Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Cinch Review

84-year-old patient in “vegetative” state responds to stimuli

After performing a series of recently-developed tests, doctors and scientists report that an 84-year-old man, presumed to be in a vegetative state since 2006, showed “significant” brain activity when shown family pictures and offered other stimuli. A statement from Ben Gurion University in Israel, whose scientists participated in the tests, is quoted here:

“[The patient], presumed to be in a vegetative state since 2006 due to brain haemorrhage, was scanned to assess the extent and quality of his brain processing using methods recently developed by Professor Monti and collaborators,” it said.

“Scientists showed [the patient] pictures of his family, made him listen to his son’s voice, and used tactile stimulation to assess to what extent his brain responded to external stimuli,” it said in a statement.

“To their surprise, significant brain activity was observed in each test in specific brain regions, indicating appropriate processing of these (stimuli).”

Although this sounds dramatic—and rightly so—it is not unprecedented. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010 (and noted then in this space) found similar results in a number of patients who were also diagnosed as “vegetative.”

Ariel SharonWhy then are the results for this particular patient in the news today? It is because the patient’s name is Ariel Sharon, and he is a former prime minister of Israel. In 2010, several years after his medical crisis, a hospital manager involved with the care of Sharon was quoted as saying that “The part of the brain that keeps his body functioning, his vital organs, is intact, but beyond that there is nothing, just fluid.”

Yet, although he remains incapable of speaking or of making substantial communicative gestures, the results of these tests will make his family feel vindicated in believing that Ariel Sharon is in fact still “there,” despite what various medical professionals have maintained, and despite the voices of all those who have advocated disconnecting the feeding tube and “allowing” him to die (of starvation). Will he ever recover something like normal consciousness and the ability to communicate? No one can say. Continue reading 84-year-old patient in “vegetative” state responds to stimuli

The Cinch Review

Eware (Wind Chaser) 1.4L Ultrasonic Humidifier

Review of E-Ware 1.4L Ultrasonic HumidifierIt’s just possible that I have recently stumbled upon the explanation for the age-old mystery of “spontaneous combustion.” That’s the alleged phenomenon whereby a living thing—including most notably a human being—suddenly bursts into flames for no apparent reason. I was in bed, and our small dog was lying near the bottom of the bed, atop the bedspread, as is her wont. Her precise position was less than ideal in relation to my feet and she needed to be shifted a little bit. I have become adept at sliding her over a few inches without unduly disturbing her; or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she has become adept at ignoring the fact that she is being slid over, thus allowing me to do it. It was completely dark in the room. I placed my hands on either side of her curled up body and gently began shifting her over. It was then that I noticed distinct if small flashes of light emanating from her body. It took me a few moments to take in what I was witnessing and to arrive at a conclusion as to what was taking place. I realized that these flashes of light could only be sparks, caused by static electricity. The heat had been on steadily in our apartment for some weeks, and I had already noticed that everything seemed pretty dried out. I’d gotten some static electric shocks myself, and the dry air was affecting my nasal passages and such. Still, this was another level of seriousness, surely; that is, the possibility that my dog might burst into flames upon my bed.

I took it as a signal that perhaps it was time to get a humidifier. Continue reading Eware (Wind Chaser) 1.4L Ultrasonic Humidifier

The Cinch Review

The Mini Ice Age Cometh

The mini ice age comethThe mayor of London, England, Boris Johnson, wrote a widely referenced column the other day on the possibility that a “mini ice age” is upon us, due to a diminution in the activity of that yellow thing you see sometimes in the sky, known as the sun. He cited the theories of an astrophysicist named Piers Corbyn. And he cited his own personal experience of the last five winters in his locale. Reading his colorful descriptions of the unusual snowiness these past few years, I was reminded (naturally) of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by the great Welsh writer and poet Dylan Thomas.

