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Megan E. Kelley
Natural Selections would like to honor and celebrate the 2021 graduating class from The Rockefeller University. On Thursday, June 10 at 2:30 p.m., Rockefeller will hold its second virtual convocation and confer doctorate degrees upon thirty-three graduate students. To the future doctors, congratulations! Your years of hard work and perseverance are an inspiration. We wish you all the best in the next phases of your careers and lives.
Rohiverth Guarecuco Jr.
Solomon N Levin
Tiên Minh Thủy Phan-Everson
Rohan R. Soman
Women have often been overlooked in the history of electronic music. Their mastery of new technology and alien sounds enabled them to innovate outside of traditional male-dominated structures, but even collaborations with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Karl Stockhausen, MGM Studios, and Coca-Cola failed to cement their pioneer status.
Sisters with Transistors, a documentary film directed by Lisa Rovner, presents a remedial history chronicling the defining female figures of electronic music. The eighty-four-minute film is divided into roughly ten sections of public-domain, concert, interview, and even experimental cinema footage documenting each composer. The archival collage, like the creative history it depicts, is initially disjunct but coheres later on; artist Laurie Anderson narrates but the musical soundtrack is the real throughline.
To create their new musical vocabulary, these composers used an array of existing technology and also developed their own. Clara Rockmore popularized the theremin (an electronic instrument controlled by hand movements in air rather than physical contact). Suzanne Ciani fell in love with Buchla modular synthesizers. Éliane Radigue used the ARP 2500 to create airplane-inspired soundscapes. Daphne Oram collected tape machines from World War II and basic lab equipment to establish first a BBC electronic music division and then her own studio. When available tools were insufficient, Wendy Carlos helped advance the Moog keyboard, Bebe Barron built her own circuitry, and Laurie Spiegel programmed compositional software for Macs.
Electronic music lends itself to interdisciplinary collaboration, and Maryanne Amacher reached beyond art and technology to integrate scientific research into her compositions. Conscious that the mammalian ear introduces distortions—phantom tones—which modify acoustic input, Amacher “established practical and conceptual groundwork that centered auditory processes in composition.” These women were doing the basic science of composing: there was no guaranteed profit or application from their efforts. In fact, electronic music was unpopular with both labor unions and the public alike. But the aesthetic influence of World Wars and space exploration eventually required new sounds. The MGM sci-fi Forbidden Planet (1956) featured Bebe Barron’s music as the first all-electronic film score; the film’s dying monster was the sound of a “dying” circuit. Seven years later, Delia Derbyshire—an Oxford mathematician turned composer—created the original Doctor Who theme song and shifted English public opinion on electronic music. Suzanne Ciani became the first woman to score a major Hollywood movie in 1981, and electronic music transitioned into public consciousness and pop music with the help of Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach album.
These composers went beyond tinkering with radios: their work made social demands. They challenged traditional structures and founded influential departments. Oliveros explicitly correlated her electronic music with societal responsibilities during the Vietnam and Cold War eras, and her theoretical writings are still instructive today. She insisted that deep listening is radical attentiveness that gathers meaning, interprets, and ultimately shapes culture by deciding on action. These composers did exactly that, changing our soundscapes and cultural practices; Sisters with Transistors turns up their sound.
Sisters with Transistors had its U.S. premiere through Metrograph online 23 April 2021 and at the time of writing was only available through 06 May 2021. https://sisterswithtransistors.com/
1 Hudspeth, A. ‘Integrating the active process of hair cells with cochlear function’, Nat Rev Neurosci, 15 [online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3786 (Accessed 02 May 2021)
2 Cimini, A. and Dietz, B. (eds.) (2020). Maryanne Amacher: Selected Writings and Interviews. Brooklyn, NY: Blank Forms Editions
A few weeks ago, a new resident moved into my apartment. We are already a full house: four humans, one cat, 500ish worms, and possibly some undetected mice or roaches residing in the walls. So, when a perky little axolotl dropped their bags in our doorway, I was a bit concerned with how they’d fit in. Luckily, I had nothing to be worried about. “Boba” is a delightful but unobtrusive housemate, and they even set their tank up right in front of the door to greet us all when we get home! This month, I finally made some time to get to know Boba better and also learned some things about axolotl biology. Boba’s answers were translated by César Vargas and Marley Kern.
Audrey Goldfarb: What does it mean to be “neotenic”?
Boba: I am a baby. Basically, I am forever a baby salamander, never a grown-up salamander. So, I’ll never go through metamorphosis like my frog and salamander cousins.
AG: What is the most juvenile thing about you?
B: My humans say I’m picky because I like my worms cut up into little pieces and they have to wash them for me. I spit my food out when I don’t want it.
AG: Conversely, are you especially mature in any way?
B: No…not really
AG: If you could, what would you want to be when you grow up?
B: Well, I don’t really grow up, I just get bigger! But when I’m big I wanna be a worm biologist so I can study worms and figure out which is the tastiest!
AG: What are your hobbies?
B: Going with the flow and hanging out in the floating garden in my tank.
AG: Do your humans give you treats?
B: Not yet, they said when I’m bigger they’ll let me try new foods.
AG: Do your humans give you words of affirmation?
B: Mmmmhmmm! They tell me how cute and cool I am. I like it when they talk to me.
AG: What is an issue you’re passionate about?
B: Composting! It’s where the humans keep my worm dinners! They say it’s good for other stuff too, but I don’t know what else it would do.
AG: Do you have any hot takes?
B: I think fish are overrated, much better as snacks than pets. Also, I don’t get why there’s a big deal about my extinction, like I’m obviously alive, why do they say I’m going extinct?
AG: Would you consider donating your body to science?
B: Yup! I can grow my body parts back anyway, so I can donate an arm and a leg if science asks me!
AG: Do you get lonely?
B: Not too lonely, I’m watching the fluffy pet that runs around outside my tank.
AG: Your tank is in a perfect spot to see everyone coming and going throughout the day. Do you find human behavior entertaining?
B: Yeah! They look so funny on two legs, like, why do they do that? I like four legs much better. Sometimes their coming and going also interrupts my naps, but I know they are busy humans.
AG: Describe your perfect Saturday.
B: Take a walk around the tank, find a good spot to float, and nap the day away dreaming about worms.
AG: What is your favorite thing about your humans?
B: They take good care of me and give me yummy worms!
