I drove down to Northern Virginia earlier this month to see old friends Richard and Tim. There was a time when we saw each other much more frequently, but distance and family and the circumstances of life separated us. Once we were collaborators in that grand dot-com enterprise called Recipe du Jour that reached many thousands of readers six days a week, but that was then. We are not those people anymore.

We could see the changes in each other – older, not so quick on our feet, though not necessarily any slower of mind. We were there to inter Tim’s mother, Jane, at Arlington National Cemetery, in a piece of ground next to her late husband, Colonel Lee. Tim had brought a vase of her ashes from the lake in North Carolina where he lives. It was a sunny day, on the edge of chill.

A large extended family and we friends walked through the white stones that stretched far off into the distance. A military chaplain of the appropriate faith interwove the facts of Mrs. Lee’s life that must have been provided to him, with thoughts on the military calling and the rewards of heaven. I have been to far colder funerals than this.

It was all handled with military precision as seems appropriate being repeated many times a day amid so many men and women in uniform. The capitol dome was visible in the distance. Tim wore a T-shirt under a new sports coat. I’m not sure he has owned a shirt with a collar since 1995.

Until this visit I had nurtured the unspoken hope that we might renew our collaboration in some new form. But I think that spark has died. We may continue on our individual projects, but we are in another stage of life, one where we look back more than we look ahead. If that sounds too depressing or despondent, it’s only the way all stories end. Hopefully, there were a few good stories –like Richard’s Vietnam vignettes or Tim’s humorous recollections of the many times he maimed himself.

I will remember the way our readers seemed like a large extended family, keeping in touch with cards and emails, birthday wishes, generous comments and contributions. That was why we continued for so many years, and we thanked Richard for the many hours he put in making a place for us to share our stories with the 20,000 strong Recipe du Jour family.

We have been best friends since high school. That’s a long time. Longer than we’ve known our wives, or in Tim’s case, ex-wives. On my drive down from central Pennsylvania to Leesburg, Va., I conjured up memories of some of the best times, moments that I would like to relive for a little while. Like the trip with Tim to New Orleans when we popped the new Stevie Nicks CD in the stereo and watched the gas flares burn off on the oil rigs in the dark. Or driving in Richard’s family station wagon out to Virginia Beach and turning on the radio to hear Richard Harris singing his monumental version of MacArthur Park, everything still unknown and possible.

Did we live up to the promise we saw in each other as teenagers, proud of our brains and creativity and difference from the crowd of high school yahoos? Maybe not. But there are a hundred days and hours I would happily relive again with these guys. Proud to be one of their kind.

We stopped in D.C. on the way down South. Even with a GPS, I still made a couple of wrong turns in the city, but we found the parking garage near the National Gallery where we had reserved a prepaid space earlier in the week.
My daughter’s college friend, Lauren, met us near the museum entrance, and we ate a packed lunch on the grass, the four of us, my daughter, her friend, my wife and I, watching the visitors from all over enjoying a summer Saturday in the monumental city.
We were there for the Gustave Caillebotte exhibit that I had heard described on National Public Radio a few weeks earlier. The side trip added a day to our journey, but in every way the exhibit was worth the trouble.
There are some famous artists that everybody seems to like almost to the point of becoming too familiar, too much with us, as Wordsworth put it. I guess Van Gogh is like that, and most of the Impressionist painters. We’ve seen the water lilies and the dancers so much that they have lost their power. I can still be moved by Van Gogh’s Night Café, in the right mood, but not when I see it on a beach towel.
Caillebotte has been spared that treatment, mostly by the accidents of economics. He could afford not to sell his paintings, and they were rarely exhibited by his family. This was a chance to see the tremendous collection of his work in a public place.
There was a good crowd in the galleries on the second floor of the museum, but nothing like the shuffling, pushing throngs at some popular exhibits. We could stand in front of a painting of boaters on a river for minutes, if we wanted. But there were so many of them, rooms full of light and beauty, any one of which you could live with for a year and not be tired of, unless you are tired of life itself.
There were some portraits, some still lifes, but most of the paintings are of people doing things, walking in the rain, painting a shop front, rowing a boat, and, of course, the workers scrapping the old varnish off of a plank floor. There is a bottle of wine open on a table in the foreground, and the workers have just finished their lunch and are back to working, stripped to the waist in the golden late afternoon sun that streams in through the studio windows.
I casually toss off the image of people walking in the rain, but the painting called Paris Street; Rainy Day is nothing if not stunning. It takes up most of a wall in one of the galleries and looms over the heads of the visitors like a movie screen in a packed theater. You might almost expect the man and woman walking under their umbrella to step down from the wall in their 1870s’ style dress with their shining, confident faces and shake the water from their umbrellas in our own upturned faces.
Paris Streets; Rainy Day will return to its regular home at the Chicago Museum of Art sometime next February. The National Gallery exhibit is up for another month or so. If you happen to be in the area, the Caillebotte exhibit will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, starting in November. Go and see Caillebotte before the Floor Scrappers shows up on a coffee mug.

