You Are the Only Thing in My Life

So here’s a question: Do you know how old your soul is? Mine, evidently, is 28–which for obscure reasons I am glad to have learned. I have in fact been happy to learn the answers to other intriguing puzzles this summer, too, simply by going on Facebook and participating in the convenient quizzes offered there. For instance, What City Are You? (I’m Barcelona). Who Were You in a Past Life (Buddhist Monk). What 60’s Stereotype Are You? (Vietnam Protester). Which Mythical Creature Describes Your Personality? (Unicorn. Go figure).

It has occurred to me to wonder whether these quizzes are further instances of those unethical, sly manipulations the brainiacs at Facebook have introduced to learn secret things about those who participate. Accordingly I have been careful about the questions I have answered, and misleading about some of my responses. I think that I am much more likely to have been a Hippie in my past life than a Buddhist Monk, but I don’t necessarily want some unprincipled researcher to know that.

Nonetheless, I’m waiting for the quizzes to raise further important questions–or at least questions that I am in need of understanding. When Are You Going to Die? might be a good one, assuming the future is not irrevocably set, and I might therefore alter bad outcomes. The newest X-Men movie suggests the time ahead of us is indeed malleable and plastic, and since that vehicle is about as scientific as Facebook, I’ll consider the question settled. Fate can be changed, if you know what you’re doing.

I bring this up in part because the question of past events, and their potential to influence the future of things that matter most to us, are particular interests in Robin Becker’s new collection of poetry, Tiger Heron, which I want to spend some time praising. Becker has always been a poet interested in understanding intimacies, broadly conceived: why one person is erotically enticing, but not another; how to cultivate friendships and sustain them; how to appreciate the time spent with other people in all their variabilities. In this new collection she once again explores the ways in which past decisions continue to influence the future of her personal life, and how old patterns contribute to the scope of psychological change. What is now at stake for her, however, is whether redemption is possible, whether she can revisit the past–with parents, with friends and lovers–and alter outcomes. It’s the difference between reviewing your life with regret, or with hope.

The stakes are especially high because, as she admits in “The Middle Path,” she is now of a “certain age”:

all my friends had sons, of the sort
we couldn’t find to save our lives.
We saved ourselves instead.
Which brings me to
this certain age, this mortgage application,
this recycling bin, this ferry reservation.

The details to which she is brought at her age are selected here with particular resonance: the responsibilities of mortgaging one’s present to insure a future (You’d have to own a house to know what that feels like. Try reading V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas), a vision of being ‘recycled’ (She is in this poem “brooding about running out of time”), and my favorite: the ferry reservation. In this context, the ferry for which she is making reservations is as likely to be Charon’s as any other, waiting to convey her across the Styx, whether she likes it or not.

Because “The Middle Path” situates the poet in the midst of a life that has started some time ago. Becker is not at the beginning of her journey, she is not verging at the innocent spring of miracle and discovery, but instead she has advanced some considerable distance in the temporal exploration of her vital, psychological landscapes. Accordingly, we as readers are dropped whole into the activity of her established circles: friends and their children, lovers past and present, parents. Like a good Greek tragedy, the subjects she writes about begin In Medias Res–in the midst of things–where events are already structured. The players are established, we know who everyone is: indeed, one out of every four poems in the book is dedicated to a specific, actual person in Becker’s life.

The web of interconnecting roles and relational identities is likewise well-known, which means that Becker’s reconnaissance of her affections is a matter of deepening insights, the pleasures of long affinity, and of established warmths. In “Listening to Bach on Rt. 89”, she celebrates the scope of her varied community of beloveds:

In a humidity of Baroque proportions
I compose the faces of my friends,
the interweaving themes of our lives.

Banked barn, borscht garden beets,
the dogs’ extravagant greetings
play in counterpoint

to highway berm, median strip, loosestrife–
classic elements of a summer’s drive
to visit. Such joyful improvisations!

‘Improvisations’ is a lovely concept here, a resonant metaphor that captures her range of responses to the histories of her variable pleasures and shifting intimacies. Her friends have independent themes, and interweave among themselves.

