer towards the proper destination. However, when the team used clear paint—which did not alter antennal light input—the butterflies accurately established the southerly flight orientation, indicating that the antenna's reading of light is key to navigation.

Cool, huh? I wish I had antennae. And wings.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Duo Concertant

(Reviewing a performance with original cast, Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins) Watching them listen is a theatrical experience in itself. Their faces share a multitude of unknown thoughts, but the intensity and sweet concentration with which they listen suggest that the notes are running through their bodies. Finally, they are moved to dance. At first they stick closely to the music’s beat, almost ‘conducting’ it with arms and legs; torsos are still. Becoming more free, the dance turns into a melting duet, each phrase winding down on slightly bent knees, as in a whisper. They dance with seeming spontaneity. Even when Balanchine arranges an unusual means of partnering – as when he scoops her from the floor holding only the underside of her thigh – the movement spins off them with utter simplicity and naturalness. In other sections, they occasionally stop dancing to listen. At those times, Martins firmly takes hold of her hand or slips his arm around her waist. She is shy, but the music pleases her and so does he. She does not move away. They listen in repose, arm in arm.

In the last part dancers and musicians go their separate ways. The stage darkens. A spotlight falls on the pianist and violinist. Another one lights a small area in which the dancers will play out their final drama. Mazzo paces her arm in the light, so that it seems to exist independently of her body. Martins hastens to the arm and links his with it. He then embraces her, sinks to his knees, and feels her face with his hands. She steps out of the light; then he does. She comes back and again extends her arm into the light. He rushes back, kisses the back of her hand with hushed passion, and sinks to the floor like a supplicant before a goddess. The jump from youthful hand-clasping to ceremonial hand-kissing is brazen for its staginess and unexpectedness. But out of that staginess come certain truths; in fact, the ending is an exquisite confession of them. It intimates that music transports Balanchine into a fantasy experience. It declares that to Balanchine, the female dancer is an image of love, a Muse-ballerina who inspires but is unreachable. The worshiper is the male, whose fate it to be indelibly inspired, possessed but not possessing. It is the story of Balanchine’s art. 10 July 1972, Nancy Goldner, The Nation

Chicago, Oct 19th, 2006 Matinee, NYCB

This performance was very confusing. Yvonne Borree was fine for the most part, very clear in her gestures and dancing, but with the sort of clarity that indicates that the performance has been memorized to every detail and is getting replayed. In other words, not much spontaneity in interpretation or musical response. Then again, I am unsure about how she should have responded to Nikolai Hubbe. A tall handsome Dane, for me Hubbe was totally off in this role. Not only was it unclear what his interpretation of the role was (he goes from putting her arm around her as if he's prom king and she's his high school sweetheart, complete with head nod and smile, to overly aggressive jock, to ardent, tortured, and finally, despairing lover), but his technique was off. In spins, it seemed that he was leaning far forward with his upper body and making a strange twisting motion with his shoulders, with the rest of his body following along. It was clumsy-looking and completely inelegant.

Oct 20th, Evening

On second viewing, I realized that Hubbe seemed to be leading with his upper torso in turns, creating a twisting motion that accounted for the "bull in a china shop" affect. Borree's positions were lovely and clear, but I missed the sense of a "welling-up of movement." This lack of dancing, combined with Hubbe's strange approach, made the ending startlingly strange, as one never had the sense of the relationship between the two dancers, and the relationship to the piano and violin was also dulled. Someone also needs to tell Hubbe not to lean over the piano after his variation - it makes him look extremely tired.

I reviewed the State Ballet of Georgia's performance of Duo Concertant in February 2008 here.

(First picture is Yvonne Borree and Peter Boal; second is Borree and Jared Angle)

Balanchine and a few of His Women

From Jewels (1967), the ballerinas for the three sections: Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds. Clockwise from Balanchine are Patricia McBride, Violette Verdy, Mimi Paul, and Suzanne Farrell. The second ballerina in Rubies, originally danced by Patricia Neary, is not pictured here. Farrell is the only ballerina in Diamonds; read more here.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bergman's "The Virgin Spring"

Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) is a graphic telling of a 14th-century Swedish ballad. As do many Bergman films, this one revolves around the issue of faith. This film has long periods of silence and long-held shots. To say that the acting is powerful would be an understatement. Töre is played by Max von Sydow, who often appears to stand-in for Bergman himself.

(Warning: this post gives every spoiler away. Do not read it if you want to be 'surprised' by the plot of the movie. I do not find the story as interesting as Bergman's telling of it, so I give away the whole story here.)

The story is set in medieval Sweden. We are first introduced to Ingeri, a dark-haired, grimy, heavily pregnant young woman. Coming forward from deep in the shadows, she reaches toward the sunlight coming through a shaft in the roof and intones, “Come, Odin! Come!” It is clear that Ingeri is consumed by hatred and a desire for revenge, although we do not yet know why. We next meet landowners Töre and Märeta praying their morning prayers before a crucifix. There is a little talk about the laziness of their innocent teenage daughter, Karin, and it is implied that they have had, and lost, other children, leaving blond overindulged Karin as the light of their lives. (In Sven Nyqvist’s masterful cinematography, she does indeed seem to be a point of illumination.) She is sent to bring candles for the Virgin to the local Church, with foster sister Ingeri as a companion. Karin chides her mother Märeta for her over-concern, and gets her way by wearing some of her best finery. Karin clearly has her father Töre wrapped around her finger, managing to elicit smiles from the usually stern and duty bound man.

Karin and Ingeri set off, and a few encounters and a brief conversation finally reveal the source of Ingeri’s anger: Karin is a beloved blond maiden who talked and danced the previous night with the man who impregnated (and abandoned) Ingeri. When Ingeri taunts Karin, “You won’t be able to say no when a man wants you…What would you do if a man decided to take you in the fields?” Karin lifts her chin high and says, “That will not happen. I would rather be killed.” Spying a cawing raven, looking over the darkness of the approaching forest, and noticing the pagan talismans of the man who helps Karin across the river, Ingeri does not continue on their journey, eventually running away into the forest separately.

