Monday, October 20, 2014

A Taxi Ride Home

Sharp Conversation

There was a time in my life when I was employed as a sales engineer for a medium-sized manufacturing company (high-precision aerospace & defense products); my position required that I travel often for business, and thus I used to take a lot of planes and a lot of taxis. This incident, in many respects unmemorable, took place during the late summer of 1990; I was returning from a business trip from the United States to Montreal, which is where I was then residing. It was late in the evening, and I was exhausted after a long day of meetings and travel

I  took a cab from the airport, and behind the wheel there was a middle-aged driver from the middle east. We spoke, and after some preliminaries of what I did professionally and where I was coming from, the conversation quickly turned personal and to religion, not a topic that I like speaking about with strangers; he spoke passionately about his wife's newly found beliefs in Christianity, which bothered him. “All she talks about is love and peace,” he said with disdain. “She has forgotten about Allah’s justice. In Islam, you have to be sharp like a sword,” he said, momentarily taking his right hand off the steering wheel, and chopping the air for dramatic emphasis.

Thankfully, we arrived at my destination; I quickly paid him. As I was exiting the cab, the driver helping me retrieve my suitcase from the car’s trunk, he said, “This is Islam; it's about justice.” He was not angry, but bothered, perhaps confused about Canada and its values, which in some important way conflicted with his, and his religious beliefs likely provided him some comfort in a land that he considered foreign in so many ways. Yet, he was in Canada for a reason; it provided him something tangible (freedom, opportunity, work, perhaps) not available in his home country.

I soon forgot this conversation, recalling it only recently; and yet this simple taxi driver from the middle east explained an important aspect of Islam that today escapes many sophisticated western academics, politicians and writers. People hold on to thoughts and ideas that give them comfort and meaning, only replacing these with new ones when these do the same. In the workings of the brain, changing one’s mind is never easy. Yet, it is at times necessary, and time and the fading of memory makes this easier.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Concert Pianist: Time To Refill

Youthful Ambition

“The paradox is that I love playing in concerts; the paradox is that each concert is an event for me. I can also say that each concert is a stress for me. …I give a lot; I give everything I have at that particular moment during my concert, and so I need some time to refill myself.”
—Evgeny Kissin

In this British documentary series Imagine, host Alan Yentob examines Being a Concert Pianist (2005), using British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as the focus of what young pianists face in their desire to become internationally acclaimed musicians. Having good parents and teachers might be as important as luck, talent and a relentless drive and ambition to play music for the public to enjoy. Such are no doubt important in the early years, but later on, more mature thoughts and ideas take hold. It also takes a sense of what is important, an understanding of the limitations of human ability, and how to preserve it, says Evgeny Kissin, a child prodigy and one of the great pianists of today, who performs in less than 50 concerts a year: “The paradox is that I love playing in concerts; the paradox is that each concert is an event for me. I can also say that each concert is a stress for me. …I give a lot; I give everything I have at that particular moment during my concert, and so I need some time to refill myself.”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nuclear Life & Death

Man-Made Disasters

A Room in Pripyat, Ukraine: Johnson writes: “And that is what drew me, along with the wonder
of seeing towns and a whole city—almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat—that had been abandoned
in a rush, left to the devices of nature.”
Photo Credit:
Gerd Ludwig
Source: NatGeo

An article (“Nuclear Tourism”), by George Johnson, in National Geographic discusses the human fascination of Chernobyl, which 28 years ago suffered a nuclear disaster. The name of the town in Ukraine is synonymous with the threats that nuclear reactors in particular, and nuclear energy in all its forms in general,  pose to human civilization. Such threats, not surprisingly, also act as a draw to people, who are fascinated by its serious implications.

Chernobyl has become a tourist attraction, Johnson writes in this essay, with photos by Gerd Ludwig:
Then there is the specter of nuclear meltdown. In 2011, Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst catastrophe at a nuclear power plant, was officially declared a tourist attraction.
Nuclear tourism. Coming around the time of the Fukushima disaster, the idea seems absurd. And that is what drew me, along with the wonder of seeing towns and a whole city—almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat—that had been abandoned in a rush, left to the devices of nature.

Sixty miles away in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, weeks of bloody demonstrations had led in February to the expulsion of the president and the installation of a new government. In response to the upheaval Russia had occupied Crimea, the peninsula that juts from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea. Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s eastern border. In a crazy way, Chernobyl felt like the safest place to be.

The other diehards in the van had come for their own reasons. John, a young man from London, was into “extreme tourism.” For his next adventure he had booked a tour of North Korea and was looking into options for bungee jumping from a helicopter. Gavin from Australia and Georg from Vienna were working together on a performance piece about the phenomenon of quarantine. We are used to thinking of sick people quarantined from the general population. Here it was the land itself that was contagious.