All that motion–the separations and realignments–requires a continued poise to negotiate the passions, as well as the comforts, of intimacy. We learn in “Threesome Interval” that her one-time lover now has “a new man,” but the poet nevertheless reports that together the three of them have kept their ‘composure’:

In Shelburne Falls, from the viewing platform
we admired the glacial potholes

ground from granite by snowmelt and gyrating
stone. Swirls marbled
the rock with a natural patina. We kept
our composure,

despite hundreds of millions of years’
of whirlpooling abrasions.
Arriving at the Walt Whitman party, in great spirits,
I wondered: might we try a trip to Rome?

There is a practical virtue in remaining composed, instead of sundering in the rash fire of disappointed possession. There are other communions to be shared, such as pilgrimages together to Rome, or a joint reading of “Song of Myself” at the July 4th Walt Whitman party each year, amid their membership in a thriving, supportive community.

Becker has other poems as well in her collection in which she examines her preference for composure over the risks taken in youth–in which there are terminal break-ups with lovers and partners, discomposed scenes and impassioned chaos, all because there remains the expanse of a lifetime to remedy mistakes, find alternative partners, or trade up for intensities if familiarity blunts erotic excitement. As Becker observes, this is a very privileged–and temporary–attitude in which to hazard everything of value. The poet observes in “Our Best Selves,” that there are other losses in life besides those relational subtractions and additions we choose to play with. The poem is dedicated to a friend, Miriam Goodman, just before her death:

Miriam hailed
and embraced summer
and winter people
in the annual

June convocation
at the beach, updates
and invitations

all around:
they could see
she was sick, bewigged,

but she was here,
now, steadying herself
against the piling,

going in slowly ,
the burning chill
on her thighs,

on her hips, her waist,
as she studied the familiar
lake,…the cabin’s manifest,

the list of essential linens
and batteries and cast iron
pots passed on each year

for her beloveds.

Miriam is not the only one immersed in the flux of elements. Everyone has assembled, not because Miriam is ill, but because this is the ecology of friends, the divine family that meets at the cabin every year to reconvene the holy rule of their society. Paula, we are told, plays Bach suites on her cello, fathers are off teaching sons how to cast for the lake trout, Leslie is swimming with “a rhythmic voluptuousness”, and when it is time to eat, the nine of them grill vegetables to go with the corn and beet soup, then sit around the last supper table playing Scrabble. Look off into the yard where

the boys undress,
and we see their limbs–
animated cave paintings

against the tent fabric.

The poet wants us to understand that this is the archetypal affiliation, the principle society illuminated here against a backdrop of lost time, life lived, irretrievable chances–all of which is both finite and precious.

The understory weaving through the individual poems in Tiger Heron is twofold: the poet is “running out of time” (“The Middle Path”), and she needs a vision to sustain her through the forthcoming poverty, the absolute loss of love and value. In her poetic tribute to Maxine Kumin (“To a Poet”), Becker imagines another supper, another illness, another friend recently deceased:

a gorgeous May

afternoon enters every window of the house
where someone is sick
and someone is reading to the sick

and someone makes supper using
every language available to say nourishment,                                                                                mystery, wisdom,

and I will sleep on the floor in your room.

Here is a compelling vision for a poet: we need every language available–all vocabularies, tones of voice, gestures and affective demonstrations to express the continuities of value. Becker does not find a sufficient range of speech among the abrasions of erotic irritability. It is not the climactic highs that sustain a person over her life, but the steady loving nourishment given daily, quietly in love for a long time.



Gender Differences

photo 1-2


photo 2-2


I’d like to be unorthodox, and propose a choice: you can bear with me for a minute and let me explain what these pictures are about, or you can skip to the George Carlin quote in paragraph 7, whereupon this article might appear more overtly crafty. Or at least more conventionally organized.

But if you do that, you’ll want to come back to these photographs anyway: they display a region in the brain called the medial pre-optic area, which is a locality involved in, among other things, the expression and regulation of various important hormones— which in turn regulate various important behaviors you’ll probably want to know about. The brain sections shown here are from a gerbil–actually, two gerbils: a male and female. I took these pictures during my years in training in a neuroscience laboratory, where my lab mates and I were pursuing neuroanatomical differences between the two genders. The top picture depicts the medial Sexually Dimorphic Area (mSDA) of a male (on the left) and female (on the right) brain. The bottom picture depicts the SDA pars compacta (SDApc) of a male (on the left) and a female (on the right) brain. At the time they appeared some 22 years ago in The Journal of Comparative Neurology, these pictures and others like them caused discrete but obvious excitement among neuroscientists–who as a group are turned on by the most unlikely things.