Duccio di Buoninsegna and His School, by James H. Stubblebine, is a two-volume set of books examining the fascinating period of early Italian Renaissance art from 1285 up to about 1330. The second volume features over 500 black and white photographs of the paintings discussed in volume one, including each of the surviving works of Duccio (b. c1255-60; d. 1319) and many of those by his assistants and fellow artists in Sienna.
Art experts and novices alike prepare their pilgrimages to museums, churches, galleries, and civic and cultural centers by studying ahead of time the artifacts they’ll encounter. Full color and black and white reproductions in books such as Stubblebine’s provide the essential tools for comprehending the history of an original piece, including the painter’s personal background, how his or her creations reflect the historical epoch in which they were constructed, where an individual painting fits into the overall oeuvre of the artist, and the circumstances under which the work of art was commissioned. When lacking detailed primary documentation, art historians painstakingly examine and opine about individual paintings, sculptures, etc., in the hope of identifying the artist who created it.
Reading Stubblebine’s detailed analysis of every known work by Duccio and his school, one senses that the study itself is in some cases as equally gratifying as viewing the actual work of art. The real thing is, of course, usually superlative to the printed duplicate, but that does not take away from the important role played by art historians who share their expertise, supplemented by photographic replicas, to train and prepare dedicated readers on what to look for in the presence of original art.
The Maestà is a masterpiece of early Italian Renaissance painting by Duccio and a perfect example of how reading about art assists in the enjoyment of the object. I have viewed reproductions of the central panel of The Maestà for decades, along with the sixty autograph or workshop-produced smaller works that complement it. Upon seeing it in person in Sienna, it became clear that no book, photo, or film could replicate the stunning beauty and overwhelming presence of the painting. The colors are muted yet unexpectedly bright at appropriate times, with the bold central figures of the Virgin and Child surrounded by a multitude of Saints presented in awe-inspiring symmetry. Duccio’s mystic expression is placed within the confines of idealized beauty that’s neither of heavenly eternity, nor set in a static “time and place.” Somehow the subject and painting are also outside the realm of our tangible world.
Stubblebine’s description of the painting in Duccio and His School and the Volume Two book plates are of service in explaining its meaning and where it lies in historical context within the progression of art history. The book’s analysis of the dozens of works created to accompany The Maestà is extraordinarily helpful, since when you are in the presence of such wonder, there’s no conceivable way to take it all in unless you have hours and hours to spend in that one single room, choosing to abandon the multitude of additional treasures that Sienna offers elsewhere. At home, reading in the evening by lamplight, one has the luxury of time and multiple sittings with the book for a careful study of the entire project.
Duccio’s The Rucellai Madonna (1286) has the honor of being one of the first masterworks on display when entering The Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It is situated close to similarly large wonders by Duccio’s brethren of the late 1200s and early 1300s, Cimabue and Giotto. Reproductions of The Rucellai Madonna are unable to capture its essence and power of presentation, but as with the sixty predella works of The Maestà, there are thirty small rondels surrounding the Virgin, Child, and angels, which most visitors to the museum give but a cursory glance. With an in-depth study such as Stubblebine’s book, the reader is treated to a Sherlock Holmes-like revelation and tale of how art historians identified as best they could who is represented in these small works and what meaning the figures may have held in Duccio’s time.
One of Kenneth Clark’s finest books is Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (1966), a detailed study of how Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) in his prints and paintings was influenced by the Italian works of art he was most likely exposed to during his lifetime. A memorable sequence in the book is the enthusiastic description of varying states of Rembrandt’s print created in 1665, Christ Presented to the People (Ecce Homo). Clark undertakes an exacting discussion of the architecture of the scene and how Rembrandt developed and made radical changes on the etching’s plate as he worked out the ultimate expression of the scene, aided by what he learned from the Italian masters of the Renaissance. These pages about the prints are in many ways much more interesting than the actual images on paper themselves.
While watching the 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ, I noticed that director Mel Gibson’s set depicting ancient Jerusalem for the Ecce Homo scene of the Christ story owed a great deal to Rembrandt’s print. The movie, dubbed by one film critic as “the most violent film ever made,” displays Ecce Homo as a revelation guided by the director’s use of the setting in which the action unfolds, thereby giving the moment a power unequaled in other films centering on the New Testament. The sequence in The Passion when Pontius Pilate shouts out to the angry mob below him in the ancient square his infamous declaration Ecce Homo! (Behold the Man), enhances the understanding of Rembrandt’s prints as a study in the delicate balance of place and people in art, with classic architecture manipulated in service of religious expression and emotion.
Standing in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico’s Sala dei Nove to view the fresco series painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338 and May 1339) is one of life’s great pleasures. I’ve seen countless photos and posters of the walls, which display in a complicated allegory warning to the politicians of late medieval Siena that corruption, dishonesty, and ignoring the will of the people is but a path leading to inevitable disaster. When I walked into the chamber, all of my past “training” seemed to dissipate, and the many chapters I’d read about the cycle’s meaning and history refused to be called forth to consciousness. In addition, I was literally shocked by how many large sections of the frescos had disappeared forever due to the merciless, ravaging Hand of Time, leaving sections of exposed plaster here and there. As I finally began to get my bearings, the wonder of the art overwhelmed me and the sumptuous details of Lorenzetti’s masterpiece spoke of varying joys, pains, dances, and deaths, a wonder of experience.
Father’s Day this year is June 20. Founded by a woman who was raised by her widowed father, it has been celebrated in this country on the third Sunday in June for almost a hundred years. Despite its popularity, it took more than sixty years to be recognized as a federal holiday in the United States.
Sonora Smart Dodd is the person credited with starting the Father’s Day tradition we now practice in the United States. She was born in 1882 in Arkansas to Civil War veteran William Smart and his wife Ellen. The family moved to a farm outside of Spokane, Washington in 1889. In 1898 Sonora’s mother died giving birth to her sixth child. William raised all six children with the help of his only daughter. Sonora later married John Dodd. In 1909 she heard a church sermon about the newly established holiday, Mother’s Day. She felt strongly that men like her father should be honored, too. She approached church ministers about having such a day on June 5, her father’s birthday. The ministers felt they didn’t have enough time by that day, so they held it on June 19, 1910, the third Sunday of that June. Dodd also appealed to shopkeepers, the YMCA, and politicians. During the 1920s Dodd attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but after graduation she returned to Spokane and again worked to get support for and promote her idea.
