Monthly Archives: March 2010

Final Four

Indianapolis is probably not on anyone’s top-ten list of tourist destinations, but it has its attractions.  The annual Indy 500 motor race would certainly be one, and after that there’s… well, let’s see — the home of Benjamin Harrison, 23rd president of the United States.  Oh, and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument is right in the heart of downtown.  Another reason to visit might be if you have relatives who live in the area.

Every once in a while the championship round — the Final Four — of the NCAA basketball tournament is played in Indianapolis, as is the case this year.  That’s also what drew us there in 1997.  The participating schools that year were North Carolina, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Arizona.  Here are a few notes I made in my journal at the time…

The first of the two semifinal games, between Arizona and North Carolina, was a sloppily-played game; both teams shot just a little better than 30%.  Mike Bibby, freshman guard for U of A, hit 6 three-pointers, and that carried the team to victory.

We were seated at mid-court on floor level, 38 rows up from the court.  All around us were college coaches:  Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Bill Frieder of Arizona State, Dr. Tom Davis of Iowa, Jerry Tarkanian of Fresno State, Gary Williams of Maryland, Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech, and many others.  Every head turned when the great Oscar Robertson walked in and sat across the aisle from us.

The second game was Kentucky vs. Minnesota.  Clem Haskins, the Minnesota coach, got hit with a technical about 5 minutes into the second half.  Kentucky coach Rick Pitino put in Derek Anderson to shoot the technicals.  Anderson had been a pre-season All-American pick, but blew out a knee ligament in January, so was unable to play.  He shot both free throws and was taken right out of the game, so he scored 2 points in 0 minutes as he ended his college career.  Kentucky won, 78-69.

The championship game on Monday night was outstanding.  It matched two teams of Wildcats, and they played like it.  There were 16 ties and 18 lead changes.  Kentucky hit two three-pointers in the last minute to tie the game and send it to overtime.  Arizona did not make a field goal in the extra period, but sank 10 free throws.  Arizona won 84-79 in what was widely praised as the most exciting championship game in recent memory.  Arizona had come into the tournament as a number four seed.  It became the first team in history to defeat three #1 seeds on the way to the championship:  Kansas in the regional semifinal, North Carolina, and Kentucky.  The Most Outstanding Player award was given to Miles Simon, who scored 23 in the semifinal game, and 30 in the championship.

After the game, we had drinks in the lobby of our hotel, which for some reason seemed to be filled with Kentucky fans.  They were keeping the bartender busy.

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Smile Research

Authentic Duchenne smiles

It’s surprising — it was to me, anyway — how much scientific study has been devoted to smiling.  Charles Darwin and William James were 19th-century science all-stars who took on that topic; Darwin published a book called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals that, among other things, pointed out the universality of smiles across all cultures.

Darwin’s work was influenced by the earlier studies of a French neurologist.  You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Guillaume Duchenne, but in the mid-1800s he was identifying the muscles of the face, and figuring out how they functioned in creating different expressions.  He acknowledged that there were many different smiles — for instance, there’s the kind you manage to force at a party when you’re offered a homemade appetizer of snake eggs.

After diligent study of facial anatomy, though, Duchenne isolated the combination of muscles used in spontaneous smiling.  He determined that genuine smiles involve contractions of both the zygomatic major muscle and the orbicularis oculi muscle — or, as we have all figured out without benefit of scientific study, real smiles show changes around the eyes as well as the mouth.  To this day, the scientists who study this stuff call the genuine smile a Duchenne smile.

It got to be pretty well established that our brain sends signals to our facial muscle groups, which results in the upturned corners of the mouth, raised cheeks, and crinkles at the edges of the eyes.  Over the last forty years or so, smile researchers have been conducting experiments to see if the direction can be reversed.  In other words, if one forces those facial muscles into an approximation of a smile, can it generate a happy feeling?

The fancy term for this is Facial Feedback Hypothesis, meaning that a facial change can indeed result in an emotion.  A lot of psychologists have earnestly conducted experiments to try to prove it.  In one such study, a group of subjects was instructed to repeatedly make the long “e” sound, while others made a pouty long “u”.  Supposedly the “say ‘cheese'” group was happier afterward than the “*#!% you” group.  To me, the mystery is why both groups weren’t doubled over in derisive laughter at the guys in lab coats.

The notion persists that fake smiles can generate happy feelings, though.  According to a 1989 study, it may have to do with minute changes in chemical activities that are triggered by the constriction of blood vessels in the affected areas.  Or something like that.  Another doctor admitted that it only works in a state of emotional neutrality; artificial smiles can’t make real unhappiness go away. 

I’m not sure I buy the claim I saw on one website that forcing smiles is “a fun way to live longer”, but I guess there’s no real harm in smiling once in a while.  Whether it will result in feelings of happiness is debatable, but at least we could probably benefit from the advice of W.C. Fields, who said, “Start every day with a smile and get it over with.”

