Wednesday Poem

Everybody Made Soups

After it all, the events of the holidays,
the dinner tables passing like great ships,
everybody made soups for a while.
Cooked and cooked until the broth kept
the story of the onion, the weeping meat.
It was over, the year was spent, the new one
had yet to make its demands on us,
each day lay in the dark like a folded letter.
Then out of it all we made one final thing
out of the bounty that had not always filled us,
out of the ruined cathedral carcass of the turkey,
the limp celery chopped back into plenty,
the fish head, the spine. Out of the rejected,
the passed over, never the object of love.
It was as if all the pageantry had been for this:
the quiet after, the simmered light,
the soothing shapes our mouths made as we tasted.

by Lisa Coffman
from Less Obvious Gods
Iris Press, 2013

Richard Adams, best-selling author of ‘Watership Down,’ dies at 96

Harrison Smith in the Chicago Tribune:

ScreenHunter_2478 Dec. 28 08.59Richard Adams, a British writer whose novel about rabbits, “Watership Down,” sold 50 million copies and mesmerized generations of readers by creating an ornately detailed fantasy world and subverting the Flopsy-Mopsy stereotype of warm and cuddly bunnies, has died at 96.

A daughter confirmed his death to the British newspaper the Independent, but other details were not immediately available.

Adams was an Oxford-educated public servant when “Watership Down,” his first novel, was published in 1972. The book follows a band of rabbits who search for a new home after Fiver, the runt of his litter, has a vision of their grassy home covered with blood – a result of the land's being developed by people for “high class modern residences.”

Led by Fiver's older brother Hazel, the rabbits journey across woods and stream to arrive at Watership Down, where they battle a totalitarian bunny named General Woundwort before establishing a new, utopian warren.

Expecting a tale of friendly anthropomorphic animals in the spirit of Kenneth Grahame's “The Wind in the Willows” or Beatrix Potter's “Peter Rabbit” series, publishers and literary agents rejected “Watership Down” seven times, telling Adams that it was too childish for adults and too adult for children.

More here.

False memories can form very easily as this Sinbad movie saga proves

Brian Resnick in Vox:

Last week, New Statesman published a feature about a community of Reddit users who are fans of a movie from the 1990s starring the comedian Sinbad. The movie is called Shazaam, and Sinbad plays a bumbling genie who adventures with two small kids.

The piece, however, is not about millennials’ unending enthusiasm for ’90s nostalgia. It’s much, much weirder: It turns out that the movie Shazaam never existed, and yet many of the people New Statesmen writer Amelia Tait spoke to could not be convinced otherwise.

Even Sinbad himself denies the movie exists.

ScreenHunter_2477 Dec. 28 08.53

The New Statesmen piece explores a fascinating question: How could so many people share the same false memory of the same fake movie?

First off: It’s not that these people are confusing Shazaam for Kazaam, the very real movie starring Shaquille O’Neal as a genie. They think the two movies were released around the same time (like the asteroid apocalypse movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, which both premiered in 1998).

More here.

Teaching kids philosophy makes them smarter in math and English

Jenny Anderson in Quartz:

Rtr2e2ltSchools face relentless pressure to up their offerings in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. Few are making the case for philosophy.

Maybe they should.

Nine- and 10-year-old children in England who participated in a philosophy class once a week over the course of a year significantly boosted their math and literacy skills, with disadvantaged students showing the most significant gains, according to a large and well-designed study (pdf).

More than 3,000 kids in 48 schools across England participated in weekly discussions about concepts such as truth, justice, friendship, and knowledge, with time carved out for silent reflection, question making, question airing, and building on one another’s thoughts and ideas.

Kids who took the course increased math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching, even though the course was not designed to improve literacy or numeracy.

More here.

The art and craft of translation

H. M. Naqvi in Dawn:

5827b93857278Translation is not a craft but an art, a vital one, one that allows us to participate in each other’s experiences, in each other’s stories. Imagine if we had remained cloistered like our fur-swathed forefathers — far-flung tribes wrapped up in ourselves. Imagine the world without the Mahabharata, Iliad, A Thousand and One Nights, Rumi’s musings, Cervantes’s epic. Without Flaubert, Proust, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Imagine learning Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, French, and Russian. And what of Chinese?