Earlier this week, National Public Radio ran a show on the new exhibit of paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. The artist whose works they are exhibiting is one of the French Impressionists, but not a household name like Renoir and Monet, with their reproductions hanging in dentist’s offices and motel rooms around the country. Gustave Caillibotte hardly ranks with their fame, but he is, in my estimation and apparently the curators of this show, their equal in talent. I saw Caillibotte’s paintings at a heady time for me. It was San Francisco in the late 1980s, and I had recently finished a novel, now tucked away in a drawer, that an agent was shopping around to the publishing houses whose names were on the spines of my favorite books. I felt ready to leap into a new world in a city that seemed forever fascinating. Because my novel was about an unknown impressionist painter in the late 19th century, I felt a compulsion to visit the big Impressionist show that had come to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The other paintings at the show melt away in memory, but the painting called The Floor Scrappers and the one of the rooftops of snow covered houses viewed from the artist’s Paris studio are still vivid. The Floor Scrapers is roughly 6 ft. by 5 ft., filled with a golden light. It does not have the kind of hazy brush strokes of typical Impressionist art, but it does have the light. The story goes that this was a new studio his wealthy father was remodeling for his young artist son. The three men refinishing the floor have removed their shirts in the heat and they are immersed in their work. The artist appears to admire their skill as they strain against the plank floors. I was so moved by the paintings that I went home that day and wrote a poem about View of Rooftops. I tried to put myself into his thoughts as he painted, staring out the window at the white roofs in the gray winter light. It reminded me of the scene in Hemingway’s memoir of Paris called A Moveable Feast where he describes the cold room that he rented in order to write and how he carefully shaved the tips of his writing pencils and put a few pieces of coal on the stove to cut the chill. Caillebotte’s most famous, almost iconic, painting is called Paris Street, Rainy Day. The beautiful wide street of the new Paris, the triangular building in the distance, and everyone strolling along in the misty rain under their identical gray umbrellas – you are there in the moment, although the year is 1877. That is what I hoped to convey in my own writing – that sense of being there in a particular moment in time and the way it felt. I don’t know if I ever found that, but it always seemed the most important thing in writing or in painting. I think we will be able to go to this exhibit next month when we head south to visit my family in South Carolina. I think it will bring back memories of that summer in 1988, when my wife and I, newly married, saw the Impressionists in Golden Gate Park.

We visited Boston this past week to see my older daughter who is working over the summer between her first and second year of graduate school there. Our younger daughter stayed with her sister, and my wife and I got a hotel room in Brookline, a nice neighborhood within walking distance of the universities and nearby to shops and cafes.

The hotel was in a 19th century brownstone with fewer than a dozen rooms, all high ceilings and big windows looking out onto the street. Below I could see joggers in the rain and young people waiting for the train that stopped up the block.