Autodidact

Closeup of Brunelleschi's dome (photo by Sally Reeder)

There are certain words that shouldn’t be used in polite company:  one of them is “postprandial”.  All it means is after dinner, of course, but it’s such a snooty way to say it.  I was once seated next to a woman at a dinner party who, following dessert and coffee, informed me that it was now time for her “postprandial pee”.   Considering all the wine she’d had, a trip to the restroom was an inevitability,  but a simple “excuse me” would have sufficed.

Another word that should be banned from conversation is autodidact.  It’s certainly a fancy term, but if I said to you, “When it comes to art, I am an autodidact,” you might smile and nod, but you’d be thinking, “you’re also a jackass.”  On the other hand, if I simply admitted to you that I didn’t have a lot of formal art education, that I’m basically self-taught on that subject, you still might think I’m a jackass, but at least not an arrogant one.

It’s true that I only had a couple of art classes in school, so most of what I know about art I did learn on my own.  I’m no expert (as you can tell if you’ve been following this blog), but it seems to me there’s no substitute for standing face-to-face with the original artworks.  There are, however, hundreds of thousands of books on the subject as well, of which I’ve read, oh, maybe fifty or so.  Some are tedious — the print version of Ambien — but others don’t seem like homework at all.  In fact, several of them compare favorably with best-selling novels for making you want to keep turning pages.

There’s a British author named Ross King who has written three terrific books on aspects of art history.  You know how David McCullough has turned elements of U.S. history into ripping yarns in books like 1776 and The Path Between the Seas?  Ross King writes that same way about art.  If you’re so inclined, you might want to treat yourself to one or more of the following:

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling     Michelangelo was an artist of great renown when he took on the task of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.  Part of the challenge was that he had almost no prior experience with fresco (pigment mixed into wet plaster).  With a little help, he taught himself how to do it.  This book delves into the political and cultural dramas that swirled around Michelangelo while he spent over a decade creating a masterpiece.

The Judgment of Paris     My favorite book by King, it’s about Edouard Manet and his late-19th century colleagues who ushered in the era of Impressionism.  It reveals the personality quirks of these artists who were experimenting with new techniques, and charts the ascendancy of these “outcasts” in the art world.

Brunelleschi’s Dome     A Renaissance goldsmith in Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi was commissioned to build a dome for the local cathedral.  Domes had been fairly common a thousand years before, but in the intervening centuries, humans forgot how to build them.  I don’t think it’s giving away the ending to tell you that Brunelleschi essentially reinvented architecture.  And I’ll bet he had too much class to refer to himself as an autodidact.

Here’s To the Apostle of Ireland

Based on the celebrations that take place every March 17th, many people assume that Saint Patrick is the patron saint of rowdy drunks.  That is not true; Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, which may account for the confusion.

It is also not true that St. Patrick eradicated snakes from Ireland — the icy waters that surround the country have been an effective deterrent for many thousands of years.  It’s possible that particular legend got its start in the ancient belief that serpents represented evil, so Patrick’s missionary work may have been symbolically understood as banishing snakes.

One of the few things we know for certain about St. Patrick is that there is very little about him that is known for certain.  He was born in 387, or 460, or 420, depending on which source you choose to believe.  He lived in Britain, but was kidnapped as a teenager, taken to Ireland, and sold into slavery.  (That info comes from one of two surviving letters that are generally accepted as having been written by Patrick himself.)

Around the time he was twenty, he had a dream in which God told him how to escape and get home to Britain.  He did so, but soon after that he had another dream, this one urging his return to Ireland as God’s messenger.  Only saints have dreams of this sort, apparently.  My dreams tend to be about smoking cigarettes or having to take a final exam for which I have not studied.

Patrick became a priest and went back to Ireland in 433 (if he was alive then).  Many Druids and pagans converted to Christianity through his efforts, and he supposedly used the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity — three leaves on one stem representing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Today, of course, the shamrock symbolizes the concept “Kiss me, I’m Irish”.

By tradition, it is believed that St. Patrick died on March 17, 461.  Or 493.  Or somewhere around that time.  It was many centuries later that his feast day came to be associated with parades, wearing green, and binge drinking.  In the late 19th century, Irish immigrants were pejoratively referred to as “Paddies”, a corruption of Padraig, the Celtic form of the saint’s name.  That usage extended to the police vans that came to be called Paddy Wagons.  There are a couple of conflicting versions of how that term entered the lexicon:  One holds that Irish-Americans were rounded up and carted off to jail in them.  The other version has the “Paddies” (please excuse the disparaging term) in the driver’s seat, so to speak:  By the early 20th century, many Irish-Americans had become police officers.

