“Tor,” which sounds a lot like “door,” is the German word for gate. (It’s also the German word for “goal,” which you’ll be hearing a lot of with the World Cup about to start). The most famous Tor in Berlin, and perhaps in all of Europe, is the Brandenburger Tor. According to wikipedia, “the Brandenburg Gate was often a site for major historical events and is today considered not only as a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany, but also of European unity and peace.”
I lived in Germany for 8 months in 1983. I graduated from high school young and took a gap year between high school and college, living with my family while my professor father took a sabbatical at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin.
This is what the Brandenburger Tor looked like back then, in a picture I took with a Kodak Instamatic. You could only see the back of the chariot on top, from a distance, behind the Berlin Wall, and the whole structure was pretty dirty.
“Achtung! Sie verlassen West-Berlin”
“Attention! You are leaving West Berlin,” the sign informs you, in case you were confused about the concrete wall, the no-man’s land, and the guard towers nearby.
(Admittedly, the faded color printing doesn’t help, but it’s held up surprisingly well for 35 years.)
This is what it looks like today, from the other side, on the famous avenue, “Unter den Linden.” The gate itself has been cleaned up, the wall is gone, and there are tourists everywhere.
This souvenir shop now hangs the opposite sign over its door: “ACHTUNG Sie verlassen jetzt Ost-Berlin” (Attention you are now leaving East Berlin). Our kids, who weren’t yet born when the wall fell, don’t remember anything different. To them, Berlin’s Tor has always been open.
Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American eastern time) at Norm 2.0’s blog here.
When I said I had decided to perform the Telemann viola concerto from memory I was met with some skepticism.
“You don’t *have* to, you know.”
“I don’t think I could do that.”
“A lot of soloists nowadays are using the sheet music.”
“I’d want the sheet music there just as a security blanket.”
There’s a lot of overlap between shared experience and advice. It’s a general human tendency to believe that the lessons of one’s own experience are relevant for others too. But, as I’ve learned (from—ha—experience), it’s better to let the recipient decide how and why that is true. This blog is intended in that spirit.
In my case, I need to memorize.
In my day job, I am a neuroscientist. I worked for several years in biotech, then in academia as a project manager, and now in STEM education and outreach. I could go on, comparing different aspects of scientific and musical careers, but for now, this concerto performance is taking me back to my PhD thesis defense. At Stanford where I was a student, as at other major research universities, PhD candidates have to write a thesis, present their work in a departmental seminar, and then answer questions from their committee, which comprises several professors in the student’s field of research.
My thesis committee members were intelligent and kind, and my thesis consisted largely of putting together three already-published papers and two manuscripts in preparation. I didn’t expect to fail based on my scientific work. But I did have these nagging thoughts that I could fail based on my presentation of that work. I had a history of performance anxiety and self-sabotage. There were the points lost from school reports because I read them verbatim from note cards. And the speech I gave for my failed run for student council. An All-State audition in which Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 reduced me to tears wasn’t any better. And then came the worst one of all: the disastrous audition for the University Orchestra my freshman year in college that started me down the road to quitting the violin.
But there was a glimmer of hope in grad school, and it lay in the results of memorization. A few years before my thesis defense, I gave my first talk at a major scientific meeting, the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Phoenix AZ. My 10-minute talk was scheduled, along with two others from my lab, in a session starting at 9 am on Monday morning. The night before, I paced an empty hotel conference room, memorizing my talk word for word. One of my lab-mates had suggested I do this. She was older than I, a postdoc and a rising star in the field, known for giving good talks. And she let me in on a secret: she still got nervous. Like, really, really nervous. But these talks were only 10 minutes, short enough to memorize, and that helped her. It might help me too.
I had about 10 slides and so first I memorized the order of the slides, then I chose a visual cue on each that would remind me of the slide to come. When I changed to the next slide I oriented the audience to what they were seeing and then gave the slide’s important message. Then it was time for the transition to the next one. This mental map of order of slides/visual cues/transitions/important message was something for me to hang onto and think about, even as the storms of anxiety raged.