In 1913 a bill declaring Father’s Day was introduced in Congress but did not pass due to fears that it was just a commercial holiday. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson celebrated by sending a telegraph to Spokane to raise some flags. He also supported making Father’s Day a holiday but couldn’t get it passed. President Calvin Coolidge recommended making it a holiday in 1924, but never issued a proclamation. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued a presidential proclamation honoring fathers on the third Sunday in June. Finally in 1972, sixty-three years after Dodd first started petitioning, President Richard Nixon made Father’s Day an official federal holiday.
There was evidence for the politicians’ fear of commercialization of the holiday. Even when Dodd first started promoting the holiday, she had the help of several trade associations, who realized that they could benefit from a new holiday, particularly manufacturers of menswear and tobacco. The Great Depression spurred retailers to further promote men’s gifts for that day. By the 1980s the Father’s Day Council noted that it was a “second Christmas for the men’s gift-oriented industries.”
Some sources claim that the tradition of Father’s Day was started in West Virginia, but this is not the case. In December of 1907, a coal mine exploded in Monongah, West Virginia. Over three hundred men were killed. The following spring, Grace Golden Clayton proposed a service in her church to honor all the fathers among the victims. It was only meant to be a one-time event, held on July 5, 1908. The sermon was never published, the event was never promoted beyond that specific date and town. It wasn’t celebrated again until many years later when Father’s Day had become popular.
Many European countries celebrate fatherhood on March 19, also known as Saint Joseph’s Day. The Catholic Church promoted this custom as far back as 1508. Early Spanish and Portuguese immigrants continued this tradition here. Many other countries around the world have taken up the American-style celebration of Father’s Day in June. Germany has had a unique practice since the 1700s. They celebrate a men’s day or gentleman’s day on Ascension Thursday, which is forty days after Easter. Groups of men will walk to some destination pulling a wagon full of wine and beer bottles and some provincial food, usually including ham. This goes back to an old farming tradition where a town would recognize the man with the most children with a prize. During the twentieth century, the tradition had become an excuse to drink heavily. Germany’s Federal Statistical Office reports that traffic accidents increase by threefold that day.
Today the practice in the United States is to give one’s father conventionally gender-oriented gifts such as ties, tools, or sports gear. Some families may get together for a Father’s Day brunch or cook-out. And there are many greeting cards sent each year. It will be interesting to see how the holiday evolves in the future.
Several recent, widely publicized attacks on the Asian American community have spotlighted the rise in anti-Asian sentiment and racism in America. This is not a sudden or new development, but the result of years of pernicious racism. We wish to express, in no uncertain terms, our support for and solidarity with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Racism will not be tolerated. Discrimination will not be tolerated. We stand together with #AAPI.
We invite you to use Natural Selections as a platform to share your thoughts and experiences regarding these issues. If you wish to submit a piece, we encourage you to contact our editorial staff. Now is the time to use our voices to lift up the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
Science Saturday, Rockefeller’s annual campus-wide festival of science education and exploration, is a gem of RockEDU’s community outreach. Last year, as COVID cases began to spike in New York City, RockEDU was forced to pull the plug on Science Saturday after months of hard work, meticulous planning, and anticipation.
School closures and remote learning have increased the demand for online learning tools across the globe. Considering the major role of COVID researchers and policy makers in mitigating the pandemic, widespread science education and communication between experts and non-experts is particularly critical.
Jeanne Garbarino, director of RockEDU science outreach, took on the challenge of designing a virtual Summer Science Research Program (SSRP). With years of experience doing outreach,expertise in designing and conducting experiments, and support from a team of scientists, Garbarino was prepared to develop and execute virtual “lab” experiences. Still, the year was a learning experience for her, too. “I don’t think I’ve learned more in twenty years of engagement than I have in this one year of doing engagement,” Garbarino said.
Without a physical lab space to work with, Garbarino used common household items to design experiments. Fortunately, this was familiar territory. She’s notorious in her household for cultivating creatures in expired food, including a fungus-inhabited bottle of maple syrup. With Garbarino’s guidance, students grew their own wild yeast and bacteria strains at home and precipitated DNA with isopropanol.
Making do without expensive equipment and reagents, Garbarino soon realized, had a silver lining. “I’m not letting my context confine what I can do,” she said. “That is the thing that made us connect with kids.”
Decentralizing the process of experimentation made science more accessible. “After participating in the SSRP Program, I am deeply aware of the fact that science is not a field only some have access to, but rather it is an endeavor that anyone can contribute to anywhere (even in their own homes!),” one student said.
Using a virtual platform, Jeanne and her team were less limited by material resources and space than they were previously. This allowed them to expand their cohort by 58%, accepting sixty-three students for 2020.
Bringing science into the home encouraged family members to engage as well. One student mentioned that her five-year-old sister began pipetting with a bulb syringe after observing her older sibling perform experiments.
The RockEDU team is also striving to incorporate new teaching philosophy into their programs. Garbarino challenges traditional research dogma by expanding her students’ understanding of scientific reasoning. Strictly hypothesis driven research is not the be-all and end-all. For example, Garbarino said, classification and categorization are imperative and undervalued approaches to discovery. “The way that students are being taught the scientific method in schools is very linear and does not account for messiness or experimentation,” she said. “RockEDU is working to give students options in terms of ways of knowing.”
Further, the team is working to integrate wonder into teaching and discovery. “We’ve been going deep into social science literature around the concept of wonder for a mechanism of building competence in STEM,” Garbarino said. “The utility of science has overshadowed the wonder of science.”
This summer, RockEDU’s SSRP is going international. By teaching virtually, the team will be able to accommodate seventy students. They received over 800 applications from seven time zones, including applicants from Mexico, Korea, China, Turkey, and a dozen states in the U.S.
Reflecting on the year, Garbarino has no regrets. There was no handbook on doing outreach during a pandemic, but she leveraged her expertise and passion to achieve the best possible outcome. “I did not drop the ball and I’m proud of that.”
Science Saturday this year will be held virtually on May 8. Registration is required to participate.
I came to musical awareness at age five in the early 1960s when my parents played records on our home “hi-fi” system featuring the mellow folk songs of The Kingston Trio and The Tarriers, as well as soundtracks of their favorite Broadway musicals. Like many children and young people at the time, my interests in popular music shifted direction forever when the 1964 British Invasion led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones took America by storm. In three short years, the music would exponentially grow increasingly complex and innovative and by decade’s end, the power of recorded music seemed to have infinite possibilities.