Now alone, Karin meets two herdsmen and a young boy. As she is late to the Church and has already missed matins, she offers to share her food with them, and the four enjoy a repast in a clearing. When she recognizes their sheep as stolen, Karin begins to flee, only to be captured and brutally raped by both men as both the boy and Ingeri - from a distance with rock in hand - watch. (Warning: this is one of the most graphic portrayals of rape in film – the story inspired Wes Craven’s horror movie The Last House on the Left.) Karin gets up, stumbling, only to be hit on the head by a staff and killed by one of the men. Quickly they undress her, take her clothes, rummage through the rest of her stuff, throwing the candles for the Virgin upon the ground, and run off, telling the young boy to stay there. Looking at her lifeless, mostly naked body, he throws some dirt on her as Ingeri continues to watch.

Eventually, the three make their way to a house: Töre stands in the door like a totem, looking for his daughter as the sun is falling. Not knowing who they are, he feeds his guests, offers them a place to spend the night, and suggests that he may have work for them on his farm. Later that night, Märeta is awoken by the boy’s screams and goes to check on them. One of the men offers her Karin’s bloodstained finery – he hopes to sell it to her. She presents it to her husband. He walks outside where he meets Ingeri, who tells him all about his guests’ actions, and confesses that, motivated by jealousy, she did nothing while Karin was raped and killed. He tells her to prepare a hot bath, and in one of the most striking visual scenes of the movie, wrestles against a lone, young birch tree on a hill, trying to bring it down. He beats himself with its branches, dons a leather cloak and pants, and with the butcher’s knife, stabs the two men to death. His wife tries to protect the boy, but he picks the boy up and flings him against the wall, killing him too.

Led by Ingeri, Töre and Märeta and their farmworkers find Karin’s body. Töre turns away, falls to his knees, opens his hands and says, “You saw it. God, You saw it. The innocent child’s death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don’t understand you. I don’t understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness. I know no other way to be reconciled with my own hands. I know no other way to live.” His head and hands fall, and recognizing his own need for repentance for his blood-stained acts, he says, “I will build a Church for You here.” He and his wife go to move their daughter’s body, and from where her head was suddenly flows a spring of water. Ingeri gathers this water in her hands and pours it over her face, a symbolic baptism.

Early in the film, one of the servants chides baby chicks for nearly being trampled underfoot, telling them, “God could trample them to death. So you poor thing, live your wretched life the way God allows all of us to live.” Indeed, all life belonging to God is one of the central tenets of this film. How could God allow a middle-aged couple to be robbed of their only remaining biological child? How could God allow this brutality to be visited upon a woman, much less a maiden bringing candles for His own Mother? How can these human beings – the herdsmen and Töre – engage in such evil acts, and how could others – the boy and Ingeri – just crouch and watch? How does one keep faith in the face of such acts? Bergman’s answer, through Töre, is simple yet complex: “I know no other way to live.” The cynic can say, "well, he just needs to find atheism" (and Bergman did find agnosticism). But the son of a Lutheran pastor would have well known Psalm 139:

O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.

You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

I slack off when I've only just begun

There has been a nearly two week lapse in my guitar playing; and I have not provided regular updates on my conquest of the guitar.

Two Saturdays ago, I got out the guitar, tuned it, and selected “Alfred’s Teach Yourself to Play Guitar” by Marty and Ron Manus to, well, teach myself to play guitar. (My other option was “The Art of Spanish Guitar” by Romero, which I quickly decided was a bit too advanced for my present abilities.)

First thing I noticed: I cannot find a comfortable way to place my thumb on the neck of the guitar while curling my fingers at the same time. This finding made me quite happy. Yes, I am physically incapable of playing the guitar! All those who can successfully play this instrument are actually long-fingered freaks!

But I decided to continue to try to learn anyway. Which led to revelation number two: the fingers of my left hand are supposed to be close to the frets! A-ha! See, I had been playing (I use that term loosely) all this time with my fingers right in the middle of the frets, and wondering why I could not get a decent sound. The notes sound so much better when I attempt to actually play correctly.

Third thing I noticed: I do not need to learn how to read music. This book attempts to both teach one (“yourself”) how to learn to play the guitar, and how to read music in order to play the guitar. I do not need to learn how to play a note and then learn to wait three counts. This caused me to skip some sections of the book, which brought about the….

Fourth thing I noticed: gosh, I would actually have to practice in order to play the guitar well. Learning the notes on the first three strings was easy enough – I can remember that. But to play them in tempo and with any sort of phrasing that would resemble an actual song – well, I’d actually have to play the same notes over and over again. This is why I quit piano lessons in my junior year of high school – I got tired of practicing and just wanted to be able to play pieces all the way through and then move on to the next piece. My piano teacher, however, wanted me to play the pieces correctly and surprise, surprise, a compromise could not be reached between us. (She did try to give me “fun” jazz pieces to learn while wanting me to spend a whole six months perfecting a Chopin nocturne. No way.) I never in my life actually practiced the clarinet either. I’d just practice in band class and private lessons and keep that hideous-sounding instrument in its case in our foyer the rest of the time, only opening it to cut and shave reeds, which I did strangely enjoy doing. (And yet I was first chair usually, made all-district honor bands, and won medals for “superior” clarinet performance. Ha!) Now I wonder why my parents continued to pay for me to have all these music lessons….But back to the subject at hand. I can play the melody of “Ode to Joy” and the Largo from the “New World Symphony” easily enough, as long as I don’t follow a tempo, don’t phrase, and don’t care what the notes actually sound like. But since I have set my sights on “On Eagle’s Wings,” I must set aside time not only to learn, but to practice.

