Charlie Gross is a maverick of modern neuroscience. Never content to tread the straight and worn path, never bridled by accepted views and traditional approaches, Charlie has often veered off the tracks, mapped much new terrain, and repeatedly opened our eyes to new ways of thinking. His scientific contributions are prodigious, transformative, and sometimes—as in his discovery of “face cells” in the cerebral cortex—the stuff of legend.1
Charlie is also deeply loved by the generations of students and colleagues with whom he has worked. We love Charlie for his wit and wisdom; for the passionate joie de vivre that fills his personal and professional spheres; for the devotion he extends to his students, their work, and their lives; for a certain (often bizarre) unaffected goofiness and unpredictability; and for those seemingly stray provocative comments that tilt the frame of your world.
On May 25 and 26, 2013, a great many of Charlie's former and current students, colleagues, and friends assembled in Princeton to honor him, to celebrate his contributions to science and society, and to express our gratitude to a man who has profoundly influenced our careers, our lives, and the way we think. “Charlie Fest” was both scientific symposium and party: We began Saturday with a series of scientific lectures in old Green Hall. This special volume of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience is largely a compendium of those presentations. Saturday evening consisted of a banquet at which Charlie was both praised and gently ridiculed by his students and colleagues. Sunday was appropriately marked by a celebration with traditional pig roast (more about that later) at Charlie's home.
Much has been written about the age in which Charlie worked—five remarkable decades in which the field of neuroscience not only blossomed but resonated with a public eager to understand why we do the things we do—and about his life and contributions. Charlie's autobiography (“Being Charlie Gross”) appears in the Society for Neuroscience-sponsored collection known as The History of Neuroscience ( The engaging story of his Brooklyn youth, his family, and the unique factors that influenced his development as child of Jewish intellectual Communist Party members is told in “Wait: A Memoir of a Red Diaper Baby” (Boulevard, 2009). Charlie's historical impact on the field of neuroscience is also covered in his “Genealogy of the Grandmother Cell” (The Neuroscientist, 2002), “Single neuron studies of the inferior temporal cortex” (Neuropsychologia, 2007), and “Processing the Facial Image: A Brief History” (American Psychologist, 2005). The scientific articles in this special issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience reveal just a hint of the scientific world that Charlie has spawned.
After a brief summary of my connection to Charlie and a sketch of major episodes in his career, to help set the stage, what I aim to do here is convey a sense of the man—that scruffy, shuffling, frenetic, boisterous, seriously intellectual, mischievous, inspired, ardent, radical, bon vivant provocateur. To convey a sense of what he has meant to us through the years and how he has helped make us who we are—not just as neuroscientists but also as people and members of society. At the same time, I can't help but note that these character manifestations of Charlie are precisely the reasons he has deeply impacted the field of neuroscience. Charlie is testament that we do what we are.
I confess at the outset that this is a highly personal account. I have been student, colleague, and friend to Charlie for 35 years. He and I worked and played together intensely during my tenure in Princeton, and the stories that follow are largely derived from that era (the Golden Years, of course). It is naturally impossible for me to convey details of lab dynamics and personalities from the time after my departure. Nonetheless, because I have since remained close to Charlie and have witnessed the constancy of his unique personality, I am certain that those who came after could impart similar sentiments, insights, and stories.
I joined Charlie's lab in 1979 as a graduate student in Princeton's “interdepartmental neuroscience program.” The lab when I arrived was largely male (that would quickly change) and best characterized visually as shaggy hirsute (defying the odds, even for the 1970s; see Figure 2), including, in addition to Charlie, Bob Desimone (having just received a Princeton PhD for his work with Charlie on the inferior temporal [IT] cortex, and very full of himself), Charlie Bruce (a gentle unassuming postdoc from North Carolina), and Ricardo Gattass (an earnest MD postdoc from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro; a sweetheart and a true teddy bear of a man).
Following four years that changed my life and worldview, four years in which I made lifelong friends (Figure 3), many from cultures different from my own narrow upbringing and with captivating stories to tell, four years in which I fell in love and married my first wife, Rina (and fell in love with her native India), four years in which I learned how the brain works and how to do science well, I received in 1983 a Princeton PhD in Psychology and Neuroscience and published a handful of papers describing work from Charlie's lab.
