The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

I wish I could remember the words I had to describe this museum when I visited it last Sunday. Of course, I’m not the first person to write about it.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—basically a work of art in itself—houses hundreds of paintings and thousands of objects ranging from Italian to Spanish, Chinese to French, medieval to Moorish. But instead of mounting them on stark walls of white, informational placards by their sides, Mrs. Gardner’s philosophy was that of total immersion in what art actually is, not about where it came from, nor about what historical or artistic category it belongs to. Rather, her mission was to spark visitors’ curiosity—to give them the courage to see art as living and breathing, not frozen in time. In keeping with that mission, art is placed throughout the museum’s rooms as though an enigmatic but familiar friend were still living there. Every bookshelf, cabinet, letter, textile, sculpture, dining table, desk, and tapestry is preserved with immaculate precision—the colors so nuanced, granulated, and fresh—that I felt like I’d entered a nineteenth century palace. One chair in particular (I will never forget this chair) moved me to tears. I had no idea art could be so beautiful. Of course, if a single chair could have that effect on me when cast in this creative light, I can’t even fathom what the museum’s missing Rembrandts or Vermeers—lost during the famous 1990 heist just 16 days after I was born—could do.


El Jaleo, by John Singer Sargent

The experience of being in the Gardner Museum was the first time I’d ever felt like I truly understood what visual art is for. I know that sounds strange—of course art is art; it’s beautiful. We look at it for the same reasons we listen to a piece of music or feast on a delicious meal. Before last Sunday, though, rarely would a work of visual art stay with me for too long after I’d seen it. Yes, I was content exploring galleries and cultivating personal tastes. But the effect was never as personal as it was on Sunday. When you enter the Gardner Museum, you step into a dynamic story. You see Isabella’s private Chinese room, once shut off to the public, where she went to be alone. You see hundreds of old books read by actual people and portraits painted by John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Gardner’s close friend. You walk into a ballroom filled with painstakingly crafted tapestries and lovely grand piano, only to turn to the right and see a balcony where you can peer into the courtyard below.  You feel as though every object is to be studied, deciphered, seen from every angle and approached with attention to every detail. And at the same time, the point is to see art—even something as domestic as a chair—through one’s own eyes, and to apply what you know of life to it. It was like I’d been presented with a colorized version of an old black-and-white photograph; suddenly, I understood that art is real. That the most ordinary things in our lives are still-life frames. That people are portraits, and they blink or smile or sneeze or stare while the artist is working. That a painting interacts with people, that we experience it as a wordless story engaging with the patterns of our own lives, that it looks upon our items and our items become the painting, that life is a series of frames. That everything—including this musuem—is dictated by choices, and by context. And that context yields freedom.

At once, you see the immediacy of a chair and the timelessness of a pose. You think, “this is what it’s like to be a member of the human race.” Being in this museum, then, presented me with a challenge: I wanted to carry that feeling with me. I wanted to lend and receive ideas in my own life with the same intensity, the same authenticity. It’s not every day that I’ll experience something like a cool museum, but going there made me realize some pretty exciting things about life and how we understand culture. All of the people depicted in the works Mrs. Gardner amassed (including Mrs. Gardner herself) contributed something, and they are represented now by their relationship to us. Their lives are still frames that make our own lenses wider.

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Eavesdropping on a Life

One of my weekend pastimes involves sitting at my desk and—while doing work—looking out my apartment window in the direction of the house next door, where a couple of ambiguous ethnicity and their child of ambiguous gender reside.

I don’t peer in their windows or anything, aside from when I can see activity near the edge of the dining table, or light streaming from the television at night. Most of the time, if my gaze tends toward their house, it’s because they’re ambling through the front yard or standing idly on the porch. Some might call this behavior creepy; others might call it mere observation. My understanding of it is somewhere in between: I’m not weird about my “people watching” by any means, but I certainly think about my neighbors a lot—particularly if I’m at my desk for an extended period of time.

And how could I not? I live in an apartment building; I don’t regularly get to feel the rhythm and rest of a house. I don’t often chance to enjoy a home’s stately presence, the tempo of its doors or the imagined sounds of its aging. Seeing one or both of the parents drive off to work every morning, watching their child gambol across the lawn… these things are a source of comfort.

I remember one rainy evening, probably within the first few months of my being in Boston, I came home after a rough day and looked out the window. The father was holding his child on the covered porch and they were looking out at the rain together. And I started to sob. There I was, watching this perfect moment that the toddler would never remember and that the father would soon forget. In the process, I was claiming this memory as my own, adopting it as part of my life’s quotidian heritage. And in effect, I was also taking responsibility; I was choosing to remember this moment for them, since it was likely that no one else would.

If I introduce myself to them someday, I probably won’t share this memory with them. It’s mine now, and means something different to me than it does to them. Still, it seems an important thing, this cataloguing of other people’s moments—I think the art of paying attention requires us to take in such scenes as though they were our own… and to know, simultaneously, that they are not really ours.


