Fairy tale heroines

This is a mini-essay about traditional fairy tales with strong female lead characters. While fairy tales are sometimes seen as archetypical stories of active men winning passive women through trials, there are also stories where the protagonist is female. I list a number of folk tales like Lurvehette, Herremannsbruden, Manndattera og kjerringdattera and Prinsessa som gikk til jordas hjerte as well as translated ones like the Chezck Salt framom alt.

(Thu, 12 Dec 2019 16:52:25 -0800). ->>

Hiroshima, August 6th 2018

73 years after the bomb fell, I attended the Hiroshima memorial ceremony event on August 6th, 2018.

Thousands of Japanese and foreigners gather in the peace park "to console the souls of the victims, and to pray for peace". Hundreds of volunteers guide them along - scouts and children handing out flowers and programmes, crane origami papers and instructions, men and women holding ropes and signs for crowd guidance. A warm and sunny summer day in southern Japan also requires volunteers handing out cups of free cold water and (very welcome indeed!) small rolls of white, wet, frozen cloths for cooling. Of course queuing and standing must be expected. The crowds endured the heat and the evocations of the terrible event by the speakers with solemn patience, all uncovering their heads praying with eyes closed at 8:15.

Being an obvious foreigner, I was also given an invitation to an event where hibakusha - survivors - would share stories in English. Of course the still living survivors were rather young - one of them just an unborn child - all those years ago. Yet three people shared both family- and personal memories. One of them even told us she did so for the very first time.

I have never before really understood what a hard work it is to keep the stories of August 6th 1945 alive. Re-telling those traumas is of course a heavy emotional labour for the hibakusha themselves. I believe it also takes its toll on everyone. Even though the city and the people of Hiroshima have turned the past into a beautiful and precisely choreographed ceremony, it’s still a choice to keep evoking those memories. Choosing to show the world those invisible and painful scars - year after year. Current school- and university students also shoulder some of this work by listening to the hibakusha and attempting to capture and transmit their memories in art, theatre and animation.

What, then, has been the significance of this continuous effort?

During those 73 years, the world has not exactly been a peaceful place. We’ve had cold wars and hot wars, and we’ve been shockingly close to real atomic wars breaking out - either due to political tensions like the Cuban missile crisis, or even due to errors, misunderstandings, and testing gone dangerously wrong. At times of extreme risk, leaders have luckily shown restraint and made the right decisions - so far..

All considered, I believe we owe the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than we can possibly imagine. If they had hid their scars, stayed silent and moved on with their lives - we would all have a much poorer impression of the impact of a nuclear war. Without that impression, would our leaders have shown the same restraint? I believe not. I do believe the survivors of Hiroshima have already saved humanity from annihilation several times, through their brave testimonials and peace campaigns.

I do have a wish though. There have been many wars - thankfully not with nuclear hellscapes, but nevertheless wars that scarred and traumatised a lot of people during those years. What if the hibakusha of Hiroshima decided to teach the world yet another lession by inviting other war-survivors to pick up the torch of peace? What an amazing power it would have to see a hibakusha share a stage and a story with a survivor from Pearl Harbour! Or a survivor from Nanking, or the Korean and Vietnam wars! Hiroshima - with its special place in the world’s consciousness - could be a place where former enemies could share their insights into their own pain and history. Call it something like the "Hiroshima global scars initiative".

Maybe this sort of work has been done already. If so, pardon my ignorance. And thank you, hibakusha and the people of Hiroshima, for the work you’ve already done for humanity and the planet. I promise to remember what you told me on August 6th 2018.

(Tue, 07 Aug 2018 08:15:01 -0700). ->>

Frozen song - Zero Visibility 10/25 2017

The piece Frozen songs is inspired by the Svalbard seed vault, choreographed by Ina Christel Johannesen for Zero Visibility corp.

On my way to the performance, I crossed the grey concrete surrounding Dansens hus, Oslo, and re-emerged after one hour 45 minutes of new impressions, with mixed feelings and a bag of seeds. The seeds made me even more aware of how sterile and free of vegetation the concrete streets in the Vulkan area are..

The first thing that struck me when the performance started, was that I'm somewhat tired of the "contemporary dance gaze", when the performers try to pretend they are not communicating while doing a duet. In the piece there was lots of great work on flow and teamwork and responses, but a lot of it was presented with that detatched gaze.. Maybe I noticed now since I haven't watched contemporary for a while, maybe it's habitual - but tonight it seemed artificial.