Everywhere, everyone was young, like in that movie Logan’s Run where everyone dies when they turn 30. I thought constantly of that poem by Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

On Saturday morning we walked through some of the neighborhoods near Brookline, taking stairstep walks down to the streets below. Everywhere the young women carried their yoga mats rolled up and hanging by their hips, coming or going from a class. The young men, sleek and tattooed, filled with attitude and energy, stroked their smart phones on the trains, chatted in line with their dates waiting for a café table.

There are more than 50 colleges and universities in metropolitan Boston. It seemed like we walked past at least a dozen – Boston College and Boston University, Northeastern, Berklee School of Music, schools of technology, the arts, medical schools, small liberal arts schools and campuses that spread for dozens of blocks – my daughter’s college, Simmons, known for its library science and archiving master of science degree, and next door to a beautiful small museum built in the early 1900s for a woman, Isabelle Gardner, who collected art from around the world and brought elegance and culture to Boston’s North End. As we wandered through the rooms of art, looking down on the interior garden, the rains came heavy beyond the windows and we watched pedestrians struggle with their umbrellas in the wind.

We walked for miles through the city, through the public gardens and the Boston Commons, along the Freedom Trail, past Paul Revere’s statue and the Old North Church where the lanterns were hung at the Revolution’s dawn. We took trains everywhere we didn’t walk, clanking and grinding on the turns, old but efficient, like me, maybe.

When I last spent any time in Boston, I was 22 years old, on a road trip for a long weekend, and I knew nothing, not like these sophisticated youth with their bright minds and cosmopolitan sheen. I had never set foot in a fitness club or ordered a meal in an Indian restaurant. I thought of tattoos as something sailors got on a drunk on shore leave. You got a hair cut from some barber who could do a crewcut or a trim, and sneered if your hair was longer than his. But even then I liked the city, the first all-science fiction bookstore I had ever seen, the first Irish pub, the same trains, and the feeling that something life-changing could happen around any corner.

I had my youth in another city, San Francisco, though it was long ago. And my life was changed around some corners, on the N-Judah streetcar, out on the foggy streets near the Pacific Ocean, and on Russian Hill on golden afternoons, following the stairsteps down San Francisco hillsides to North Beach, looking out toward the bay. Oh, was I caught in that sensual music…

Today, June 16, is Bloomsday, the day James Joyce had his first date with the incredible Nora Barnacle, who became his long suffering wife and the inspiration for Molly Bloom in his novel Ulysses. According to the Writer’s Almanac, Joyce choose this day for the action in his novel to take place based upon that first date, an afternoon walk along the River Liffey in Dublin.

Nora was also the inspiration for Joyce’s exquisite short story, “The Dead,” in his collection Dubliners. Read some Joyce today and be thankful for the muse Nora Barnacle.

We have had hundreds of short technical talks in the Tuesday get-together called the Millennium Café in the building where I work. Many are interesting. Some are difficult to understand. Today’s talk by a Penn State biology professor was simply mind-blowing.

If Gong Chen’s research pans out, he will likely win a Nobel Prize and be as revered as Jonas Salk or Louis Pasteur. He is working on a technology to turn the scar tissue left in the brain or spine by disease or accidents back into functioning neurons. In the process he believes he can help stroke victims regain their functioning, help Alzheimer’s disease patients to remember, cure diseases like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and glioma, a common brain and spinal cord tumor.

So far none of this has been tested on humans, only in mice and in human cells in a petri dish. Many cures that work in mice never end up helping human patients. That’s why he is not polishing his Nobel acceptance speech just yet, he told me.

When the brain is damaged by accident or disease, the neurons die and their space is filled with glial scar tissue. Glia cells provide support for neurons in the brain and the nervous system. When a neuron dies because of a stroke, disease, or an accident, the glia cells called astrocytes form scar tissue that can block the formation of new neurons. For decades, the only therapy was to try to surgically remove the scar tissue; however, that met with little improvement. Then, in 2006, Shinya Yamanaka discovered that mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells that could be directed to become any type of specialized cell. He shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine with John Gurdon, another stem cell pioneer. Gong Chen used this idea to begin his experiments with glia scar tissue, but with some significant differences.