Unfortunately, an unexpected medical procedure combined with a careless nurse on Monday has rendered my left hand rather mitt-like and made me incapable of curling my fingers on strings to pluck sweet sounds from those heavenly guitar strings. (I guess I could be mastering all the open chords, but I am trying to be methodical.) I have learned notes on the E (first string), B, and G string, so I did make slight progress a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully, I will get a chance to learn and just maybe practice this weekend, and be able to provide an exciting update next week.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

About My Little Girl, Catherine Marie

“So I’ve got a date for you – September 4.” That was the first thing the doctor’s assistant said when she saw me on August 28. My heart sank. I was hoping to have a natural childbirth, or at least give it a try. But I was now past my due date of August 25, and my doctor was going to induce labor in one week. I hadn’t progressed much in the last month – my little Catherine was refusing to “drop;” in other words, move further into my pelvis, as I had explained to family and friends, and my cervix hadn’t dilated beyond 1.5 cm in almost three weeks (and how odd to give people updates on your anatomy). After a smooth pregnancy, my body seemed hesitant to do the whole labor thing. My doctor told me, “well, if nothing happens in a week, be at the hospital at 5:30 am, and September 4th will be her birthday!” I told her that my original due date according to my cycle was August 31, so maybe my baby would decide to come then. My doctor jokingly said, “well, they do sometimes hear that first date and commit to that one.” I had my own romantic notions that my first child would be born two years to the date that her father and I became engaged – September 1st. But I was very disappointed to think that I might have to be induced, increasing the likelihood of having a caesarean section. I called and told A.V. the news, then my sister, then my mom. I started off with, “I have an induction date, but the baby and I are perfectly fine.” Indeed, Catherine had been kicking most of the morning, and had a strong heartbeat of 154 bpm. My weight and blood pressure were fine; again, I just wasn’t doing the whole labor thing. My mom said that she would pray that I’d go into labor over the weekend. I said thanks, but was starting to consider that unlikely.

The next day, Saturday August 29th, I woke up having a few mild contractions every 20 minutes. When they weren’t stopping after an hour or so, I suggested to A.V. that we go and walk around the mall, having read and heard over and over again that being active can determine whether you are in false labor, or help your labor progress. We went to Lakeside Mall, ate beignets, and visited every soap shop. I was looking for something primrose scented, which my doctor had heard stimulated labor. Of course, I couldn’t resist going into Pottery Barn Kids. I saw a wand I really wanted to get Catherine that I thought would be adorable with her Halloween outfit – I had decided months ago to dress her as a butterfly for her first Halloween. I decided to wait to purchase it, but looked at the dollhouses and thought about telling my parents to get my old dollhouse out of the attic for her to play with when she was older. I did buy some antibacterial lotion and lectured A.V. over and over again that he must use it, especially when coming home from the gym, because Catherine’s immune system wouldn’t be fully developed in her first few months, and there was swine flu going around….

The contractions didn’t get stronger, but they didn’t go away either. We went grocery shopping around 6 pm, had some leftover quiche, and then got ready for bed. Around 11 pm, I was so uncomfortable with contractions every 10 minutes that I decided to go lie down on the sofa and watch some t.v. Over the next several hours, I watched the clock on the t.v. and timed my contractions – every 10 minutes, now about every 7, now about every 6 minutes. I counted out to myself – lasts 45 seconds, peaks in intensity at 20 seconds. I squeezed the medal I had started wearing on her due date – St. Gerard Majella on one side, Our Lady of Perpetual Help on the other. I had prayed to St. Gerard every night since I was about 3 months along that I would have a healthy baby who would be baptized. A.V. had prayed to the Virgin everyday, and lit two candles for her every week at Mass, also that we would have a healthy baby to take home. I liked that the ribbon the medal was on was long enough that it hung right over my very pregnant belly. That made it all the more convenient to squeeze during my contractions. Around 3 am, I got a bit concerned that I hadn’t felt Catherine move in awhile (I knew all about kick counting and ways to get the baby to move). I got up – the contractions were far worse when I moved around – and drank some orange juice. About 5 minutes later, there was her familiar fist pummeling. I lay down again and tried to sleep in the 5 minutes between contractions.

At 6 am, when A.V. got up, I told him that I thought we should go to the hospital. I packed up the last of my toiletries, he threw some of his supplies in my hospital bag (which had been packed for 3 weeks), and I called my doctor to describe my symptoms and ask if she thought this was labor. She did, and told me to go ahead to the hospital. Honestly, I was in enough pain at that point that I would have gone to the hospital anyway. At 7 am, I remember walking down the steps of the house and looking back at the front door, thinking, the next time I’ll be here, Catherine will be coming home with us. OH MY GOD, this is really it! I had about three contractions on the way to the hospital, but didn’t feel incapacitated enough to go to the emergency room. A.V. parked the car, and we walked to the maternity ward, where I could only say, “I think I’m in labor?” to a large group of nurses sitting behind the desk. Someone said, “Okay, come this way, your doctor already called.” I walked into my labor and delivery room and was given a gown to change into. I went in the bathroom, and had a wickedly difficult time getting this gown on. I was (oddly) trying to be modest, and couldn’t figure out how to tie it without leaving my whole backside exposed. And I was having contractions the whole time.

