Aug. 29, 2008

A Certain Swirl

by Mary Ruefle

      The classroom was dark, all the desks were empty,
and the sentence on the board was frightened to
find itself alone. The sentence wanted someone to
read it, the sentence thought it was a fine sentence, a
noble, thorough sentence, perhaps a sentence of
some importance, made of chalk dust, yes, but a sen-
tence that contained within itself a certain swirl not
unlike the nebulous heart of the unknown universe,
but if no one read it, how could it be sure? Perhaps it
was a dull sentence and that was why everyone had
left the room and turned out the lights. Night came,
and the moon with it. The sentence sat on the board
and shone. It was beautiful to look at, but no one
read it.

"A Certain Swirl" by Mary Ruefle from The Most Of It.© Wave Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of animal scientist and memoirist Temple Grandin, (books by this author) born in Boston (1947). At age two and a half, she was diagnosed with autism, and doctors recommended that her parents put her in an institution. Though she had developed and acted normally for the first six months of her life, she then began to stiffen up when her mother tried to hold and cuddle her. She later wrote, "This withdrawal from touch, so typical of autistic children, was followed in the next years by standard autistic behaviors: my fixation on spinning objects, my preference to be alone, destructive behavior, temper tantrums, inability to speak, sensitivity to sudden noises, appearance of deafness, and my intense interest in odors."

She didn't acquire language skills at the age that toddlers normally do; instead, she would scream and hum when in need of attention. Her parents brought her to speech therapy, and with rigorous treatment, she started speaking at age three and a half. Her parents put her in a normal private school, and for the most part, Grandin recalls that she grew up not realizing that she was different from other children. Then, one day in middle school, a girl called her a "retard" and Grandin flung a textbook at her insulter. The textbook hit the girl in the eye, and Grandin was expelled from school.

Her mother had been doing research for a film script on schools for children with learning disabilities, and she came across a school in New Hampshire that she thought would be good for her daughter. Grandin transferred there and thrived in the compassionate environment. At first, she still had outbreaks of violence, but after her horseback riding privileges were suspended for a week after such an outburst, she began to control her behavior more.

During a summer in high school, she stayed at the ranch of her aunt, fixing things around the place and also just gazing at the cattle. She became fascinated by watching cattle go through the cattle squeeze — a chute with movable panels designed to keep the cow standing in one place, so that the cow could, for example, be easily given a vaccine. Grandin observed that the cows seemed to be much calmer when they were inside the chute. She tried out the cattle squeeze herself, and had her aunt use the different controls to adjust pressure and stimulation. She found being in the squeeze chute extremely pleasurable, surmising that the experience she had inside the cattle squeeze must be similar to the comforting sensation other people received from a hug or other warm human embrace, which she had shunned and felt somewhat repulsed by all her life.

She designed her own human squeeze and used it in college, finding that it calmed her down when she felt anxious. Her parents and some mental health professionals worried about this, and so Grandin designed a psychology experiment in which she tested out the squeeze machine on other college students. She did background research on sensory interaction, and she built another version of the squeeze machine. From the experiment, she found that 25 out of the 40 normal college students tested found the squeeze machine to be pleasurable and relaxing. The squeeze machine that she designed has since been used by occupational therapists in therapy with children who have autism, ADD, and Tourette's syndrome.

After finishing a bachelor's degree, she went to graduate school to pursue psychology studies. In her first year, she also got a part time job operating the cattle chute at a livestock facility and another side job selling the chutes to farmyards. She became increasingly interested in livestock and switched her graduate studies to animal science. She wanted to find a way to see that cattle at feedlots were treated more humanely, all the way up until the moment they were slaughtered. She began writing magazine articles about this and other livestock issues, and became the livestock editor for the Arizona Farmer Ranchman.

In addition to ensuring more humane treatment of livestock, her work has led to reducing disease among livestock and to improved quality of meat coming out of the facilities she's worked with. The systems and methods she has designed affect more than half of North America's cattle.

She's the author of Emergence: Labeled Autistic (1986), Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism (1995), Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (2004), and The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism (2005). When Dustin Hoffman played an autistic man in the 1988 movie Rain Man, Grandin helped him to prepare for that role.

It's the birthday of British philosopher John Locke, (books by this author) born in Wrington, Somerset, England (1632), who is best known for his Two Treatises of Government (1690). In it, he wrote that he believed in Natural Law, and that people have Natural Rights, and that within these Natural Rights, the right of property is most important. He wrote, "... every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself." He also wrote that the role of government was to protect those rights, and he championed revolt against tyranny. His ideas became the foundation for much of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

It's the birthday of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, born in Kansas City, Kansas (1920). He is considered one of the half-dozen greatest jazz musicians, right up there with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Early in his career, he received the nickname of "Yardbird," and he became known as "Bird."

Before Parker, jazz meant swing, melodies played at dance tempos by musicians in big orchestras who never got to take solos for very long. Late at night, after their big band jobs were over, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other black musicians kept on playing, improvising long lines at blazing speed. Parker used a lot of flatted fifths, and jazz players used the word "bebop" to sing a flatted fifth, but Parker didn't like to use the word for the way he played. "Let's not call it bebop," he said. "Let's just call it music."

As a teenager, Parker became addicted to morphine while hospitalized after a car accident. He later became addicted to heroin, which contributed to his death at 34. The official cause was listed as pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer. The coroner made a mistake in estimating Parker's age to be between 50 and 60.

Parker said, "I realized by using the high notes of the chords as a melodic line, and by the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That's when I was born."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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