The source of the excitement were those differences visible in the neuroanatomy between the two brains–the male and the female. Anyone can see them, which is the point of these pictures. The black irregular dots, lines and smudges densely evident in the male brain are neurons and interconnecting tracts full of vasopressin. Males have a considerable amount of these neurons in these brain areas, and females have comparatively little. Such differences were first discovered by my lab director in a set of studies in 1982–and so for the first time evidence was found to indicate that there were structural differences between male and female neurology.

This was a big deal. Given the materialist way that scientists think, to locate a difference in the brain meant that they could locate the source of differences in behavior. This is of course an axiomatic belief in science and medicine. The great longing is to connect an underlying neurological structure (basal ganglia, let’s say) and its resulting behavior (Parkinson’s disease, for example). Once a correlation can be established, then the next step is to create a technology that can repair the brain, and thereby change, in this case, the deteriorations of the Parkinson symptoms. We could save Michael J. Fox (among all the other people suffering with the disease). There are many diseases we are all familiar with–Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Schizophrenia–that are studied under this primary conceptual model of brain/behavior research.

Now with that in mind, the pictures above show a brain area that is involved in other pretty interesting behaviors, among them aggression, stress responses, parental behavior, and the really big one: sexual behaviors. And not too long after the work in our lab was published, a gentleman in a lab in San Diego claimed to have found an analogous structure in human brains, which he pronounced as the source for homosexual behaviors. You maybe can grasp the initial excitement of that discovery. All sorts of godly people were clamoring for follow-up research that would allow surgical interventions in the brains of gay men to relieve them of their unChristian urges–techniques that would allow that nucleus to be ablated without actually killing the poor sinner whose brain they wanted to tweak so they could control the nature of his desire.

In the nick of time, it was discovered that the brain area found in the human beings studied in that one lab could not be found in other human brains by other scientists in other labs, which suggested that this purported homosexual nucleus was merely an artifact of the immunocytochemistry used to stain for it in San Diego. Much of the Republican world wept in consternation. About this same time, other scientists announced related findings that somehow had, until that time, escaped their detection: human sexual behavior is really really complicated. Naturally, other corollary discoveries soon followed: there is no end to the number of brain areas involved in sexual behavior, including those also involved in violence and aggression, and there certainly is not one tiny nucleus hidden somewhere that governs everything.

There was at that time at least one young scientist (i.e. me) who thought that this hope for a solitary place in the brain that governed everything should have passed out of common belief after Descartes picked the pituitary gland as the resident palace of the soul. That was in the 17th Century, after all, and I had thought the whole project would have been abandoned after 3 futile centuries. But, no, there remains an interest in material explanations to account for the differences between genders–an abiding fevered energy pursuing why, as George Carlin observed, “Women are crazy, and men are stupid.”

Carlin has, to my way of thinking, an especially poignant way of articulating the observed differences, and he is equally memorable regarding the conclusions he reached about the source of those differences: “Women are crazy because men are stupid“. Well, yeah, he was on to something, though I suspect that he derived his hypothesis by taking into account other sources of evidence than looking at the brain cells of gerbils.

There are plenty of them–other sources, I mean. And in the spirit of George Carlin, let’s look at, oh, maybe one random example: the recent movie Her. In this film, for those of you who may not have seen it, we follow a sensitive male in the person of Theodore Twombly, who makes his living writing love letters for other less articulate males–those who are tongue-tied, who are less in touch with their sensitivities, and need help. Theo is a contemporary Cyrano de Bergerac, eloquently seducing women for the pleasure of dumb, under-socialized, but physically attractive men. He himself has had his own successes with at least one woman, which regrettably proved temporary: his marriage to her failed. And therefore, with the logic of a precocious fifteen-year-old, he decides to have telephone relationships with other women, with whom he does not actually need to talk, except insofar as they try to bring each other to sexual climax by referring to their dead cat fetishes.