Near the beginning of that classic and wonderful work of modern literature, the older narrator is speaking of how it used to snow in Wales, and a small boy interjects with a comment about a recent snowfall he had experienced. The narrator is quick to correct the boy’s idea that there is any valid comparison to be made.

“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

(If you’ve never read the whole thing, you really should treat yourself and pick up a copy someplace.)

What Dylan Thomas is doing is perfectly evoking the magical powers of human memory; in particular, he is illustrating its wondrous power to distort the “truth” by magnifying that which we remember fondly. If you grew up anywhere where it snowed at all, the odds are that you recall the snowstorms of your childhood in some similar manner, as great and overwhelming blizzards, every day a perfectly frozen Christmas card image of a winter wonderland. Winters these days just don’t compare. (Must be something up with the climate.)

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, is deliberately doing the precise opposite, of-course, in his column. He is perceiving the recent winters in England as being much more severe and snowier than those that are traditional. Somewhere there are numbers to be compared and verified, naturally, but that’s not what I’m about here today.

There is another kind of distortion of memory, typical of humans, whereby we attach greater weight to recent perceptions, and discount knowledge of the past. So it is that we might experience a few hot summers and think: “It’s never been this bad —the world must be about to boil over.” Likewise we might imagine there have never been so many hurricanes as there have been in recent years, without checking the actual stats. Some will argue that Boris Johnson is overreacting to a few recent cold winters in the same way. Continue reading The Mini Ice Age Cometh

The Cinch Review

Bob Dylan to play Wales in honor of Dylan Thomas?

Bob Dylan to play Wales in honor of Dylan ThomasWell, no sooner do I announce that I have become a Welshman than everybody wants in on the act. Now it is being reported that Bob Dylan is considering playing a gig in the city of Swansea, Wales, during 2014, to honor the centenary of the birth of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

This is a little bit of a turnaround for Bob, as he used to push back aggressively at the idea that he took his name from Dylan Thomas. However, he seems to have relaxed about that whole thing, even reading some Dylan Thomas poetry on his “Theme Time Radio Hour” show a few years back. Yet, Dylan Thomas might stand as one of the few poets Bob has never actually “borrowed” from (unless I’ve missed it along the way). Their work doesn’t share much in the style department. I take as accurate Bob’s account (I think in Chronicles) that he was set to name himself “Bob Dillon,” but then it occurred to him that spelling it as “Dylan” just plain looked better. And I think we’d have to acknowledge that he was right about that.

Bob may not have been a particular fan of Dylan Thomas’s poetry back then, but that has little to do with whether he is one now. Another intersection of their lives was the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, where Bob Dylan spent a fair amount of time in the 1960s, and where Dylan Thomas, sadly, spent his final days in 1953.

I like them both, both Dylans, and, for that matter, almost anyone named Dylan, because I am, after all, a Welshman now.

If Bob does play Wales for the Dylan Thomas centenary, the odds are very good that he’ll just do the same gig he always does and leave without any special acknowledgement of the occasion. At least half of those attending will walk away going, “What the hell was that?” and some displeased reviews will be written. Should Bob wish to avoid this—although I don’t think he cares to avoid it at all—let me give him some advice, as I have been Welsh now for several weeks and I know a little about these things. Continue reading Bob Dylan to play Wales in honor of Dylan Thomas?

The Cinch Review

The First and the Last in Phillipsburg, New Jersey

The last will be first and first will be lastA substitute teacher was terminated by a vote of the Board of Education in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, this past Monday, apparently for violating the district’s “religion and distribution” policies.

The Phillipsburg Board of Education has refused to release full details on the case, but multiple reports in the media tell the story this way: The teacher, Walter Tutka, had remarked to a student who was last in line when leaving a classroom, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The student asked him where that saying was from, and Tutka told him that it was from the Bible, but he couldn’t recall the exact passage. The student asked him several more times, and finally, during a lunch-break, Tutka pulled out his own copy of the New Testament and found the quote for the student. The student said he didn’t have any Bible of his own, and so Tutka gave him his own copy. It’s not clear how the interaction came to the attention of the powers-that-be, but the student did apparently return that copy of the New Testament to the teacher at a later time.

