Thursday, April 12, 2018

Trees, seemingly simple, are as complex as any life-form

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries From a Secret World – Peter Wohlleben (2015)

            I have always been a huge fan of trees.  In my early childhood, which was spent in the sub-tropical island of Puerto Rico, many of the trees provided fruits and veg of some kind.  I loved this.  No matter the season, there was something good to eat from the trees outside in the yard, whether it was tamarind, guavas, scotch bonnet peppers, breadfruit, coconuts, etc.  When I was around 8 years old my family relocated to the city of Houston, Texas.  I was distraught at first that there did not appear to be any fruiting trees around, but then I discovered the pecan and the Loquat trees that grew everywhere.  Once again, the trees were providing me with food.
            In the years since I have learned more and more about trees, their life cycle, and the many varieties, but there did not seem to be much scholarship that treated the trees as organisms deserving of careful study. Trees were seen as static, dull, and lacking in any of the qualities humans appreciate in other lifeforms.  Thank goodness for people like Peter Wohlleben, a former forester in Germany who left his work to become a scientists specializing in the life-cycles of trees.  His personal experience with the way that humans attempt to control trees, to shape them for our own aesthetic pleasure, and prep them for future harvesting was in stark contrast with what he came to learn about individual trees, species of tree, and whole communities of various tree types. 
            One of the most controversial ideas espoused initially by Mr. Wohlleben, and since corroborated by many different researchers, was the topic of communication between trees.  Most humans assume that plants cannot possibly communicate.  We assume that communication is reserved for organisms with a brain, or with social structures.  This is a deeply held bias, based on erroneous ideas spread for centuries through religion, concerning the supremacy of certain creatures as opposed to other creatures, and the dominance and value found therein.  The truth is that all life communicates, whether it is a large 400-year old Oak, or a small protozoa that lives only for ½ a day. A brain or a nervous system is not required for communication.
            Trees communicate in many ways.  Some trees of the same species will make underground connections through their root systems.  The tips of these roots contain very special cells, cells which seek out nutrients, water, air, and other plants.  The roots of these species will connect and share resources.  When one tree needs more water, the other trees will provide it.  If a large old tree, one that had supported various smaller offshoots for decades or centuries, dies from an accident, the other trees will continue to “feed” the leftover stump and root systems, sometimes keeping them alive for several hundred years.  This requires communication.
            Another way trees communicate is with chemical signals.  Certain trees, the acacia for example, are a favorite of grazing animals in Africa.  A giraffe will start munching on an acacia tree and the tree can sense this somehow, which causes it to begin releasing a specific chemical cocktail into the air.  This chemical floats in the breeze and “informs” the other acacias to begin producing bitter chemicals in their leaves.  The initial tree warns the others of danger so they do not get eaten!  The signal fades after about 100 feet.  The giraffes are smart, and after gnawing on one acacia, will walk at least 100 feet away from it to begin grazing anew.  They seem to know the trees have communicated!  Other trees will feel a bug digging into their bark, and release a noxious chemical through their whole trunk which will kill or repel these bugs.  Trees have immune systems!!!!
            I wish I could talk about all the cool things I learned from this book.  One of the saddest things I learned is the state that city trees and park trees suffer in.  They are not able to create connections underground with similar trees.  They are essentially orphans, and live their lives in high risk.  Orphan trees do not have the support from surrounding trees to protect them during storms.  They do not have the other trees helping them during times of drought.  They do not ever “talk” to any other trees.  These trees are hermits, living in isolation.  They grow stunted, or mangled, or warped compared to their forest brothers.  They die young, and suffer greatly from pests and fungi and other natural enemies whose detrimental effects are buffered by a forest of trees.
            Any and all divisions that we humans see in the living world are created and enforced by our own ideas, whether misbegotten or accurate.  Life existed for billions of years before the rise of modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and will continue long after we are gone or replaced as a dominant species on this planet.  The genetic difference between all humans is miniscule compared to the genetic differences between different trees of the same species!  They are constantly evolving, adjusting, migrating, and procreating. They have been doing this for so long, without our help, and to treat them as purely a source for materials or as a natural resource undercuts the dignity that every living thing should be treated with.  Hopefully this great book will open eyes and minds, and allow for a true co-existence between humans and our tree friends.

