Synchronized Chaos Magazine – Dec 2011: Holidaze

It’s easy to feel extra dazed, excited, and overwhelmed during the holiday season. Whether you’re alone, or with family or friends, keep your creative spirit bright!

This issue is packed with interesting stories and poetry. Check out the unique poetry from returning contributors Tatjana Debeljacki and Sam Burks.

Patsy Ledbetter also writes from a personal standpoint, but with a different writing style. She shares two stories this month: A Unique Name and An October Weekend. Additional stories come from Sam Burks and Laura O’Brien.

As always, we are also pleased to feature Leena Prasad’s ongoing monthly column: Whose Brain Is It? Presented as a mystery with fictional characters and clues, this is a monthly column with a journalist’s perspective on brain research.

We have many reviews this month. This is a great time of the year to put a new book on your wish list or catch a show at your local theater.

Art Review:

Book Reviews:

  • Cara Diehl on Jerusalem Maiden, by Talia Carner
  • Sarah Melton on Portrait of a Girl and Her Art, by Elena Caravela
  • Nick Paxton on The Four Generations: Why You Do The Things You Do, by Ayokunle Adeleye

Performance Reviews:

Lastly, be sure to check out Rea Rivera’s article on World Traveler and Author, Francis Tapon. Tapon has an intriguing story of how he evolved from being an academic achiever and successful businessman to becoming a cultural risk-taker.

We wish everyone a wonderful holiday season full of warmth and celebration! For those of you who do buy gifts, we encourage you to support your local charities, used book stores, and artists at holiday craft fairs. Happy holidays!

– Synch Chaos Staff

Poetry by Tatjana Debeljacki (Croatian and English Translation)

GORD-A-DAN

KORENJE VIDOVITO, NADIRE NEDOKUČIVE MUDROSTI. TAKO POČINJE, VARLJIV JE POGLED NA VREME. ČAS JE DA UGLEDAMO POTONULE .RAZUMEŠ LI ŠTO ČITAŠ? DONOSIŠ ONO MALO STO ŽELIŠ. TVOJ LIK JOŠ RASTE I PLAČE. PRIBLIŽAVANJE I UDALJAVANJE ,SILNA SLABOST. SVET ŠTO SE PRUŽA I NE PRIPADA NIKOME ,DAJ NEŠTO OD SEBE ŠTO DAJE SMISAO IZ NITI VOLJE. POGLEDAJ DRUGIM POGLEDIMA NA SVETLOST. ZLO JE OPASNA ZARAZNA BOLEST, ISELI SE IZ ZLA ,ONO PRODUŽAVA VEK.»GORD-A-DAN» SUZE REKE SAD ŽUBORE,PAS SVILI, NEMA TE. OTRGNI SE LJUBIM TE! I NEČUJNO KROZ OTVORENA VRATA DOĐI NA GOZBU OČUVANIH OSEĆANJA ,SNOVIĐENJA NA RADOST! DOSTOJAN  DAR , GLADNU ŽUDNJU U POSTELJI OD PERJA , SVILA BELA KO SNEG ,SNAGOM TIŠINE. CVETOVI MASLAČKA ,PLEŠIMO IZ DALEKA POGLEDIMA, TELIMA, DODIRUJ MO SE SAMO DLANOVIM A.

[English Translation]

GORD-A-DAN

THE ROOTS ARE CLAIRVOYANT, GRASPING UNTOUHABLE WISDOM. THAT IS THE WAY IT STARTS, THE SIGN OF TIMES IS DECEIVING. IT IS THE TIME TO SEE THE DROWNED. DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE READING? YOU ARE BRINGING AS SMALL AMOUNTS AS YOU LIKE TO. YOUR IMAGE IS STILL GROWING AND CRYING. COMING CLOSER AND GOING AWAY, STRONG WEAKNESS. THE WORLD THAT IS SPREADING BUT DOES NOT BELONG TO ANYONE, GIVE SOMETHING FROM YOURSELF THAT COULD BRING SENSE FROM THE THREAD OF WILL. TRY LOOKING WITH DIFFERENT EYES TO THE LIGHT. EVIL ISDANGEROUS, CONTAGEOUS ILLNESS, MOVE OUT OF THAT EVIL, IT MAKES THE ENTURY LONGER.”GORD-A-DAN” THE TEAR RIVERS ARE NOW MURMURING, THE DOG IS WAILING, YOU ARE GONE. BEAK LOOSE I BEG YOU! AND SLENTLY, THROUGH THE OPEN DOOR, COME TO ATTEND THE FEAST OF PRESERVED EMOTIONS, DAYDREAMS, THE HAPPY MOMENTS! DECENT GIFT, HUNGRY CRAVING IN THE BUNK OF FETAHRES, SILK AS PURE AS THE SNOW, WITH THE FORCE OF SILENCE. FLOWERS OF DANDELLIONS LET’S DANCE FROM AFAR WITH OUR LOOKS, WITH OUR BODIES, LET’S TOUCH WIT PALMS ONLY.

