does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

"Familiar music acts as a sort of Proustian mnemonic, eliciting emotions and associations that had long been forgotten, giving ... access once again to moods and memories, thoughts and words that had seemingly been completely lost."

In my recent post about the Puerto Rican cuatro, I mentioned that cuatro music had the capacity to ferry me back instantly to the music of my childhood church. It seemed to me that music of any sort has the ability to penetrate cognitive barriers. That led me to reread Musicophilia, Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book about the intersection of music and neurology. Some of you may remember Dr. Sacks from his portrayal by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings. In that fictionalized version of a real-life event, a neurologist helps his patient [Robert De Niro] emerge from a decades-long frozen state, if only for a tragically limited time.

In Musicophilia, Dr. Sacks says that "Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional." Drawing on decades of clinical practice, he concludes that, even in the most brain-damaged individuals, “there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling." The implicit suggestion is that people with normal brain function can also access and be affected by music in ways that transcend cognition. For all of us, the “propensity to music … lies so deep in human nature that one must think of it as innate.”

He cites examples of persons with no apparent musical talent who become talented musicians after an inciting event like being struck by lightning. Others, who might have been musically inclined before losing significant cognitive function, are still able to discuss and perform music skillfully. He points to the example of a patient whose leg after a stroke only moved in response to music and how music therapy ultimately enabled her to recover fully.

Dr. Sacks concludes that “… in the nervous system, whatever else is going on, music can act as an activator, a de-inhibitor. In the case of paralysis, it can kick-start a damaged or inhibited motor system into action again.” Both he and others have, as a result, developed highly effective therapies using music to ameliorate the condition of patients otherwise nonresponsive to treatment.

Musicophilia is not the most well-crafted book in terms of its structural narrative. It sometimes reads like a string of anecdotes about experiences Dr. Sacks’ patients have had with music, both as an affliction and as a treatment. For those interested in exploring the influence of music on the psyche, though, it is still a tantalizing read. For those who suffer from or who know individuals with neurological deficits, it is a particularly worthwhile read.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Literary Lab Honors My Short Story

The Literary Lab has honored my short story "Asunder." It won the literary category in their Genre Wars Contest. You may read the full story and my responses to their interview questions here.

Thank you, Literary Lab! I loved your blog before this happened, and now I love you more.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Puerto Rican Culture - El Cuatro

The cuatro [kwah' tro] is Puerto Rico’s national instrument. It belongs to the lute family of string instruments. Its origins are unclear, though it is believed to have existed on the island in various forms for about 400 years. Its name derives from the original four-stringed instrument, which over time evolved into the current version of ten strings paired in five courses.

The cuatro is the uniquely identifying sound of the island’s folkloric music. Always popular in Puerto Rico, cuatro music is experiencing a surge of popularity on the mainland, with cuatro festivals, schools, and concerts now appearing across the U.S. In addition, the cuatro has expanded its range beyond its traditional folk sound into Latin big bands, soloist performances with symphonic orchestras, and even into hip-hop, pop, and jazz. Its traditional sound, though, is still beloved and is represented in the background music of the following video about the fabrication of a cuatro.

The soloist CDs of accomplished cuatro artists like the standard bearer Pedro Guzmán and the gifted Prodigio Claudio are still mostly available through specialty websites such as In the following appearance at a Puerto Rican community center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Prodigio Claudio demonstrates his virtuosity and range. I apologize for the “home movie” quality of the video but, after viewing all the available YouTube cuatro music clips, I am convinced that the mainstream world is still not paying attention and therefore not generating the polished videos one might hope for.

