What made them tick?

Autism, bulimia, OCD, borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, addiction, gender dysphoria…can you match the psychological condition to the historic personalities of Marilyn Monroe, Charles Darwin, Howard Hughes, and others?

In ANDY WARHOL WAS A HOARDER: INSIDE THE MINDS OF HISTORY’S GREAT PERSONALITIES, journalist Claudia Kalb looks into the lives of 12 celebrated icons through the lens of modern psychology. In each chapter, she presents the historic record of behavior that indicates a diagnosis. Then, she examines the evolution of that diagnosis and speculates how the behavior would be regarded and treated today.

History fans and psychology buffs will zoom through this interesting take on the motivations and tribulations of the famous. I learned that Darwin spent his life crippled with anxiety and hypochondria. Kalb explains the possible origins of his condition and applauds his accomplishments while suffering. Did you know that George Gershwin was dismissed from school because of behavior typical of those labeled ADHD today? The treatment for ADHD is very different now than it was when Gershwin was young. Have potential Gershwins been thwarted in their creativity by modern medication?

HEAR CLAUDIA KALB TALK ABOUT HER BOOK AT THE WESTPORT LIBRARY ON SUNDAY APRIL 3 AT 2PM

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Thanks, but…

Paula Hawkins has created a clever puzzle of a story in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. For most of the book, she keeps you guessing as to which person is the “bad guy.” Her first person telling of an alcoholic life feels real and frustrating and that alcoholic girl’s attempts to solve a murder and fix the lives of the other characters keep the pages turning. But, what amoral characters inhabit this story!

Have you read FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff? Another clever tale propelled by the puzzle of seemingly inexplicable, unrealistic behavior with despicable characters revealed in the unfolding background of a strange marriage.

Well-written with skillfully interwoven plot and a touch of mystery…this does not suffice for me, when the characters leave me feeling in need of a cleansing shower.

EXPECTED & UNEXPECTED

As I count down to the end of 2015, (64 books read and a week to go,) two favorites emerged this past week.

I expected to savor the new book of poetry by Mary Oliver and it did not disappoint. FELICITY: POEMS is filled with love- its remembrances, surprises, and permutations. Here’s a poem for opening your heart and mind to the New Year:

                   “The World I Live In”

I have refused to live

locked in the orderly house of

   reasons and proofs.

The world I live in and believe in

is wider than that. And anyway,

   what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or

twice I have seen. I’ll just

   tell you this:

only if there are angels in your head will you

   ever, possibly see one.

 

The unexpected favorite is a memoir by Mary-Louise Parker. DEAR MR. YOU allows us to know the author through her letters to the men in her life – some real, others hypothetical. There is no “orderly house of reasons and proofs” here. Rather, Parker expands the events of her life and her reactions to them as the pages draw in various people in her world. She starts with the grandfather she did not know and ends with her beloved father. In between, we get vivid pictures of acting classes, sexual encounters, taxi rides, childbirth, rural life, faith discussions with her priest…and more. I expected a mildly entertaining celebrity memoir and became intrigued by an unconventional life story of someone with a very rich interior life.

ANTIDOTE

I have been caught up in the political campaigns’ media blitz these days. It’s not good for the soul. The dearth of substance, the lack of compassion, the fierce greed, the egocentric posturing. Then there is the constant stoking of fear and anxiety. It becomes an addiction in which the negativity grows ever more intense, while reason shrinks and positive beliefs fade.  Happy news: reason and optimism glimmered this weekend.

Part one: On Saturday, I attended a talk by Jon Meacham who spent the last seventeen years writing a biography of George H.W. Bush. The book is DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH. It’s a comprehensive account of the life of the forty-first President offering both the events of his life and the underlying moral principles that have provided his motivation, his successes, and his failures. Bush seems to be a complicated man understanding both the uses of political expediency and the importance of ethical principles. We could use some of this complication today!

The talk was great! Meacham is a talented public speaker- knowledgeable and charming. He knows politics and history and his admiration for George HW Bush is apparent, as is the book’s objectivity and fairness. (How refreshing after the steady diet of current media fare.) Hearing about Bush’s careful words and understanding when interacting with political foes added to the comfort of recalling calmer, kinder, saner times.