Jimi Hendrix is rightly considered a musical genius who expanded the possibilities of what the electric guitar could deliver in the dexterous hands of a Stratocaster-wielding, guitar-burning, psychedelic sage. His 1969 unaccompanied rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival is worthy of an essay of its own as an awe-inspiring performance of America’s national anthem, punctuated by the violent wails and mayhem of Hendrix’s guitar recreation of “the bombs bursting in midair.” That moment in music history might also be considered an emphatic, full stop end to that infamous decade of political, cultural, and social upheaval.
My favorite solo on an album by Hendrix appears on the double LP, Electric Ladyland released in 1968. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is performed by his power trio, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and is the last track on the last studio album recorded by the group. Hendrix died of a heroin overdose eleven months after Electric Ladyland’s release. Several famous musicians and vocalists died young in the late 1960s and early 1970s soon after releasing an album. Such collections are often scrutinized as the artist’s “final statement.” Jim Morrison’s final track with his band, The Doors, on LA Woman, “Riders on the Storm,” is a chilling tale akin to a short story written by a Los Angeles-based mystery writer. With “Riders,” the listener is not quite sure if murder is imminent and all of Morrison’s details and observations are chilling. Morrison, the so-called “Lizard King,” sings melodically in a voice doubled on the recording by a quiet, eerie, rasping whisper:
Girl, ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand
The world on you depends
Our life will never end
Gotta love your man, yeah…
Morrison quit The Doors after recording LA Woman and it sounds as if he is bidding us adieu on “Riders” with his trademark emotionally detached intonations and poetry. He’d be dead in a bathtub in Paris within three months of the LP’s release.
Hendrix masterfully produced Electric Ladyland, and to realize the sheer sonic power and experience the full force of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” it is advantageous to listen with headphones either relaxed with eyes shut or in repose in the dark. Guitars swirl magically around the inner recesses of the mind as Hendrix solos, abbreviated chords and notes bouncing ear to ear, and somehow up and down, north to south, heaven to Earth. Hendrix’s guitar boasts perfected distortion and he whammy-bars his guitar at times as if entering a realm far beyond the daily pale.
One might speculate that Hendrix is prophesizing his approaching demise and worldly departure, yet the song is in no manner equivalent to, say, the pained vocal expression of imminent suicide by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s final track, “No Apologies.” Hendrix sounds like the liberated soul he’d always been as a musician and is now taking it one step further towards the beyond. It’s as if he’s declaring potential freedom from the body with exuberance, and with a chuckle to boot (observe his slightly self-amused delivery of the utterance, “uh”):
If I don’t meet you no more in this world then, uh—
I’ll meet ya on the next one
And don’t be late!
Don’t be late!
In nearly all interviews with Hendrix filmed in the 1960s, he sounds positive, optimistic, energetic, and impassioned about life and music. To lose him to heroin is a crime and a shame. I wouldn’t define his death by overdose as a plea for help or an expression of life’s futility, akin to the depressive circumstances surrounding the death of Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones in 1969, who drowned while “inebriated” in his swimming pool. I would never condone the motto “live fast, die young.” I see Jimi Hendrix as a loving individual whose drug use ended up robbing his listeners, family, and friends of his presence and art. Listening to the lightning fast, electric runs on “Voodoo Child,” the fiery notes akin to brilliant white-hot sparks of ideas, one mourns what might have been had he not left us so tragically soon.
Speaking of power rock trios and speed of light guitar licks, the solo by Eric Clapton on “I’m So Glad” appearing on 1969’s Goodbye Cream, is my absolute favorite rock solo. Goodbye was the band’s fourth and final album and the first three tracks on it are live recordings from appearances by the group in 1968. In filmed interviews for the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, director Ray Bulger’s first questions to the intense virtuoso drummer of Cream, Ginger Baker (d. 2019) is along the lines of “What did you, Jack Bruce [bassist; d. 2014] and Eric Clapton have in common that made Cream so unique?” After ridiculing the stupidity of the question, Baker, who lived his life in a state of constant furious and bitter anger, shouts out, “Time!” and expounds on how each was blessed with an internal “gift of time.”
“I’m so Glad,” the nine minute-plus first track on Goodbye, has from my first listen as a twelve-year-old seemed impossibly conceived, since the manically paced guitar solo by Clapton, with his improvised diversions, long, short, soft, or loud, are met instantaneously by mirrored extrapolations on his themes by both Baker and Bruce. Cream metamorphosizes as the song progresses into a three-headed, blindfolded monster sharing one brain as they wildly engineer a locomotive traveling at rocket speed. Bands such as The Grateful Dead, who also played “telepathically,” would nod and smile at each other as they engaged in their musical universe of magic. When viewing the films of Cream, this trio of British chaps rarely glance at each other (with the exception of the 2005 reunion concert filmed in London where there are many lovely moments of endearing nods and smiles) and Bruce often plays with his eyes closed. Cream had the unity and mindset of the best of live jazz improvisation, and it is no wonder that Baker always referred to the group as a jazz band expressing the blues rather than a rock band of any kind.
There are so many fabulous solos in rock music history, including Jimmy Page’s brilliant work on “Stairway to Heaven” (1971), Pete Townsend’s powerhouse performance of “Young Man Blues” on The Who’s Live at Leeds album (1970), and Alvin Lee with the band 10 Years After performing “I’m Going Home” at Woodstock. When the era of rock and roll guitar “gunslinger” soloing peaks in the 1970s, the technical speed of, for example, the finale of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” (1973), feels as if the manic virtuosity is for the sake of itself with no meaning except to dance about madly at a concert or listen to while downing multiple brews at a bar. These purposeless solos epitomize the downright ignorant slogan, “Sex, drugs and rock and roll.” Party on, Wayne!
Talents such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Peter Townsend, Buddy Guy, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jeff Beck (who remains defiantly in a league of his own to this day) speak to their audience by communicating through their guitar phrases a vital expression of an inner state conceived and channeled through uniquely beautiful music. These artists and many others brought rock and pop music into the realm of joyful experience and created a newly found category within the arts, discovering a space where complex ideas and emotions find an overwhelming mode of powerful expression.
This month I was lucky enough to meet Punxsutawney “Punx” Pill, a pill bug who currently resides with Camila Villasante, a Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. student, and Denis Torre, a Ph.D. student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Per CDC guidelines, Punx preferred to perform the interview over Zoom. Although he is over 60 in pill years, the vaccine has not yet been approved for crustaceans. Punx’s reputation as a cute but astute pill preceded him, so I was a bit nervous going into the interview, but Punx’s keen demeanor immediately put me at ease.
Audrey Goldfarb: It’s an honor to finally meet you, somewhat in person! To start off, could you tell me the meaning behind your name?