Tatjana Debeljacki is from Uzice, Serbia. Debeljacki writes poetry, short stories, stories and haiku. Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/debeljacki Blog: http://debeljacki.mojblog.rs/

Poetry by Sam Burks

The Edge

With white noise reflecting
my eyes
I’ve split myself from the entity-
the negative entity-
To join the half grins
on this side
of the one-way window.
A double reflection
consuming
the blankness
of space.
And once surrounded
by endless squawking
madness
desperate in it’s own
special way
I find a nitch at last
in solitude,
an unfathomable multitude
of peace.
With the sea
swelling
and falling
all five, six
maybe even seven
senses
consume me
in peace.

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You may reach Sam Burks at srburks@gmail.com.

Creative Non-Fiction by Lauren Gann

Conversations with Kin

by Lauren Gann

I am sitting across from my 96-year-old Grandmother Alice on my Uncle John’s white, screened-in back porch in Douglasville, Georgia. The smell of casseroles lingered onto the porch—green bean casserole, squash casserole, broccoli and cheese casserole—everyone brought casseroles to my family get-togethers. My Grandmother Alice sat, sipping on her tea and melted ice, holding her cup with her white napkin fixed around the cup like paper-mache’. Her old hand with thick fingers wrapped around the cup like deformed tree vines. The fans on the porch cooled the air, but we both were sweating in the humidity.

Even at 96, my grandmother still had thick, natural black hair—all of her girlfriends from church swore on their bibles that she dyed her hair, but she didn’t, “Good genes,” she’d giggle and run her hand through her dark, thick mane. Today she was wearing a striped cotton shirt that flowed loosely over her wrinkled body; her skin was a healthy olive covered by a light makeup that smelt like baby powder, soap, and a floral perfume. She had a large, Greek nose that held her thin, silver rimmed glasses to bright blue eyes.

We were sitting in flowered-cushioned wicker chairs, hiding out from our loud family inside eating. She was telling me the one of the last stories I’d hear from her after today.

It was the story from the Great Depression about when her mother let her have a party in the sitting room of her house back in Tallapoosa, Georgia and she “cut a rug in the carpet” with her brother’s friends.  It was one of her favorite stories to tell. She still lived in that white house in Tallapoosa, the same house her parents raised her in. The same old house with pink antique furniture and an oak wood curio she kept filled with different ringing bells.  She couldn’t remember any recent stories to tell me, but she could tell me every story from when she was born until she buried her late husband, Bud.

“Mother let us push the furniture back against the walls,” she said as she wiped her brow with her napkin and leaned in close to tell me the story with a smirk, grabbing my hand as if we were school girls, as if it were a secret her mother let her do such an inappropriate thing.

“Brother would get mad if I tried to dance with his friends,” and said, sitting back and smiling to herself, taking another bite of her squash casserole, “but some of those boys were mighty cute and would even walk me home from school.” She winked at me after she said the part about the boys.

She had just taken another bite and started looking curiously at me, her eyes still smiling but her eyeballs wandered from my thin eyebrows to my small hands as she chewed.

“Now who are you again?” she asked me, interrupting the story right before the part where her daddy came in and told everyone it was getting late. She couldn’t remember me, or my three siblings, but her favorite grandson, Jay, my daddy, she could remember.

“I’m Jay’s daughter, Lauren,” I told her, saying “Jay” real southern sounding, stretching out the “A” sound so she could understand me. She’d always scold me if I spoke fast “like a yankee.”

“Jay?” she asked, laughing hysterically back in her chair, covering her full mouth with her napkin.

“Yes, you remember Jay, right?”  I smiled, knowing she did. They talked on the phone every night. If he didn’t call her on schedule, she’d call our house just to hang up on him when he answered for not calling her when she wanted.

“Oh yes! Of course I know who Jay is! It’s just funny you said you’re his daughter!”

“And why is that?” I smiled, shaking my head at her for being silly.

“Because Jay is only twenty years old! He doesn’t have kids!” she said so assured, but still tickled at the idea that he had an eighteen-year-old daughter like me.

“I know you’re kin though,” she said smiling, “you look like Jay though,” she said, “You’re definitely an Owen.”

“So I’ve heard,” I laughed back, smiling at her face that didn’t look worried at all; she couldn’t remember who I was, but she knew who I wasn’t—her 46 year old grandson’s daughter.

This was the first time I was a stranger to Grandmother Alice, but she was the type of person who would talk to a stranger in the supermarket about everything in their buggy, so she wasn’t worried about it.

“Now some of these people here, they’re not kin,” she said, scoping the yard where my cousins were tossing around a ball.

“Who is that young man?” she asked, pointing to my Aunt Sarah’s husband Chris. “He’s isn’t kin, I can tell.”

“That’s Sarah Kay’s husband, Chris” I answered, stretching the “A” sound in Kay again to keep from “soundin’ like a yankee.”  His small eyes and pale skin gave him away. Plus, he was a yankee—he was from Florida. Grandmother Alice could spot Yankees better than Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

She just nodded at herself for getting it right and kept looking at him and the others in the yard.