In a wonderfully thought-provoking piece titled ‘The Wonderfully Elusive Chinese Novel’2 Perry Link, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, describes his experience teaching Chinese to American students: “The most anguishing question I get is ‘Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ­___?’ I am tempted to say that the question makes no sense … [for in] languages as far apart as English and Chinese, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.” Elucidating, he offers the example of a word as corporeal, as tangible as ‘book’. Apparently, the closest approximation of book is the word shu. But shu might mean writing or letter or calligraphy or, intriguingly, book-ness. If you were to ask for a book at a Chinese bookstore, you would ask for “a volume of book-ness”.

More here.


ScreenHunter_2476 Dec. 27 19.39

It started as simple teenage rebellion but ended up tearing Syria apart, setting in motion events that continue to rock the Middle East — and the world. The boys behind the graffiti would become unlikely revolutionaries and reluctant refugees. Not all of them would survive the upheaval they helped unleash. This is their story.

Mark MacKinnon in the Globe and Mail:

Naief-abazid1-lrgAt the start of it all, before the uprising and the civil war – and the refugee exodus and the terror and the hatred that have sprung from it – a 14-year-old boy stood giggling with a can of black spray paint, pointing it at the wall of his school in southern Syria.

Naief Abazid had no inkling that he was about to launch a revolution, or anything else that has followed. He was just doing what the bigger kids told him to. Trying to make them laugh. “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad, ” he painted, just under the window of the principal’s office of the all-boys al-Banin school in his hometown of Daraa. The date was Feb. 16, 2011.

It was an incendiary political idea – suggesting that Syria’s Baathist dictatorship would be the next to fall after the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, written by an apolitical teenage prankster. Painted on a cool and dry winter evening, it would improbably set in motion a chain reaction of events that continue to rock the Middle East – and the world.

“It was something silly,” Naief told me as we sat in a McDonald’s at the train station in Vienna, more than 3,000 kilometres away from where it all began. It was his first retelling (other than his interview with Austrian immigration authorities) of what happened that day in Daraa, and his life in the five harrowing years since. “I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

More here.

Why humans develop sex cells as embryos — but corals don’t

Philip Ball in Nature:

WEB_P6480190-Fertilisation,_SEM-SPLAnimals and plants prepare their cells for sex in very different ways — but no one knows why. A team of UK researchers now thinks that it has worked out the puzzle. Humans and animals set themselves up for sex well before the act will ever take place. At the earliest stages of life, in the embryo, our germ cells begin to develop. These are the cells that will go on to form the sperm and the egg, with half the usual number of chromosomes. In females, eggs are set aside and kept in arrested development until they are needed. After puberty, males produce sperm continuously throughout life, but a specialized germ line is created early on from which sperm are made. But corals, sponges and plants make no such cellular plans. They initially develop only body (somatic) cells, each with a full complement of chromosomes. When the time comes to mate, they produce their sex cells, or gametes, as needed by forming them out of stem cells from adult tissue.

Why the difference? According to biochemist Nick Lane of University College London, more complex animals create a devoted germline to preserve the quality of their mitochondria — specialized energy-producing structures in cells that sit outside the nucleus and have their own genes. In a mathematical model published on 20 December, Lane and his coworkers lay out their argument. According to the team, the problem for humans and other complex animals is that if cells were allowed to divide repeatedly and form adult tissues before some of them were turned into gametes, then their mitochondria would rapidly accumulate genetic mutations and errors. Some of the gametes might acquire a high load of these mutated mitochondria, leading to poor-quality tissues in the offspring. Producing all the eggs needed early on avoids this problem. The idea of ‘protecting’ mitochondrial DNA in quiescent eggs has been suggested previously1. But there’s a problem with that picture: some mutation is good for our mitochondria. Mutation is the engine of evolution, enabling advantageous mitochondrial genotypes to arise. Gametes made out of repeatedly replicated adult cells could therefore have useful variation. Evolution could preserve ‘good’ mutations and eliminate ‘bad’ ones, ultimately improving mitochondrial quality. There’s a delicate balance between the benefits and drawbacks of having a germline. How do you get enough variation between gametes for selection to act, without building up mutations that will impair an organism made from those gametes?

