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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.

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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…

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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

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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.

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“Interstellar” Stuns

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?

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The past couple of months our little church in Spring Mills has been experimenting with an outdoor service on Sunday mornings. And because we set up our chairs and portable keyboard in the grass next to Penns Creek, we advertise the service as Creekside Worship.

I am not a very religious person, but I like the communal aspects of church going. I like the people, and the call to do good things in the community and in the world. I enjoy a thoughtful sermon and the hymns I remember from childhood. When our daughters were growing up, it was good to give them the experience of our religious traditions and the great historical and literary document that is the King James Bible. But I also exposed them to the other great world religions and let them make up their own minds about what they did or didn’t believe.

Growing up in the South, church was our social life, our meat and potatoes and green bean casserole. We went to services three times a week, ate potluck Sunday afternoon “dinner-on-the-ground.” We suffered through week-long revival meetings and learned what hell was like by sitting through heat-soaked hour-long sermons while beads of sweat rolled down our cheeks. So much of my childhood was spent in church that I cannot separate the idea of religion from the sense of family.

These Creekside Worship services added a new element to the usual Sunday experience. I generally get distracted watching the ripples in the stream and the leaves turning their autumnal colors, but being in the natural world for an hour is a good distraction. Then, last Sunday the distractions increased exponentially as we brought our pets to be blessed.

A dozen dogs were there, along with Charlie, our intelligent and attractive mixed breed something or other. The dogs sniffed and barked, or the well-behaved ones sat quietly at the feet of their family. Charlie barked at each of the dogs, and then during the hymns he howled along to the tunes. He was a bit of an embarrassment, but he didn’t seem bothered.

Many folks brought photos of their pets, both living and deceased. The pastor moved among the crowd, offering blessings to the dogs by name and to their families. Those with photos brought them forward to be blessed, and there was even an urn of ashes from some still beloved former family pet that needed blessing. It was hard not to be moved by the memory of pets gone bye – Scout, the abandoned and neurotic mutt we took in and tried to love, or Pookie, long-time cat friend recently buried under a flowering bush on the hill behind the barn.

We will outlive our pets, but we don’t forget them. I have never forgotten my first dog, Beauty, an Irish setter with long, flame-red hair, who wandered up the road one day and came to live with us until old age took her away. When the pastor asked during the silent meditation to call out the name of a beloved former pet, I thought of Beauty, friend of my childhood. We wandered together through the fields of summer, and now she lies at my feet again, if only in memory, on a Sunday morning beside the creek.

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We drove through a storm that was like a precursor of our future under climate change on our way to deliver our older daughter to her new apartment in Boston. Somewhere on a highway in Connecticut, the skies opened up and lightning split the clouds. Torrents of rain followed us into Massachusetts.

The next morning we discovered that a tornado had touched down a few miles from where we had spent the night. Strange weather, but we can expect more of it in years to come the climate experts tell us. The weathercaster called for intermittent showers and temperatures in the high 80s on Labor Day, when we, along with a hundred thousand students and their parents, would converge on Boston for the city-wide move-in day.

The streets of the city were clogged with double-parked moving vans as we circled the neighborhood near Boston College looking for a place to park our overloaded rental pickup truck. Lucking into a spot less than a block from the apartment building on busy Commonwealth Avenue, we waited while the real estate agent showed up with the keys to the apartment, which our daughter would be sharing with two other Simmons College graduate students on the second floor of an attractive prewar brownstone.

We unloaded the truck for the next ninety minutes, making a few dozen trips down the street and up the stairs, jostled by movers and joggers, past Boston cops standing around welcoming new students and warning them about the perils of underage drinking while generally standing in everyone’s way. I was on the verge of heatstroke, my t-shirt as soaked as if it had been pouring rain, when the second roommate arrived with her mother, and we did it again.

When it was finished, I lay on the floor of my daughter’s large, high-ceilinged bedroom with a fan blowing across my limp body while the women unpacked and chatted in the other rooms. I thought about college and what it was like to be young and doing everything for the first time, the excitement of it and the anxiety. I remembered how it felt in the long ago days when I was I was a young student in Norfolk, Va., going to classes and hanging out at Ward’s coffee shop across the street from Old Dominion University with my friend Tim or drinking the thin brew you could legally drink if you were 18 in Virginia in the dark era of the Vietnam War.

Those days I heard from my parents in Florida once a month or so in a letter or an expensive long distance call. The technology boom that would put computers and instant messages in everyone’s pocket was still decades away. But I heard its first ticking on a new machine perched on the counter in Ward’s coffee shop in the form of a video game called Pong – a black screen, a white ball bouncing between two thin white lines that moved with a knob on each side of the machine. Students -like Tim – lined up to play it. I scoffed and read the English poets.

