Baine Street

Is your brain getting flabby?

April 10, 2015


(Originally published July 17, 2011)

Today’s subject is the human brain. And, contrary to the opinion of several of my regular e-mailers – a couple of whom I’m related to – I do have one.

Scientists agree that the brain is the most complex thing we’ve ever encountered in the known universe, with the possible exception of some college-admission forms. Of course, when you get down to it, that assertion is really the brain judging itself. It is, in fact, the most grandiose and yet the most disguised form of narcissism ever – kind of like Woody Allen declaring that the highest form of artistic expression known to humankind are the films of Woody Allen, all while wearing a fake noses and glasses.

We are now learning something about the brain that we figured out about the body a long time ago – that it needs “exercise” to hold off decrepitude, that brains can get flabby just like bodies if we get lazy.

It’s true, folks. There are mental and psychological equivalents to love handles, beer guts, crotch biscuits [a Tina Fey coinage, blame her, not me] cottage-cheese thighs, muffin tops, jello arms – hey, anybody other than me getting hungry?

That means, of course, that on top of all the time you’re spending at the gym – or all the time you’re spending loathing your worthless love-handled hide for not going to the gym – you have to pay attention to brain fitness as well. Oh, joy.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – because I just downloaded that new clairvoyance app for my brain. You’re thinking, “Oh, yeah. I’m already ahead of you there, annoying newspaper guy. I always do a Soduku before I go to bed at night.”

Ha! That’s the sound of me scoffing at your Soduku. You know that guy who looks like a hot water heater in a Harley vest who claims he gets his upper-body strength from lifting cases of Old Milwaukee into the bed of his Dodge Ram pick-up? [No? Your family must be different from mine]. Anyway, that guy is you and your Soduku, OK?

To whip that old brain into shape, you gotta reach higher. The key is to tackle some kind of mental challenge that – and this is important – your brain isn’t already inclined to do. Examples: getting straight all the “begats” in the Bible [non-rabbis only]; memorizing every starting line-up for the Pittsburgh Pirates [non-basement-dwelling, girlfriendless, mouth-breathing sports nerds only]; or understanding the rational business model of the derivatives market [non-greed-consumed, remorseless, slimeball Wall Street traders who are ruining America only].

Yes, you also have to take it slowly. I overdid it a bit last spring when my daughter took honors physics in high school and I offered to serve as her study buddy. I would have been better off signing us both up for an Ironman triathalon in the Himalayas.

People tend to get cocky when it comes to mental fitness. You have to respect your stupidity, just as you do your physical limits. When you see someone by the road with a flat tire, you wouldn’t pull over and offer to lift the car by the front bumper and jog it the mile or two to the person’s home, would you? Yet, you think your liberal-arts degree is sufficient to tackle honors physics? You know that phrase “My momma didn’t raise no fool”? Well, I never say that.

Youth is, of course, the mightiest asset when it comes both to body and brain fitness. My daughter, the same girl who took honors physics last year, is tackling Mandarin Chinese at Cabrillo in the fall [while still in high school, I might add]. With her young, pliable brain, that’s possible. For me, that would be like saying “I’m going to learn how to grow a third arm out from the middle of my chest.” Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

Still, even if you’ve hit mid-life or slightly beyond, you still have plenty to gain. No, you’re not going to impress Stephen Hawking at dinner. But if you push your brain out of the long-established patterns that aren’t serving you anymore – like the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song, your ex’s Facebook posts, paying attention to Dr. Phil – then you may have room to develop new neural pathways that could ward off … uh, I can’t remember what you call it.

Which leads me to my great business idea: a brain-fitness gym. You pay us a monthly fee and come on down to our fun little meeting place and we’ll give your old coconut a good work-out with puzzles, games, memorization tests, etc. If you want to start slowly, we can do that – women’s dress sizes [for men only]; figuring out Earned Run Average [for women only]; pig-Latin classes.

But soon, you’ll want to get out of the kiddie pool, and swim with the grown-ups: how to rebuild the engine of a Ford Mustang [those with uncallused hands only]; how to jailbreak an iPhone [those who never heard of an iPhone only]; how to communicate with a teenager or a rock critic [those over 40 only].

Any potential partners with several million dollars getting in the way at home can contact me pronto.