(This book is available for purchase here: )

Friday, April 6, 2018

David Letterman was the First and Last of his kind.

Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night – Jason Zinoman (2017)

            My favorite television show was always Late Night with David Letterman.  As a kid in the 1980’s, I loved staying up late on Fridays, or on weekdays during a school break, and watching this weird, confusing, and downright absurd television show.  The host was an odd-looking white dude who did not seem to actually care, and his comedy was at times mean, at times rude, and definitely at times juvenile.  For a while cable TV would re-run old episodes of Late Night, which allowed me to catch up on the insanity I had missed.  This was awesome.  I even started a Church of Letterman with my friend Antonio Villalobos, but we had no converts.  When I went off to college I would never miss the show.  I would regularly go to sleep around 12:30 PM, (or midnight if the guests were boring).  During that time I was “written up” by the RA over a dozen times because I was laughing way too hard during “quiet hours” which at our dorm ran from 11:00 PM to 6:00 AM.  I did not care.  I wanted to watch Dave and Paul.  In all that time, I felt like I never really got to know Mr. David Letterman, the man whose singular voice excited a generation of cynical and jaded slackers.  That is the beauty of books such as this.  They allow me to fill in huge gaps of knowledge while providing context for some of my most favorite and treasured television memories.
            As a super-fan of Dave, I knew the basics of his life story.  His early work at Ball State University’s radio station, his early gigs as a news weatherman on TV, and his “acting” in shows such as The Mary show and Mork & Mindy were all known to me.  Dave is a private man however, and surrounds himself with other private people, or at least people who will not yap about Dave to the media.  Because of this, the inside info found in this book is all the more exciting!  The author has done extensive research and interviews with people from Dave’s early life, and fleshes out a lot of what made Dave who he is from these sources.  It is very cool and funny to hear how Dave would screw with his bosses from the start, never letting them get comfortable with him.
The author, Jason Zinoman, breaks down the late night talk show career of David Letterman into three separate parts, each focused on a different type of show, a different type of comedy.  After the failed morning show, the classic Late Night with David Letterman began.  For the first few years, the thematic center of the show was an unbridled and caustic attack on the conventions of television, celebrity, and show business itself.  This was Dave breaking down the very form of what he was trying to create, a talk show where stars and celebrities come to peddle their latest work, and where the host usually comes off as an ass-kissing sycophant, helping create the false images of celebrity and fame which Hollywood uses to sell their product.  The author describes the various people involved and gives a lot of credit to these early writers and directors.  They helped guide Dave into his proper role.
A few years in, and the show changed again.  This time, for the better part of 4-5 years, Late Night with David Letterman became a crazed circus, an insane madhouse which destroyed even the visual conventions of a televised talk show.  It was more high-concept, and less snarky.  This version lasted quite a while, and created some of the most memorable moments in talk show history.  It was this version of the show that made Letterman a superstar.  He was now unable to distance himself from celebrity by ridiculing it.  He WAS celebrity.  Late Night became the one show that up-and-coming comedians wanted to be booked on.  It was the only show that booked cutting edge bands, many of which made their national television broadcast debuts on Late Night (REM for instance).  Dave had become a bigger star than his guests.
The show changed once again after the Tonight Show was given to Jay Leno instead of Dave, who was Carson’s personal fave.  The show moved to CBS, and Dave became more of a fatherly curmudgeon, with the show becoming bigger and grander in every way, from the sets to the ever growing band, to the nicer clothing being worn by Dave.  This was all in response to CBS moving the Late Show with David Letterman to an earlier time slot to compete against Leno’s Tonight Show directly.  It seems that age and hard-earned wisdom tempered the manic crank that Letterman used to be.  While I missed the insanity of the earlier iterations of this show, I stayed a true fan and appreciated it for what it was.  Dave’s absurdist streak still remained, and Paul Shaffer and Dave became even more of a comedy duo.  The show also had more gravity at an earlier time slot, and it seemed Dave took it a lot more seriously.
During the time that Dave was on the air, both at NBC and CBS, countless other pretenders tried their hand at the format, each of them eventually being dumped by their networks.  By the time Dave went off the air, there were countless other shows, hosted by watered-down versions of himself.  None were nor are as good, and it is likely no one will ever capture the entire nation’s imagination with a late night show like Letterman did.  He was never personally satisfied.  He berated his writers and himself for not being funny enough, and he seemed to actually HATE being a famous person, but I think it was because of this that his comedy worked.  He stood outside the Hollywood shit-storm and assaulted it endlessly with words and comedic ideas.  A talk show depends upon a steady stream of actors and celebrities shilling their latest bullshit, but Dave upended that idea.  He did not care about their projects or what they were supposed to promote.  He wanted to create entertaining conversations and interactions, not promote shit with canned answers from his guests.  Those who understood became his favorite guests.  Those who did not were mercilessly mocked.  They deserved it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa hang out, listen to records, and talk about music.