“I can recognize our kin,” she said grabbing my hand, “because we’re the good lookin’ ones!” she winked at me, then sat back satisfied with the crowd in the yard and started to tell me another story about when she was a young girl.

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Lauren Gann is a recent graduate of Georgia Southern University, with a B.A. in Political Science and a Minor in Writing and Linguistics. You can reach Gann at lagann6@gmail.com.

“A Unique Name” by Patsy Ledbetter

Every year our family attends a Thanksgiving Conference at Mt. Hermon in the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains surrounded by giant Redwood Trees. Once, about three years ago, we picked up our welcome packet and there was a name tag in there that said, “Unisha Ledbetter.” I laughed as I realized they had gotten confused and put the wrong name tag in our bag. I wore it for fun and my family enjoyed the humor. When I got to camp, I found the real Unisha and got to know her a bit.  They gave me a correct name badge. Sometimes we wonder if God is really aware of exactly who we are and the difficulties we are going through. We can be sure that He knows it all and is working it together for His glory and our good…..even the heart-wrenching pain we go through. He knows us by name. We can never escape from His presence or His love. He is so great that He knows what each and every one of us is thinking at the same time. I find that astounding.

I praise Him that I can trust Him completely, even when I don’t understand, distant or afraid. He can use each one of us in times when others don’t notice us or don’t remember our names. He always does, and continues to assure us in many ways each day that He stays close to us. This Thanksgiving I am thankful for so many things. I am blessed with an amazing family, friends and church. But even more than that, I know that He is with me at all times and His power and presence in my life are very real. He allows me to serve Him in amazing ways. I am thankful for His forgiveness, grace and glory in my life. I am especially thankful that I have the hope of one day seeing Him face to face. May God bless you all abundantly at this Holiday Season.

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You can reach Patsy Ledbetter at patsyled@sbcglobal.net.

“An October Weekend” by Patsy Ledbetter

I was feeling kind of bummed because everyone I knew was going away for the weekend. Actually there were two trips that I could not attend. The teacher’s convention would be held on Thursday and Friday and then my church women’s retreat would be held on Friday to Sunday. I was not able to go to either outing as I had some previous commitments.

Next, I found out the Blue Angels would be in San Francisco and I desperately wanted to go. Something told me that would not be happening either. I prayed, “Lord, this time I seriously do not want to whine about any of this. You love me and that is always enough. I have a wonderful family and friends that I am grateful for, so please reveal to me exactly what you have in mind this weekend. My only requirement is that it brings glory to you.” I have three other very dear friends who were also busy for the weekend, so now I will tell you what ended up happening.

I had a little pity party on Thursday, but quickly got over it. We had rain on Wednesday and Thursday and knowing how much we needed it and how much my husband loves it, I was grateful for that. On Friday, I woke up and the sun was shining. I decided to take a solo hike in Lake Chabot and after about an hour of walking, I met a lady about my age. I asked her how far she was going and she said when all was said and done, it would be about four miles. I asked her if I could tag along and we had a wonderful conversation, finding out that her father has been in the music world all is life, as has my husband. I was able to share a little bit about our church and our music ministry with her and for that I was grateful. I also went with a friend on Saturday to Capitola and it was the most beautiful day anyone could imagine. So blue and lovely. We had a wonderful time. Sunday, for the first time in ten years, I got to sing on the worship team with about twenty choir members who had stayed in town. We had sung before, but we actually got to come on at the end and sing some more with the worship team and that was nice. After that, I went to children’s church and participated in a very funny skit that cheered my soul. I then went up to my Sunday School class what has hosted only the men that day because the women were all at a retreat and took the extra donuts, cake and fruit to a group home where I know some of the blind residents. They loved it and I loved sharing it with them. That afternoon, I went by myself to the Greek Festival and ran into a lady from my Tuesday night orchestra. I was able to invite her to a concert our choir and orchestra will be having in a few weeks.

Thanks Lord for your plans. Nothing and no one in this life is perfect, but every time I surrender to You, You work things out perfectly. My son and my husband also had a nice time of doing what they had in mind to do. The Lord is good and constantly shows me He can bring good out of everything.

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You can reach Patsy Ledbetter at patsyled@sbcglobal.net.

Short Story by Sam Burks

Time Is Not An Issue

For Elizabeth

by Sam Burks

Whenever I look back on those days-the days that are transpiring right now, the ones that have always been taking place, like a long and dull story that never ends-I see how little things have changed in a decade, or maybe just half a decade. Whatever. Time has never been an issue.  I am always here. I always have been here. And so has she.

What tears are these that flow over the surface of rumbling cheeks? From hot smiles a flow of warm air, sterile with alcohol, sweeps over the arches of a back broken from the repetitive nature of circumstances, broken from the actions we have taken as the poster-children of directionless souls, who can see the world with no barriers in their dreams, but who cannot feel these things in the darkness, even though there is no logical distinction between dreams and the pitch black darkness.

What good does it do us to stretch our imaginations, but not our hands into the same vague darkness, the same one that we experience in dreams? What is the difference between night and day? Right and wrong? To be asleep and dreaming, and seeing with new eyes, and to be awake and dreaming and seeing with even newer eyes?