The next morning busses from the hotels were crowded and we almost didn’t make it to the convention center in time. With over 25,000 neuroscientists in attendance from all over the world, this conference is so big that only a few convention centers in the country can handle it, and this particular meeting took place before the Society figured out that Phoenix wasn’t one of them.
The logistics were in disarray; attendees were packed into the ballroom like sardines without enough chairs and the podium lights weren’t working properly. My mentor was first from our lab to give her talk. I watched as the podium light went on and off randomly but she continued to speak calmly. The projector functioned, but there was no pointer available, laser or otherwise, and as she stepped back to the screen to point at something on one of her slides, she disappeared entirely. In the dark, she had missed the edge of the podium and fallen off. The audience gasped. She re-emerged, uninjured, climbed back up and finished her talk. Her voice shook but she got it under control. The podium lights came back on sometime near the end. The timing bell rang, people asked questions.
And then I was next. I took the stage wondering what fresh hell awaited.
My own talk went off without incident. The lights, and the laser pointer, and everything else were up and running by then thanks to the hardworking convention staff. I was hyper-aware of where the edge of the podium was. I knew my talk well. I’d just witnessed one of the worst things that could possibly happen during a talk, and I knew it was survivable. My friend’s preparation, the fact that she knew her talk backwards and forwards, had made the difference.
Several years later, when I was giving my thesis seminar, I had this experience to think back to. My seminar was about 5 times longer than the little 10-minute meeting talk, but I still approached it the same way: slides/visual cues/transitions/important messages. I just had more slides. I ran through them mentally, over and over again. The order was comforting; it was the stick I gave the trunk of my elephant brain to hold onto.
Concertos don’t use slides or projectors to deliver their message, which is different from a scientific talk. But certain principles still hold true. First of all, having note cards, prompts, or the sheet music “just in case” isn’t going to work for me. If I know it’s available I’ll lean on it. I’ll steal a look and then start reading it verbatim. Instead I need to be prepared to look inward, not outward, even–or perhaps especially–for that cue to keep going when I stumble.
Of central importance is something that Meditation Instructor Eknath Easwaran called the stick for the elephant trunk.
The human mind is rather like the trunk of an elephant. It never rests. It goes here, there, ceaselessly moving through sensations, images, thoughts, hopes, regrets, impulses. Occasionally it does solve a problem or make necessary plans, but most of the time it wanders at large, simply because we do not know how to keep it quiet or profitably engaged.
Easwaran goes on to recommend the mantram, a spiritual formula in the form of a word or short phrase, to steady the mind. This is a subject of study for a lifetime. And I am not naturally a great meditator; sometimes when I try, it puts me to sleep. Furthermore, I find words themselves to be an awkward fit for a steadying mental substrate.
My mind gravitates more towards deeper non-verbal sensory experiences: pictures, kinesthetic feelings, and music. It is those sensations that I string together as another kind of mantra. Not power point slides this time, but bridges, ladders, and lattices. Finger patterns, and arpeggios climbing to the sky before sliding back down the other side of the bow. The deep purple of the C, the forest green of the G, as I put bow to string.
DNA stands for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid. The “nucleic” part means it is found in the nucleus of all cells. There are many different ways to visualize DNA. These are some of the most common:
The upper left shows Watson and Crick’s original wire model of the DNA double helix. On the lower left, the abstract X is one of Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallograms that were used to help determine the structure. The upper right, looking like a beaded necklace, is a bacterial chromosome viewed under an electron microscope. And the lower right, with what looks like some cloudy snot in a tube, shows some DNA extracted from strawberries with common kitchen materials.
The center picture shows the DNA double helical model that has entered popular culture. A DNA molecule is composed of two complementary strands that wind around each other in a helical shape, a “twisted ladder.” The rungs of the ladder, in primary colors, are the base pairs, which spell out the genetic code.
This song from “They Might be Giants” explains in 2 and a half catchy minutes how the DNA instructions are translated into making different cell types.
Every year the American Society for Human Genetics sponsors an essay contest for high school students and announces the winners on DNA day. This year’s question was about genetic testing.
