Monday, March 23, 2009

Storytelling by others is powerful source of self-knowledge

Such is the conclusion of some research reported in e!Science News. The focus of the research is on how good a predictor other people's experiences might be upon our own decisions affecting future happiness. The money quote that reinforces the importance of storytelling is:
"People do not realize what a powerful source of information another person's experience can be," says Gilbert, "because they mistakenly believe that everyone is remarkably different from everyone else. But the fact is that an alien who knew all the likes and dislikes of a single human being would know a great deal about the species. People believe that the best way to predict how happy they will be in the future is to know what their future holds, but what they should really want to know is how happy those who've been to the future actually turned out to be."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Truman Capote

On our Spring break travels through southern Alabama, we stopped in Monroeville, hometown to Harper Lee and Truman Capote.

Capote was never on my radar screen as a child. I might have come across the name in the last couple of years of high-school but really my first awareness probably only occurred in college and then only as some vestigial writer whom some friend recommended that I eventually some day ought to read. Years later, I came across a number of references to Capote's seminal In Cold Blood and I had that book parked on my mental check-list as I periodically scan local used book stores but I had never come across it in passively looking over the past couple of years.

In Monroeville you can of course find just about anything by and about either Lee or Capote. In the court house bookstore I picked up both In Cold Blood as well as a collection, The Complete Stories of Truman Capote.

Having just finished In Cold Blood I can vouch for it being well worth reading and probably particularly attractive to young adults (15-18) interested in crime, mystery, true crime, and the nature of good and evil. Styled as a literary work of non-fiction, the story itself is fascinating but you can see the marks of a fine writer all over the tale.

Describing the bleakness and loneliness of a prairie winter:
A month passed, and another, and it snowed some part of almost every day. Snow whitened the wheat-tawny countryside, heaped the streets of the town, hushed them.

And the closing lines of this sad, tragic story:
Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.


For Spring Break, we drove down to Dauphin Island at the head of Mobile Bay in Alabama. I love these back roads excursions. I love being surprised by things I did not know or which I did not comprehend.

On the way down we passed through Mobile and stopped for groceries. I knew of course that the city existed; knew of its historical significance vis-a-vis the naval battle for Mobile and Admiral Farragut's "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead."

What I did not comprehend was how sizeable the city was, how many beautiful old neighborhods there were, and how big the port was.

On the return from Dauphin Island, we drove back roads through most of southern Alabama, meandering our way up to Monroeville, childhood home of both Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird and of Truman Capote of In Cold Blood among other works.

What a panorama of visual delights. Small towns with all sorts of local and global manufacturing facilities. Fields with the stubble and whispy white remains of King Cotton. Downtown facades so evocative of the rural prosperity following World War I. Old barns and farm out-buildings being slowly reconsumed by mother nature in distant corners of remote fields.

Not all was uniformly cheering of course. There were signs of the downside of the population move away from the country into cities as well. While some small towns clearly have sustained themselves or even found niches of growth and prosperity, others have become anemic and wasted. One small town through which we passed was emblematic of this hollowing out. Of twenty or so downtown 1920's brick one and two story commercial establishments, only a couple were occupied. One lonely commercial hold-out being a branch of an insurance company, the other being some sort of retail jack-of-all-trades. Of the remaining eighteen buildings, a couple were burned out, some were shuttered, cobwebbed and piled with junk and a couple were completely hollowed out - no glass in the windows, no furnishings, interior fittings or even floor or cieling; just the four brick walls. And finally there were a small handful of buildings that looked like someone had turned off the lights, turned the key and left some summer evening in 1963 and had never returned. Signs still in the windows, product around the interior, some retail Mary Celeste waiting for it's crew to return. Eerie, fascinating, heart-wrenching evidence of wasted dreams and hopes.

And then there are the towns like Monroeville - communities still and determined to make the best of the hand dealt them. What a charming little place, anchored on its lovely central court house and on its literary off-spring; Lee and Capote. The court-house is basically a literary museum and an homage to To Kill a Monkingbird with summer theatrical renditions being offered annually. The very essence of a thriving, spirited, small town community.

Having Merlin, our boxer dog, with us, we were of course seeking fairly flexible lunchtime dining arrangements. As an aside, I felt well and truly enmeshed and welcome in small town Alabama, as I was greeted, while walking Merlin around the town square by more than a couple of nods from front porches and park benches and "Fine looking dog you got there."

We found a good traditional greasy spoon on the road out of town with the menu highlights painted on the cinder block walls. Having determined that there was something everyone might enjoy, and having seen an open lot next door where we might picnic and let Merlin stroll, we ordered and moved over to the next lot. There we discovered the foundation brick walls of some old building and then looking roadside read on a brass marker that this was actually the site of Truman Capote's childhood home with the Fauks. So that is how we had lunch, everyone reading, eating, perched in the literary ruins as it were (and of course with Merlin keeping a sharp eye for any falling scraps.)

Quite, Almost Too Quiet

The site that is. A combination of Spring Break for the children and a major technology push which I hope to announce in a couple or three weeks are the root causes. The kids are back in school this week, the technology project is in technical review and I am back in the saddle. Back to our our regularly scheduled broadcasts.