I end with a personal note about my own experience with the cuatro. Like so many things Puerto Rican, my introduction to the cuatro was at my childhood Pentecostal church. Most of the parishioners of my father’s church were first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants to the mainland. It is not surprising, then, that church music would incorporate the traditional sounds of the cuatro, guitar, maracas, güiro, tambourines, and drums. The music was no less lively or seductive than its secular counterpart. As a consequence, I need only hear the first bars of cuatro music to be carried back, as if I’d never left, to my childhood church. In the process, I am reminded that music, possibly more than any other genre, seems particularly capable of piercing the cognitive barrier that daily living erects.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Hero’s Journey - Nelson Mandela

During my holiday break, I read several books which had the common theme of the hero’s journey. That has inspired me to start a new series on this blog, in which I will explore, through book reviews, interviews, et al., what it means to be a hero. I begin with Nelson Mandela who to me symbolizes, probably more than any other person alive, the meaning of heroism. When quotations appear below, they are from Mr. Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

Nelson Mandela defines a hero as someone who “…would not break even under the most trying circumstances.” By his own definition, then, Nelson Mandela is a hero. Despite the humiliation and hardship he suffered for much of his life and during 27 years of harsh imprisonment, he managed to retain intact his dignity, his gentle humor, and a spirit of forgiveness. Indeed, those attributes would prove to be essential to the difficult tasks of negotiating the end of apartheid and then rebuilding a nation.

That Nelson Mandela emerged from prison with such grace is particularly remarkable considering the bleakness of prison life, which included these conditions:

· “… could walk the length of my cell in 3 paces … when I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other end.

· “… issued three blankets so flimsy and worn they were practically transparent. Our bedding consisted of a single sisal mat … later given a felt mat …

· “We were only permitted to write to our immediate families, and just one letter of five hundred words every six months.”

He was placed in isolation more than once and spent years pounding rocks in his prison job. In demonstrating extraordinary bravery and strength of character under these conditions and during his lifetime, Nelson Mandela defines the meaning of heroism.

Along with F. W. de Klerk, President of South Africa at the time, Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. This joint honor highlights what Mandela himself has acknowledged, that there were others vitally important to the success of the freedom struggle in South Africa. One of them is Oliver Tambo, the man who, in exile, helped build international support for the end of apartheid. Others are the members of Mandela’s immediate family who “ … paid a terrible price, perhaps too dear a price for my commitment [to the struggle].” He also recognizes “… the unimaginable sacrifices of thousands of my people, whose suffering and courage can never be counted or repaid.”

I leave to South Africans and to history the complex, final evaluation of Nelson Mandela's success as a nation builder. For now, I draw attention to the personal attributes and insights which I find heroic in him. To that end, I provide the following selected quotes from Long Walk to Freedom.

· … prison … conspires to rob each man of his dignity … In and of itself, that assured that I would survive, for any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure. I never seriously considered the possibility that I would not emerge from prison one day.

· I am fundamentally an optimist.

· Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation. Your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.

· Prison was a kind of crucible that tested a man’s character.

· … a leader must temper justice with mercy.

· … all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and … if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing.

· … during all my years in prison hope never left me … I did not doubt that I would someday be a free man.

· … ordinary things are what one misses most in prison, and dreams about doing when one is free. But I quickly realized [when released from prison] that such things were not going to be possible [because he was called by history into negotiating the end of apartheid].

· To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.

· The decades of oppression and brutality [due to apartheid] had another, unintended effect, and that is that it produced … men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom, and generosity that their like may never be known again. Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character. [NM was referring to his colleagues here, but the same sentiments could be expressed of him as well.]

· The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear.

· I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity ... Man’s goodness is a flame.

· Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them; the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.

· … the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.

· The truth is we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed … to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedoms of others.

· …my long walk [to freedom] is not yet ended.

In this post, I have endeavored to focus on Mandela’s heroic qualities for what they can teach us. Not least among those qualities is his understanding that he is simply a man. In his words, “I wanted to tell the people that I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had to become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”

The ordinary person who becomes a hero will be a theme that I will revisit in future posts of this new series, A Hero’s Journey. In my regular post next week, I will return to my other series on Puerto Rican Cultural Identity.

Relevant links:
A FrontLine online archive of interviews about Mandela's life

Long Walk to Freedom autobiography