Guns as art and in the world

At my granddaughter’s art school, student work features what struck me as an awful lot of weapons: handguns, automatic rifles, daggers. “Well, Gran,” she replied to my comment on this high degree of angst, “we are teenagers.”

OK, I know it’s been two generations and at least 70 light years since I was a freshman art student myself, but I do miss the landscapes, still lifes and quiet figure studies. And I lament the angst.

I draw NO parallel, absolutely NO parallel between the excellent training and remarkable students at today’s art schools and the angst-level of terrorism. It is still both unsettling and heart-wrenching to pick up today’s New York Times and be greeted by a front page photo of a pretty,  baby-faced, all-innocence young girl pointing a gun upwards behind her head while in the casual embrace of her boyfriend, who is holding a larger handgun.

The boyfriend, as it happens, is a handsome young Russian who was killed by government forces a few months ago. The young woman, hardly more than a child, blew herself up in a Moscow subway on Monday, killing a lot of other innocent human beings. What is striking, among all the other ironies and tragedies of this picture, is the wealth of warmth and promise that seems to shine out of those two faces… if you cover up the guns. But those faces, and the bodies to which they were attached, are now dead.

I am holding onto my Brady Campaign membership.

Going to hell, or going to dance — hate group meets celebration

A small but extraordinarily vitriolic hate group out of Topeka, KS visited the San Francisco Bay Area this past week, picketing a variety of targets — anything Jewish, homosexual or supportive of same seems to do. It is, in fact, hard to find many people these folks don’t hate. You are welcome to check out their website — Westboro Baptist Church — it’s just not recommended after eating.They are headed to Dallas next.

Most people simply ignored them. But groups at several local high schools and at Stanford University took the occasion of being targeted for a little creative anti-hate-group celebrating, and some of these events are chronicled on the Not In Our Town site:

Hillel at Stanford University, one of the institutions targeted Jan. 29 by Westboro, invited the entire Stanford community to stand together Friday morning “for a peaceful gathering in celebration of our diversity and our unity,” according to the invitation they emailed to students and campus groups.

“We chose to use the incident as an opportunity to align the campus around shared values and issue a call to action,” said Adina Danzig Epelman, executive director of Hillel at Stanford. Students were instructed not to engage the Phelps family in any way, and to bring signs with positive rather than negative messages.

About 1000 students  representing dozens of campus organizations, or simply themselves, along with a number of faculty and staff, showed up at 8am for 45 minutes of musical celebration, including an unexpected bagpipe player who launched into “Amazing Grace” on the front steps of the Hillel building. It was, Epelman said, “a very broad gathering, representing the diversity of our campus.”

In a message of support earlier in the week, the Hindu and Muslim co-founders of Stanford F.A.I.T.H. wrote: “If we did not stand alongside Jews, gays and lesbians, or any other group that may be maligned this Friday, we would not be the Hindus and Muslims we strive to be.”

At San Francisco’s Lowell High School, another target, the handful of picketers were met by an exuberant horde of teenagers who seemed to agree with one sign proclaiming “We’re not going to hell, we’re going to dance.” My personal favorite sign read “Jesus had two Dads;” had he been around I suspect Jesus would have been dancing.

The only gloom, in fact, was on the faces of the young picketers. They looked more wistful than hateful. It’s easy to believe they would rather be dancing too.

Facebook parenting — God help us

At the risk of sounding like a grandmother, which I quintupitally am, I have to say I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past several days being thankful I’m not raising any teenagers. This is thanks to the story of Tess of the d’Overmuch and her Facebook quest for relief from being grounded. If you’ve missed this exciting adventure, Susan Dominus summarizes it in today’s New York Times:

They feel her pain. At the Spence School and Greenwich High and Fullerton Union High and Nyack High and Narragansett High, teenagers and near-teenagers, hundreds of them, are waving a virtual flag for Tess Chapin, a 15-year-old from Sunnyside, Queens, who has been grounded for five weeks. A few days after founding the Facebook group — “1000 to get tess ungrounded” — Tess had nearly reached her stated goal, with 806 members by Friday morning; after this column about her quest was posted on nytimes.com, she surpassed it.

This is teenage rebellion, electronic style — peaceful, organized and, apparently, contagious.

So basically, Tess explains on her group page, she made an honest late-night mistake. Her parents flipped, and they grounded her for five weeks — “thats my childhood right there,” she wrote. “please join so I can convince them to unground me. please please please.”

Interesting she should mention childhood. Tess’ groundation, as she terms it, occurred after an honest late-night mistake involving drinking booze and missing a curfew, behaviors that are wisely left until childhood is past, which her parents, if not her friends, understand. To their everlasting credit — and bless their hearts for having to raise what must be a bright and feisty daughter in such a public arena — they seem thus far disinclined to let Facebook group rule.