Punx: On February 2, I was going for my usual morning walk. I started under my little rock, then came into the sunlight. Suddenly I saw my shadow! It scared me so much that I almost rolled into a ball. My humans, Camila and Denis, saw this, and named me Punxsutawney Pill Bug, “Punx” for short. Sorry everybody for the six more weeks of winter…
AG: Wow, I’m glad Camila and Denis saw you before they stepped on you! How long had you known them before you introduced yourself?
P: I’m a shy little bug, honestly. I really wanted to befriend Camila and Denis but was nervous they’d be scared of me. So, for a few months I crawled around the walls of their apartment to test the waters until they decided to adopt me!
AG: Well, clearly you had nothing to worry about. But I heard you underwent a move a couple months ago, one of life’s most stressful events. How was that?
P: Whew. I don’t have many belongings, being a pill bug, so thankfully the move itself wasn’t so bad. But the change of scenery was big. Denis had just made a terrarium full of goodies and tasty treats from Central Park (soil, decaying leaves, moss…great stuff). Moving from the barren apartment walls to a toasty greenhouse was actually great—and did wonders for my pores. I made fast friends with the two worms in my terrarium (courtesy of Irene Duba, Ph.D. fellow at Rockefeller).
AG: You look like you’re in great shape. What’s your secret?
P: Aw shucks, Audrey, thanks for asking! I’ve been doing a lot of virtual pill-ates recently because I’m working on my pill-bod for pond season this summer.
AG: Nice, I love the pond too! Maybe I’ll see you there sometime. Speaking of getting out and about this summer, do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
P: As a pill bug, there is nothing I love more than curling up into a little ball. So, while it may seem like I’m an extrovert talking to you Audrey, I am definitely an introvert!
AG: I would have never guessed! What do you hope to check off your bucket list in 2021?
P: I want to go on a pill-grimage to Pill-adelphia this summer. All my friends will be there.
AG: Do you find the term “roly poly” offensive?
P: Frankly, the term alarms me a little bit. But at least it’s not “cheesy bugs” or “monkey peas” like they say in England.
AG: Noted. Switching the subject, do you have a traditional owner-pet relationship with Camila and Denis, or do you consider yourself independent?
P: My humans check on me from time-to-time, like last week when they found a centipede in my terrarium and vanquished it for me (So scary! So many legs!), but otherwise I’m a pretty independent pill.
AG: You certainly seem like you’ve got it all together! What are you planning to do with your stimulus check?
P: As an Upper East Side pill bug, I really want to get myself a pill-oton bike. I need to get a special bike with seven sets of pedals for all my legs, though—so it’ll cost me a small fortune!
AG: Are you single?
P: My humans keep asking me when I’m going to have grand-pills for them! But I’m just waiting for the right pill-partner to crawl by.
AG: I’m sure the ideal partner is out there for you, pill bug or otherwise. In the meantime, how do you unwind at the end of a long day?
P: By cracking open a nice, cold Pill-sner.
Poetry: Dr. Konstantina Theofanopoulou (instagram: @newyork_rhymes)One line art: Mikaella Theofanopoulou (instagram: @m_theta _art)
Sofia Axelrod of the Young Laboratory at The Rockefeller University would like to announce the release of her recently authored book, How Babies Sleep—The Gentle, Science-Based Method to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. Axelrod combined her experience as a parent with her research in the Young Laboratory as a neuroscientist to develop a method rooted in science for sleep training babies. Following its initial release in the United States last August, How Babies Sleep has been released in many countries around the world, including Italy last month, with more to follow in the coming years. How Babies Sleep is available for purchase online in paperback, eBook, and audiobook formats.
Email Megan E. Kelley at email@example.com to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events. Digital and online events/releases are welcome!
Politics Under the Microscope (PUTM) is a student-led podcast by graduate students Joanna Yeung, Ellie Thompson, Naira Abou-Ghali, and Nina Glenn. PUTM aims to capture the thought process of policy makers as they respond to complex problems and to discuss the implications those policies will have for the scientific community and broader society. On the morning of Saturday March 6, Joanna and her fellow colleagues shared their perspectives on being a part of Politics Under the Microscope.
What is PUTM? How would you describe our missions and values?
Ellie Thompson: PUTM is like an octopus because we do so many things. We advocate for the use of a scientific perspective when analyzing and discussing political, social, and contemporary issues. Through our podcast, we also aim to recruit and retain underrepresented minorities in STEM in addition to recruitment of scientists into the political landscape.
Nina Glenn: The heart of PUTM really comes back to education. Ultimately, we want to give people the tools to be well-informed citizens who can create tangible actions based on that information. Our goal is to empower people after educating them so that they can take an informed and rational viewpoint into these discussions to educate other people and to continue educating themselves.
Joanna Yeung: Not only is PUTM about educating other people but also about educating ourselves. We are all young scientists trying to learn more science policy and PUTM was the perfect excuse for me to get more involved with science policy.
How did the PUTM members all meet each other?
Naira Abou-Ghali: The Grants Office at Weill Cornell is really proactive about sending opportunities. While I was scrolling through my emails, I saw an opportunity to get funded for a science policy themed podcast through Research America. I thought starting a podcast would be the perfect way to learn about science policy, but I needed other people with me because I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I sent a message through the SEPA (Science and Education Policy Association) Slack group and I was lucky enough to have Joanna, Ellie, and Nina reply. The rest is history.
ET: Within the span of a week of meeting each other, we were able to work on the Research America grant, submit it, and actually get funded!
Out of all the episodes PUTM has produced so far, what kinds of discussions have been really inspiring or insightful to hear about?
ET: The Reverend Holt interview was the most powerful to me. As scientists, we are so focused on the lab bench. But Reverend Holt made me realize, “Will the science I do get to the people that we care about? Will it be accessible to everyone in society?” Scientists have a role with what happens with our science and how our science is used to benefit the community as a whole.
NAG: For me, it was also Reverend Holt’s interview. I can remember getting goosebumps from just her introduction. She is a black woman who was not born at a hospital because at the time, it wasn’t allowed. She takes us to the rest of her journey of advocating for the underserved and underrepresented when it comes to their healthcare. That interview highlighted the journey of one woman that had a background in science as a nurse but didn’t actually work at the bench and she is doing incredible work for equitable access. As a scientist, we can take the extra steps to advocate for policies that bring our research out there and guarantee equitable access. We are only 1500 words away from making an impact, which is the length of a policy brief. It was just an incredible perspective to hear.