More here.

Tuesday Poem

After Lunch

And after noon the well-dressed creatures come
To sniff among the dead
And have their lunch

And all the many well-dressed creatures pluck
The swollen avocados from the dust
And stir the minestrone with stray bones

And after lunch
They loll and lounge about
Decanting claret in convenient skulls

by Harold Pinter
from Harold

A Permissive Circle: World Literature and Zumba Dance

by Claire Chambers

Beto Perez and ZumbaIf you've read any of my blog posts for 3 Quarks Daily or columns for Dawn's Books & Authors section, you may know me for my criticism of world literature. But as it's the holidays, I want to write about something more frivolous.

I have a confession to make: as well as being a lecturer in global literature, for the last five years I have also moonlighted as a

Zumba, if you're unfamiliar with this high art form, is a dance fitness programme. Like all self-respecting cults, it has its own creation myth. Godhead and co-founder, Colombian Alberto 'Beto' Perez, began his career as an aerobics teacher in Florida. One day, the story goes, he arrived at his class only to realize he had forgotten his aerobics cassettes (yes, it was the 1990s…). He improvised a class based on the Latin music tapes he had in the car, and the punters loved it. He then teamed up with two more pragmatic and business-minded Albertos — Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion — and Zumba Fitness was born.

A typical Zumba class is built around four main dance styles. Most people are familiar with Cuba's elegant, sexy Salsa. (Less well-known is its offshoot Salsa Choke, which originates in Beto's native Colombia and intermixes Cuban panache with the rhythms of Zumba's next core dance, Reggaeton.)

Perhaps best described as Latin hip-hop, Reggaeton hails from Puerto Rico. Its edgy, urban lyrics and beats have made their way across South America. Some of Reggaeton's most famous musicians, such as Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and Pitbull, have an even wider following across the globe.

Merengue is the third style, which most people have heard of but may not be aware that this is a fast march from the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Caribbean. It has an even beat but can become very frenetic, with moves that have names like double hesitations, pretzels, and cradles.

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“This can’t be me,” Mother says,
leaning forward in a wheelchair,
“Must be some shriveled woman,”

“with parched skin, frayed hair,”
she adds, “Not me. I’m only 30.”
Mother gives me my Smartphone

with which I clicked her photo
during a commercial break,
watching “Kismet,”

Hollywood film
made in 1955
when Mother was in fact 30

with six children in Kashmir.
Her skin then was pure,
hibiscus bloomed in her hair.

Now, in The Bronx
Hebrew Home at Riverdale,
63 years later

in Mother’s sparse room,
a harem girl on TV, decked
in baubles, bangles, & beads,

starts revolving
in the courtyard of a Caliph
in Old Baghdad,

her pantaloons blooming
her turban glittering:
I’m gritting my teeth, glaring

at a fantasy Orient, thinking
of the grim reality today
in Iraq. Mother is transfixed

as the harem girl twirls
to stage front where her
flawless face fills the full screen.

Suddenly, Mother starts to sigh.
“What happened,” I ask gently
massaging her stiff fingers

with Aspercreme. Mother
nods at the TV, whispers,
“I want my skin like hers.”

by Rafiq Kathwari / @brownpundit /

Love, Harmony and Beauty: A Message For Our Time

by Humera Afridi

Img_5706 (1)

Nekbakht Foundation Archive

“Mommy it's Christmas, you have to put away your work!” urged my nine-year old. And so I began clearing the dining table which had turned into an expansive workspace over the early winter weeks. As I gathered up my books, a sheet of paper slid out from a binder. I stared at it absently. A photocopy of an archival newspaper cutting from 1923, with publication title missing. The headline announced: “Indian Mystic Here to Show America Path of Tolerance and Brotherhood.”