I sit here, like a permanent fixture, tormented and drunk, happy yet afraid, the self-righteousness in me dying in the wake of growth, even when the present circumstances seem to allow no more room to grow, unless I destroy this box where I have lived and have drawn out my insecurities as a sickly display of stick figure violence and sexual innuendos. I sit here, finally at peace with the notion that the world has died next to me, before I ever got a chance to feel it breathe.

And as always, she is sitting here next to me.With a smile that never breaks, even in times of horrible desperation. Her eyes reflect a natural beauty that never ceases to exist, even when her sanity disappears temporarily (as it will from time to time, like all of us will experience from time to time). This smile in her eyes, it smiles at me from across the room, from across a plane of stars that take over when the rest of reality fails us. We have the same eyes; not just the same kind of eyes, but the same exact pair of eyes. When she smiles, so do I. When I die inside, she dies with me. But she is always looking at me, and I am always looking at her, waiting for a cue, waiting forever perhaps. Whatever. Time is not an issue.

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You may reach Sam Burks at srburks@gmail.com.

Short Story by Laura O’Brien

The Coupe

by Laura O’Brien

The haystacks of hills had been rolling by for days, but after breakfast, my eyes were filled with prickling green. I had been waiting for the forest to close in on either side of the train car. I would have to look at my calendar to remember how many days had passed. There hadn’t been many, but the sun and moon alternated so slowly, their piercing lights equal in their ability to distract me, so the few days on the train felt like eons interrupted only by curling crossword puzzles and abrupt attendants with tea and kasha. I never quite slept, nor was I ever fully awake, and a cloud of confused disinterest blurred my thoughts and words.

The games on my tiny island table were in Polish, Russian, Slovene, and German. I thought the trip would give me a chance to study, and word games were always a favorite. However, they required a knowledge of popular culture that I didn’t have, and my dictionaries were useless. They were more frustrating than fun, so I took to guessing my pop culture equivalent and filling in the blanks with insufficient Latin characters. I did this in the early morning and late at night, when my neighbors slept. My name was such that I could pass for a Slav, but I my understanding could only help me survive in standard travel guide scenarios. I kept this secret to myself.

The attendant, of course, knew everything about me, because he checked my passport at the platform. Thoroughly. He knew that I couldn’t roll my R’s, and his eyebrows twitched when I pronounced them like a softened Cyrillic Kha. His name was Konstantin, and I heard the other attendant, a stout older woman with severe butter-yellow hair, call him Kostya. Her voice was deep and strong, but her tone was sweet with Kostya. Her name, however, I never learned. If the wall was not privy to some bit of information, neither was I.

My roommates in the coupe kept to themselves, but I observed them with more diligence and interest. There was Sasha, the illustrator, who slept on the bunk above his wife, Katya. When the moon glowed an eerie neon patch of light on my feet, I could always hear him lumber down the iron ladder attached to the wall. Then the thin linens would whisper against each other into a pile at the foot of the bed, and I would try especially hard to be less awake. The beds were too narrow for more than one person, and Sasha was always on the top bunk, snoring at the ceiling, when I started my morning word puzzles. He spent his days sketching in his notebook, drinking beer when it was offered, and coddling his wife. Katya was short, frail. Her curly hair somehow went from mussed to coiffed in the mornings, but I could never catch when that happened. She looked like a child, and her husband treated her like one. She rarely spoke, but when she did, her voice was an echo of the woman attendant.

As I opened the room door, Kostya had his fist raised to knock, and he stood among the pillars of pines that flickered in the window behind him.

“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”

“Good morning. Yes, very well. Thank you,” I lied. He knew it was a lie, because my face was growing as dark as Katya’s, but he smiled all the same. I wondered how he did it, how he lived on darting trains and slept on cold, hard beds and worked with removed genteel.

“May I?” He gestured inside the coupe. I nodded and sat in the scratchy white nest of my bed. “For breakfast, there is kasha with vegetables or blinchiki with jam.” He pulled out his palm-sized paper pad and coolly waited for us to decide.

“Kasha with vegetables. And blinchiki. And two cups tea, please.”

“Kasha and tea, please,” said the man above me.

“Blinchiki, please.” I still had a hard time thinking of peas and carrots as breakfast foods.

“Tea, girl?” Kostya asked me.

“Oi, I apologize. Yes, please.”

“With pleasure,” he said with a narrow smile. As he turned to leave, he flicked his chin in the other direction, much like you when you’re in a hurry. The door snapped shut behind him, and I turned to face the morning colors yawning in the window near my pillow.

The man above me, Sergei, never said much. He was older, and a military man, judging by his carriage and systematic way of scheduling his day. I would imagine that he had fought in Chechnya, or had driven a tank through Moscow during the power shift in the 90s. My daydreams would promptly stop after a few minutes, because I could feel his energy humming in the bed above me. Or he would climb down, curtly nod at me, and go for a walk, or talk on his cell phone in urgent Russian. His intense restlessness and tempered glass stare made a strong impression on me, and I worried that he would know, just by looking at me, that I was re-imagining his life in terms that appealed to my own cloistered perceptions of war and history. He would not let me get away with it. He was a man, and I, a woman, would never understand what that title meant.