Based on the outline above, it looks like a pretty good case of zero tolerance for Christianity. The initial remark about the first being last and the last being first seems far more jocular in nature than proselytory, given the context. It happened to stimulate this student’s curiosity. If Walter Tutka had attributed the quote to Bob Dylan, and brought in a copy of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” (a song which does include that line) then there no doubt would have been no problem. The Bible is indeed a book of Jewish and Christian Scripture, but it is also literature, and quotes of that kind are at least as important to be familiar with as great quotes from Shakespeare. They are infused in our culture and themselves inspire more literature, poetry and music. Is the original source to be banned from being viewed or mentioned in schools? Well, I ask the question, but I know that it’s rather like asking whether we should consider maybe pushing the barn door closed after the horse has already run down the road and gotten hit by a truck. Continue reading The First and the Last in Phillipsburg, New Jersey

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Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

Leaning on the Everlasting ArmsThe final blessing of Moses on the people of Israel is presented in chapter 33 of Deuteronomy. The first part of verse 27 goes like this (ESV):

The eternal God is your dwelling place,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.

The famous American hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” was published in 1887, and was composed by two Presbyterian men, namely Anthony J. Showalter and Elisha Hoffman. It was Showalter who received the initial inspiration, writing the refrain and the melody, reportedly after reaching for the above scriptural verse to console two former students of his who had both recently lost their wives. He then asked Hoffman—a prodigious hymn-writer credited with over 2000 religious songs—if he could come up with lyrics for the verses. Naturally he could.

In looking into the history of this song, I found the text of an old book online, written by one J.H. Hall, filled with short biographies of various composers of gospel songs. It includes this passage on Elisha Hoffman:

Mr. Hoffman’s first impressions of music came from hearing the voice of sacred song in the home. His parents both had sweet voices and sang well. It was their custom, in the hour of family worship, both morning and evening, to sing one or two hymns. The children early became familiar with these hymns and learned to love them and to feel their hallowing and refining power. Their lives were marvellously influenced by this little service of song in the home. A taste for sacred music was created and developed, and song became as natural a function of the soul as breathing was a function of the body.

As natural a function of the soul as breathing is of the body: What an inspired way of thinking about the singing of these kinds of songs. It immediately reminded me of the quote highlighted in this space last week from Abraham Joshua Heschel, where he says of losing oneself to prayerful music that: “it is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.” Continue reading Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

The Cinch Review

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey reviewI’d avoided this much-talked-about joint British ITV/American PBS Masterpiece Theatre television series until last night, when special circumstances conspired to compel me to view it (i.e. my better half wanted to watch it). I fully understood that the show was basically a soap opera for people who are too good to watch soap operas. And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se.

Last night’s episode (Season 3, Episode 2) had multiple plot-lines promising turbulent events. A young woman was due to marry an older man with a disability, to the disapproval of some. A middle-aged servant woman in the Downton Abbey edifice was awaiting test results that might confirm that she had cancer. Meanwhile, there was much angst circulating roundabout due to the fact that money was running out to keep the gigantic household running, and the family might soon have to move from their palatial Downton Abbey structure (which appears to have about 500 bedrooms) to another site that was merely a huge mansion (containing probably only about 50 bedrooms). This would also require laying off some of the army of household servants. Continue reading Downton Abbey

The Cinch Review

David Bowie: “Where Are We Now?”

Review of Where Are We Now by David BowieThe new David Bowie song, “Where Are We Now?” (embedded via YouTube below) has been generating a frenzy of attention, given it’s his first record in ten years and many thought he’d never put out another one. (He’s 66 years-old, which somehow sounds so old for David Bowie, while, by contrast, I think 71 sounds just right for Bob Dylan.) I like some of Bowie’s stuff over the years, but am not a rabid devotee, so the mere appearance of the new song didn’t knock me off my chair. But I happen to think it is quite good and quite lovely: an impressionistic, bittersweet reflection on aging, evoking sadness at things lost, and a poignant longing to hold on. And maybe some other things. Bowie is nothing if not good at leaving space for the listener to paint his or her own picture, and that’s so even in this case where the things he’s singing about are quite personal and specific to him. Continue reading David Bowie: “Where Are We Now?”