Finally, I conquered the gown string thing, and took a seat on the bed. The nurse started asking me the usual questions – any problems with the pregnancy? Gestational diabetes, high blood pressure? Any tests come back unusual? No, no, and no. I had undergone genetic testing, glucose testing, and of course blood pressure monitoring, and everything had been completely normal. My ultrasounds at 13 and 26 weeks had indicated a perfectly healthy baby, with everything functioning just like it should. All my prenatal visits (once a week for the last six weeks) had gone smoothly – my little girl was a healthy, tough cookie. She then went to attach the fetal heartbeat monitor to me. Over one side of my belly, then the other. “When was the last time you felt the baby move?” “Around 2 am (I got the time wrong), but I just haven’t been able to tell since with the contractions.” I told her that there was usually a little bit of difficulty getting the baby’s heartbeat – she liked to be a bit difficult, and it was a little bit of a challenge for the doctor’s assistant every week too. But the nurse was distracted by also having to record all the information on me, so called in another nurse. The other nurse slid the monitor over my belly for over a minute while I answered even more questions. Yes, I wanted to try to breastfeed her. Yes, I had picked out a pediatrician, though I thought he might be out of town on vacation and one of his associates would examine her. The nurse working on my belly wasn’t having any more luck, so she got up to call in the ultrasound doctor. This doctor came in with the portable machine, and began scanning my belly. “Sorry, these things are pretty old,” she said. “When was the last time you felt the baby move?” “Um, 2 am.” She kept going, clicking the monitor here and there, then turned to the other nurse and asked, “have you called in Dr.?” I missed his name, but within two minutes, he was there too. I was getting a bit annoyed, thinking, gosh, their equipment is having trouble picking up a heartbeat. Maybe she really is positioned oddly. This new doctor scanned here and there, “When was the last time you felt the baby move?,” and I once again saw the outline of her cute little head. He moved further down, right where her heart should be, and clicked the button that had always let A.V. and me hear her heartbeat. Except this time there was no sound. No movement on the monitor. I had first seen her heart beating away on January 19, and then three more times when I’d had ultrasounds. It was always amazing – pounding away. Except this time I couldn’t see or hear anything. The doctor took a breath and turned to me and said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but there’s no heartbeat. Sometimes the placenta stops providing enough nourishment.” I think he said something else, but I was zoning out at that point, Okay, they can’t find a heartbeat. So they’ll do an emergency c-section to try to save her and she’ll probably come out screaming like a normal baby. But where was their sense of urgency? I looked at the nurses, and they had started crying. Another doctor came up to me, tears in her eyes, rubbed my arm and said “I’m really sorry.” In this foggy haze, I gave her a big smile and said, “thank you.” “We’ve called your doctor; she’s on her way,” said my nurse, also crying. “I’m so so sorry.” This isn’t really happening. I need to call my family so they can pray and then Catherine will be fine. I know A.V. was hugging me and holding my hand, but I have no real memory of it. A.V. didn’t want me to talk to my family until after my doctor had arrived and examined me. She was crying too, “It’s not supposed to be this way, this is supposed to be joyous. I looked over all your charts again, your ultrasound, and everything was perfect.”

I called my parents. My father answered. “I went to the hospital because I’m in labor, but they couldn’t find a heartbeat.” “Huh? They couldn’t find a heartbeat?” “Yeah, I don’t know…” “Well, how couldn’t they find a heartbeat?” And then my cell phone lost its signal. I called my sister. “Are you in labor?” she asked. (For the past week and a half, every time we talked, she began the conversation with, “are you in labor?”) “I was in labor so I went to the hospital but they weren’t able to find a heartbeat.” “What?” “They said they couldn’t find a heartbeat, and that they were sorry….” “Okay, I’ll be over right away.” I may have said more, she may have said more, but I don’t remember that either. I remember everyone wanting to make me as comfortable as possible – I had an epidural; they were speeding up labor as much as they could. My sister fed me ice chips as if I were a baby bird. There was a “Golden Girls” marathon on t.v. A.V. ate dried cherries and cheddar and sour cream chips. I asked, “Once I’m well, can we have another baby?” “Okay,” he said. I fell asleep a couple of times. My nurse brought in a folder with some literature about stillbirths, grieving, and support groups. This isn’t really happening, so why is she bringing me this?

Finally, it was time for me to push and deliver her. I couldn’t move my legs, couldn’t feel my lower half at that point. “I think it’s going to be really hard for me to push – I don’t feel anything.” But I was still doing a “great job” according to my doctor and nurse. Delivery was easy – it lasted about 15 minutes. In the back of my mind, I still thought Maybe when she’s born she’ll be okay. Maybe there was some type of error. Maybe it’ll be like that little baby who they thought had died, but started crying in the morgue. But when she passed out of me, and I saw the nurse’s face, I knew that a miracle hadn’t happened. “I watched her come out of you – dead,” A.V, would tell me the next day, sitting in her nursery. I had told the doctor that no, I didn’t want her placed on my chest when she was born; no, I didn’t want to give her a bath (her first and last); yes, I would like to hold her for awhile once she was cleaned up. My doctor said the placenta was a little smaller than she expected for the size of the baby, and ordered cultures and more blood tests. (These didn’t provide any clues as to what had happened.) After delivery, I started shaking uncontrollably. A.V. asked me if I was okay, and I told him that I was just a little cold, but the truth is I was in such an extreme state of anxiety that my whole body was shaking. I knew the nurses were bathing her, dressing her up, taking pictures with her so that I would have keepsakes. It seemed like it was taking forever. At times I wanted to yell, “Just please, bring her here so I can at least see her.” Instead I waited 45 minutes before she was placed in my arms.

When I held her, I was surprised at how heavy she felt. A.V., the two nurses, and my doctor stood over me, watching these first few moments of me holding my daughter. My arm movement was limited by my i.v. and blood pressure cuff, and it was hard to hold her the way I wanted too. I really wanted to see her hands and feet, but couldn’t seem to unwrap the blanket. Six hands reached out to help me. I rubbed her little nose, tried to open her eyes, kissed her little head and hands. The blood had accumulated in her head and torso, making her face look strangely red with anger, while her hands and lower legs were very pale white. While in labor, I had had an awful thought. I love the name Catherine so much. Maybe I should name this baby something else so that I can name another daughter Catherine. But Catherine had always been Catherine, even before I knew I was having her, and she didn’t deserve to be robbed of her name.

A.V. held her. My parents and sister came in and held her. As macabre as it might have seemed, I asked my sister to take pictures of me and Catherine together. My sister had gotten us a digital camera, to make sure that we took lots of pictures. It had been one of the things I had placed in my hospital bag earlier that morning. (She’d later tell me that she had bought a camcorder, to record part of my labor and the whole lifetime of important moments with her first niece and goddaughter.) I said goodbye. My father placed her in her little basket. Someone asked if we wanted an autopsy done. While I wanted answers, I couldn’t imagine letting some stranger cut into that perfect little body. My body was all that she had known; I had protected her, kept her healthy. I loved that little body. I couldn’t let some stranger examine her that way, cut into her. I know she was healthy. Whatever went wrong may have happened in a matter of hours. A.V. and I agreed that we did not want an autopsy. My nurse brought me Catherine’s keepsake box – the dress they had put her in to take pictures, the teddy bear and blanket in the pictures, even the small bottles of shampoo and baby soap they used to wash her.