Part two: On Sunday, I heard a sermon that reminded me of the core beliefs of my faith. Full disclosure: the sermon was delivered by Reverend Jennifer Campbell, who happens to be my daughter. Jennifer recounted some of the outrageous ideas we are hearing these days and directed us to turn our attention away from fear, threats, xenophobia, and megalomania and focus on faith, love, inclusiveness and our common good. She reiterated God’s love for us and our responsibility to love our neighbors.

Share the antidote. Turn away from the ugliness.  Keep your eye on the light of reason and optimism!

 

About those polls…

Do you share my frustration with all the talk about polls? Do you dismiss the candidates’ bragging about their standings in the polls as a bunch of malarkey? For a look at “data science” that confirms the skepticism, read Jill Lepore’s piece in the November 16 New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/16/politics-and-the-new-machine

Some tidbits:

*The pool of respondents is demographically controlled.

*Responses to polls have steadily declined over the decades. “A typical response rate is now in the single digits.” (Two hundred million Americans are eligible to vote.)

* Television debate opportunities are determined by standings in the polls. “I didn’t think my job was to design polling so that Fox could pick people for a debate.” -Bill McInturff, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies.

Lepore cites the history of polling and the compromises pollsters have made through the years, including some saavy and not-so-saavy “guesstimates.” (Dewey/Truman. Eisenhower/Stevenson.) Lepore also examines the role of journalism vis-a-vis polling, as well as the ways in which the internet complicates the decisions based on polls. Do our Congress members regard online poll results as mandates from their constituents?

“If you look at the polls, a lot of people like the way I talk” –Donald Trump.

What polls? Who (how many) participated? What “psychology” was blended with poll results to reach a conclusion?

And those unremitting phone calls with the same unrecognizable numbers…Pollsters?? If others share my lack of response, what do the polls mean?  If anything.

Eerie

I was finishing up an odd and intriguing novel by Heidi Julavits. THE VANISHERS is about parapsychology and features a troubled woman who while using her psychic gifts, gets mixed up in some past and present nefarious activities. She is haunted by the death of her mother, a suicide when her daughter was one month old. The story is replete with psychic attacks, many of which come in the form of wolves. I realize this sounds unbelievable, but between my long held belief in the power of intuition and Julavits’ skillful writing, I was pretty much into the narrative…when, an ungodly sound occurred just outside my window. Screechy, moaning, other-worldly. My first thought was that a small animal was losing its life in agony. My cat usually hypersensitive to the avian activity outside my window merely looked up, re-arranged herself, and went back to her nap. One more screeching call and I had to investigate.

There right outside my window with only the screen between us, maybe eight inches away, was a hawk! The bird rotated its head to get a good look, made a short screech, and flew a few feet. It then returned for another few moments of eye contact.  Succumbing to the mood created by the novel, I found myself wondering what (whose) spirit was visiting me in this hawk-form so close and loud. All a little unsettling…and fascinating.

POLYMATH

Traditional summer reading usually connotes light, escapist fiction, but I have been escaping into the fascinating and challenging world of the creative arts. WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC: A MEMOIR celebrates the life of Philip Glass, the prolific composer. What an amazing story from his Baltimore childhood to world famous composer and dominant voice in 20th-century music. There is much technical talk about music in this book- many kinds of music- and about visual art, dance, theater, opera, travel, Buddhism, yoga, philosophy, history, literature, creative collaboration, and more. Glass barely supported himself and his family for years with construction jobs (he gives a detailed explanation of plumbing construction techniques, later used when he was sculptor Richard Serra’s assistant) and taxi driving. His opera, Einstein on the Beach was written after ten hour shifts driving a taxi in 1970’s New York City. His travels around Europe, Tibet, India were not luxury trips, but often involved makeshift hostels and last minute transportation. Everywhere he went, he enhanced his creative repertoire with new people, new ideas, new music, new philosophy. The more people he met, the more opportunities for ideas to emerge and art to be born. The range of Glass collaborators is astonishing.

I loved this escape into the life and mind of a truly gifted individual, whose music I plan to revisit with enhanced understanding.