The coupe made sleeping nearly impossible. The constant shifting light that flitted through the window and Sergei’s stern edginess kept my senses stimulated and vigilant. Most of my days were silent, because no one ever talked. Kostya didn’t provide enough liquor.

Instead, I stared out the window, at the flaking hills that foolishly waited for rain. Sometimes, one of the windows was opened slightly, and the cold air smelled of cracked soil. I wanted to walk in the brittle grass, sit down and smell the bitter leopard flowers. My joints ached to move, but I was confined to walking up and down the thin hallway outside the coupe, where people talked on their cell phones and disciplined their children. I had no pretense for walking, just for the sake of walking, so I avoided looking at anyone as I made my rounds. Sometimes, I put on headphones and let the wire trail into my coat pocket. I wasn’t listening to anything. They couldn’t know that I listened to them berate their coworkers, sweet-talk their wives, advise their friends. I wanted to absorb everything they knew, so I could pretend to be something familiar.

When I return with the cold wind, I will tell you about these people, about this new part of me that sounds of brown and insecure spaces, about how I learned to love you more.

Kostya returned with a sharp rap on the door and a few plates of the food we had ordered. I wrapped myself in a rough quilted coverlet and nodded my thanks as the tea and and food were set before me. My shoulders remembered your soft grip as he reached for the curtains, tendons stretching to let the light in.

“Bon appetit,” he said stiffly before he clicked the door shut.

I picked at the blinchiki before smothering them with all the lingonberry jam that came on the styrofoam plate. I sat back in the far corner of my bed and pretended to be engrossed in my breakfast. Sergei delicately drank his tea and squeezed extra lemon into it. He said nothing and his face remained blank and rigid, but a small light ignited in his eyes with each slow sip. Katya had already inhaled her blinchiki before I could take notice, while Sasha read a book and absentmindedly ate between pages.

The window was ticked open, the thick scent of sap and needles sweeping in. I forgot the moaning hills, unmoving and listless, and their thirsty spotted flowers. It grew dark in the train and the morning watercolors abruptly ended. I forgot the hot glass of tea in my hands and stared into the layering shadows of gnarled tree trunks. They continued indefinitely, like the impossible reflections of a three-way mirror. The boughs, soft and damp, only harshened the white desert of my bed and pulled me further into the echoing green of blurring forest.

The constant bustle of the hallway and coupe, the buzzing of other hearts over silent lips, it was all too loud for me. Someone else slept on this bed, ate this food, watched the sun rise and set through finger-spotted glass, played pidgin word puzzles. I had retreated into some recess and vacantly watched the world before me. My actions were programmed, my face rigid, and only the crisp metallic ticking of your watch on Kostya’s wrist could bring my sight to my eyes.

We pulled into a station to let off some passengers, and pick up new ones, and the woods parted to welcome the station and sky. I was suddenly very thirsty, and gulped down the now cold glass of tea in my hands. Sasha pretended not to notice.

As passengers from other coupes rolled by and talked in anxious monotones, I yearned to retreat from the parched glare of the sun. Sergei shuffled a deck of cards, the plastic flapping competing with Sasha’s and Katya’s distant cooing from the top bunk. The waving fingers of needles beckoned in the distance, and I wanted to again look deep into the ceaseless sea of trunks, where light and voices faltered, where nothing was mine, nor was it anyone else’s.

They don’t know what happened. They know what happened before, and what it looked like after. Kostya, the man with creaseless hands and a long shadow, had been on the other set of tracks while we waited at the station. A train coming from Vladivostok did not stop, but Kostya did. They found what was left of him, and quietly told us that we would continue, short-staffed. I threw away the book of crossword puzzles. I replaced the games with letters to you, in languages you couldn’t read. The chasm between us was growing, and now the absence of Kostya forced me to shout my verses and hope the parched echoes would resemble words when they finally reached you.

You said you would wait. You said you would take care of yourself while the cold wind blew me across the steppe.

We hurtled away to the next station, humming through the dark pillars of pines. I slept all day, and shivered the whole night through.

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Laura O’Brien is a poetess that is dedicated to unfettered creativity. To contact her, send an email to lauraellaroberts@gmail.com.

Whose Brain Is It? [Dec 2011 – Leena Prasad]

Whose Brain Is It?
by Leena Prasad

Humphrey is getting restless. It’s been two hours and he is starting to feel like he is going around in circles. He should sit and rest but it’s getting dark. He is lost. Very lost. There is no cell phone reception out in the woods.

After another twenty minutes of walking around and ending up in familiar surroundings, he sits down to try to think about what to do. He’s out of food but he has water, at least enough to last him until tomorrow if he limits his consumption. There are no predatory animals in these upstate Maine forests. It’s early September and the weather is still somewhat warm and will probably not get too cold at night. So, theoretically, he can survive until morning.