Eventually that night I was brought to another part of the maternity ward. They asked me if I wanted to go to another part of the hospital, but knowing hospitals, I was concerned that I would get less treatment there – I was starting to experience some pain – than in the maternity ward. I was rolled in a wheelchair to my new room, with a sign “Congratulations on your new baby” right next to the door. Congratulations on your new baby. I read that sign over and over again over the next 16 hours. I didn’t feel angry or bitter reading it. I felt fascination. Women come here, and they give birth to babies that they take home. How odd. For me, my experience had become normative; all the other healthy labors and deliveries were unusual. I listened to Brahms’ Lullaby, which the ward plays every time a baby is delivered – though not for Catherine – with the same fascination. Wow, there’s another woman having a healthy baby. That’s so strange. I heard that song four times during the 30 hours I spent at the hospital.

When my doctor came in the next morning, she said that I could leave the hospital around noon that day, if I wanted. “Yes.” She told me I had done a “superb job.” I’ll probably cling to those words for the rest of my life. My new nurse brought me more literature on grieving, along with Catherine’s footprints. Along with the literature were papers on organ donation. I looked on the last page: “Stillborn – unknown causes. Organs not suitable for donation.” I threw it in the wastebasket.

After what seemed like forever, I got my final instructions and prescriptions. My sister left to pick up my pain medications. A.V. helped me get dressed and packed up our stuff. My father said he was starting to look into making arrangements for a burial. I was wheeled back into the parking lot, and got into the car. I sobbed leaving the hospital – I was leaving without my baby.

Catherine’s car seat was still in the backseat, like I had attached it two weeks earlier. Her car seat was one of the first items we had gotten for her, after my friend sent a duck outfit for her. A.V.’s cousin had given it to us, and I’d gotten head supports and put those in along with a duck-shaped pull toy for her. I had bought and attached one of those safety mirrors so that I would be able to see her face when I was sitting up front. When we arrived back at the house, I opened the back door of the car and began taking it all out. “We can do it later,” A.V. said. “No, I don’t want it here!” For two weeks, I had seen that car seat every time I got into and out of the car, waiting for her. I’d told her that everything was ready for her, that we had set things up to be able to take her home from the hospital. Now she was never going to use it, and I didn’t want it there.

In fact, I didn’t want anything of hers out in the house. I walked into the house like a tornado, looking for anything and everything Catherine-related. Baptism documents (she was going to be baptized on September 20th)? In the trash. The schedule for sign-and-play classes (I was going to take classes with her so that we could learn basic sign language for babies and communicate that way before she could talk)? Also in the trash, along with the notes on pediatricians and the “Care for Your Newborn” pamphlet the pediatrician I had chosen had given me. What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Removed from my nightstand to the nursery. Ditto with What to Expect: the First Year that A.V. and I had been reading that week. Best Baby Gear, the book I had used when surfing the internet for exactly the right – and safe – crib and diapers and clothes and pacifiers and thermometers and bedding, also disappeared into a cabinet in the nursery. Even the laundry detergent and spray wash I had bought especially for her – pediatrician recommended – out of sight. I unpacked my hospital bag: the nightgowns I had bought just a couple of weeks earlier for my hospital stay, the nursing bras, the nursing pads. I unpacked her diaper bag, the two outfits I had packed for her: one pink onesie covered with strawberries, the other a purple polka-doted nightgown. Her little socks. Her newborn disposable diapers with Sesame Street characters on them. Her baby Tylenol drops, the diaper wipes. My mom and sister hovered. “She’ll never use any of this stuff, so I just want to put it away!” Her baby book. I had brought it to the hospital, wanting to make sure that I got her footprints inked into it at the same time that they took them for records. Now the “Welcome Home!” section would be filled in with memories of her burial, pictures of her gravesite at a cemetery. A.V. and I sat on the floor of her nursery and cried.

Two days later, I woke up and began putting stuff in her nursery away. I took her crib bedding apart. I had spent a week and a half picking out that bedding, wanting to make sure it had lots of colors and textures for her. I took her mobile apart – the one with leaves and tropical birds that moved. It played songs and had lights. I took the batteries out of all her toys – the bear she’d gotten at her baby shower, the pink seahorse with a glowing belly that I had seen online and knew I had to get for her. Her changing table, the one I had carefully selected and then made sure I had all the recommended supplies for. I thought about taking down the Winnie the Pooh curtains my parents had bought and hung up for her, but decided not to. Back into the box went her AngelCare Monitor, which would alert me, with some irony considering her death, if she stopped moving for longer than 20 seconds. I put away all the larger toys that my parents’ neighbors had given us, even her stroller. But I couldn’t stop thinking – was any of this ever really hers? It had been bought for her, but she would never use it. Was she never meant to use it?

The next day, September 3rd, was her funeral and burial. A.V. was the last person to see her. He placed a stuffed animal, a rosary, the medal I had worn, and some prayer cards to St. Gerard Majella in her pretty pink coffin, and then closed it forever. “When we have another baby, we need new saints to pray to. The saints we prayed to do some jacked-up s---,” A.V. had said. Through the generosity of the abbot, Catherine was buried in the same plot that my parents will one day be buried in at St. Joseph’s Abbey, so they’ll be able to take care of her at the Resurrection. A statue of St. Joseph is only a few paces away from her, and the next section of the cemetery is where the priests and monks are buried. I noticed when we visited there recently that there’s a park bench underneath the trees nearby. “Look Catherine, you can play and have picnics underneath the tree, and all the priests nearby will say what a lovely and adorable little girl you are!” I like to believe that the rainbows we have been seeing recently, the lovebugs that surrounded our car, are her gifts to us from a much happier place. So many people were excited about her, couldn’t wait to meet her – they were so many people, and so much love at her baby shower - , and prayed for her, that I like to think that the Virgin and saints just wanted her even more than all of us did, so they decided to keep her for themselves.