NG: Something that stuck out to me in Representative Moulton’s interview was when he mentioned K through 12 education. He noted that it’s great to care about college education, but a lot of people don’t make it to that point. It’s important to invest in what’s there (scholastic resources before the undergrad/grad level). It shows how essential it is to have well-informed policy makers because they are who we point to in society.
In Representative Houlahan’s interview, she talked about how nonlinear paths in science still matter, but are not always considered when we think about the way that policies or school policies are made. For instance, what kind of support is there for a single mother in grad school? We have to think about what the broader society looks like and not just what we look like. We need to consider how we can use our personal stories to empower other people who might have entirely disparate stories but are going through a similar experience. The biggest takeaway was the ability to use policy to see these recurring themes in science and being able to connect different pieces of society together.
JY: What I really took out of the Reverend Holt interview was the prevalence of mistrust towards COVID-19 vaccines. I’ve lived in a very privileged bubble and haven’t considered that people could have mistrust towards something that I would have absolute trust towards.
In addition, [Representative] Houlahan’s interview made me think about my privilege when she talked about her experience as a grade 11 chemistry teacher. She said something along the lines of “do you know how hard it is to teach grade 11 chemistry when the students that you’re teaching have grade three to four reading level?” This made me aware of how many people don’t have access to high quality education throughout their whole lives and as a result, have difficulty with learning more complex concepts because they lack those foundational skills. It was really insightful for me to just learn about people outside of my little bubble that I exist in.
What are PUTM’s future plans?
ET: With regards to outreach plans, we have been offered [a] guest instructor opportunity with HypotheKids to teach underserved 11th and 12th graders in the New York city area about the practical applications of science.
JY: We have a lot of cool episodes in mind that we haven’t gotten to yet. One topic we are interested in covering is climate change and the policies around that. We’re also super excited about the mental health series.
NAG: We are also planning an episode series on feminism and misogyny in STEM. We would like to talk about protecting women, especially women of color in science. You read these bone chilling accounts of the way that some women of color specifically are treated in high knowledge environments and it’s just unacceptable. That is a really important thing that we have to address as well.
For more information about Politics Under the Microscope, check out our website, social media accounts, and add us to your playlist on Spotify!
April 22, 2021 will be the 51st Earth Day. What started as an educational initiative in the United States has evolved into an annual global event to advocate for the environment.
The roots of Earth Day go back as far as the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. That was the first impetus that made Americans aware of the effects of pollution. On January 28, 1969, an oil well off the coast of Santa Barbara, California spilled three million gallons of oil and killed more than 10,000 sea creatures and birds. The news coverage caused an increase in public awareness and support for the environment. Then, at the 1969 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Conference, a proposal was made to honor the Earth on March 21, 1970; the day of the vernal equinox, also known as the first day of spring. The United Nations still observes Earth Day on March 21 and rings a Japanese peace bell at the exact moment of the equinox.
Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin), inspired by the youth activism at the time, proposed a national environmental teach-in day for April 22, 1970. He chose that day because it didn’t interfere with finals and most students would still be on campus. He recruited Dennis Hayes, a youth activist at Stanford University, to oversee coordinating activities. Senator Nelson provided his office staff to help Hayes. The United Auto Workers union was the largest financial contributor and provided office supplies. Hayes later said the first Earth Day wouldn’t have been possible without their support. Hayes changed the name to Earth Day which caught on with the media. He is still on the board of the organization today.
The first Earth Day in 1970 was celebrated in over 10,000 schools across the country and many cities including New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Here in New York a group of Columbia University students got Mayor Lindsay to close part of Fifth Ave for the occasion. He also made Central Park and Union Square available for festivities. Paul Newman and Ali McGraw spoke in Union Square to much press coverage. In Philadelphia, Senator Edmund Muskie, Ralph Nader, Allen Ginsburg, and Harvard biochemist George Wald spoke. In Washington DC, Pete Seeger performed and members of Congress gave speeches. It was later that year that bipartisan support established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The Earth Day organization has helped advocate for many environmental protection laws since then, including the Endangered Species Act.
Since 1970, the event has grown and evolved. By Earth Day 1990, the event could be promoted on the internet and over email, as well as on television. Funding was in the millions, allowing the event to go global. Over 140 countries participated. That year, the focus was on recycling. There was a live phone call from the state of Washington to an international group of climbers on Mount Everest. The team of climbers from China, Russia, and the United States collected two tons of trash from the mountain. In 1995 the website earthday.org was established. By Earth Day 2000, 184 countries had joined in. Almost half of a million people gathered on the Washington Mall to hear Leonardo DiCaprio and others speak. In 2017, the organization coordinated with the March for Science, a group that advocates for science literacy and evidence-based policies. The 50th Earth Day in 2020 was celebrated on-line due to the COVID-19 pandemic, another example of the effects of environmental issues. The focus had shifted to citizen science and community engagement. There were three days of live stream events, with Bono, and even Pope Francis joining in.
Earth Day is now considered the largest secular event in the world. This year’s theme is Restore Our Earth, with a focus on clean-up events particularly in areas disproportionately affected by climate change. To learn more about the organization and this year’s activities, go to earthday.org.
As an enthusiastic meditator, I am delighted that mindfulness is now a household word. An increased awareness of the benefits of meditation has led more people to try mindfulness practices to help combat stress, anxiety, and other afflictions, often at the suggestion of health care professionals. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that typically involves sitting quietly and focusing the attention on the sensation of the breathing. Experienced meditators claim that this practice helps to cultivate desirable mental states, including feelings of tranquility, equanimity, and even bliss. This practice may result in lasting changes in everyday life, including increased ability to focus on a task without being distracted, to deal with stressful situations in a detached manner, and to avoid getting caught up in negative emotions. In a nutshell, mindfulness makes you happier.
Meditation is an ancient practice that is traditionally associated with Eastern religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. Meditation, like all religious practices, involves a fair amount of ritual and is accompanied by certain beliefs about the nature of the universe that do not sit well with a modern scientific worldview. When meditation was introduced to the West in the 1970s, its association with mysticism was met with skepticism by the scientific community. Western students of meditation were associated with the psychedelic hippie culture of the 1960s and 70s, which further reduced the credibility of meditation as a serious practice. Despite the flourishing of secular approaches to meditation, its origins as a mystical practice and its ongoing association with “spirituality” (whatever that may mean to you) can still be off-putting for some people. Meditation in its most fundamental form, however, is simply a technique that involves using attention in specific ways to train the mind. There is no need to sit cross-legged on a cushion, burn incense sticks and chant in Tibetan to meditate (although by all means do if you find it helpful). Modern approaches to meditation have adapted the ancient practice of mindfulness for a secular audience.