So how did the feast day of the Apostle of Ireland come to be associated with slurred speech, fist fights, and public urination?  One might also ask, how did St. Nicholas come to be honored by the maxing out of credit cards?  Why do we venerate St. Valentine with chocolate and lingerie?  No one knows.  I could offer a guess about St. Patrick’s Day, though:  It comes during the Lenten season, so maybe it gives the religiously inclined a one-day break from those forty days of pious behavior.  And by the way, if you were wondering whose feast day is March 18… there is no Saint Tylenol.

What’s the Difference?

With all those hippos, it didn’t seem wise to go farther upriver.

It’s a question that has been debated for centuries, but has no conclusive answer:  What is humankind’s greatest invention?  Fire gets some votes, as does the wheel.  The lever is worthy of consideration, and recently the computer has entered the conversation.  If you ask me, though, I believe that the greatest invention was language.  After all, if words hadn’t been crafted to express thoughts, people would be limited to arguing with hand gestures and eye rolling.

It’s difficult to imagine what things were like back when there was no such thing as a native tongue, because language comes fairly naturally to us now.  By the time a kid enters kindergarten, he or she has a vocabulary of well over a thousand words, most of which express dissatisfaction with anything they are asked to eat or wear.  An educated adult knows many thousands of words, including some — such as copse — that are only useful in crossword puzzles.  The mystery is, how are we able to master something as complicated as language, but still screw up parts of it?

A six-year-old knows the difference between the words father and feather.  Does anyone draw a blank when asked to distinguish between far (at a distance) and fur (what spinach makes your teeth feel like)?  No, we all seem to grasp the distinctions between those similarly-spelled words.  But what about farther and further?  Furget it.  Most of us have stumbled over that subtle difference so frequently that the Oxford English Dictionary is ready to admit defeat and say those words often mean the same thing.

There really is a difference between them, though, and here’s how I remember it:  Farther is distance; further is degree.

Let’s walk a little farther and we’ll discuss this further.  If you’re talking about physical distance, you use farther, as in “London is much farther than Montreal,” or “I’ve never seen a punter kick one farther than that.”  If you’re trying to convey “an extension of time or degree”, as the AP Stylebook puts it, you want further — like, “They were happy to further a good cause”, or “Highway repairs caused further delays.”

Space doesn’t permit me to elaborate on other pitfalls in the English language, such as compliment (“That’s a good color on you”) and complement (“Australian wine goes well with Triscuits”).  I know I have personally stumbled over discrete (separate, distinct) and discreet (not sharing a juicy morsel of gossip).  You could undoubtedly point out other errors I have made in usage or punctuation — perhaps in this very post — but we’re not picking on each other, right?  We want to use the marvelous invention of language in a positive way; we’re helping each other, you and I… or is it “me”?  No, “I” is right.  I’m pretty sure.

The Nonevent

It was a faint sound, like some electronic device in the next room — just enough to awaken me.  It turned out to be a tsunami warning siren that was a considerable distance from where we were, and in that pre-dawn hour, it seemed to be nothing more than an annoyance.  I went back to sleep.

Not long thereafter, Sally’s cell phone rang, waking me up again.  It was our daughter, calling from several thousand miles away to let us know that a tsunami was bearing down on us.  The devastating 8.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked Chile, she said, had triggered giant waves that were expected to reach Hawaii within a few hours.  That news got our attention.

We were staying with friends in their private residence and by now they were stirring, too — packing, in fact.  The Hawaiian authorities had announced that everyone in coastal areas had to evacuate by 9:00 a.m.  Since we were visitors, we didn’t have to think about what to take with us.  We had both come to the island with one suitcase each, so that’s what we’d leave with.  For residents, it’s more of a dilemma:  what is essential?  Some things have to be left behind and potentially lost, but what do you absolutely need?  And for that matter, where do you go?

I can answer that last question.  On Saturday, February 27, 2010, everyone on the Big Island of Hawaii evacuated to gas stations.  Lines were around the block at the few stations that remained open.  None of us knew how long we’d be stranded, of course, so it seemed prudent to gas up.  Guests of the hotels along the Kohala Coast were shuttled to higher ground; when they had planned their vacations, none of them imagined that they would be spending part of it in a community recreation center, eating sandwiches prepared by relief workers.

Our hosts hastily made arrangements for our evacuation to a rental property, a farm house far from the coast.  It had a television, so our group was able to watch the local news coverage.  TV cameras were aimed at various beaches and bays; reporters and experts speculated about the degree of devastation we could expect, and counted down the minutes until it arrived.

The tsunami eventually did hit the islands, but with considerably less force than had been anticipated.  On the Big Island, the wall of water (if you want to call it that) was only three feet high.  This seemed to be disappointing to some of the newscasters who were prepared, even eager, to describe scenes of destruction.  Personally, I was relieved that we weren’t stuck without power and water; I didn’t mind one bit when the authorities rescinded the mandatory evacuation order after a few hours.

Scientists may have miscalculated, or maybe government officials erred on the side of caution, but the important thing is that there were very few people who actually suffered.  That would be the vendors who were trying to sell “I Survived the Tsunami” T-shirts.