Do you think medical professionals should be required for all genetic testing, or should consumers have direct access to predictive genetic testing?
Check out some of the winning essays here on their website. Congratulations to all who entered!
This is the second year that the Musicians of the Utah Symphony (MOTUS), led by their music director Thierry Fischer, have gone to Haiti to teach young musicians there in an orchestra institute. Last year’s institute received coverage in The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News, and others.
Fischer said the students’ work ethic and eagerness to learn quickly dispelled any qualms about “talking about intonation when they don’t have a roof over their heads.” Beyond musical technique, he hopes the lessons learned at the institute strengthened skills and traits the students can use throughout their lives: “persistence, consistency, determination, discipline.”
–Salt Lake Tribune, April 30, 2017
The Utah Symphony musicians are in Haiti right now for this year’s Institute, and are blogging about it here on Tumblr: MOTUS in Haiti.
A violinist friend of mine, Kate Little, pictured at left and on the Tumblr blog, collected used-but-usable strings to be sent along with the musicians in their luggage. The climate in Haiti is such that strings deteriorate quickly, so they can make good use of our old used strings that are still in decent shape.
Kate put out a call for strings in some online music groups that I am a part of and I collected them from friends and teachers and sent them on to Kate, who gave them to the traveling musicians to take in their luggage.
The collection of strings pictured here is a selection of what was donated by friends I play music with in local community orchestras. It includes violin, viola, and cello strings! My son’s cello teacher also gave me a large envelope containing strings, collected from her professional colleagues and her own closet.
The orchestra under Maestro Fischer is currently rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony!
“We Are the World Blogfest,” posted around the last Friday of each month, seeks to promote positive news. There are many oases of love and light out there, stories that show compassion and the resilience of the human spirit. Sharing these stories increases our awareness of hope in our increasingly dark world. The #WATWB co-hosts for this month are: Belinda Witzenhausen, Sylvia McGrath, Sylvia Stein, Shilpa Garg, and Eric Lahti. Please check out their posts and say hello!
This past week brought us Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, Lunar New Year, and . . . Heart-Lung Day! I’m teaching at a new elementary school with Science from Scientists, an educational non-profit that brings hands-on science education to schools for grades 3-8. This was only my second time at this school and I was working with a new teaching partner. The school teachers wanted us to do two heart-related activities with the students, “Heart Health,” a lesson with blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, and “Heart Dissection,” which is what it sounds like: dissecting a preserved sheep heart. I’m a biologist, so people might reasonably think that I enjoy dissections. They can be an excellent way to learn anatomy. And yet . . .
In high school Biology class, dissection was traumatic for me. The smell made me sick to my stomach, and I was squeamish about the visuals and the texture. I watched as my lab partner struggled with the bulk of the work, and tried to participate by writing our names on the specimen’s identifying tag. A “friend” told me later that my lab partner had been annoyed and complained during the next class period about how little I had done and how I’d written my own name first, and larger, on the tag, even though she’d done all the work.
I was ashamed of my behavior but couldn’t do anything about it. The teacher, whom I otherwise loved and admired, made light of it and laughed. At that time in my life, many things felt out of control. I was ambushed by waves of performance anxiety about things that other people seemed to be able to do just fine. There were some narrow avenues of things that I was good at and that didn’t make me feel this way, and I concentrated on those and let others go. I let a lot of things go due to anxiety and shame, including public speaking and solo violin performance.
Because she’s new I gave my co-teacher a choice of which lesson she wanted to lead. She admitted to being squeamish herself and picked the Heart Health lesson, leaving me with the dissection. In this job, I had assisted with it once before and it went okay, so maybe leading this dissection was another chance for me to conquer some old demons. I didn’t view it that way at first–at first I was dreading it, procrastinating preparing because my old companion, the anxiety, was rearing its ugly head. My logical brain reminded me that procrastination would just make everything worse, but even that knowledge wasn’t enough to get me going.
What finally did was realizing that it was “just” anxiety, and I’d seen it before. Sure, anxiety can be pretty debilitating, but it is also something that I’ve been able to cope with in other situations by taking small concrete steps to support myself. I’ve learned, for example, to keep my hands warm during anxious violin playing situations by wearing fingerless gloves. That makes a tangible difference in how I feel, and how I sound, which leads to a virtuous feedback loop: I feel better, and then I play better.