In typical stem cell research, skin cells are taken from a patient, turned into stem cells using chemical cues, reprogrammed to be some other type of cell, and then grown in the lab. They can then be used to test drugs or be injected back into the patient, for instance to grow new blood cells in leukemia patients. Chen’s technique bypasses the stem cell phase and delivers a set of chemicals directly to the glial tissue where they activate a neural transcription factor in glial cells called NeuroD1. The glial cells transform into neural cells and grow into functioning neurons.

One of the risks of stem cells is that they are dividing cells, and cancer arises when cells mutate during division. The same is true of glial cells, which is why brain cancers are called gliomas. However, neurons do not divide, and turning glial cells into neurons actually lowers the risk of cancer.

Gong Chen didn’t offer any timelines on when his technique might be tried in humans. Those kinds of trials require years and millions of dollars. He still needs a reliable method for delivering his chemicals to the right spots in the brain, part of the reason he was giving his talk to materials scientists today. Fortunately, we have people who are experts at packaging and delivering small nanoparticles with cancer fighting chemicals in the body, so I don’t think that will be a significant barrier. We know how to do that.

I would love to see this happen in time to save the great science fiction writer Terry Pratchett, who has early onset Alzheimer’s and is losing the battle. I think most of us know someone who has suffered Alzheimer’s, or had a stroke, or has Parkinson’s disease. It is frightening to lose your memory, or power of speech or movement. There are millions who could benefit, billions of dollars in medical costs avoided each year. All in all, as I said, a mind-blowing concept. Let’s hope its day comes soon.

Gong Chen’s website: http://bio.psu.edu/directory/guc2

I had not read about her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in November until I came across it online in a British newspaper yesterday morning. The 85-year-old author of many notable science fiction novels and short stories, Ursula K. Le Guin, used her barely five-minute speech to thank a few people before launching into a withering blast against the literary establishment for its ghettoization of fantasy and science fiction writers, the corporatization of book publishing, the acquiescence of authors in the selling of their works as commodities, along with some fierce jabs at Amazon for its attempt to dominate book publishing and her own publishers for their corporate greed.

Most readers of mainstream fiction will not necessarily know Le Guin, unless they came across her EarthSea trilogy when they were young or encountered her short story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” in a high school literature anthology. That story alone reserves her a lasting place in the hearts and troubled conscience of past and future generations of intelligent adolescents. The parable tells of a kind and peaceful city whose inhabitants’ happiness is based on the suffering of a single child, locked up in a mop closet, terrified, alone in the dark, and those few, rare children and adults who, ashamed, walk away from the city into the forests and the mountains. Omelas, the students are always intrigued to discover when they turn the letters of its name around, is not a foreign fantasy realm, but our own hometown.

It is the writers of imaginary futures that will help our increasingly fearful and corporately ruled society imagine a way out of our technology dominated present, Le Guin told an audience that probably consisted of none or few of the science fiction and fantasy writers she lauded and many of the publishers and so-called realist writers she disdained. They were fierce words from a frail woman writer of genre fiction, one of the few who had ever set foot outside the literary ghetto.

Science fiction’s origins in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties, with paper-thin plots and penny a word payments to authors, was like a mark of shame that was carried into the third and fourth generations, long after many brilliant practitioners had raised the standards for imagination and skill to a high level. I came into a great inheritance of books from science fiction’s Golden Age, the period that began roughly post-World War Two and included Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. In my teens I encountered the New Wave and a group of experimental and literary writers like Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delany. There were the brilliant eccentrics, among them the strange and ceaselessly imaginative R.A. Lafferty, the perfectly beautiful Cordwainer Smith and the endlessly mined- for-movies Philip K. Dick.