Photo Credit: dgblitwin / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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The Importance of Technique… and of Not Being Good

One of pressures the working world puts on us is the desire to be right, or to be knowledgeable about all things, all of the time. We purport to know exactly what we’re doing—to have convictions and to feel like our opinions are immovable. To know the best path forward. We come with our arms shackled to our identities, as though the only way to be good at something is to pretend we haven’t stumbled along the way. It’s a shield that makes improvement very difficult—and it causes our work to suffer.

What if we looked at our work as something more fluid? Something that births us anew, unhinging us from our past selves? There’d be no clutter at the start, and hardly any anxiety about whether or not the finished product will live up to our hard-and-fast concept of ourselves. We wouldn’t have to be “good” all of the time… we’d just have to be

With that attitude comes some humility, I think. It takes a strong person to realize that she can learn new skills, and that she can consider technique (in the name of quality) as a force outside of herself—a force that she must hone without being emotional about any personal triggers that come up because of it. I’ve been thinking about this because it applies not only to writing, but to yoga, to my clarinet playing, to dance, to art, and even to life. Technical practice in any creative endeavor is essential for everyone—not just beginners—because it establishes self-control and it helps us acknowledge the impossibility of perfection. Moreover, it enables us to banish what we once were in favor of what we can be… without any drama attached to the process. 

Is being a creative person evolutionarily advantageous, then? I would think so, but maybe not for the reasons this article suggests. I’d be inclined to guess that musicality or expressivity are desired traits because a person who is able to see herself as being in constant flux—and who experiences that flux through the necessary detachment that comes with learning an art (already laden with emotions)—is more capable of evolving throughout her life and bettering herself. She’s not afraid to let go of unproductive ways of seeing, and her memory is no longer anchored to unhelpful mantras. She’s willing to stay true to herself and simultaneously add on new layers of thought and being. With that mindset, we don’t have to be good. We just have to be ever-ready to fling ourselves at opportunities for growth.


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When You Get Stuck

Sometimes when I get stuck, the easiest step to take is the most obvious.

So since I have no idea what to write about, I’ll write a super-short essay on… writing. Here we go.

I’ve come to realize something. I don’t want to forget my love of words, how they combine to form modified samplings of jumbled synapses. I don’t want to forget how my heart and mind feel—elated, energetic—when words shake themselves out of my skin and onto the keyboard. I don’t want to forget the way my thoughts merge and mingle with my laptop’s irregular rhythms—how the physical act of typing is somehow communicated in the telling. I don’t want to forget that the point of it all, anyway, is to transmit an experience; the feeling of writing (the spontaneity of it, the thoughtfulness of it, the persistence of it) is embedded in phrases and paragraphs. It’s beaten into the woodwork of the piece. I don’t want to forget the sanctity of this ancient profession. If I could hold a quill in my hand, or find a typewriter to pound on, I would. I want my words to change people—but that happens only because they’ve changed me.


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How I Feel About Neil DeGrasse Tyson


My colleague at work told me I had a “really honest moment” the other day. It occurred at the lunch table.

We were discussing Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s upcoming Cosmos program, the 13-part remake of and homage to Carl Sagan’s series of the same name. I expressed that I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole Cosmos thing; why can’t we all just be in awe at the universe but not make such a big deal of it on television? I worried that it would feel hackneyed, forced, too cinematic—as though stars and galaxies were something to be staged and not taken for what they truly are. I didn’t want to see things that I found beautiful robbed of the grandeur that is their barest form. Please don’t draw attention to the way I think about this world, I privately asked of Tyson. Please don’t be emotional in the same way I am. Please don’t reveal me too much.

I said something to this effect at the lunch table. “Here’s what I think it is,” I said. “I’m uncomfortable with Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s intensity because I recognize it as my own.” By extension, I thought in my head: “And I am not capable of being as gregarious and forthcoming about the universe as he is.” I even flinch internally as I type the words “the universe.” Who am I to be so unabashedly poetic? I haven’t made a name for myself like he has. If I were to just walk up to a friend and exclaim delight over some magnificent aspect of life, or speak to near-strangers about the things I like in the same way that Tyson does… wouldn’t that be a disruption of some societal order? We typically see authority figures as the ones soldiering on, leading people to knowledge and truth—not young women in their 20s fresh out of liberal arts college. The field of astrophysics champions Tyson as its hero, and so must I.

But then he opens his mouth. And the words, the sentences, everything spilling forth from him is familiar to me. He knows the facts better than I do, but is there any reason to believe that he knows the rhyme or reason better, too? Is there any reason to believe that I, too, don’t already know everything he’s saying? When science presents new knowledge to me, I feel it rising from my gut, not from outside of me. I feel it echoing something I already know—something that has already been there and is now mine for the taking. The same goes for Tyson’s words. I grow indignant as he rollicks on, without a care in the world to my seething. “Why do you condescend?” I ask. “My vocabulary may not be top notch, but still, in this language I am fluent!”

I think this is part of Tyson’s genius. We are all afraid of people who show us for who we truly are. But when they arrive, you are automatically granted a kind of sacred permission. A permission that says: “Listen. We are all just a bunch of neurons and cells, firing in different connections and producing different patterns. Because there are so many of us, there’s bound to be some overlap. Embrace it. Take what you see in me and give me your own version, your own life. I am not ‘special’ or ‘talented’ for my ability to be real with you. You can do it, too.”