The Cinch Review

Public Health Advisory

Yours truly usually chooses not to participate in flu epidemics, but it seems possible I may have been drafted into the one currently sweeping the country. At any rate I’ve been experiencing a variety of the associated symptoms for some days.

The most annoying is probably the persistent cough. Perhaps no medications have been purchased at such cost, for so long, and with such futility as those labeled as “cough suppressants.” They seem pretty good at producing a variety of effects, but rarely much in the way of cough suppression.

Most people would already know that honey is good for a cough, but some may not know that studies have shown (see NIH and Mayo Clinic) that simply imbibing a teaspoon or two of the pure stuff seems to work as well and better than common cough medicines, and I would attest to the truth of that. Especially at night, when you’re not going to be drinking anything else, swallowing some and letting it coat your throat and lay there seems to have definite soothing effect on the coughing demon. Continue reading Public Health Advisory

The Cinch Review

Music as prayer (featuring Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harry Secombe)

Gosh, is it time for another Heschel-related post already? It seems no one can stop me, so the answer is yes. I’ve been reading yet another of his great books, this one titled Man’s Quest For God. It is in major part a reflection on the way in which human beings reach out for God through prayer. I suppose that it easily qualifies as the most moving book on prayer I’ve read. It includes reflections on, among other things, the power and nature of words themselves, and the special nature of scriptural and liturgical words.

The paragraph I’m pulling out here, however, is in reference to that special quality of music to express that which cannot be said with words alone.

In no other act does man experience so often the disparity between the desire for expression and the means of expression as in prayer. The inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to give oneself up to music, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach. Such abandonment is no escape nor an act of being unfaithful to the mind. For the world of unutterable meanings is the nursery of the soul, the cradle of all our ideas. It is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.

Naturally, I love everything about what he says and how he says it there, but consider that last sentence in particular. To give oneself up to prayer in the form of music, Heschel says, “is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.” What a wonderful way to meditate upon our origin: this idea that we have come from that same place from which music comes, and the thought that music is ultimately our true language.

People have always sought and found glimpses of the transcendent in music; this surely dates from the moment in which the first human being sang. (And certainly people have been annoyed by music since the time that the first human stomped on the floor to tell his downstairs’ neighbor to turn it down.) We might look around the world sometimes and wonder if the scientific reductionists have it right, if human beings really have no special purpose in any transcendent order, but are merely freaks of nature—nothing more than chipmunks with swollen brain cavities. But how many chipmunks (other than Alvin, maybe) sing like Ella Fitzgerald, or even like your mother or grandmother used to in the kitchen? We credit birds with song, and whales, and frogs, and the sounds they make are wonders of creation, but we humans seem to be pursuing melody and harmony on a very different level. And even if we don’t make music ourselves, we cannot resist listening to it (I deeply pity the rare soul who just never listens to music).

Yours truly spent some years without any easily definable or shall-we-say-biblical beliefs, but never shook off a belief in a God at the bottom of it all, and there’s no question that a love of music was the major reason for that. And it was purely popular music which I listened to during those years, and indeed that remains the form of music I’m happy to listen to most, hour for hour (albeit that some of it stretches the definition of “popular”). Being able to detect some shred of the transcendent in a song and performance which brought tears to my eyes for reasons that were ultimately inexpressible kept me in mind of the fact that there was, after all, a transcendence out there. Many are happy enough to concede the reality of an impersonal transcendence, but to me at least it’s always felt very personal in those moments, shot through with mercy and with hope. Continue reading Music as prayer (featuring Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harry Secombe)