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa – Haruki Murakami (2016)

“Like love, there can never be too much ‘good music.’ “ - Haruki Murakami

The Japanese author Haruki Murakami has been one of my favorites ever since I first read A Wild Sheep Chase in my sophomore year of University (oh so very long ago...around 1992-1993).  I owe my love of Murakami to my man Elliott French, who loaned me his copy of that book.  I have also been aware of Maestro Seiji Ozawa’s work, as I spent 7 years playing cello in the school Symphony Orchestra.  Coupled with my father’s enjoyment of classical music at home, this left me with a life-long love of classical symphonic and chamber music.  When I read that Haruki Murakami’s newest book was to focus on conversations between these two giants, and their shared love of music, I grew restless to read it.  Thank Mario for the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library and the bad-ass librarians there who keep the shelves full of fresh new books!
Previously on this Intellectual Journey, I had the chance to read and write about Haruki Murakami’s first non-fiction book, the moving and shocking Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.  Where that book delved into a tragedy that shook a nation to its core, and the after-effects of it all, this book is a joyous celebration in many respects.  Murakami has been a life-long fan of music, with a deep knowledge of Jazz and Classical music.  Ozawa has been working as a conductor since the 1960’s, where he was Leonard Bernstein’s principal assistant.  He was barely 30 years old, knew very little English, and eventually studied and worked under the tutelage of some of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.  Both of these men have very strong opinions and ideas about music, but since one is a music creator and the other is a music aficionado, there is no rancor in any of their conversations, only mutual admiration and the joined love of good music.
The interviews recorded here were conducted over the course of several years, and include the time period when Maestro Seiji Ozawa suffered from a debilitating condition which required surgery and left him unable to conduct what was usually a quite frenzied schedule.  Through the course of these meetings, Murakami would pull out music from his vast collection of records and play them for the Maestro.  These included classic performances by Glenn Gould, and various world-renowned Symphony Orchestras.  Some of these were recordings of Maestro Ozawa’s performances, and others were from various contemporaries of his.  The insights that both men bring to the various recordings is just wonderful for a music nerd like me.  It is the next best thing to sitting in a room listening to music with them.  What a cream-dream that would be!
I learned quite a lot about music, about the art of conducting, about the art of teaching young students how to make good music together, and about the relationship between the conductor, the score, and the musicians that make that score come to life.   I also learned a lot about Haruki Murakami himself, and the deep musical knowledge that he has acquired over his lifetime.  Their discussions regarding the differences between a professional writer and a professional conductor make for enlightening reading.  As a writer, Murakami answers to no one, sets his own schedules, works completely alone, and keeps a very rigid schedule.  He awakens around 4 AM, writes for about 5 hours, then proceeds to go eat lunch and get on with the rest of his responsibilities.  Maestro Ozawa likewise gets up around 4 AM, but he states that he gets quite a hunger around 3 hours later, which causes him to interrupt his work.  He then spends the rest of the day in the myriad other duties of a professional conductor.  The quiet morning time is for his most difficult work, that of reading scores and understanding what the composer intended.  Murakami does not travel much due to his work, but Ozawa is all over the world, from guest conductor stints in Vienna, Berlin, Boston, etc., to his several once-a-year Orchestras that gather up players from around the world.  He has to be an organizer, a teacher, a musical genius, and above all, a leader of people.  
 While both men live in quite different worlds, their relationship only got stronger as the interviews took place.  One of the coolest things in the book is a short afterword by Seiji Ozawa where he discusses how him and Haruki met, how he grew to appreciate the talks with Haruki more and more, and how much he actually learned and remembered through the conversations.  Books like this give a great insight into the minds of genius.  I highly recommend it to anyone who loves classical music, and any fan of Haruki Murakami.  I learned a great deal.  