Anxiety is also something that can be supported and worked through if other people are understanding about it. The education field has come a long way since my Biology teacher laughed and graded students on participation. Now we encourage participation but we explicitly allow students to sit back and observe if they are squeamish. We tell them that the sheep hearts come from animals that are being slaughtered anyway, for food, so we are using specimens that would go to waste otherwise. We let students leave the room if they don’t feel well. And we don’t grade them or judge them on the dissection; it’s a learning experience. What if I’d had that kind of support? Would my attitude towards dissection have been different?
So I made a list of all the things that made me anxious about this experience. The smell came to mind first. I read on the internet that Carolina Biological Supply now has something to preserve specimens called “Carolina’s Perfect Solution®,” which is supposed to be non-toxic and not require excessive ventilation. And I’ve used it before, last year: sure, it still smells a little funky, but it doesn’t bring to mind the maw of hell. I know I can handle it.
Another anxiety provoker was diagrams like this one, which make my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact that I’ve seen any number of blue and red diagrams with lots of labels at various levels of detail, I still can’t remember which vessel is the aorta, which one is the pulmonary trunk, and which one is the superior vena cava.
I went online and looked for some other diagrams. My favorite was this poster, available from Etsy, by artist Rachel Ignotofsky. It reminded me of another resource I saw in school and loved: the movie Hemo the Magnificent, directed by Frank Capra. Beethoven’s Eroica opens that 1957 movie, and Hemo, representing blood, talks and has a face. Smiling faces and all, the poster still has too much information for my class, but this is background information, the point being to make myself feel less anxious about the material, and it accomplished that.
Finally, I read the lesson plan slowly and just sat with it, and my feelings, for a while. I put on some relaxing music and listened while I was reading and sitting. As I listened, read, and sat, I told myself it was okay to be anxious. Wouldn’t that be normal for leading a complicated lesson for the first time at a new school? Wouldn’t that be expected, given my history with dissection? Wouldn’t that help me be more empathetic with any students who had misgivings?
I can do this.
The class didn’t go perfectly. Some kids were indeed bothered by the smell and put their sweatshirts over their noses and mouths to block it out. Most of them also didn’t remember the difference between the aorta, the pulmonary trunk, and the superior vena cava. At least one student said “this is awesome,” though. And a parent I saw as I was leaving called out to me, “my daughter loved that heart thing you guys did today!” I even had fun myself; I watched and observed all the different approaches the students brought to the activity, I marveled that you could stick your finger all the way through the aorta into the left ventricle and feel its elasticity and see its thick muscular wall. I felt my own heart steadily beating.
On the way home I drove a little ways to find my geocache for the day in a birdhouse. I had the Telemann viola concerto playing on the car’s sound system, as I do every day now. The day was warm, sunny, even though the winter sun was low in the sky, and I was struck again by how beautiful and joyful the piece is in its simplicity.
I’m still in that phase where I’m trying to get it all together technically. I’m memorizing it, I’m cleaning up the intonation, I’m using the metronome, I’m getting used to the Baroque bow, I’m fiddling with the bowings. I’m recording it every day and posting these recordings to the 100 Day practice challenge on Facebook. I’m trying to keep the weird faces and swaying to a minimum. The time will come, though, when all this will be a prelude to the main event. The time will come when I will have to play from the heart.
In 1983, I lived in West Berlin for 8 months. I graduated from high school at age 16 and took a gap year before going to college. My father, a Chemistry professor, did a sabbatical at the Freie Universitaet Berlin, and our family went with him.
Paradoxically for a city surrounded by a wall, I was afforded a lot of freedom in Berlin. I took public transportation anywhere and everywhere using a student pass. I rode my bike. Every week I would go alone to my violin lesson on both the bus and the subway. My violin teacher, an American expat married to a German, lived in an apartment near the wall. She sometimes crossed into East Berlin to buy sheet music cheaply. My copy of the Brahms violin sonata #1 is an old Edition Peters, bought on one of those trips. When my teacher gave it to me, I handled it gingerly, like it might be radioactive.