So that’s what happened. When you tell someone that you had a stillborn baby, they think that there were all sorts of things wrong, with the pregnancy or with your health (you try to avoid the people who are so callous as to actually ask you to your face). Nope. I was perfectly healthy; she was by every measure she had perfectly healthy also. I gained the exact amount of recommended weight, I ate fish once (and only once) a week, I ate small meals with lots of fruits and vegetables, I had fast food no more than once a month, I started drinking lots of water a day (and I hate drinking water) and didn’t touch diet drinks or anything with caffeine, I didn’t even eat lunch meat because of the risk of bacteria. I have my suspicions about problems with my placenta once labor began, but with no autopsy these will most likely never be confirmed, and that doesn’t bother me. In 50% of cases, the cause of a stillborn birth cannot be determined. And it occurs once in every two hundred births.

Now I have a desire to tell every woman who tells me she is pregnant, “Oh, I had a great, healthy pregnancy. And I gave birth to a dead baby. Just something to consider.” I’m not trying to be mean, or add to their anxiety. It’s more like managing expectations. Because honestly, once I hit 37 weeks, I thought the worst that could happen is that I would need an emergency c-section but still have a healthy baby. I knew all the things to watch out for – lack of movement, bright red bleeding. I read books and internet sites; I went to my childbirth classes. Catherine’s lack of discernible movement while I was in labor was no different than in other moments of my pregnancy when I was active and couldn’t feel her as much. Not that there is ever a way to prepare oneself for this sort of tragedy, but a stillbirth had never even entered my mind. That’s something that happened to women 50 years ago without modern medical care, I thought. I had no idea.

Along with my desire to warn every pregnant woman I come across, there’s the discomfort of certain questions and moments. “Do you have children?” I was asked recently. I don’t want to say no – I was and always will be a Mommy to Catherine. But I’m guessing that most people mean currently living children, and I’ve decided that it’s extremely insensitive to assume that all children must be living. I have similar feelings about Mother’s Day now. Do I get to celebrate Mother’s Day, or am I bumped back into childlessness because I had a dead baby? (By the way, the Mother’s Day card my own mom gave me this past year, from Catherine, that read how she couldn’t wait to meet me and play with me, is the only thing that still gets me choked up at this point.)

So now I’ve talked all about my dead baby. But I don’t think of Catherine as dead – the vast majority of the memories I have of her are of her alive. And so even though I know people are more interested in her death, I’d prefer they remember her alive. And since I knew her better than anyone, here’s what my Catherine was like.

Catherine Marie was born at 5:26 pm on August 30th, 2009. She was 19 inches long and weighed 7 lbs, 5 oz. She had dark, fine hair like A.V., with slight curls like mine. She had dark eyes. She had pouty lips, like me. She had baby jowls, like A.V. did as a baby. Her fingers were ridiculously long – way longer than anyone in our immediate families’. Great for the piano, but as my sister pointed out, those big, short legs may not have been long enough to reach the pedals! She had sturdy Mexican peasant legs, and rather large feet.

I remember the first time I saw her on an ultrasound. I had gone to the doctor to confirm that I was pregnant, and she looked like a little tadpole then, with her heart beating away. She was a little miracle. In her next three ultrasounds, as she grew bigger and bigger – and looked more obviously like a baby – I noticed that she loved to hold her right hand above her head. Both A.V. and I do this when we are sleeping, and it was amazing to realize we’d somehow passed this down to our child!

When picking up A.V. from work, she would always get really active, and I’d tell her, “vroom vroom,” (because I’m a notorious speeder who wants other cars to get out of the way) and she’d kick her little legs like crazy. At her burial, the hearse she was placed in – with 3 motorcycle police escorts no less – was going ridiculously slowly at 25 mph. I know she was yelling and kicking, “vroom vroom, Mommy, vroom vroom!”

I also always listen to music in the car – A.V. got a kick out of the fact that I invoked St. John Vianney to fix my car’s cd player – and she loved…Aerosmith. Completely loved them. Whenever Aerosmith would come on, she would practically start somersaulting. OMG, she wants to be a stripper. I might have been the first Mommy to have to go into a toy store and ask, “Um, do you sell stripper poles for toddlers?”

She was also stubborn! She and I had a deal: if I’d drink some orange or pomegranate juice, then rub my tummy, she’d do a flurry of kicks for me. But she could be moving like crazy, and when her dad put his hands on my tummy, she’d completely stop. Two seconds after he’d move his hand away, she’d start up again. Even though A.V. called her “little sweetie,” I think she was planning on being quite the handful for him!

She had quite the relationship with our cat, Sadie, too. Sadie likes to sit on me, and loved to put her paws on my big belly. Catherine hated this. She’d hit back. I think, “Get off, Sadie!” would have been her first phrase, especially since Sadie would have loved nothing more than to cuddle up with her little warm body.

She had really strong hiccups. I first felt her hiccuping in my sixth month, and in that last month, her hiccups were so strong that you could see my whole belly pulsing! I like to think that she was practicing her breathing for her big arrival in the world, though I was a little nervous about what type of screamer she would have turned out to be.

Catherine was such a tenacious little girl. In the middle of my pregnancy, A.V. and I moved halfway across the country. In preparing to leave our old apartment, I spent an afternoon crawling around on the floor, crouching behind an oven, and using strong cleaning supplies. I was so worried that I’d go to the doctor the next day and find out that something was wrong. But no, her heartbeat was as strong as ever.