Of all my fellow travelers, the most striking was Anna, a quiet young woman from Moscow. She was dressed all in black with fur-lined boots, her long dark hair streaked with a flash of magenta. It reminded me of radioactivity. This was her third time at Chernobyl, and she had just signed up for another five-day tour later in the year.

“I’m drawn to abandoned places that have fallen apart and decayed,” she said. Mostly she loved the silence and the wildlife—this accidental wilderness. On her T-shirt was a picture of a wolf.

“ ‘Radioactive Wolves’?” I asked. It was the name of a documentary I’d seen on PBS’s Nature about Chernobyl. “It’s my favorite film,” she said.
The aftermath of destruction and death is often silence; perhaps visiting such places gives people an idea of what they have escaped, the silence speaking in a particular language. I would like to elucidate this point by telling a personal story. When I was an engineering student, I worked one summer (in 1980) at a nuclear research reactor in Ontario (Chalk River); we also wore dosimeters on our belts to measure our exposure, in millirems, to the background radiation (notably gamma); we all were tested as to our total exposure before we left the facility; we were all told the amount of total radiation we students were exposed to fell within normal limits. I enjoyed my summer there, and I have not thought much about my time at Chalk River until I was diagnosed with cancer almost two years ago; is there a correlation? I can't say with any certainty, but I wonder. More important, I am glad to be alive.

You can read more and see more images at [NatGeo].

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Soul Keeper: Sabina Spielrein

Human Nature

The Soul Keeper is based on the life of Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942), who, Wikipedia informs us, “was a Russian physician and one of the first female psychoanalysts. She was in succession the patient, then student, then colleague of Carl Gustav Jung.” Spielrein is an unrecognized pioneer in the study of human emotions, notably as they pertain to hidden desires and needs.

The Jewish Women’s Archive says:
Sabina Spielrein was born on November 7, 1885 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. She was the oldest of five children. Her father, Naphtul Arkadjevitch Spielrein, was a merchant, and her mother, Emilia (Eva) Marcovna Lujublinskaja, was a dentist. Spielrein’s maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were both rabbis. Her grandfather educated Spielrein’s mother, who was very intelligent and musical. However, after she became engaged to a Christian, her father arranged the marriage with Spielrein’s father, who was Jewish. It was not a marriage Spielrein’s mother wanted, nor does it appear that she and her husband ever fell in love or enjoyed a satisfying relationship.
The parents, who were extremely strict, forced the children to endure an extremely harsh upbringing: her father tyrannized the household; her mother beat the children severely. Nevertheless, they placed great emphasis on the children’s education, employing a nursemaid, a governess to prepare them for high-school entrance and a music teacher.

Spielrein was a very delicate and sensitive child, subject from infancy to frequent illness. She was also very precocious. While Russian was her first language, by the age of six Spielrein also spoke German and French. Indeed, the entire household communicated in a different language every day of the week, moving between German, French, English and Russian. 
At the age of ten, Spielrein began attending a girls’ grammar school in her hometown, completing her studies with distinction in 1904. She lived at home with her parents, three brothers—Jean, Isaak and Emil—and one sister, Emilia. In addition to her coursework, Spielrein studied piano. At the age of twelve, she started studying Latin and voice. She very much enjoyed natural science courses and decided that the direction in which she wanted to move was medicine. When Spielrein was fifteen, her six-year-old sister died of typhoid. This episode had a dramatic effect on Spielrein.

Spielrein’s mental health “affliction” appeared at age seventeen, although she had been beset with problems throughout her young life. She was taken to Heller Sanatorium, Interlaken, in Switzerland for one month, and was admitted to the Burghölzli Treatment and Care Institution (or Psychiatric Clinic) in Zurich on August 17, 1904. Spielrein became the first patient of Carl Jung, ten years her senior, who treated her until her discharge on June 1, 1905.
The film, an Italian-French-British production starring Emilia Fox as Sabina Spielrein and directed by Roberto Faenza, was released in 2002. Jung’s methods of “treatment” might shock the sensibilities and the held ethics of some today, which is always the case when looking at events from the past. I view it more as a study in history and the trials and tribulations of human relationships; it is my view that some things remain the same, and fall under the realm of universal ideas and emotions: love, sex, pain, play, repression, freedom. 

Speaking of universals, there is another more ominous human trait: death, and in particular murder:  Wikipedia notes: “In August 1942, Spielrein and her two daughters, aged 29 and 16, were murdered by a Nazi German SS Death Squad, Einsatzgruppe D, in Zmievskaya Balka near Rostov-on-Don, together with 27,000 mostly Jewish victims.”

For those interested in surnames, as I am, Spielrein translates into English as spiel; “play”; and rein: “clean.”