I will admit that this is a big risk. What physical fitness has going for it that mental fitness does not is, of course, sex. You punish yourself in the gym and you get rewarded with a hot bod that will get attention from similarly foxy potential mates, along with various pervs and philanderers. There is no mental equivalent to rocking a new string bikini at the beach, unless you’re a “Jeopardy” fetishist, and I think there are support groups for that kind of thing.

So, unless you’re doing it blindfolded, underwater or suspended upside down – or, preferably, all three – put down the Sudoku and embrace some real challenges. Get in mental shape because people consistently find intelligence sexy. Those people are liars, but sometimes, delusion is your friend.




The price of public shaming

April 8, 2015


A little more than a year ago, a New York woman named Justine Sacco tweeted a very unfunny joke about AIDS and Africa just before she was to board a plane from London to Cape Town, South Africa. When the plane took off, Sacco was just another nobody with 170 Twitter followers.

While she dozed at 30,000 feet, she was blissfully unaware that her ugly joke was metastasizing on Twitter, creating a backlash of hurricane fury. Her obliviousness to what was happening created a real-time drama on the ground, a sense of anticipation fueled by schadenfreude captured in the trending hashtag #hasjustinelanded.

By the time the plane landed 11 hours later, she had become a pariah around the world.

What happened to Justine Sacco is chronicled in Jon Ronson’s new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” (Riverhead), which offers up compelling stories of public shaming in the era of social media. Another such story involved another woman named Lindsey Stone who, as a misbegotten joke, posted a photo of herself on Facebook doing something vulgar at Arlington National Cemetery.

No one argues that what Sacco and Stone did were not offensive. But the proportionality of their respective punishments was, Ronson believes, way out of kilter. Each woman lost her job and each was wracked with depression and anxiety in response to the public furor of her thoughtless transgression.

Who destroyed the lives of these two women? It wasn’t trolls, said Ronson. It was people like you and me.

“There is a meaningful distinction to make here,” said Ronson, who comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz Friday. “Trolls have malicious intent. We have good intent. People like us are doing this stuff with positive, empathetic intentions. And yet, the destruction is more profound than that of trolls. I find that really interesting.”

Online public shaming is a regular feature of the news cycle these days. Some arise from allegations of serious crime – Bill Cosby’s career has been ruined by multiple accusations of rape and sexual harassment. Some, like those of Sacco and Stone, are triggered by unfortunate remarks meant as humor; Jon Stewart’s would-be replacement on “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah, is now weathering a backlash against offensive jokes.

In medieval times, transgressors were put into a pillory, a giant wooden frame locked around the neck and wrists, and displayed in the town square. We don’t do that anymore. But Ronson tells a story that illustrates the contemporary version of that kind of punishment.

The book chronicles the story of Jonah Lehrer, a celebrated young writer, who was caught fabricating quotes in his bestseller “Imagine.” Lehrer resigned from his coveted perch at the New Yorker. That book, and another of Lehrer’s previous bestsellers, was pulled from circulation by its publisher and pulped.

Lehrer’s career was in tatters when he decided to publicly apologize at a journalism conference. Beside him as he spoke was a monitor on which was a giant live Twitter feed reacting to his speech as he gave it, and though the early tweets were positive, as Lehrer digressed, they become more and more nasty and dismissive.

As Ronson writes in “Shamed”: “… by mid-apology, it seemed irrelevant whether the criticisms had legitimacy. They were cascading into his sightline in a torrent. Jonah was being told in the most visceral, instantaneous way that there was no forgiveness for him, no possibility for reentry.”

Ronson points to the Lehrer situation as an example of “punching up,” that is, heaping criticism on someone of high status who is misusing his/her privilege. “It really is appropriate to punch up,” he said. “That’s the appropriate sort of shaming. But we use that punching-up defense to justify every single shaming incident there is. And that’s just wrong. It’s not true.”

Ronson characterizes our relationship to social media as “a toddler crawling toward a gun.” Twitter especially creates an environment for piling on strangers for perceived sins. It’s a vast Greek chorus of commenters who all have their two cents to contribute. Many feel the compulsion to outdo the last commenter in cleverness or vehemence.

It’s all entertaining, said Ronson, but it comes with a real cost to those on the other end.

“In this book, I want to present a fuller picture of what’s going on,” he said. “I’m not about to start telling people what they can and cannot do. But I do want to say, if you do this, you should know what could happen. Some people are ruined by these shaming campaigns. Some people’s punishments are disproportionate to their crimes. It feels horrific to be at the end of a mass shaming campaign. Once you learn about these repercussions, you can make a more reasoned decision on how to behave.”