I also got nervous during those few days that we were driving from California to Louisiana, especially since my visit with my new doctor was a few weeks away. I had had to sit in a car for many hours and hadn’t been drinking as much water as I would have liked. I was so scared that there would be problems. But no, in her ultrasound everything was functioning perfectly. That’s when we also found out for sure that she was a girl, and I couldn’t help telling her, “You’re one tough cookie, Catherine!” Considering my mental state at times, she overcame some real obstacles because I know that as much as so many people were excited about meeting her, she really wanted to be here too. I like to think that it’s that fighting spirit that made Someone want her even more, where she could be a part of even bigger and better things.

And then there are the moments I will never get with her, the dreams that I had for her. Of dressing her as a butterfly this Halloween, of taking care of her at the dinner table for Thanksgiving this year, of putting up the Christmas tree, buying “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments for her and even making a few. Of getting her a Christmas dress and an Easter outfit. Bringing her to the park this coming spring, right when she would have been old enough to be interested in the outdoor world and excited about all the new life that appears.

I know that for those who didn’t know Catherine as well as I did, the dreams they had of her and for her are even more vivid, and probably feel like all they will ever have of her. I don’t really have any words to say that would comfort them, other than to have written this to let them know, “This is what Catherine was like, and is like. She died unexpectedly for reasons that none of us will ever know in this lifetime, but in her own way, she led a very full life while here on earth. And she knew how many people loved her, and she wanted to be with you, too. God just wanted her even more.”

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Four Temperaments

Going back to basics in 1946, Balanchine concentrated his attention equally on the smallest details and the largest resources of classical dance and on making transitions from one to the other clearer, perhaps, than they’d ever been before.

When, in the opening statement of the ballet – the first part of the Theme - we see a girl, supported on her points, turning from side to side and transferring her weight from one foot to the other as she turns, we see her do it with a finicky grace: she lifts and lowers the free foot, curls it around the standing leg, and carefully flexes it before arching to full point.We see, in short a foot becoming a point-nature being touched to artificial life. The detail looms for an instant, then quickly takes its place in the grand scheme of the ballet.

The Theme is full of elementary particles, jostling, caroming, crisscrossing space in strokes that define the boundaries of the territory Balanchine will invade.In the Theme’s second statement (there are three such statements, each a pas de deux), the side-to-side turns have become full revolutions, rapid finger turns marked off by the girl’s point as it taps the floor. In the third statement, the finger-turns are taken in deep plie with one foot held off the ground in passé position. The weight on that one supporting point looks crushing, but, as we have seen, there is something about a woman’s point that makes it not a foot – that makes it a sign. The image created by the third girl as she is spun is blithe, even comical; could Balanchine have been thinking of the bass fiddle the forties jazz player spins after a chorus of licks?

The developing sense of the passages I’ve cited is analogous to the process that takes place in the molding of a classical dancer’s body. The “story” of The Four Temperaments is precisely that story – the subjection of persons to a process and their re-emergence as human archetypes – but these citations may make it seems as if that process happened all in closeup, and if that were true we would be in a crazy man’s world. Balanchine has built a large and dense composition on a handful of cellular motifs, and it’s this economy that allows us to perceive the ballet and survive it, too.

Balanchine’s control of the action’s subliminal force allows us the most marvelous play in our minds; we’re torn in an agony of delight between what we see and what we think we see. Metaphoric implications flash by, achieve their bright dazzle of suggestion, and subside into simple bodily acts. The way the women stab the floor with their points or hook their legs around men’s waists or grip their partners’ wrists in lifts – images of insatiable hunger, or functional necessities?

[Melancholic’s] space is penetrated by menacing diagonals for the entries of the corps. They are enough to frustrate and block his every attempt to leap free. He leaps and crumples to earth. We recognize this man: his personal weather is always ceiling zero.

In the Sanguinic variation, the vista is wide, the ozone pure and stinging.The Sanguinic variation takes us to the top of the world, and twice we ride around its crest.

Phlegmatic is indolent, tropical, given to detached contemplation.The male soloist languishes, and loves it. Slowly he picks up invisible burdens, lifts them, and clothes himself in their splendor.

Choleric enters in a burst of fanfares and flourishes, kicking the air. Her fury must be appeased, assimilated by the ballet’s bloodstream. The entire cast collaborates in the process.

After a silence in which nobody moves, the great fugue of the finale begins its inexorable massed attack. All the parts the ballet is made of are now seen at once in a spectacle of grand-scale assimilation. Apotheosis. We see a succession of sky-sweeping lifts; we see a runway lined by a chorus of grand battements turned to the four points of the compass. The lifts travel down the runway and out as the curtain falls. Balanchine has interpreted the subject in the form of a dance fantasy, but never so literally or schematically that we need fear, if we miss one element, having missed all.
8 Dec 1975

- from the essay “Momentous” by Arlene Croce

"The Four Temperaments" was not a Balanchine ballet that I "got" immediately. My first exposure to it was on video, from the Dance in America series of the 1970s with a highly praised revival cast. The themes consisted of couples moving to create shapes but their movements would be abruptly stopped by foot, leg, or arm. Was this ballet about movement arrested? I was equally confused by the men's sections (Phlegmatic and Melancholic). The four women who sometimes accompany the men pose fashion model style, sometimes blocking the path of the men with their arms, torsos, or legs. The only sections I really responded to were "Choleric" with her sharp kicks and the ending, which really does surprise with the mass of dancers suddenly present on stage dancing in unison. It was a ballet I admired in the back of my mind, but didn't really care to see again, no matter how many ballet critics I read maintained that "The Four Temperaments" was a ballet they NEEDED to see at least every 5 years.

However, as I saw more ballet - particularly more traditional classical ballets - I could see how Balanchine was building off of the basics of ballet movement. I was also able to get beyond the early ballet-watcher confusion of "what am I seeing here?" and enjoy the pure movement - the languorous backbends, the sharp kicks, the flexing feet, the hip thrusts - not merely their shapes, but their force and impact as movements. Not that one cannot immediately enjoy "The Four Temperaments" as movement, but it took me seeing the way Balanchine was altering those movements - through their placement in the music, or accents, or general force - from their more typical use in older classical ballets to understand what was going on here. Only now am I beginning to understand how much this 1946 Hindemith ballet can train the eye and teach us of how much ballet still has to communicate.

