November 27, 2012


Lucky me. I was invited to a concert at the Mary Irwin Theatre last weekend featuring Romanza, the West Coast's very own "three tenors." These young classically trained tenors entertained us royally with their beautiful voices and engaging personalities. They were having fun, and so were we.

My favourite was Ken Lavigne, of whom one reviewer said, "It only takes a moment for tenor Ken Lavigne to sing a single note, and the whole dreary day has changed." This was certainly true for me; I came to the theatre under a cloud of sadness for various reasons but within a few songs I was smiling and after a few more, laughing out loud.

The trio started with classical arias, love songs in Italian, like "O Sole Mio." But soon they were interspersing it with more lighthearted stuff including an absolutely hilarious costumed (think ridiculous large sombrero, chaps with dark suits peeking out) "Rawhide." They swept us into the intermission with the most glorious version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" you could imagine.

In the second half, Christmas-themed, the highlight for me by far was Elvis's "Blue Christmas" by Lavigne, once again in full costume, looking and sounding like nothing but The King himself, except better. "O Holy Night" and "The Prayer" and other carols rounded out a wonderful, very classy pre-Christmas evening of great singing.  

November 24, 2012

A Beautiful Mind

The three weeks since I last posted is exactly how long it took me to read A Beautiful Mind. I calculated that it has something like 200,000 words, most of them hard. But it's a spellbinding book, divided into 5 main sections and 50 chapters with carefully adhered to and well-thought-out themes, and this made it readable for me. Barely.

Although I'd seen the movie and know the basic story, the biography is grippingly thorough and I basically kept reading to see what would happen next. The whole 20-chapter first section, subtitled "A Beautiful Mind," describes the first 25 or so years of John Nash's life, and the mathematics he did at MIT and Princeton. The next three sections describe his descent into madness and his long sojourn there. And the last section relates his amazing return to rationality.

What surprised me most is that Nash rarely did his homework. His incredible insights came in intuitive flashes, and then he would begin the long process of proving them mathematically, often after relentlessly pestering colleagues for the backgrounds of problems he was working on, rather than studying the literature. This isn't to say he didn't work. He did, constantly - thinking, thinking as he paced the hallways, and calculating for hours, weeks, sometimes years, on a problem that intrigued him, and that he had determined from careful inquiry was important enough to bother with.

Never was such a beautiful mind (one of his colleagues said this about him - "he has a beautiful mind,") encased in such a complex and often downright unpleasant personality. He was competitive, scheming, and petty, and an extreme penny-pincher. Arrogant doesn't begin to describe him. At one point he is quoted as saying something like "There are three true geniuses in mathematics today, me and ___ and ___, and I am probably the best." He would put students and colleagues down mercilessly: "I can't believe you're asking me that! What a stupid question! Don't you know anything?"

This would pretty well disqualify the average person from good society, but Nash's genius was so extreme that he kept on being accepted to a certain extent, although people found his bizarre behaviour highly uncomfortable. Even when his schizophrenia progressed to such an extent that most people were afraid of him, he retained champions who allowed him to hang around Princeton, kept finding funding for him, and tried to get him the best medical care.

I learned a little bit from this book about mathematics (not that there weren't many explanations, I just didn't get them), something about game theory (for which Nash won his Nobel Prize), and a lot about genius and mental illness. A riveting book, researched almost beyond a point I can comprehend, and beautifully written.

November 2, 2012

On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

To say that the author of this strange travel book is misanthropic is an understatement. She is a traveller who would rather stay home, dislikes a lot of what she does and sees, but nevertheless describes it quite beautifully, and the realness is refreshing.

The theme of the book is her attempt to be in a very still place. She describes three trips - one to New Zealand for an author's conference after which she attempts a retreat to a remote corner of the country, but finds mostly other tourists. The second trip is a two-month stay at a cottage in Somerset, England. This is better but her cottage is attached to the Farmer's house and her efforts to be alone are foiled by the Farmer (she capitalizes this and never gives a name) who worries about her. Her third trip is to visit the Sami people in Lapland in the dead of winter. She thinks in the endless darkness she might find the peace and quiet she's looking for.

I'm a lot different character than the author (she likes to stay in, I love to be out, she likes inaction, I like action), but I could deeply relate to some of her feelings. I like being alone too, and I like her definition of it:

Being really alone means being free from anticipation. Even to know that something is going to happen, that I am required to do something, is an intrusion on the emptiness I am after. What I love to see is an empty diary, pages and pages of nothing planned.[This is my dream exactly] A date, an arrangement, is a point in the future when something is required of me. I begin to worry about it days, sometimes weeks ahead.

Diski is very funny, never more so than when she's describing her thoughts, or lack thereof. Although she prefers to stay indoors, she constantly thinks she should be wandering the moors and thinking, as all good authors do. They suggest, she says, that the busyness of their lives and thoughts covers up a profound inner complexity of being which silence and stillness brings into the open. For me, on the other hand, all the complexity of my outerness appears to be covering up is an inherent lack of inner person.

Years ago a friend told me she resented her children because they disrupted her thoughts. I said that never happened to me. She said, "Well, what do you think about when you're peeling potatoes?" I said I didn't know, and later checked it out. I was thinking about peeling potatoes. Diski says she waits for her thoughts to come, but really there was only: what kind of day is it? Rainy? Sunny? Windy? Mmm. The horses are there, or not there. The sheep are near by in an upper field or not to be seen. My body warm or in need of warming. Tea? Hungry?

That made me laugh out loud, as did quite a few other descriptions in this  quirky book. The three sections don't really hang together, and in the end Diski spends a lot of time on the culture of the native Laplanders. What I like is her honesty and humanness that allow me to laugh at this crazy world and at myself and feel OK because I'm not even as introverted as she is.