I also noticed another of my old hobby horses, regarding tasks men and women get on stage. Can't women lift men a bit too? We saw a long quartet sequence for Pia Elton Hammer and three men, where they were constantly accomodating her. Great flow and precision, but..

Seeds are great symbols of hope, and the seed bank itself is renowned for international collaboration. With that starting point in mind, I found the performance's atmosphere unexpectedly dark. Eco-pessimism? But then again, it can be seen as a rather pessimistic thing to do to build a seed vault.. I can think of some paradoxes the choreographer didn't appear to explore: does it really make sense to lock these seeds in an a place where they can't possibly grow? Isn't it a bit selfish to save mostly species humans need? And why Svalbard - is it for geopolitical reasons, the Kingdom of Norway simply needs to sustain enough activity there to ensure the Russians don't claim the islands?

(Wed, 25 Oct 2017 17:27:11 -0700). ->>

By lake Mjøsa, July 2015

Soft rain draws circles on lake Mjøsa, no fishes jumping.
Thirty years ago they were. The new normal,
our accustomed poverty

When Alf sang of Mjøsa, fireflies flashed like city lights,
this evening's darkness a witness of
July's lush deception

Ecological impoverishment is invisible, camouflaged poverty.
Culture takes nature for granted, with
short-term memory

(Thu, 16 Jul 2015 14:25:42 -0700). ->>

Thoughts on Harris-Chomsky emails

So, I haven't really read anything by Noam Chomsky nor by Sam Harris, but it was fascinating to read through their recent email exchange http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-limits-of-discourse . Two clever men, obviously well regarded American intellectuals, and yet they fail to really understand their differences..

Like half of the Internet, I hereby step in with my interpretations..

«Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story» - Sam Harris

«As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general...benign intentions are virtually always professed» - Noam Chomsky

These quotes are definitely close to the core assumptions of their disagreement. Fundamentally, it looks like another battle in that old discourse between consequentialism (judge actions by their consequences) and virtue ethics – with Chomsky being the consequentialist and Harris the virtue ethicist. For example, the former argues that through Bill Clinton's authorization of the 1998 bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan, the Clinton administration is guilty of the deaths of thousands of Somalis that were deprived of access to medicine, while the latter argues (as far as I can tell) that it was a justified decision because the intention was to prevent the possible development of chemical weapons. (And Somalia definitely has groups you don't want to see in possession of chemical weapons..)

Chomsky cites the short duration between the bombing of the U. S. Embassy in Somalia and the Al-Shifa attack as proof that it was simply an act of revenge. I think this somehow is a surprisingly naïve view of how decisions are made. I assume it was more an act of opportunism – most likely, the government intelligence bureaucrats have lists of perceived «threats» in various countries. Some intelligence (which we do not know anything about) had placed Al-Shifa on this list, and when the embassy was bombed, when media and congress attention was directed towards Somalia with sufficient anger and turmoil, the administration sensed an opportunity, got backing in congress, and went on to destroy one of their high priority targets..

I do agree with Harris that intentions have some weight and that it's a good sign of progress that U.S. politicians and the electorate generally are ashamed of old cruelty.

However, the way Harris presents these signs of progress he seems to conclude that we've reached a sort of «peak empathy», that because we (and by «we» I now mean the Western democracies and their electorates) are better than we used to, we are now perfect:

«As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents.» - Sam Harris

I think that's the core assumption Chomsky is ineffectively trying to dismantle, and the failure is not really surprising – Chomsky's own emotions get in the way, he substitutes forcefulness for explanation.

But Harris's statement may be telling only half of the story. The other half: exactly because we don't tolerate violence against innocents we nowadays prefer to look away when it is done in our name or by our allies. We don't really want to know.

A question Harris and those who share his world view might want to ponder: If we have reached a peak point of ethical perfection, why wasn't the Al-Shifa bombing preceded by a thorough analysis of the humanitarian consequences? Why isn't such an analysis already routine every time we consider using military violence, complete with a list of actions that can be taken to lessen the humanitarian impact?

Finally, there's some fine irony in the fact that the way Chomsky thinks contributes to keeping the U.S. a global superpower. I'm pretty sure that the American president when dealing with other countries must keep dissecting their public statements and try to uncover their real intentions and study the consequences of their actions and inactions. If past presidents thought like Sam Harris, focusing on intentions and statements, the U.S. would presumably be a less powerful country.

(Mon, 01 Jun 2015 14:52:35 -0700). ->>

Learning to read: a problem of rhythm?