If your parents didn’t care,” pointed out a sophomore at Ithaca College, “they would have just let you rot.” Someone agreed with Tess that “parents can be stupid.” A friend of a friend expressed hope that she and her parents would take something “grand” away from the experience. A close pal chimed in, “I love you, but your parents are not gonna unground you for convincing 1,000 people to join a group.”

It is to this last theory that Ms. Iselin Chapin (mom Jennifer Iselin Chapin, a fund-raiser for the Natural Resources Defense Council) subscribes.

“What’s your fallback strategy?” she asked her daughter Thursday night, sitting across from her in the living room of their two-bedroom apartment in Sunnyside.

“O.K., one: drive you so crazy that you’re going to unground me,” Tess replied.

Her mother shook her head. “That’s not going to do it, sweetheart.”

Times writer Dominus suggested early on that perhaps another group might be started in support of “Parents Who Believe in Consequences for Serious Lapses in Judgment and Care Enough About Their Kids to Enforce the Rules,” and reported that within an hour a Times Online reader had done just that. And bless that reader’s heart, too.

I think raising kids in the relative obscurity of pre-internet times was infinitely easier and surely effective, for proof of which I offer three excellent grown children, parents of three flawless teenagers and — in the case of son and daughter-in-law who deserve an extra blessing of hearts — two gorgeous girls who won’t be teenagers for another 6 or 8 years.

My eldest granddaughter came across the country to enter college last fall, offering joy and a learning experience to her creaky left coast grandparents. We are diligently learning about what 19-year-old college art students create, wear, enjoy and pierce. She is extraordinarily grounded and gifted and fast approaching the end of child/teenagehood — though she did exemplify the complexities of it all when assuring her mother she was not homesick while asking that she (the mom) please not talk about the dogs.

I have conceded that most of today’s teenagers will miss the pleasure of things like thank-you notes (they don’t write, they Facebook and they text,) and think it’s just as well my own college art major was in the dark ages. We did life drawing and paintings of little arrangements of bottles and fruits for starters. The college art life today is tough. My granddaughter took us on a walking tour of her dorm and its collection of depictions of violence and terrors, which prompted me to remark that there is so much angst in today’s art.

“Well, Gran,” she said with a note of weary indulgence, “we ARE teenagers.”

Big City – Teenager Taps Facebook to Protest a Punishment From Her Parents – NYTimes.com.

Get smarter before the New Year? Sure you can

Scientific proof is limited. But this space, in the interest of staving off dementia while smartening up the general population, has been investigating recent reports on benefits of brain exercise. (One recent report in this space said crossword puzzles aren’t any big brain deal, which is mildly contradicted by the report below, which proves one cannot believe everything one reads online. Still… evidence is coming in.)

Doing crossword puzzles, reading, and playing cards daily may delay the rapid memory decline that occurs if people develop dementia, according to a U.S. study.

Researchers from New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine spent five years following 488 people aged 75 to 85 who did not have dementia at the start of the study.

Participants were tracked for how often they engaged in six endeavors: reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, having group discussions and playing music. Almost 1/4 of them developed dementia (that’s the bad news) during the study period. But the more engagement, the slower the decline.

Denise Park, PhD, founder of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas and a panelist on the recent brain fitness segment of PBS’ Life (Part 2) series, argued against crossword puzzles in this space (Can You Beef Up Your Brain, 12-09-09.) The social component (think tackling a new dance step) of brain exercise, she and many others maintain, is critical. Or the multi-layered element involved in learning to play a musical instrument or taking up photography — Park believes those sorts of endeavors will always beat crossword puzzles and solitary computer games.

Now comes Kathryn Bresnik of ProProfs.com. Bresnik isn’t quite ready to assert that you can improve your cognitive function right this minute by playing online brain games, but she cites a recent report (by Mary Brophy Marcus in USA Today) that the movement is gaining traction:

Computer games have been inching their way into the medical world over the last few years and though your local hospital may not become a mini-arcade, experts say patients can expect to see more gaming in medical settings in the years to come, especially brain games.

That report covered a recent Games for Health Conference in Boston, which for the first time featured a day of sessions specifically focused on gaming and cognitive health, and presentations by researchers from such mildly disparate sites as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment. (Pick which to believe.)

For the past two days, since being alerted to ProProfs.com, I have been sneaking over to their game page, doing things like the Family Word Search or the Quick Calculate math one. Being an admitted novice to computer games, I found it pretty nifty to have that little voice telling me That. Is. Correct. when I did something right, and presenting instant tallies of time and scores.