Humphrey curses his decision to hike alone, especially in a forest that doesn’t have any man-made hiking paths. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he says out loud. But, there is no point in looking back. He needs to think about resting and possibly getting some sleep.

His stomach growls. He hasn’t seen any edible fruits during his walk. He has seen some red berries but doesn’t know if they are safe to eat. He looks at his watch. It’s 6:15pm. He decides to rest for a little while and try again. He doesn’t have a flashlight but he could try using his cell phone for light.

Maybe I’ll be stuck here for a few days, he thinks. Not likely because he isn’t all that far from civilization. But he isn’t exactly thinking rationally. On the plus side, I could lose some weight if I don’t have anything to eat for a while, he thinks and smiles sadly.

What would happen to Humphrey’s brain and body if he is actually stuck in the forest for more than a few days?

He has been using up some of the stored energy in his body already. At this stage he is using the glucose which is absorbed from food and stored as energy reserve in the form of glycogen. Once he exhausts the supply of glucose, his system will switch to burning fat cells for energy. It will take a while before his body switches to the last source of energy, the stored proteins.

It’s the short term survival, however, that’s on the agenda for both the brain and the body as they work together to inform Humphrey that he is hungry. The body signals the brain when it’s hungry and when it’s full. It achieves this by sending messages to the hypothalamus.

Gherlin, a hormone produced by the stomach and pancreas, transmits signals of hunger. Its counterpart, the hormone leptin, tells the hypothalamus when the body is satiated and does not need any more food. As the body fill up with food, the amount of gherlin decreases and the amount of leptin activity increases. For Humphrey, his gherlin level is climbing higher and higher. In addition, a complex “orchestra” of hormonal and neural signals is helping the body to conserve energy. The leptin in his body will be in hibernation for a while until he has access to food.

Humphrey can probably survive without food for several days. Mahatma Gandhi was famous for subsisting for more than 20 days on nothing but sips of water. Michael Peel, a senior medical examiner, published an article in the 1997 British Medical Journal, where he cited several cases of people surviving between 28-40 days without food. My brother tried this experiment in his youth and was almost unrecognizable at the end of the 40 days. He was healthier after the fast.

These starvation diets could potentially be beneficial to the brain. According to an article in Nature magazine, when gherlin entered the hippocampus area of the brain of rodents, it altered nerve-cell connections and enhanced learning and memory. This would be good news for Humphrey because his brain would be better prepared to recall the mistakes he makes in his self-rescue efforts and to use these to his benefit. Humphrey will also need less sleep due to the extra gherlin in his system. This effect on human beings was reported in the PLoS medical journal. So, being hungry will actually be helpful to Humphrey in finding his way back out to civilization.

This dance of equilibrium between gherlin and leptin has taken on center stage in many studies of hunger, obesity, and disease. Studies have revealed an imbalance of these hormones in the bodies of people who are unable to maintain a healthy weight. The cause for the imbalance seems to have some genetic component and some environmental ones. There are no simple answers and, to complicate matters, there are many other chemicals that also play a role in hunger management. The variables to be understood are complex.

The ability to control these hormones promises a gold rush into the multi-billion dollar diet industry. In the medical arena, the capability to manage these hormones could also lead to control over obesity related diseases like diabetes, hypertension, high-blood pressure, etc. There are currently some medical procedures which reduce stomach size and thus reduce the production of gherlin. There have also been some studies which equate the level of leptin with obesity. Like many matters of the brain, there is quite a lot that is known and a lot that is still unknown. This makes it difficult to develop simple solutions.

This balancing trick is not special to humans. Other animals also have a hypothalamus. This organ resides in the limbic system which is also known as the reptilian brain. That is, we share this structure with some of the simplest creatures in the world. Similar to us, their brain also evolved to produce hormones to control the body so that it can feed itself and obtain the requisite energy for survival.

Of course, in unusual situations like that of Humphrey, there is no competition. There is only gherlin and it wants satisfaction. Unlike other animals, however, Humphrey can use other parts of his brain to manage the demands that the gherlin is exacting on his hypothalamus. He can distract his mind by thinking about something else. Simply being afraid can also distract as his mind also tries to deal with that challenge. Fear stimulates his sympathetic nervous system, increases adrenaline secretion and decreases appetite.

Once Humphrey finds his way out of the forest and eats food, his gherlin level will start to decline and his leptin level will start to rise. The amount of balance between the hormones will depend partly on his genetic structure and partly on his food lifestyle. In this particular case, it is possible that the emotional starvations caused by loneliness and fear, will also cause him to eat more than necessary. This type of emotional eating is a complex human behavior and requires looking beyond the interactions of just the hunger and satiety hormones. But, that is another story.

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Please send feedback and suggestions for future columns to leena@fishridingabike.com. Links to past columns are available at WhoseBrainIsIt.com and Leena’s writing portfolio is available at FishRidingABike.com. Leena has a journalism degree from Stanford University.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.

References for this article: Dr. Wolfe’s Neuroscience class at Berkeley extension, plonsone.org, Nature magazine.