Recently I've spent some time trying to help children learn to read, working with children at various stages of fluency. It strikes me that an important part of the process of learning to read is learning to «tokenize» or divide a written word into syllables.

This problem depends on a given language's phonetics – but is also a function of how our roman alphabet works. In for example the Japanese Hiragana alphabet, each letter is a syllable. The alphabet starts A, I, U, E, O, KA, KI, KU, KE, KO etc. The division into syllables is thus built into the spelling, being a property of the alphabet itself. It's quite common for a Japanese child to be able to read simple texts before 1st grade – maybe because syllables and phrasing isn't a problem to overcome when learning to read like it is in a Norwegian or English text?

Understanding syllables depends on a knowledge of the language – but perhaps it also is partly a function of musicality, of phrasing. Might knowledge and practise of music help children learn to read?

(I've just seen «The King's Speech» again – I recall the scene where Lionel says «Sing it!» to help King George VI express himself.)

Around a century ago, learning poetry by heart and reading it out loud was a well integrated activity in school curricula. (It still is in Iceland, as well as still being practised in the Suttung movement). It strikes me that this is a way to practise closely the rhythm and phrasing of language. Maybe it helped pupils learn to read? It would be really interesting to see research on whether performing spoken poetry and/or practising music has an impact on the fluency of reading.

Drawing: Gerald Hoffnung

(Thu, 25 Dec 2014 21:13:28 -0800). ->>

DV8: John (preview)

Seen at Dansens hus, Oslo, June 2014 (I also did a class/workshop with the company)

On leaving this performance, I caught myself wondering why I had not changed. Maybe I didn't feel any change yet because I was being too impatient, expecting to be challenged and sort of mentally re-engineered with immediate impact?

The very question said something about my high expectations of Lloyd Newson's and DV8's work. Some of his pieces have indeed changed my thinking. Watching "John", I kept thinking it was good, solid quality work, awesome set, strong performers, dramatic stories - and yet I was watching it as if from the outside, not really feeling touched, not sensing dilemmas to think about or be challenged by.

DV8's method for the last few years is described as "verbatim" - they build on research and interviews, and use real-life stories and quotes extensively as part of the performance. The texts are often illustrated or interpreted by movement - somewhere between physical theatre and dance. This whole approach means they must consider their "responsibility to portray" (their phrase, used during workshop - I love it!) and consider how their sources want to be used. It requires a very high level of trust from their sources, and it's amazing that they have been able to keep using this method for so many years and pieces.

For "John", they interviewed more than 50 men for a piece about "masculinity" or "men's place in society". One of them is the performance's main character, a person with a lot of "baggage" - crime, drugs, sentences. We hear his story, in his words, and it's a dramatic and strong one. Yet I feel like his problems remain his problems and have nothing to do with "Masculinity" or me as a male, I'm merely peeping into a 75 minute representation of a particularly troubled life.

The performance in Oslo was labelled a "preview" - seems Lloyd himself didn't consider the piece really finished. Certainly, the memories or impressions might still change me. But here are some of the possible reasons I felt like a neutral observer:

It's still a well-crafted piece full of interesting moments, so if I'm slightly disappointed it may simply be mostly due to oversized expectations.

(Sat, 07 Jun 2014 16:59:35 -0700). ->>

Conflicting advice regarding raising children

It's not hard to find advice on how to raise children. In Norway the best known guru might be Jesper Juul these days, but there are many others. The advice is often presented in very normative language with plenty of moral imperative, leaving confused parents feeling inadequate. Especially when the advice is self-contradictive: it's very important to Draw Clear Boundaries and it's very important to Listen To Your Child. (So when your darling crosses the Clear Boundary - are you supposed to Listen or to implement the Consequences?)

Parents (and their Gurus) need however to keep in mind that raising children is not a branch of applied mathematics. In math, all axioms and theories must be consistent. No principles can contradict others. However, while raising children we have to live with conflicting advice - because we're trying to develop several different aspects of a child's character simultaneously. We want to raise self-sufficient, confident, independent yet social and collaborative humans. We want them to be strong, yet kind, empathic and intuitive yet reflective string thinkers. Keep in mind that all children are different, have different strengths and need different guidance, and it's easy to see why we risk missing sight of the children among all the theory.

And that's when we stop practising the principle that in my opinion should trump all others: seeing the child, observing the reactions to what you say and do. If you are able to adjust your practise depending on reactions, I believe it's not all that important what grand theories of upbringing you start from.

(Sun, 31 Mar 2013 08:42:17 -0700). ->>