So, okay, I haven’t made it into the top 50 for this week, and the games I chose are probably designed for 7th graders rather than 70-somethings. But here’s the thing: Every day, my scores are just a tiny bit better. This seems proof, albeit slightly anecdotal, that I am getting smarter. You may want to give it a try. If I can get smart enough to embed the game that the site tells me I can embed into a blog, it will be done at a later date, and perhaps we can poll True/Slant readers for increased cognitive function.

One caveat: While you are doing computer games, you cannot be doing dishes. Or writing blogs, for that matter. Smartness has its price.

via A crossword puzzle a day may delay dementia – Aging- msnbc.com.

Greeting the new GRE revisions

It should be said up front that I never took the Graduate Record Exam. MFA programs are not, I think, noted for their insistence on past academic rigor; and in any event I was grateful for the University of San Francisco graduate school’s willingness to consider 45 years’ writing experience in lieu of my less than stellar undergraduate record. In the interest of higher education in general, though, I try to keep up with such things as this, just reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

After two false starts, the Graduate Record Exam, the graduate school entrance test, will be revamped and slightly lengthened in 2011 and graded on a new scale of 130 to 170.

On the quantitative section, the biggest change will be the addition of an online calculator. The writing section will still have two parts, one asking for a logical analysis and the other seeking an expression of the student’s own views.

One has to worry about that online calculator. I did indeed study math about the time of the abacus, but what’s the matter with adding and subtracting in the head? Maybe they just mean that some mysterious online genie will immediately calculate results.  Still, I am heartened that expressions of students’ own views will be sought.

The Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, described its plans Friday at the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools in San Francisco, calling the changes ‘the largest revisions’ in the history of the test.

Although the exam will still include sections on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing, each section is being revised. The new verbal section, for example, will eliminate questions on antonyms and analogies. The section will focus more on reasoning than on individual words, all of which will be used in context.

Personally, I think I could shine on antonyms and analogies, not to mention individual words, and hate to see them go. But reasoning is good.

‘The biggest difference is that the prompts the students will receive will be more focused, meaning that our human raters will know unambiguously that the answer was written in response to the question, not memorized,’ said David Payne, who heads the GRE program for the testing service.

If one worries about online calculators, one can only rejoice over the presence of human raters. Best, however, that one who is possessed of a perfectly respectable BA in Art and a fairly impressive MFA in short fiction, stay away from the GRE altogether.

GRE undergoes major revisions, gets new scale.

Diet, exercise and Alzheimers

These paragraphs are a segue from talk of holiday festivities, over the past several days,  into the very un-festive subject of Alzheimer’s disease.

Part of the conversation at the very festive Thanksgiving dinner I was lucky to enjoy (without having cooked a single dish!) centered around food for the brain. One argument was that the good stuff for one’s neurotransmitters — egg yolks, broccoli, soy, starches — should be meticulously watched. I heard my mother’s voice in my head in response. “If you have three meals a day that look pretty on the plate,” she liked to advise, “you’re getting the proper diet.” When pressed she would explain that “pretty” equates to “color-coordinated,” i.e.: toast/bacon/scrambled eggs with parsley; or broccoli/carrots/potatoes/hamburger. I can’t remember whether our plates were 9-inch or otherwise.

Then there is the larger issue of exercise. Fitness, and occasionally brain exercise, have been contemplated several times in this space over the past few months (10/5: How’s your brain fitness today?; 9/7: The new best thing.) These theories hold that it is possible to strengthen, possibly even build anew, those neurotransmitters.

The definitive word on all this has not been written, and answers surely won’t originate with someone who barely passed Science I-II for the math/science requirement of her BA in Art. But some fascinating studies are being done, and new American Recovery and Reinvestment Funds will be going to projects that will be the focus of this space tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s and various forms of dementia remain the ultimate tragedy in millions of lives, diet and brain exercise and clean living in general notwithstanding.

One of the most poignant insights into this disease you’ll be likely ever to see is currently offered by the PBS series Life (Part 2.) It follows a beautiful, articulate woman named Mary Ann Becklenberg as she confronts her own decline with incredible courage. What science may find answers for in the next few years, Mary Ann Becklenberg is exploring in real time. Schedules and clips are on the Life (Part 2) website.

Chances are, whether you’re over 50 or not, your life will be impacted by dementia. I, for one, am grateful for science and for Mary Ann Becklenberg.

On learning at 30… or 40… or…

True/Slant contributor Gina Welch, on turning 30 just now, posted a fine list of 20 things she learned in her twenties, at the precise moment when I’d been musing about the passage of time myself. A somewhat more elderly muse, that is, since mine was prompted by the realization that day before yesterday marked the 85th anniversary of my parents’ marriage. In case that doesn’t sound elderly enough, my parents were both born in 1897, whew.

So in response to Gina’s wisdom here are six things I learned in my sixties (which are way past, at that.) It was terribly hard not to plagiarize, especially Gina’s Listen to your mother, even if it’s only to her long-departed voice in your head, or Wallow not, advice that improves exponentially with age.