(On his website, Haruki Murakami lists a selection of music that he and Seiji Ozawa listened to during the course of this book’s writing, and provides links to listen to these recordings.  AWESOME.  Here is the link: )

Friday, March 2, 2018

This Japanese Author has Blown My Mind!

The Box Man – Kobo Abe (1974)

            A few months ago, while searching the interwebnets for new reading material, I did a search for “Weird Books.”  I found many different lists, some showcasing books that have weird bindings or fonts, and others discussing weird books that seem more like art projects than writing.  One of the many “Top 10 weird books I have read” lists I perused included the mention of a very strange novel from Japan, “The Box Man”, which was described as hallucinatory, bizarre, oddly structured, and all-around weird book.  I headed to the M.D. Anderson Library and checked this bad boy out.
            It is usually difficult to discuss a novel without giving away crucial plot points, so I will try to refrain from spoiling this strange book for you.  However, let me say that the story is being recounted by a “box man,” which is exactly what it sounds like, a homeless person who has decided to cast off their outward selves and live full-time with a large box over their heads and torsos, while peeking at the world through a small slit cut out at eye level.  The narrator describes in hallucinatory, sometimes oppressively convoluted, sentences how the anonymity afforded by the box strips away the Self even more so than being a normal street person.  Even normal bums avoid the box men.  The world becomes very small when everything one owns is somehow rigged up to hang from the inside of the box.  The life described by the narrator is quite bizarre, especially in such an uptight and controlling culture like Japan.
The real weirdness begins when the story continues and it becomes apparent that perhaps the narrator is not reliable, that perhaps he is mentally ill, or that maybe he has switched places with another person who wanted to know what it was like to live as a box man.  This other person then seems to also sink into a miasma of internal chaos, brought about by the life of a box man.  It becomes difficult to tell who is speaking, or if the entire thing is all in the head of the original box man.  At times, various conflicting affidavits and confessions are reprinted, expanding upon the story and forcing the reader to re-question everything they had already questioned about the narrator and the experiences he is recounting.
I swear at one point I was reading the internal monologue of a dead person laying on a morgue slab, as various people attended to his body and worked to make it look like he had died in a drowning accident, something that is referenced several times earlier in the novel.  The only feeling I can compare this to is reading the chapter in Alan Moore’s Jerusalem which is told from the internal point-of-view of a mentally deranged woman in an institution.  It really does feel like the words on the page are re-wiring the pathways in your brain!  I felt something similar while reading the Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea.  My mind is not the same having read Kobe Abe’s “The Box Man.”  That is the wonder and power of reading.  It is a much more direct method of ingesting ideas than watching film, or other such story-telling modes.  I am interested in finding more books by Kobo Abe, and seeing if they are all as bizarre as this novel.

(This novel can be purchased here: )