Many of these marginalized writers were complete masters of many fields of science or engineering. In their spare time they studied history, philosophy and religion, wrote books on architecture and astronomy, Shakespeare and James Joyce. They were, I would wager, more widely read and broadly educated than their mainstream counterparts. And they brought their interests into their readers’ imaginations and opened them up to a rich cultural experience beyond the small towns where we lay in our silent bedrooms with a stack of magazines and a pile of books, imbibing worlds, yes, and galaxies.

Ursula Le Guin created some of those worlds — complex, grown-up imaginings that tested our small-town mores and conventions and made us more questioning citizens of the society we found ourselves stranded in, the city we could not walk away from.

(Here is a Christmas column from a few years ago.)

During the week before Christmas the rains came and washed away all the snow. It was a cold, dripping rain that only added to the early darkness and made the gloom of a hard year a little deeper. Rain in this part of the country at Christmas seems unnatural, like the presidential campaigns that continued right up until Christmas Eve. There was no good news and each candidate’s sound bites made you hope that this one, at least, would never be elected.

Everywhere I went the neighbors and friends with whom I exchanged more than a passing greeting seemed wrapped in apprehension. The cost of everything we needed was going up, while only things we could do without were getting cheaper. It was a good time to turn off the radio and forget about the stock market and the falling dollar, and not worry about how to pay for the gifts already under the tree. It was a good time to ignore the last campaigner’s desperate sound bite and go and look for a star and see the Christmas angels.

When we got to the church in Spring Mills at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, it was already dark and the parking lot was filling up with cars. The trees dripped rain and Penns Creek was a shadow beyond the grassy slope. Children streamed through the lit doorway of the little church to get on their costumes and prepare for the play. This year’s nativity play was more ambitious than in years past. Ms. Songer, the drama teacher at the high school, wrote parts for 20 actors, with entrances and exits, songs and rhyming dialog. There were second graders playing shepherds and sheep; teenagers in the roles of Mary and Joseph, the narrator, angel Gabriel, and the star of Bethlehem; and the middle-school-aged girls were the heavenly host of angels. Three adult men were singing Wise Men, and I was typecast in two small parts as the evil King Herod and the heartless Innkeeper who sent the weary couple off to the stable to bed down with the goats and donkeys, also played by young teenagers. Except for the bath robes and cardboard crowns, the play might have been performed without much change a hundred years ago, and the parents could have watched the young children and the beautiful angels with the same awe and delight as on this Christmas Eve.

There is a timelessness to this story that affects me each time I see it. The rest of the world shifts its shape around us, but we haven’t changed much on the inside since the days of Herod the king. Like Mary and Joseph, we are on a journey through a strange land, following whatever star we can find. But it is mostly an inner journey, and we cannot take our Blackberry or IPod for entertainment.

The world is too much with us, the poet says, and once in a while you need to step away, out of the darkness into the light, cross the parking lot and come in among the angels, follow the cardboard-and-gold-foil star along with the Wise Men. I made the most of my half dozen lines, basing both of my characters on Snidely Whiplash, the arch villain from the old Dudley Do-Right cartoons. Despite that, the show went off well. The sheep baaed on cue. No one dropped the baby Jesus.

And when the play was over the overhead lights were dimmed as we lit our candles, passing the flame from row to row, making small holes in the darkness. There were angels in Spring Mills this year, and shepherds, and animals that sing. They have all taken off their costumes, but they are still with us in their human forms. The winter is long and dark, but filled with amazing things.

We went out with friends last weekend for dinner and a movie, the mind boggling science fiction extravaganza called “Interstellar.” Once I got over the sticker shock– the price of a ticket has crept up by two bucks in a couple of months — the experience was well worth the three hours and the inflated ticket price. I don’t think I would have felt the same about “Dumb and Dumber To.”