Today mindfulness is a billion-dollar industry. Overblown claims about its utility as a cure for all modern ailments can make mindfulness seem like a trendy health fad. A comparison is often made between meditation and physical exercise. Just as physical exercise improves the health of the body, so does mental exercise improve the health of the mind. The problem with this analogy, from the point of view of the skeptic, is that the benefits of physical exercise are obvious for all to see, while the benefits of meditation are primarily mental and much more difficult to ascertain. When faced with an Olympic athlete and a couch potato, nobody doubts that physical exercise can improve the functioning of the body. When an experienced meditator claims that their practice makes them feel better, the skeptic is not so easily convinced. To make things worse, most people find their first attempts at practicing mindfulness to be underwhelming. Focusing on the breath or any other subject for a period of time is surprisingly difficult. Novice meditators may doubt whether the effort is worthwhile.
The benefits of meditation take some time to become apparent. There are countless examples of anecdotal evidence for these benefits. I have an anecdote of my own; I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for several years now, and I am convinced that it helps me feel less stress, sleep better, and has improved my overall mental well-being. But there are also countless examples of people who are convinced of the healing powers of crystals or homeopathy. For a skeptic who has tried to meditate and found no benefit, why persist with a practice that takes up valuable time?
Fortunately, we do not need to rely on anecdotes to be confident that mindfulness practice results in tangible benefits. Despite the initial hesitation of the scientific community to take meditation seriously, there has been an explosion of research papers on the subject in recent years. A PubMed search for ‘mindfulness’ has approximately 20,000 hits today. There is, however, still plenty for the skeptic to object to even here. Most scientific studies on meditation are epidemiological in nature and involve comparing groups of meditators to non-meditators for the traits of interest. Controlling for confounding variables is notoriously difficult in these kinds of studies. Individuals who choose to take up meditation practices are likely to be more health conscious than the general population and separating the effects of meditation from those of diet or exercise, for example, is challenging. There is, therefore, a great deal of variation in the quality of the research papers published on mindfulness. However, there have been many rigorous, well-controlled studies that have been able to attribute improvements in mental function to specific mindfulness practices.
Mindfulness practice is often undertaken in the form of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, as pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn. These programs typically involve thirty minutes of daily meditation over an eight-week period, including mindfulness of the breath and body scans, where the attention is focused on bodily sensations. There have been hundreds of studies that show beneficial changes in individuals who participate in one of these courses. One study used fMRI to assess the brain activity of participants who had completed MBSR courses. Participants were presented with disturbing images as stressors and researchers found significant decreases in amygdala activity that correlated with reduced self-reported stress reactivity. A similar study found reduced levels of stress hormones when individuals who completed a MBSR course were exposed to stressful situations. A third study found that after completing the course, participants demonstrated increased ability to concentrate on specific sensory inputs. These changes were observed following about thirty cumulative hours of mindfulness practice, but improvements in attention have been observed in novice meditators who have been instructed in mindfulness meditation for as little as ten minutes. While these effects are certainly transient, they show that even small doses of mindfulness can be helpful.
For those who wish to take their meditation practice deeper, there have been studies of long-term meditators with thousands of hours of practice under their belt, showing profound changes in the brain, including a reduction in baseline activity in regions of the prefrontal cortex that are associated with wandering minds. These studies demonstrate that experienced meditators are less likely to be lost in thought even when they are not actively engaged in their meditation practice. For a comprehensive and critical analysis of the scientific studies of meditation, I strongly recommend reading Altered traits: science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain and body, by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.
I hope that this article has convinced skeptics that meditation is an activity that is worth considering. Even hard-nosed materialists who balk at the idea of spirituality can benefit from training the mind. If you are starting out with a meditation practice, it is important to have realistic expectations. The benefits of meditation are gradual, and patience is required. Novice meditators often give up because they are unable to focus on their breath for more than a few seconds and they realize how thoroughly out of control their mind is. This realization is actually a sign of progress. Most people are not aware that they spend most of their life in a state of distraction. Once you notice you are distracted, you can choose to return the awareness to the breath, even if only for a few seconds before you are lost in thought again. Repeat this process indefinitely, and the ability to notice what is going on in your mind will gradually strengthen. Everything you experience, feel, and care about takes place in your mind. Often it is your reaction to life’s events, and not the events themselves, that influences the quality of your existence. The ability to observe your inner mental state at any moment is a skill that allows you to get off the rollercoaster of reactivity that so often dictates your responses to situations. This enables you to respond in more positive ways to events as they occur, and ultimately improves the quality of your life and the lives of the people you interact with.
Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve written over two dozen novellas and abandoned about a dozen others mid-creation. Each writer has their own process, and it is the process itself that is so satisfying when creating fiction. Some authors map out an outline of their plot in advance, while others maintain biographical files for each of their characters, ensuring that their motivations and behavior remain consistent with their backstories. I use a “real time” methodology by filling in details as I create images to apply over the primer coat on the canvas of imagination. This allows for events to spontaneously roll out and evolve as I act as a somewhat passive chronicler rather than omniscient power, creating the illusion that the characters maintain free will responding instinctively to unexpected situations.
My books are inspired by revelations and chance events witnessed in day-to-day life. For example, after visiting an antique arts establishment where a gallery assistant explained to me the meaning of several celestial maps engraved by Andreas Cellarius, I began writing a story centered around the magical images, with the gallery scenario setting off the action (The Lamentation for the World). While watching the James Bond film Skyfall, when Bond’s ancestral house in the wilds of Scotland appeared onscreen, I thought, “I’m going to put a ghost in that old mansion” (The Ghost of Whispering Pines).
Once I receive that spark of an idea, I intuitively sense the main characters who will undergo the book’s adventures. At times, I use personality traits of my friends or borrow perceived and implied personas from strangers I see in passing for the demeanor of individuals appearing in the novella.
Once I have the major premise in mind, I commence each writing session knowing at most two vaguely imagined scenes of action at a time so as not to get ahead of the story. I write with key phrases of dialogue and basic events at the ready prior to sitting down at the computer. I never want to know how a book will end until very late in the process. With characters behaving in a “real time” world, each personality develops naturally and interacts with new arrivals to the action, veering off in unexpected ways. Early in the writing of one of my older books, I found a secondary character taking over as the main character after realizing through his dominating actions and ideas that he was much more interesting than the original protagonist (The Minister of Peace).