Review: “Masters of Venice” at the De Young Museum, San Francisco

 [Reviewed by Christopher Bernard]

AWESOME

 

The enterprising Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco never lets an opportunity slip from its grasp.

According to John Buchanan, director of museums for FAMSF, when he learned a number of famous Venetian paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna would be taken down to make way for a temporary exhibit, the museum seized the opportunity to bring them to San Francisco for a unique presentation of these, some of them the most celebrated paintings of the High Renaissance. As an added bonus, a number of them had never been seen in the United States. (One can fairly say FAMSF never lets the grass grow under its feet: just last year they presented two enormous and brilliantly curated shows of impressionist and post-impressionist artworks borrowed under somewhat similar circumstances from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.)

Now, the word “awesome” has lost much of its rhetorical power due to sloppiness and overusage (“That corn dog was simply awesome!”), but every once in a while, it’s the only word that sums up one’s experience briefly and securely. This exhibit is one of the few things in recent memory that incontrovertibly deserves it.

To move through it is like meeting old friends – or what you thought were old friends – in something closer to their original habitat, and in spectacular apparel. That painting by Andrea Mantegna of Saint Sebastian standing against a marble pillar and pierced with arrows, beneath a sky of steely, cobalt blue: haven’t you seen that before? And yet never has it looked so forceful, so, frankly, magnificent. And of course you have: in many an art history book since school, or on the web, or on posters. Then you realize: you had never seen the painting. And the shock hits you: this is the real thing  – more modest in size, more approachable, than you’d thought, and more beautiful, and powerful, more nearly perfect, than you had ever imagined. And you realize the word “masterpiece” does not actually refer to an interesting if uneven television series on PBS.

A similar thing happens to you with other paintings: with Giorgione’s mysterious and spacious Three Philosophers and his intimate Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura) and mysteriously androgynous Young Man with an Arrow; with Titian’s grand sensual fugues of Mars, Venus and Cupid and Danaë basking under a shower of gold coins from Zeus, her divine lover, and his stately portrait of Isabella d’Este (looking like a gilded child, though painted by the foxy flatterer when she was already past 60), and his depiction of the massive torso and worried eyes of Johann Friedrich, Elector of Saxony (a Protestant ruler imprisoned by the Catholic emperor Charles V during the strife-torn Reformation);with Tintoretto’s surrealistic Susannah and the Elders and straining Saint Jerome (as if in combat with himself or his God); and Veronese’s pain-wracked Lucretia: images we thought we knew, but realize we are discovering only now. The effect is a bit dazzling, sometimes deeply moving: a painting, no more than a frame of wood, a covering of rough fabric, a smearing of thin color, can seem to contain a soul.

For me, the greatest discovery of the exhibit is Giorgione, a highly influential artist who left a relatively few paintings and died in his mid-thirties. Some of his work I know from visits to the Louvre (more on that later), but otherwise I knew his paintings from art books alone: I always liked his work. I didn’t realized I loved it till now. There are mysteries at the heart of many of his canvases that scholars still argue about, and a beauty, of a precision and softness, that fascinates like an unanswered question or a veiled and seductive look.

Giorgione continues to be the subject of discovery and controversy: discovery in that only recently (according to the exhibit’s signage) has his family name come to light: Gasparini; and controversy over the re-attribution of one of his most famous canvases, the Concert Champêtre, now in the Louvre, to Titian. (I’ve always been suspicious of that attribution, but after seeing this exhibit I must put in my modest two cents and say, if that canvas is by Titian, and not by a Giorgione who was willingly influenced by his most famous pupil, then I will eat my hat.The reticence and inwardness, the softness yet preciseness of contour, the Leonardesque sfumato, of the Concert, to say nothing of the Giorgionesque enigma of the scene, are at the farthest remove from the taste for high drama at the heart of the style of the grand old man of Venetian painting.)

The dominant figure in the exhibit, as throughout 16th-centuryVenice, is indeed this very same Titian, and his work continues to intrigue and impress, from the precisionist portraints mentioned, to the glorious poesie: scenes direct from mythology, many of them gorgeously sensual, pointedly erotic.

Another revelation is the Tintorettos: sometimes called the first modern painter, and the subject of a typically provocative essay by Sartre, there is at least one canvas here that looks like it could have been done by a late 19th century symbolist – a Moreau, even an Odilon Redon – or a newly-discovered expressionist, with the endless spirals of his compositions, the pained psychology contorting his faces, the virtuosic foreshortening and perspectives, to express a tormented and suspicious sensibility: a proto-Daliesque paranoia.

The exhibit (which is curated by Dr. Lynn Federle Orr with help from Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, director of the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery) of the Kunsthistorisches Museum) concludes with several lucious Veronese’s to make one drunk on Venetian colore to balance the more sober enchantment of the designo so well displayed in the earlier Mantegna.

But even Veronsese appears here in a profounder light than usual, despite the curator’s interpretation, expressed in the excellent audio tour: Veronese’s painting of Lucretia, the famous pre-republican Roman woman depicted at the moment just before she takes her own life after being raped, is a profound gaze into the face of a lethal anguish, the more telling for being displayed as surrounded by the gifts of wealth and luxury, and one I never expected to find among Veronese’s usual voluptuousness and sybaritic radiances.