Inertia and complacency are powerful forces, and I banked much energy by staying put to do a postdoctoral project in Charlie's lab. This is not advisable generally and even less so in today's highly competitive science marketplace, but in my case, it was a career bonanza: I was given a unique opportunity to retool Charlie's lab for studies in behaving animals and to carry out a research project (several, actually) of my own design, all with seemingly unlimited financial support, resources, and encouragement provided by Charlie. And so I embarked on another highly productive four years, during which I made many more new friends, traveled the world, ended my marriage, obtained my first grant, and found a job (not unrelated events, I think). In my memory, it seems that I saw little of Charlie during this time, as he had begun to explore China. I embraced the autonomy he bestowed on me, and he enjoyed the freedom. We nonetheless stayed connected, and I regularly updated him on the odd things I was cooking up in the lab.
I often housesat for Charlie during his travels, dwelling with an elusive cat named Mishka, or sometimes with his kids Rowena or Derek, in the modest split-level house on quiet Woodside Lane. Somewhere in this era, Charlie decided to paint the interior of his house, which was a mess, to be frank, and he had the idea that painting it would distract me from my estranged wife. I had painted houses before and knew well the therapeutic power of a new coat of paint, so the idea (and the honorarium Charlie would provide) appealed to me. Charlie and I wandered off to the paint department at Sears in that 1970s New Jersey suburban marketplace monstrosity known as Quakerbridge Mall. We selected a neutral whitish color for most of the walls. I honestly can't recall why today—perhaps it was a relic from his hippie days in California or from his travels in India and China—but Charlie wanted the interior doors painted “kumquat” (that was really the name of the Sears paint color), which was a brash orange with brownish tint that is generally unsuitable for anything in large quantity. If Charlie had taught me anything, he taught me to think outside the box, so I went along with the plan. To add to the problem, however, the existing paint on the interior doors of Charlie's house was high-gloss black. Dark as night; go figure. It took at least three heavy coats of kumquat on both sides of each door to neutralize all that, and I can still picture today the kumquat circus-highlights one encountered at the entrance to Charlie's demure professorial study.
At some point, I began to tire of Princeton. The town is famously small and provincial. Most importantly, although I believe that he would have supported me indefinitely, I needed to be something other than Charlie's student. In the fall of 1986, I obtained a job offer (one I could scarcely refuse) from The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, so I severed the cord and moved west. I have continued to collaborate with Charlie, we remain close, and through the years I have spent many hours exploring the world with him, both literally and figuratively.
After graduation from Harvard, Charlie began his journey in neuroscience as a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge, where he engaged in neuropsychological studies of frontal lobe function under the supervision of Larry Weiskrantz, working in the tradition of Karl Lashley and Karl Pribram. As a postdoc in the 1960s, Charlie trained with Hans-Lukas Teuber in that cradle of modern cognitive neuroscience, the MIT Department of Psychology. After a brief turn as an assistant professor at his beloved Harvard (the nonelective departure from which would haunt Charlie for years), Charlie moved to Princeton, where he remains today. Throughout this period, he made game-changing contributions to our understanding of the neurobiological bases of memory, visual perception and cognition, motor control, and the functional organization of the cerebral cortex, in addition to shedding light on historical events that gave rise to our modern field of neuroscience.
Charlie is perhaps known best for his work on the cellular basis of object recognition, which was inspired early by his introduction to Jerzy Konorski and the concept of the “gnostic unit.” While at MIT, Charlie adopted the powerful neurophysiological techniques developed and promoted by Barlow, Kuffler, Hubel, Wiesel, Mountcastle, and others. Rather than moving up the hierarchy from the sensory periphery, as his contemporaries had done, Charlie inserted his electrodes into the highest stage of visual processing, the IT cortex. One might have thought this as professional suicide, based on the reductionist argument that each processing stage can be understood only in the context of its inputs. But unlike other neurophysiologists of the day, most of whom were classically trained in medicine or physiology, Charlie had a holistic perspective informed by his roots in neuropsychology, from which he understood that one of the most important aspects of perceptual and cognitive experience is object recognition, and recognition is mediated by the temporal neocortex. Charlie's first neurophysiological experiments, which were carried out with some of his earliest colleagues—a fellow MIT postdoc named Peter Schiller, Harvard student Dave Bender, and a visiting scholar from Rio de Janeiro named Carlos Eduardo Rocha-Miranda (opening Charlie's lifelong door to Brazilian neuroscience and culture)—led to the monumental discovery of “face cells,” cells that appear to represent the most behaviorally meaningful class of visual stimuli.