And then the war was always with us, a storm on the far side of the world that pulled us toward it while we held on by our fingertips and a thin piece of cardboard in our wallet called the 2-S student deferment. The excitement and the anxiety of it is read on my daughters’ faces and in their texts, heard in their phone calls, and in the other rooms, where the women come and go. I lie among unpacked boxes while the fan blows me away.

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Up the street was the hole-in-the wall comedy club called The Holy City Zoo where it was common for him to drop in unannounced toward closing and tryout some new material. I used to go there now and then, hoping to see him, but I never got that lucky.

San Francisco in those days seemed like a small town, neighborhoods like little villages. Everything was right there within a short walk: bars and restaurants, bookstores and mom and pop groceries, movie houses and coffee shops. When I moved from Clement Street, across the Golden Gate Park to the inner Sunset District, it was much the same. Now instead of Zhivago’s and the Holy City Zoo, there was the Owl and Monkey Café, with music on Friday nights and the paintings of local artists encircling the large room with its funky wooden tables.

It was at one of those tables, sitting all on his own, that I saw the short, barrel-chested man with the large hairy forearms and mobile face. He was drinking coffee and was he reading a book? I don’t recall. It was before laptops and cell phones, so whatever he was doing he was completely there. I glanced his way a time or two but didn’t make eye contact. I recall that he sat there for a half an hour or so, and nobody came up to him. Everyone just let him alone, even though by this time he was famous for his manic comedy routines and that show where he played an innocent alien.

It was a couple of years later, and I was out on the Marina Green near the San Francisco Bay. I had ridden my bike there to get some sun, along with a few hundred others. Robin Williams and a dark haired, pretty woman holding a baby were walking a dog on the Green, and he would stop every few feet and carry on an animated conversation with the sun worshippers. He passed nearby, still talking, and he seemed happy enough. But who knows?

Running across someone with his talent and fame gave the city glamor beyond what it already naturally possessed. It was like bumping into Hemingway at a café in Paris when he was working well and before the legend changed him. I don’t know that Robin Williams ever succumbed to the curse of fame, but something dark must have hung around him like it did with Hemingway. Something that made them decide they had had enough.

Dylan Thomas, the great, doomed Welsh poet, talked about true poetry as being like a well. He would dip far down into the well of poetry to bring up a single true line or verse. Out of these descents into the depth of his unconscious, he would fashion the sounds and images of his genius. But the well ran dry and poetry became hard. His great poems lay behind him.

Maybe Robin Williams felt his manic energy fading. Some artists use themselves up in their art. Some use their art as a defense against their dread. A few go along happily and lead long and peaceful lives. I don’t know anything about him except that he lived in the same city as me at a time when we were both young, and that it was a more interesting place to have him in it.

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Haworth, home of the Brontes

Haworth, home of the Brontes

If there was an unintentional theme to our stay in England, then it must have been those ancient churches. We think of our own little church at home being old because it was built in the late 19th century, but these churches keep the record of their succession of pastors and their years of service that date back to the Middle Ages.

One morning, we walked to the tiny village of Morland, a mile or two away from the cottage where we were staying, and visited the chapel with its Saxon tower and walked among the cemetery stones for an hour. Then we took the long, long way home through the beautiful Eden Valley, lost for a few hours between Great and Little Strickland west of the River Leith and looked down upon by the Cumbrian mountains.

Morland chapel

Morland chapel

Then there was Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived with his wife Mary and their children and sister Dorothy, all of whom are buried in the graveyard of St. Alban’s Church in Grasmere. We visited the cottage and the graveyard, and walked the shoreline of the lake that Wordsworth could view as he sat by his window composing the poems I once knew by heart.

Graveyard at Grasmere

Graveyard at Grasmere

Then on our way to London, we stopped at Haworth, a small town on the Yorkshire moors, where the Bronte sisters, Charlotte and Emily, are buried in the church next to the family pew. This burying of people below the church floor was common across England, though it seems strange to us here. In the great church of Westminster Abbey in London, I got a shiver as I looked at the floor where I was standing and saw that the bones of Isaac Newton were buried beneath me.

We toured St Paul’s Cathedral on Ludgate Hill with its splendid views of the City of London, if you are willing to climb hundreds of narrow steps to its dome. We stood at the windswept railing and looked at a thousand years of history spread out like a postcard and never wanted to leave.

St Paul's

St Paul’s

My favorite place, Charing Cross in the rain.

My favorite place, Charing Cross in the rain.

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