I marveled at the headline. Kinship and the “Path of Tolerance”—what better salve for our fraught present? I sensed a confluence of eras and histories, of time collapsing. A ‘Father Christmas' message, if ever there was one, I mused, sitting back down at the table to study the article from 1923. And, indeed, as if conspiring to corroborate my thesis, a striking Christ-like image of Hazrat Inayat Khan floated off the page—commanding features and a magnetic expression; tapering beard; mystical gaze piercing the distance. A strand of beads with a heart-and-wings pendant adorned his neck. The article's sub-headings revealed the contours of the story— “Inaya (sic) Khan, Hindu Poet and Philosopher, Bars Politics from Consideration”; “Humanitarianism is His Study”; “Says Greatest Need of America and of Whole World is Understanding”— a gift-giving message to be sure, emanating a spirt apropos of Christmas; an antidote to the climate of war and divisiveness in which we find ourselves.

I squinted my eyes to decipher the tiny newsprint, faded in parts, and stopped dead after the first half of the sentence. “Inaya Khan, Hindu poet, philosopher and mystic, has entered America after a few days detention at Ellis Island…” A few days detention? I started over and reread the sentence. Yes, a few days' detention at Ellis Island. I'd read it correctly. More alarming than the shock of this initial piece of information is that the article carries on without the slightest reflection on the egregious incident and, undoubtedly, racist attitude that Hazrat Inayat Khan had endured at the hands of immigration at Ellis Island.

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Where Is Home Now?

by Elise Hempel

ScreenHunter_2475 Dec. 26 10.41I live in central Illinois, but I've been in Minnesota for over a month now, having fled an urgent situation at home, leaving most of my belongings temporarily behind. I'm a refugee, of sorts, an indefinite guest, sleeping in a guest bedroom of my sister's suburban Minneapolis house, surrounded by my still-not-unpacked suitcases. My “office,” which used to be a whole real room, is now a section of my sister's cluttered basement, my “lamp” a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, my “desk” a dusted-off air-hockey table. Surrounding my confusion and disorientation within the house itself – which includes conforming to a daily routine not my own, a lack of choice about what gets served for dinner and what gets watched on TV, etc. – is the larger loss of home. In place of a discernable town – the familiar cornfields, a university, the quaint town square – are highways and traffic and seemingly endless strip-malls, one nondescript suburb merging into the next.

And surrounding this is an even larger uncertainty of where home is now, with the election of Donald Trump as president. In the first few days after arriving here in Minnesota, I wasn't sure where I was when I woke up in the morning – in Illinois or Minnesota, what house, which bed, whose pillow. It took several moments to figure it out. I had almost the same feeling when I woke the morning after election day, and now, after knowing for sure that Trump will indeed be our next president, that feeling is here again – that feeling of waking to a country I don't recognize. Except that it's not dissipating, not fading as I sit up and wipe my eyes and look around, not giving way to the thought Oh, yeah – I know where I am.

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If You Had One Wish, What Would It Be?

by Max Sirak

IMG_0614Money? Power? Sex? Revenge? Or would you be more altruistic? Would you wish for peace? Harmony? Unity? What if you had two wishes? Would you go one and one? Something for you and something for everyone else?

The only reason I ask is Steve Martin.

He has a list. In fact, he shared it with the whole world on Saturday Night Live. In case you missed it, you can watch it here. It's a short sketch. It's worth your time. It starts with a wish for all children of the world to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace. But don't worry – it quickly devolves from there.

Christmas was yesterday. This means I missed my chance to sit by a tree and deliver my own list. And, while it is the third crazy night of Chanukah, I wanted a broader appeal. So, this month, for my last column of the year, I'm stealing Martin's schtick.

We're about six days away from wrapping up 2016. For a lot of us, maybe even all of us, this means a chance at a fresh start. A round of clean slates for all, barkeep! Stepping into '17, many of us will be looking toward change. We will re-solve old problems and test our re-solutions. It is in this spirit, with tremendous honor, tons of gratitude, and the teensiest bit of humility, I give you…

My 2017 Wish List: Three Thoughts I'd Like For Everyone To Carry With Them Into The New Year.


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