America’s companion: A visit with Garrison Keillor

April 7, 2015


There are many other novelists, other storytellers, other radio hosts. There are other monologuists, other humorists, other champions of poetry, other crooning Midwestern baritones.

But the space that Garrison Keillor occupies in American literary culture, he occupies alone.

In fact, you’d have to survey the dead to find someone of Keillor’s unique stature in America. And he’s been around so long now – Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Compaion” celebrated its 40th anniversary last year – that comparisons to figures such as Will Rogers and Mark Twain have now become hackneyed.

The 72-year-old writer and radio icon comes to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium for a performance on April 15 to do what he does best – regaling audiences with stories of wistful irony and gentle, oh-so-self-deprecating satire.

To mark the occasion of Keillor’s visit to Santa Cruz, we had a chance to pose a few questions to America’s most famous Minnesotan:

Wallace Baine: First off, those of us from California tend to defer with great respect to folks from Minnesota on the subject of winter. Given that it’s beginning to appear that California may never again experience anything remotely resembling winter while the rest of the country is just now emerging from another rough one, do you have any tales that might disabuse us Californians of our sudden and quaint nostalgia for winter?

Garrison Keillor: Winter is sheer stunning beauty and the finest poem Kenneth Rexroth of San Francisco ever wrote was about camping in the Sierras and awakening to the vast hush of snowfall. I don’t remember any of “Howl” except the famous first line but I remember Rexroth and his lover waking up in that tent and the snow descending, a silent world blessed by snow. I don’t know what might be “rough” about winter other than some catastrophic event that could happen as easily in spring or summer. Winter offers many privileges, such as walking across a frozen lake in the moonlight or running out of a sauna and rolling in snow. I am sorry for anyone who doesn’t get to experience those.

WB: It seems that more and more writers these days are having to concentrate on presenting their work in live settings either through readings or TED-style talks in front of audience. Perhaps no one living person has more experience in this realm than you. Do you have any insights on the “secret sauce” that separates a writer from a performer? What can the former do to be better at the latter?

GK: For a writer, performing is extracurricular, and some wonderful writers pass up the sport entirely and are the better for it. Edward Hoagland, the great American essayist, for example. I got into it by accident, by way of radio, and now I do it for the thrill of it, the way some people go snorkeling or hike the Iditarod trail, but I don’t recommend it. A writer ought to apply himself to the great work of creating something worth reading and not go parading around in his underwear with a toilet plunger on his head.

WB: Santa Cruz has for generations been a hot spot for poetry — it’s the hometown of the late great Adrienne Rich and Ellen Bass, who’s been featured on “A Writer’s Almanac” a few times, among others. How do you feel about the durability of poetry in today’s technological world? Are you optimistic for its future in a culture of Twitter, YouTube and video games?

GK: If you want to know what other people feel about what it’s like to be alive in 2015, you don’t go to Twitter or YouTube, you find a poet who speaks to you and you listen. Twitter is for graffiti. YouTube is for looking at old clips of the Mills Brothers and Jerry Garcia and the Beatles. Poetry is for real.

WB: Fairly or not, you’re often seen as a kind of exemplar of the unique character of American small-time life, and the glory of traveling across the country has always been about discovering that uniqueness. Are you worried that America’s small towns are becoming franchised and interchangeable? Does Lake Woebegone have a Wal-Mart, and how would the folks at Ralph’s Pretty Good Groceries adapt to such a thing?

GK: Life is a struggle, whether you live in Lake Wobegon or on the South Side of Chicago. You look for love, you look for work that means something, you acquire responsibilities and you try to meet them, and meanwhile you maintain your spirit of fun, you sing, you tell jokes, you pull quarters out of people’s ears, you put a whoopee cushion on the principal’s chair. This is more visible in a small town, but it’s not so different from city life. I don’t see anything interchangeable about small towns — suburbs, yes, but every small town is distinctive, depending on what drives the economy. Resort towns, college towns, factory towns, farm towns, railroad towns, all different.




‘The Georgetown Set’ a profile of Washington’s Cold War elites

April 6, 2015


For those who feel the 2014 mid-term election was another confirmation of ever deepening dysfunction in the federal government, Gregg Herken’s new book “The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington” (Knopf) might read like a fantasy novel.

It’s nothing of the kind. It’s a comprehensive view of a small circle of political elites that, more or less, established policy consensus in the years between World War II and Watergate.