In the end, that doesn’t work for him any better than his marriage did, though the cause of the failure did not turn out to be what I expected. His problem is not that the whole relationship is a fantasy conducted over a telephone, but rather that it is still engaging, however weirdly, with an actual person. Even on the telephone Theo is constrained to interact with an individual different than he is, with likes and sources of satisfaction other than those he would prefer.

Therefore, with movie wisdom he discovers his true love in Samantha, who is a virtual intelligence that sounds like Scarlett Johansson (and not like Phyllis Diller, which is lucky), and is constructed to fulfill his every wish. She is smart, entertaining, subservient to the nature of his interests, available at all hours of the day and night, adjusts to his sleep and work schedules, and admires the way he thinks. She even concocts a considerate plan for sex, using a physical woman hooked up through ingenious blue tooth devices to the computer, so that Theo might have an actual consummation with an actual physical being, who in turn is electrically connected to the cyberlife of Samantha. What could go wrong?

Well, let me tell you I have yet to find a single woman I know who has been remotely seduced by the premises of this ideal. Of course, from the point of view of science, my female sample is merely anecdotal evidence, but the logic of their friendly complaint seems to me to bear the weight of generalization. The guy in the movie wants his own romantic illusion, which is too much of a mirage even to allow the electronic succubus as a possible erotic evolution to his connection to Samantha. He only wants exactly what he wants, and only by his own terms. No blemishes, no human smells or fluids, no hair, no independence. Eventually, even the artificial intelligence is smart enough to leave him before things go too far, and he imagines some coercive means to compel her to fit his ideas of a soul mate. Fidelity appears to be one of them, since he is crushed by the disclosure that Samantha has been ‘mating’ 600-and-something other men. We can almost hear Othello lamenting in the background “that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites.

Theo as Everyman prefers to keep his ideals remote, and unhampered by materials he cannot control. Which is a problem in real life, where most of us have to reside, since any attempt to import them into the daily round of experience is bound to be frustrating, disappointing, aggravating. They have no relationship to reality, which simply refuses to behave according the way men have wanted it to act. Naturally, a certain percent of males will want to do something about that–say, for example, drive through parts of the UC Santa Barbara campus and shoot all the blonde women who wouldn’t have sex with them–whom they didn’t actually know, never actually tried to relate to, but only stood in for their ideal. The male preference has always been to prefer the idea, and compel the material world to accommodate to it. And the social world, the political world, the religious world, and every other world that males have populated. Hence the truth value of Carlin’s category, “Men are stupid.”

I won’t presume to indicate what crazy thing women might prefer, except to note that thus far it has not included shooting all the blonde men they know, or taking assault weapons into elementary schools to massacre all the children, or even making bombs out of horse manure and use them to blow up Oklahoma day care centers. Those decisions remain the province of masculine choice and action, guided by a masculine version of idealism. As our generals told us during the Vietnam War, we have to destroy the village to save it. These separations in behavior between men and women are startling, or at least I find them startling. Here we have a set of behaviors—or perhaps a proclivity for a set of behaviors—that distinguishes the members of the stupid group from those in the crazy group.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to identify the basis for those differences? Doesn’t it seem important? That’s what led me into the laboratory in the first place, where I took those photographs. Just like any other male, I was inclined to pursue an ideal to its logical conclusion—though in my case I neither had an interest in virtual women like Theo, nor a desire to change someone’s brain surgically to alter his sexual orientation, to alter his concept of beauty. Instead, I had my own proclivities—let’s call it my own inclination to look into the male brain, identify the region of violent sociopathy, and remove it. It sounds like such a good idea on paper, at least from the point of view of a masculine call to direct intervention. Ideas like this always look good in theory to somebody hunting after the definitive remedy, the perfect fix, the final solution.

I probably at this point should confess that I am still male, and still can be fooled by my logical extremities. So you probably shouldn’t take everything I say to heart. Besides, I am not the materialist I used to be. I’ve given up the idea that we can fix evil by materially removing the source of it from the brain. Some new pill won’t work either, though that isn’t stopping the pharmaceutical industry from imagining further expensive medicines to try on our children. It’s not going to go away.

Evil isn’t, I mean, evil won’t be going away any time soon–though maybe our unarmed, idealistic women have counsels to offer, or proposals to counter male ideas about material domination. It’s possible. Let’s go ask them.