1 – Get up early in the morning. It’s way more fun when you aren’t doing it because the baby’s crying, the school bus is waiting or the boss is calling… but just because the To-Do list actually contains stuff you want to do. Plus, days have fewer hours in them.

2 – Go back to school. Classmates a generation or two younger can be wise beyond your years. After a lifetime of writing for newspapers and magazines (you remember print journalism?) I joined the Class of ’00 at the University of San Francisco to pick up an MFA in short fiction. Who knew? If you run into anyone ready to publish my short story collection, let me know. A few of them have actually seen the light of publication, but I’m going to publish The Marshallville Stories in full if I live long enough… or perhaps if I learn enough in my 70s.

3 – Medicare is good. Imagine not having to freak out at every bodily suggestion that fatal expenses could be right around the corner. Imagine everybody having that unfreakable experience. How about we pass health reform?

4 – Listen to your daughter. She can probably teach you a LOT about changing mores, gender identities, adventure travel and how to see the world. Not to mention low fashion, hair styling, organic food and living well.

5 – Listen to your granddaughter. She can definitely teach you about computer programs, digital photography, what 18-year-old college art students are doing, and teenage music. You can close your ears when the teenage music part comes.

6 – Count your blessings. Seriously. If you’re still able to get up in the morning and remember how to count, this is good exercise. And if you count forwards and then repeat the same numbers backward you have exercised your brain, which is increasingly important. At a certain point in life it is tempting to reflect on the world when nobody locked their doors and you dashed onto airplanes just as they were pulling up the steps. And people apologized if they inadvertently used the D-word in front of your mother (there’s her voice again in my head…) So it’s okay to count nostalgic blessings, too; just don’t forget about par courses or contemporary chamber music or sunsets over the Pacific or that grandson who speaks Mandarin and Spanish at 17…

Thanks, Gina. Happy Birthday.

Your Money or Your Life

How old is too old to manage your money? Maybe Brooke Astor’s family could tackle that one.  Or a few of the folks who were living comfortably in posh retirement communities last year and now need charity thanks to investments — that seemed just fine at the time — with Bernie Madoff.

True/Slant contributor Ryan Sager has an interesting new post about “The Age of Financial Reason” that caught my eye thanks to its accompanying geezer-photo. (True disclosure: I am not Ryan’s grandmother — though I certainly could be.) He cites an abstract I find fascinating, although I tend to distrust any proclamation that plays fast and loose with phrases like “suboptimal use of credit card balance transfer offers” or misestimentation of ” home value.  Did these people ever take regular English? Nevertheless, they are seriously into their study, however convoluted their language.  They are concerned about us older adults and our potentially poor financial choices, since it seems “about half the population between ages 80 and 89 either has dementia or a medical diagnosis of ‘cognitive impairment without dementia'”. Good grief.

This is, truth be told, no laughing matter.

You would not want me making your financial choices. Numbers have never been my strong suit. This is despite the fact that I once wrote a pretty good little book titled “Money Management,” part of a 13-volume series designed to reach the functionally illiterate adult population (I was the creative part; co-author LuEllen Ransbottom was the brains.) What I did really smart was to marry Bud Johns; you should be so lucky as to have Bud make your financial choices.

But the point is, few of us can really predict when our sharp brains might slip right into that ‘cognitive impairment without dementia’ gray area. And the further point is, as noted in Ryan’s post, there is a limit to which government should not go in removing one’s control of one’s financial choices — at least, the financial choices we have left over after taxes.

Many of us geezers are less than pleased about the fact that careful choices past — such as optimization of credit cards, i.e. religiously paying balances on time; credit companies hate people like us — carrying only reasonable mortgages or other debt, investing in properly run, socially responsible companies — many who practiced fiscal responsibility (except Bud and I both, separately, did invest in Smith Corona just for old times sake) have found themselves penalized by measures taken to avert disasters brought on by the fiscally irresponsible.

What’s a body to do? I agree that families need to maintain awareness, at whatever age, of the financial choices being made by themselves and their loved ones. If they’ve had long-term investments with good investment companies or advisors, chances are those companies or advisors will not lead them astray. When checking out those links from Ryan’s blog, and a few dozen others on reputable senior and financial sites, I also found a zillion agencies out there eager to help. It is likely that the ones with .org after their names rather than .com might be preferable.

In a recent post I talked about the emergence of brain exercise, and its small promise for postponing ‘cognitive impairment without dementia’ (I’m beginning to detest that phrase.) For example: say six numbers out loud. Now say them backwards. You have exercised your brain. In an effort to forestall poor financial decision making, for the time being I plan to do my brain exercises. And leave the decisions to Bud.