I didn’t like when Tyson expressed himself in a certain way because the sentiment reminded me too much of myself. In a very real way, Tyson—and basically everyone who has ever explained an idea or a feeling or a concept to someone—isn’t just a teacher. He’s an enabler. He allows people to see their own enthusiasm as warranted, valid, and deserving of attention. And through the power of similarity, he shows people that “saying it like you really mean it” doesn’t require a Ph. D.

Photo Credit: Greyhawk68/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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The Best Explanation of Why People Like Physics That I Have Ever Heard


What are all these equations doing for us, anyway? Photo Courtesy Fermilab.

What’s so intriguing about arrows, circles, time, space, geometry, minutes, seconds, years? It could be that we empathize with these ideas, and the words trigger much more than their strict definitions.

In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, psychologist Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth University and her team scanned the brains of 15 adults as they judged and interpreted distances in space and time. One of my favorite science writers, Virginia Hughes, wrote about the study recently for her blog, Only Human. She explains that the concept of distance gets cooked up in the right inferior parietal lobule. No matter the kind of distance—far, near, social, temporal, spatial—activity is concentrated in that region.

According to cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, the study might suggest that in our daily lives, we repeatedly recycle spatial representations to accommodate other aspects of ourselves and our worldview. Hughes writes:

Boroditsky has published some fascinating studies about language metaphors, showing, for example, that the way people talk about time matches the way they think about it.

These sorts of studies, she adds, might explain why humans can “[go] far beyond those things observable through physical experience to invent sophisticated notions of number and time, theorize about atoms and invisible forces, and worry about love, justice, ideas, goals, and principles.”

I haven’t read anything else that so eloquently and forthrightly identifies the way I understand my interest in physics and physical concepts—and the way I suspect other people see theirs, as well. Even though this part of the research is still speculation, I love the message it sends: studying space or time isn’t just about acquiring more information about the universe—it’s also about getting familiar with our own minds, molding our spatial acuity to conform to or transcend our social experiences, becoming more sophisticated in the way we talk about our bodies and brains being things that walk around and do stuff. That might sound really abstract… and it is. But it’s also an important speculation that I believe deserves attention.

Why? Because we need to understand ourselves not only in relation to each other, but in relation to ourselves. Counter to what one might think, seeing ourselves as people whose minds are located in our heads… but wait, where are they, anyway? Our memory is a large vault of information and ideas, and we’re constantly scrutinizing, worrying, hypothesizing, confirmation, relating, connecting. Physics and the study of movement in general — whether through dance, athletics, math, music, or anything that hinges on underlying patterns and formulae — can help us breathe through our minds, trace lines of thought, hear the trajectory of an idea as we begin to express it, and feel the enormity of both the small and the large. With help from physical understanding, we can better put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, plan for the future and still live in it, and identify with natural processes as well as that older, more mature version ourselves [Nautilus] we try to see in the mirror.  The equations give us those visceral cues, which in turn, help us navigate paths and bridge boundaries on a day-to-day basis. And so with that in mind, physics is something worth studying and living for.

Some more references on psychological distance here, here, and here.

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Why Scientists Need to Embrace Culture


“Even the most profound scientific knowledge won’t solve world problems such as hunger, poverty and environmental damage if we fail to respect, understand and engage cultural differences,” writes David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, for Scientific American. He’s right, and it’s a doctrine I’ve long stood by: There is no fundamental barrier between science, art, the social sciences, and the humanities so long as we acknowledge that culture itself dictates and discerns what is important to us. Scientists must also pay attention to the rest of the liberal arts in order to understand patterns and how ideas cement themselves to a people, or how myths form amongst members of a particular subset of society. Skorton writes:

The resistance to vaccine use is a prime example. The supposed link between autism and common childhood vaccines was based on fraudulent research published in the British journal The Lancet in 1998. After the fraud was uncovered the lead author was stripped of his medical license and the article was retracted. Subsequent investigations by the Department of Health in the U.K. and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in the U.S. as well as a definitive study published in the August 2013 issue of The Journal of Pediatrics have all debunked the vaccine–autism link. Yet the percentage of parents who delay or forgo immunization of their children has increased alarmingly in recent years and, partly as a result, measles, mumps and whooping cough are making a comeback.

Scientists should also study what knowledge has historically been important to people, and what hasn’t—not in an attempt to “please the public,” but in order to gauge attitudes ahead of time, and figure out the best way to reach the innumerable types of non-scientists out there who have varying degrees of understanding when it comes to the significance or ethical implications of current research. As Skorton writes:

Scientists need not only to explain much more clearly and compellingly what we are doing but also to establish on social, cultural and emotional levels why our work is important. We need to respect cultural differences that lead to misunderstanding and even fear of science.

This is why big data in the humanities seems to me a fruitful field of research, when done properly (Google’s unceremonious decision to leave out all of classical music in its Music Timeline felt like a cop-out). With more information about the way people think (and what about), we can begin to do something about this false divide between science and other lenses through which to see the world.

Photo Credit: F. d. W. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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