Chicago, 20 October 2006, Evening

Throughout the day and evening performances, I kept thinking that NYCB has sure turned into a "short" company with a lot of short, compact female dancers. Martins was clearly keeping all the tall, long-limbed, Balanchine-caricatured women for this ballet, and I immediately wondered why several of them (Krohn, Bar, Riggins) weren't dancing soloist roles in Concerto, Symphony in C, and Divertimento, as they had the energy and phrasing and individuality one had been waiting for. (I also would have liked to have seen Somogyi in 1st movement Symphony in C.) I thought this was the best performed ballet (at least it had energy!) but I also thought it was a bit uncontrolled. It seemed like the dancers were breathing easier in this space, but at the same time not realizing that they were still performing classical ballet. In other words, they looked happy to exaggerate, and exaggerated too much for it. But there was a real sense of commitment, a real excitement to be out on stage that was sorely lacking in the other five Balanchine ballets, and for that (at the end of the day) I was grateful.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

All I ever wanted to know about Hell, I learned from Vincent Price

“You are about to enter Hell, Bartolome - Hell!...The nether world, the infernal region, the abode of the damned...The place of torment. Pandemonium, Abbadon, Tophet, Gehenna, Narraka...the Pit!...And the Pendulum. The razor-edge of destiny.”

My mother, no fan of modern horror movies, has always been a Vincent Price horror movie fan. Thus, Roger Corman’s 1961 film "The Pit and the Pendulum" was taped from late night Houston t.v. and watched and re-watched in my house whenever we wanted to see a “scary movie.” (Even scarier were the commercials for the Time Life series of books on the paranormal, with images of specters floating down hallways and demons in the woods, all of which could have been mine to learn about if I would have called and ordered the first in the series.)

“The Pit and the Pendulum” is a child’s nightmare of a movie, filled with the forbidden and the horrifying – and without supernatural elements. Incest, torture, insanity, being buried alive, a huge castle with hidden passageways, and obviously, a pit and a pendulum. The plot, which bears little resemblance to Poe’s original story, is about a young man, Bartolome, who comes to the Medina castle to find out how his sister Elizabeth, wife of Nicholas Medina, died. Nicholas is played by the incomparable Vincent Price, complete with grief-stricken face, bulging eyeballs, looks of despair, and even a fainting spell. We eventually learn that Nicholas’ father was the local inquisitor who conducted his torture sessions in the basement and who tortured and killed his wife and brother on suspicion that they were having an affair, while his son watched. Prior to her death, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) had become increasingly fascinated with these torture devices, and it was believed that the “ghosts” killed her. But Nicholas is haunted by his beloved Elizabeth, and begins to believe that she was buried alive. In one of the most indelible images in the movie, they open her casket to find a decaying face frozen in a scream.

Of course, there is the plot twist: there is no supernatural explanation for the death of Elizabeth, as she did not die in this gruesome manner. She was having an affair with the doctor, staged her own death and is now trying to drive her husband crazy so she can run off with the doctor free and clear. “Nicholas…Nicholas…” she keeps calling to him*, luring him down into the basement, where she hopes he will die of fright. Right when it seems that he has cracked up and died, he turns the tables on Elizabeth and the doctor and assumes the persona of his inquisitor father, torturing his wife and friend. Unluckily for him, Elizabeth’s brother is the one who gets tied to the pendulum torture device. Nicholas’ sister comes to Bartolome’s rescue, and Nicholas ends up dead at the bottom of the pit, an evil grin on his face. But if that isn’t enough, the final scene is of the basement torture chamber being locked up, while Elizabeth is frozen inside the iron maiden.

As already stated, there are no supernatural aspects in this movie. It is all the more terrifying because of that – it is about a descent into insanity and evil, based on the wickedness of others and their ability to deceive. It’s one of the scariest things in the world – that people are not as you thought them to be. (One of my childhood nightmares was that people would shape-shift in the dark, that they could become other people or creatures in a room with no light, and then attack me.)

But even that as not as frightening as how delighted Price – as Nicholas – becomes when he is freed into pure evil. It’s not just a twist on the old saying that bad ‘guys’ have more fun; it’s this passion to act in a newfound way, free of concern and responsibility. It’s appropriate that he cannot recognize anyone as they are. He is oblivious in his desire to complete all his wicked aims. Hell becomes the scariest place possible.

*The way Price calls after her, “Elizabeth? Elizabeth?” reminded my sister and me of the way Macho Man Randy Savage called after Miss Elizabeth, for ‘80s WWF fans.

Guitar-playing days are here again...

I have decided to take up the guitar. About 10 years ago, for a very boring summer where I was mostly confined to the house, I briefly tried to teach myself to play the guitar using Roy Clark’s Big Note Songbook. The guitar I used was given to us by a cousin and was missing a string; it had been previously used as a fake weapon (machine gun) by my sister and me when we were younger. Ten years ago, I mastered the melody to “Amazing Grace,” and that was about it.

So how difficult can it be to learn to play the guitar? I have always been amazed by the sheer numbers of people who can play it reasonably well. After all, I have 12 years of piano lessons and 8 years of clarinet lessons, so this should be fairly easy, right? Come on, I can play Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” and Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto.” I can certainly play the guitar, right?

First things first – I cannot figure out how to hold a guitar correctly and comfortably. Perhaps I am cursed to not join the masses of guitar-players because my hands are too small, or my fingers are too short. But I am determined to persevere.

My sister, who cannot do anything halfway, has given me a classical guitar given to her by a coworker. She has purchased strings for it, a tuner, and a whole pile of guitar-learning books and songbooks. She even has an interactive computer program to help me learn (now how I am supposed to master holding the guitar correctly while messing around with the computer, I do not know).

In an attempt to force myself to write on my blog daily, I will provide frequent updates on my conquest of the guitar. And conquer this instrument I will. I cannot wait to play Haugen ditties from the choir stall at Mass.