The exhibit  is enriched by paintings and prints, including portraits of individual men and generic female images, by lesser-known but intriguing figures such as Bassano, Pordenone, Bordone, and Palma Vecchio, as well as large-scale, context-setting reproductions of work by the likes of Carpaccio, Teniers, and Gentile Bellini.

In sum: this show is awesome. And a triumph for the museum.

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Christopher Bernard is a San Francisco writer and founding editor of Caveat Lector magazine.

Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power

From the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

De Young Museum, San Francisco

Through February 12, 2012

 

 

Book Review: “Jerusalem Maiden”, by Talia Carner

[Reviewed by Cara Diehl]

There is a palpable vibrancy in the language of Talia Carner’s Jerusalem Maiden, and from the opening chapters I found myself completely captivated by young Esther Kaminsky’s journey of self-discovery.   Carner’s ability to weave together a narrative of personal and spiritual struggle amidst the backdrop of Palestine and Paris in the second decade of the 20th century is powerful.  The historical geographical descriptions are at once knowledgeable and welcoming—reading it, I was not a stranger peering into the life of something and someone unknown; rather, I had the pleasurable experience of feeling present at each moment along the way.  Esther’s struggles, revelations, and heartbreaks reflected, became, my own—and I was rooting for her through to the very end.

Jerusalem Maiden begins in Jerusalem in the fall of 1911, in a moment of a thrilling defiance: coloring with pencils on a blank page.  Esther Kaminksy belongs to a very ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, Me’ah She’arim, where art was forbidden, and where reverence for Hashem, God, and a devotion to the procreation of his chosen people through marriage was the only culturally acceptable norm for a woman to preoccupy herself with.  As the Ottoman Empire is slowly declining around her community, Esther finds herself challenged daily by the inner urge to create—to draw, paint, and vividly represent the world she sees around her.  She is encouraged by her forward thinking, proto-feminist French instructor, Mlle Thibaux.  The lasting, though removed, friendship that is formed between these two characters is the real cornerstone of the novel.  The care that these two widely different women have for each other and the interplay of cultural differences that is explored through each of their developing storylines is truly encouraging.

I’ll resist hashing out the particular plot points that move the story along, because discovering Esther’s own self-discovery is part of the delight that comes with reading this finely written tale.  Esther is an intensely relatable girl (and young woman) precisely because the issues she grapples with are in many ways our own: who are we? How faithful to our culture, our customs, and our communities should we be, especially when they conflict with our own inner urges for individualism?  What will Esther choose to be?  What have we chosen to be?  Lyrical, engaging, and expressive, Carner’s Jerusalem Maiden is a book I want in the hands of every person, young and old, who has a passing interest in the way art can reflect and shape our own paths of self-discovery.

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You can contact the reviewer, Cara Diehl, at cdiehl2385@gmail.com.

Book Review: “Portrait of a Girl and Her Art”, by Elena Caravela

[Reviewed by Sarah Melton]

“Portrait of a Girl and Her Art” is not about one girl, but several young female artists, as seen through the eyes of writer, teacher and illustrator Elena Caravela.  While it’s seldom wise to judge a book by the cover, in this particular case it’s feasible. The cover shows a very well-done collage of portraits, showing each of the girls’ unique and vibrant personalities. Upon reading the book (with my own daughter, age 10), we realized that the book expanded upon those portraits with the touching descriptions of each girl, quotes from the young artists themselves about their art, and examples of each of the girls chosen art forms, from paints to pottery to collage.

For adults, this book is a glimpse into the lives of these special girls, and a reminder of the raw, powerful emotions of our own adolescent years.  For children (particularly young girls with an artistic bent), it’s an inspirational book full of like-minded kids and a bevy of projects and creative ideas to incorporate into their own lives.  My daughter was particularly moved by a collage shown, and started making her own work in that medium within the week.

The most touching aspect of the book (to this reader at least) was hearing how art helped each of these girls through one aspect or another of their lives.  One girl used art to express her emotions with growing up amid hardships, where another wished to make others happy with her creations.  Rachel, an artist featured both in the book and on the writers website, stated: “You can draw what you feel and no one will ridicule you or tell you it’s silly.” Quotes like that speak volumes about the issues that affect today’s young artists, if not all youth, who are struggling to freely express themselves without fear of judgment or unworthiness in the eyes of adults and their peers.

This book would be a great gift to a young artist, particularly those who struggle with feeling validity or approval of their expressions, in whatever medium they choose.  Elena Caravela still continues to accept and feature youth artwork on her website, http://portraitofagirlandherart.wordpress.com, and hopes to continue inspiring young artists for years to come.  To learn more about the writer and her art, visit her website at http://www.elenacaravela.net/.

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Sarah Melton can be reached at SarahM@aptosfire.com. You can find a number of Melton’s short stories in the Flash Fiction collections at www.absolute-x-press.com.