My books eventually morph into complex and intriguing puzzles and after about eighty or so pages, it dawns on me how everything fits together. This unexpected “reveal” of what has unknowingly been going on the entire time is my favorite part of the creative process.
My most recent novella, The Plot, was inspired by several eureka moments that coalesced prior to committing pen to paper. While watching the sci-fi movie Annihilation, I suspended my imagination and saw the actors as they truly were—people saying lines of a script with a camera and crew lurking unseen nearby. Yet the cast was so engrossed in the setting and their roles, it was as if their space had become a reality located somewhere between our world and one of film fantasy.
Another inspiration for The Plot was a trip to London and Florence in 2018. At dinner in a restaurant in Florence, I spied a mysterious middle-aged man dining alone, obviously held in high esteem by the wait staff. I told my wife, “I don’t know what my next book is going to be about, but it’s going to begin in this restaurant with that guy at that table.” Which is exactly how it is played out in chapter one of The Plot with those very words spoken by one of the central characters.
The lead characters in the novella are Robert Halle, based on the persona of the true-to-life 58-year-old British actor, Ralph Fiennes, and his younger counterpart, Guy Randolph, based on the physical traits and personality of Leonardo DiCaprio. With an actress, Felicity Felicitas, modeled after the British star Lily James, the three are working on a free-form film directed by an innovative young Argentinian director, Alejandro Alencia, whom I created as an amalgamation of several real-life current foreign directors. Their movie is being shot in Florence with additional scenes taking place at a Palladian Villa and Hampton Court Palace in the UK. The actor Halle portrays an intelligence agent, Karl Smythe, in service to England trying to unravel the mystery of why a novel written by Randolph’s character, Justin Teagle, has set off an international crisis the nature of which has yet to be completely understood.
Robert Halle acts as the narrator of the action both as himself and as his film persona, Agent Smythe, and the reader discovers that when he and Guy Randolph undergo the best “take” of a scene, their reality as actors completely vanishes and they become unwittingly immersed into the world of Alecia’s arthouse film, The Plot. The movie characters face growing danger as the situation in the film becomes dire, and the actors are forced to gamble prior to the cry of “Action!” that they will emerge from the fantasy before any permanent harm is inflicted upon them. As the stakes grow higher in the movie they are filming, the chances increase that Halle and Randolph will lose the capacity to escape from Alencia’s fantasy, yet they are willing to risk their lives to find out what will ultimately occur in the alternative movie reality.
I knew that at some point I would have to explain the details and specifics of what lurks behind the espionage in the imaginary film world. My own understanding of where the book was ultimately going began when I caught sight from a distance of an Italian friend of mine and thought, “She knows more about Italy than I’ll ever know—she truly embodies Italy.” A new character came to life at that moment, “The Contessa,” living in a villa designed by Palladio in the Veneto who receives both spy and novelist to lay out in detail what it is that they are chasing. Days later, I spotted on the streets of Manhattan a tastefully dressed, 55-year-old woman and I introduced her as The Contessa’s counterpart, “The Madonna,” ruling mystically and benevolently over Florence within the film being shot in The Plot.
What would The Contessa reveal to be the plot of The Plot? Turned out to be another “plot,” the Pazzi Conspiracy of fifteenth century Florence where Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated in the famous Duomo cathedral. I have no memory of creating the idea. I only recall writing the pages of passionate and dryly humorous discussion at The Contessa’s villa where she explains through an acerbic translator to the intelligence agent Smythe and novelist Teagle, the far-flung idea that although they speak together in the year 2018, Giuliano de’ Medici, her dearest nephew, is, as they speak, en route with an entourage of angelic psychopomps to his final resting place. Prior to his expected beatitude, she tells them, Giuliano is to have an audience with God and during that meeting she fears that he will take advantage of the Being’s fondness of him to encourage the deity to undergo the swift destruction of all the world. Giuliano, The Contessa notes, is convinced that Mankind’s penchant for pitiless violence and other outrages of the soul have left the species unworthy as creations of the Divine. The Contessa believes that unless Smythe and Teagle travel back to April 28, 1478 and prevent the assassination of her nephew, God will heed the call of this most beloved son of Florence and in a single immediate stroke, destroy the earth.
The Plot ends at the meeting between the two actors and the Italian actress who had portrayed The Madonna with Giuliano de’ Medici not as their film characters but as themselves. The four of them speak seated at a long snacking table inside of a New Jersey Turnpike-style rest stop somewhere in the Heavens, an oasis and illusion created to make the living interlopers feel natural and at home somewhere in the obscure reaches of the Heavens. The savvy, intellectual, and dashingly charismatic Giuliano, with selected passages of his speech translated into Italian, makes complex and salient points about the terrible and destructive behavior of Mankind throughout history. When I initially read back his diatribe, I was surprised that his impassioned observations were in no way reflective of my own thoughts on the subject, but an expression in accordance with the personality of the character of Giuliano and seemingly under his control. I had become a passive stenographer recording the presentation of his “case” against Mankind. His manner of speaking and his complex, convoluted expression of ideas made The Plot more an intellectual read than I planned when setting out to write the tale. I had wanted to present an exciting fantasy about the nature of movies and reality and now, almost out of nowhere, I had this historical banking scion arguing on moral grounds for the destruction of the human species.
Once I knew and understood what the last chapter would entail, I anticipated a very dark ending to The Plot. In the long run, I did not go through with it because I didn’t want to be responsible for a work of fiction that damns the world to instantaneous oblivion. The pleas voiced by Halle and Randolph in defense of humankind, their metaphoric “client,” make a strong counter argument in opposition to Giuliano’s damnation, centering on allowing humankind to proceed undeterred to a potentially better future or to a natural demise of its own making, rather than one guided by divine decree. The ultimate ending of The Plot is ambiguous, leaning towards the notion that Giuliano prevails after having expressed his disappointments to a “Higher Being” about humankind’s failure to fulfill ideals of love, justice, artistic expression, and scientific creativity. His greatest disappointment is how individuals lazily withdraw from the difficult task of realizing their relationship with the Divine, ceding the responsibility to various established religions as herded congregants, and handing over the vital, essential purpose of unique souls to ignorant and greedy “priestly castes” throughout history.
In March of 2021, I remain creatively exhausted from the time and work I put into the book over two years ago and there is a very good chance that The Plot will be my last novella.