The only time I ever crossed into East Berlin myself back then was on a carefully guided tour for American tourists, which we were. After crossing at Checkpoint Charlie, we drove down Unter den Linden, toured a museum with a bust of Nefertiti, and visited a memorial to fallen soldiers.
Checkpoint Charlie, May 1983
Brandenburg Gate from the West, May 1983
We were shown a lot of the wall, too. Across the wall and no-man’s land, you could see this futuristic silver ball, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower). Built from 1965-1969 and 365 meters tall (at the time), it was visible from many parts of West Berlin. Particularly as I rode my bike around the city, it was a landmark I kept in my mind’s eye. Like my Eastern copy of Brahms, it seemed extra-foreign and a little sinister.
Living there at that time and playing music there influenced what I’ve wanted to write about as an adult. One of my stories at the Clarion West writers’ workshop, “Sunrise on West Lake,” was fantasy about a musician who escaped from a repressive society.
In 1997 I married my husband, who was born and raised in (then West) Germany. We’ve been back many times to visit his friends and family, but only once to Berlin, in 1998.
From the West, 1983
From the East, 1998
We could visit the Brandenburg gate from the other side (and it’s a lot cleaner looking!)
Checkpoint Charlie was also no longer recognizable.
Construction was everywhere in Berlin back then in the first heady years after the wall came down, and it’s still going on. Pieces of the wall were dismantled and sent around the world as memorials. We have such a piece right here in Mountain View CA. It’s next to the Public Library, and someone made a virtual geocache out of it. I decided that the anniversary would be a good day to find that cache, which is called “Wir Lieben Dich” for obvious reasons.
To find this virtual cache, you had to answer a question about the area around the cache, and have your picture taken with the pieces of the wall. I ran into a fellow cacher at the library, and she happily took my picture.
As we rightly celebrate the wall’s demise, we also remember those who died trying to cross it:
The coverage is a little breathless, but I’m still glad I got up to see it.
Why is it “super”?
Because the moon is close to the Earth in its orbit this month, and appears larger and brighter than usual.
Why is it “blue”?
Because it is the second full moon in the month of January. There actually won’t be one in February at all this year.
What’s the “blood” about?
When the Earth’s shadow passes between the sun and the moon, the moon no longer reflects the sun’s light, but it does reflect a bit of light from the Earth, which appears reddish. The red color has historically been called a “blood moon.”
And the eclipse? Didn’t we just have one of those last summer? (And I didn’t keep the glasses)
Yes, we had a total solar eclipse last summer, which I wrote about here and here. This month we had a total lunar eclipse. A solar eclipse happens when the moon comes between the Earth and the sun, covering the sun for a few minutes. A lunar eclipse happens when the Earth comes between the moon and the sun, and the Earth’s shadow covers the moon. Lunar eclipses last for several hours, and you don’t need glasses to see them. The downside is that you have to get up in the middle of the night.
I got up just before totality started, and I took some pictures with my iphone camera attached to binoculars. I also have a small telescope, but wasn’t able to attach the phone effectively there. I could see the moon very well through the west-facing glass sliding door that leads out onto our back deck. I opened and shut the door multiple times to keep from getting too cold and to keep the cat from escaping!
Individually the pictures are kind of small and grainy, but together they make a nice collage:
You see how the path of the Earth’s shadow travelled from the upper left to the lower right, how long totality lasted (in comparison to last year’s solar eclipse), and just how bright the reflected sunlight is, relative to the reddish light reflected from the Earth. I stopped watching as the moon set behind some trees and the sun rose.
Remember the Ozone Hole? It was one of the big environmental problems of the 20th century that seemed to go along with all the other reasons that our planet was in trouble. It was a reason all we light-skinned people, especially the Aussies, were going to get skin cancer and cataracts. According to the Ozone Hole website, the ozone hole of 2006, over Antarctica, was the biggest ever:
So what is ozone and why is a hole in it bad?