The film plays with an old science fiction theme — that time runs at different speeds for an observer on Earth than it would for someone travelling close to the speed of light. Robert Heinlein used the device well in a novel from the 1950s called “Time for the Stars,” in which telepathic twin brothers communicate as one ages and the other stays young as he travels between stars. In “Interstellar,” the twist is that time slows down in the vicinity of a black hole as the immense gravity warps space and time according to Einstein’s theories.

Thinking too much about the science of wormholes and time dilation can give the typical viewer a headache, but the plot is not bogged down by more than one or two pauses for explanation. Much of the excitement of the movie is in the cinematography and in characters you can actually care about. The winds blow in towering dust clouds across an Earth devastated by crop failures, but all of it is told through the lens of a family and a small town in the far West. Dust covers everything until it is hard to take a breath. Anyone who lived through the Dust Bowl of the 1930s would recognize the scenes of dinner plates laid out upside down to try and keep them clean as the dust filters through any small opening.

There is obviously some resonance with the predictions of climate change, but there is nothing explicit in the film that blames the crop blight on a warming world. It’s closer to that classic British disaster novel by John Christopher, “No Blade of Grass,” in which a virus destroys the world’s food crops. The British made a specialty of catastrophe in the fifties and sixties, led by Christopher and John Wyndham. Who could forget “The Day of the Triffids,” walking plants with poison tentacles?

Nevertheless, science, human creativity and courage (and the help of gravity creatures from beyond time) triumph, and I was left with the feeling that three hours had passed like 20 minutes. Could it be time dilation?

A book landed in our post office box last month, a birthday present that my wife chose for me for reasons that remain obscure, though I have my suspicions.

She is well aware that my general outlook on life tends toward the gloomy. I love the melancholy of autumn and the slant light of October. Contemplating the vastness of the universe, in which the stars are like grains of sand and we are like nits in a flea’s ear, gives me a sense of mordant delight. I tend to distrust the perpetually cheerful, the optimists and true believers of all sorts. So, a book on the science of happiness could be considered a hint. And since I opened it, I have, uncharacteristically, been thinking about what it means to be happy, and what it might be like to pursue happiness.

The book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, sometimes called the father of positive psychology. The field of positive psychology is quite new, originating in the late 1990s, but it builds on insights from the early Greeks, including the Epicureans, Zen Buddhism and modern psychology, such as the well-known hierarchy of needs created by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. Instead of focusing on curing mental illness, positive psychology tries to understand what constitutes mental health and well-being.

Flow is a very practical book. It is based on surveys the author and his coworkers took from thousands of individuals in which they were asked to write down their emotional states at various random times throughout the day whenever a beeper they carried went off. Those surveyed included athletes and dancers, musicians and surgeons, practitioners of yoga and martial arts, mountain climbers, as well as visual and literary artists. From the surveys they discovered common themes that tend to indicate a path to a heightened sense of life satisfaction.

They found that people who were deeply engaged with a task that required concentrated effort, but that was within their abilities to perform, reported a profound sense of satisfaction. On the other hand, sitting in front of the television or computer screen added little or negative long-term satisfaction, though it might seem pleasurable in the moment.

One commonly reported effect of intense concentration was a kind of time distortion. For athletes and martial artists, time might seem to slow down. For a painter at her easel, hours might pass without notice. I’ve experienced the same lapse of time when concentrating on an enjoyable piece of writing. The minutes slip by while the shadows lengthen. I step out of the stream of time, floating above ordinary existence in a bubble, cut off from self-consciousness or physical sensation. It is just the opposite of being so caught up in the petty irritations of day-to-day existence that minor troubles loom like insurmountable boulders and the mind spins in circles. The boulders are less than pebbles; the mind is calm.

The author calls it flow, because when a person is in that state his skills are matched to the task and the movements of the mind and the body are in harmony. We are not fighting ourselves; the dancer and the dance are one. I’ve been thinking about what it means to pursue happiness in this forest of gloom, and I see that there was a path, only I had forgotten to take it.

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