But the title of the book’s prologue hints at how that world is so fundamentally different from the one in which we live – “When Washington Worked.”

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Karen Armstrong ponders the link between religion and violence

April 5, 2015


In October 2014, one of the most bedeviling questions of civilized society erupted again into the cultural mainstream, but only because it was the subject of a televised argument between a stand-up comedian and an A-list movie star.

That question – what is the link between religion and violence? – has been a sore point for centuries and was at the center of the flare-up between Bill Maher and Ben Affleck on the nature of Islam. (You have to wonder if a debate between, say, Lady Gaga and Leonardo DiCaprio on the existence of anti-matter would be taken as seriously).

In a stroke of serendipity, those interested in the thread that Maher and Affleck started can now follow it directly to Karen Armstrong, one of the English-speaking world’s most prominent scholars on religion, whose new book is titled “Fields of Blood: Religion and History of Violence” (Knopf).

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Baine Street

Two creative spirits are better than one

April 5, 2015


One of the greatest frustrations of my life is my repeated failure to find a partner.

Oh, wait, I don’t mean a “life partner,” the most important kind. I got that covered. What I’m talking about is something even more rare. You might call it a “career partner.”

I had been stumbling along for years, more or less unconsciously, on this quest to find some ambiguous, indistinct person to collaborate with on some ambiguous, unnamed project. Then, I read a book called “The Powers of Two” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Then, the unconscious became conscious.

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Matt Richtel’s crusade to stop texting while driving

April 5, 2015


On an early Friday morning in September 2006, a young man named Reggie Shaw climbed into his Chevy Tahoe for his long commute to work in Logan, Utah. Somewhere on a highway east of Logan, with the sky just beginning to lighten, Reggie veered over the yellow line and sideswiped a Saturn coming from the opposite direction. The Saturn spun out and was “T-boned” by a Ford pick-up, killing the two men riding in the Saturn.

From that tragic event comes the story at the center of Matt Richtel’s new book “A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention” (Wm. Morrow).

Reggie Shaw, it was later determined, was texting on his flip phone at the time of the accident, which he initially denied. What followed was the seminal legal case that defined the debate about texting and driving.

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Baine Street

Why we love these Giants

April 5, 2015


So here’s what we know so far: At some point during the long hot summer of 2009, someone at a high level with the San Francisco Giants – almost certainly Larry Baer or Brian Sabean, or both – stood at a crossroads in rural Mississippi waiting for the Devil to appear.

It was almost nightfall before the Devil finally drove up in a battered old pick-up with two young men, believed to be Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, sitting in the back of the truck.

We don’t know what the Devil got in the deal – the immortal souls of the Giants’ top brass, or, more likely, a Pacific Heights condo with a sweet view of the bay. But whatever it was, the Giants proved to be canny negotiators. How can you argue with three straight even-year World Series titles, or who knows how many more to come? Right now, the Giants are a better bet than Hillary Rodham Clinton to win in the fall of 2016.

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West Coast Latin: The California sound of the Pacific Mambo Orchestra

April 5, 2015


It was one of the happiest moments of Steffen Kuehn’s life and he doesn’t even remember it.

Last January, in what ranks as one of the biggest surprises in the 56-year history of the Grammy Awards, the Pacific Mambo Orchestra – the Bay Area band that Kuehn co-founded – won the Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Album.

“I can’t remember those 30 minutes,” said Kuehn. “Really, I fell into some kind of hole. I don’t know what happened. I look back at the video and I don’t remember saying the things that I said. It was one of those out-of-body experiences.”

For the PMO, the band’s nomination for a Grammy qualified as an enormous shock. To win, especially against the likes of superstars Marc Anthony and Carlos Vives, was unthinkable.

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Baine Street

Should America consider divorce?

April 5, 2015


Had lunch with Abraham Lincoln the other day – technically, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Ghosts don’t need lunch, per se, but Abe ordered the Cobb salad anyway, probably just for my benefit.

He seemed to enjoy the French roast, but he wasn’t contributing much to the conversation about Renee Zellweger’s face. Turns out Mr. Lincoln had something to get off his chest. “The war,” he said. “It was about slavery.”

This is a big deal. Remember, Lincoln said over and over again that the Civil War was about preserving the Union, not about ending slavery. “Who am I kidding?” he said, picking the avocado out of his salad. “I had to say whatever would get American boys to fight the war. But, yeah, it was about slavery, which we succeeded at destroying, so…”

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