Ozone is a gas made up of three oxygen atoms, with the chemical formula O3. (The normal oxygen we need to breathe is O2). It occurs naturally in small amounts in the upper atmosphere (also known as the stratosphere) and forms a thin layer covering the entire planet. This stratospheric ozone layer (“good ozone”) protects life on Earth from the Sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Near the Earth’s surface, however, ozone is created locally by chemical reactions between air pollutants. High concentrations of ozone down here on the ground are toxic (“bad ozone”). The Ozone Hole is a thinning of the layer of protective “good ozone” that allows too much UV radiation to reach Earth’s surface.
Why did the layer get thinner?
Some chemicals that were used in spray cans and in air conditioners and refrigerators contain chlorine and bromine atoms, and these atoms are released when the chemicals come into contact with UV light. Then, when these chlorine and bromine atoms drift up into the stratosphere and encounter the ozone layer, they destroy it. A single chlorine atom can destroy over 100,000 ozone molecules. The most common of these ozone-depleting chemicals are called CFCs.
In 1985, the Montreal Protocol regulating CFCs was introduced. This is an international commitment to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals that was ratified by all UN countries. On January 4 of 2018, the first study was published that used measurements of the chemical composition inside the ozone hole to confirm that not only is ozone depletion decreasing, but that the decrease is caused by the reduction in CFCs. In other words, the Montreal Protocol is working! NASA Study: First Direct Proof of Ozone Hole Recovery Due to Chemicals Ban.
This is only a first step and more needs to be done, because CFCs last a long time and the CFCs made in the last century are still around causing trouble in this one. But it is still a good example of how science can influence governments’ decision-making, and how the nations of the world can work together to solve big environmental problems. May our leaders learn from this example!
Autism Goes to School is an easy, enjoyable read. I do not know many people with autism but I have done a fair amount of reading, and I think this book will be very good for educating people about it. The author provides a sympathetic viewpoint character, Ben, who is ignorant about autism until his son Kyle is diagnosed and Ben gains custody of Kyle. Ben makes a lot of mistakes at first but he is well-meaning and a quick study, and none of the consequences of his mistakes are ultimately very dire. The novel tells the story of Kyle’s year of kindergarten, in a mixed special needs class taught by an expert teacher, Melanie Nichols. Over the course of the year, Ben and Kyle get to know each other better, Ben learns to be a father, Melanie becomes closer to both father and son, and a romance develops between Melanie and Ben.
The book works well as education and reassurance for anxious parents, but to my mind it is less successful as fiction. I found the situation by which Ben abruptly and surprisingly finds himself a single parent to a 5-year-old with autism to be a bit contrived. There is also a minor conflict around the fate of Melanie’s mixed classroom, in which special needs and mainstream children learn together, but that is happily resolved midway through when Ben makes an impassioned speech in defense of this type of education. As a reader, I hadn’t known such classrooms existed, but the author’s words in Ben’s voice presented a strong argument.
In general I didn’t find Ben that convincing as a character, because he had very few rough edges. He stepped up admirably, almost too admirably to be believable, to the challenges dumped in his lap by his extremely irresponsible ex-girlfriend. The characters of Melanie and Millie, too, were almost too good to be true, and there wasn’t very much difference between Ben’s narrative voice and Melanie’s. Both were stoic, cheerful, hardworking, and accepting of their lot.
There were a number of sweet, heartwarming moments in this book, which made it a pleasant read, but the plot got somewhat repetitive after a while, as Ben makes yet another in a series of parenting mistakes which get Kyle into a little danger, and Melanie bails them out. Melanie clearly cares about Kyle, and Ben seems like a nice enough guy, but one wonders a bit what Melanie is getting out of this relationship. She is doing most of the heavy lifting and emotional labor; someone as beautiful and caring and helpful as she is portrayed could probably do better.
Still, the happy ending, not only for Kyle, Ben, and Melanie, but also for Ben and Melanie’s siblings, is appreciated. The story shows that autism doesn’t have to ruin relationships, and that people with autism and neurotypical people can live and work together in mutual respect, support, and love. View all my reviews