The world was apparently not fully prepared for face cells, for Charlie's discovery was derided—simply dismissed as impossible or a flawed conclusion derived from unsound methods—by many for much of the next decade. At the same time, however, a number of other groups became intrigued by the profound implications of Charlie's discovery and began to replicate the findings. One of my earliest adventures as a graduate student in Charlie's lab was an effort to precisely quantify (using new technologies for stimulus presentation and data acquisition), once and for all, the selectivity of IT neurons for complex objects, including faces. This effort was led by Bob Desimone, with whom I overlapped at Princeton in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
I was still wet behind the ears, impressionable, and easily thrilled, but through this project, I experienced one of the most astonishing things I have seen in my neuroscience career: the robust, highly selective and readily reproducible responses of a visual cortical neuron to a face. And not just to one view of a face, but rather to a collection of specific face stimuli—different positions, orientations, angles of view—that a viewer would treat as perceptually or categorically identical. Naysayers, of course, maintain that one cannot know whether such responses reflect the true selectivity of a cell without presenting all possible stimuli (such as all of the component parts of a face). But for me, witnessing the phenomenon was a little like confronting a talking pig: It may defy belief and one might argue that it is merely a lucky coincidence of grunts that have no real meaning to the pig, but in the end there are no explanations that fit the data as well as language.
After completing this quantitative analysis of the visual response properties of IT neurons, we (Charlie, Bob, Charlie Bruce, and I) submitted a manuscript describing the results to the newly established Journal of Neuroscience, for which Max Cowan then served as editor. The manuscript received favorable reviews, as I recall, but Max's ironic response—“Didn't we already know this about neurons in IT cortex?”—revealed how far the neuroscience community had come since Charlie's initial discovery. The paper (“Stimulus selective properties of inferior temporal neurons in the macaque”) was published in 1984 and remains one of the most highly cited works in Charlie's oeuvre.
The second major epoch of Charlie's career addressed the functional organization of visual cortex. In part stemming from Charlie's successes and those of Hubel and Wiesel, coming from opposite ends of the cortical visual hierarchy, much work in the 1970s and 1980s focused on the “visual association” cortices that lay between those extremes. There was a small number of physiology labs doing this at the outset: Semir Zeki working in the Old World macaque and John Allman and Jon Kaas working in the New World owl monkey. In the late 1970s, Charlie entered the field, as did David Van Essen's group at Caltech. A series of studies appeared rapid-fire in the early 1980s, demonstrating multiple distinct visual areas—using criteria that included visual field topography, stimulus selectivities, and patterns of anatomical connections—in what had previously been known as Areas 18 and 19.
At the 1981 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, which was held in Los Angeles, Charlie's camp (Charlie, Bob Desimone, Ricardo Gattass, Leslie Ungerleider [then a research scientist in the NIMH Laboratory of Neuropsychology], and me) was invited to a pow-wow with David Van Essen's group (David, John Maunsell, and Bill Newsome) and John Allman's group (John and Steve Petersen) at the Athenaeum in Pasadena. (In my memory, Charlie and David could easily have passed for the odd couple transported to the elite halls of academia—Charlie was Oscar, naturally—and I learned that John Allman lived in a house full of monkeys.) During dinner, we compared notes cautiously and literally carved up the turf. Maunsell and I were doing twin PhD theses on the response properties of neurons in the middle temporal area (area MT), and it was reassuring to see that we had gotten similar results. In the end, mine was distinguished from his mainly by a focus on the columnar organization of directional selectivity, which I first reported publically at that same SfN meeting.
For the next several years, the main areas of interest in Charlie's lab were physiological, anatomical, and lesion studies of the multiplicity of cortical visual areas and their functional contributions to perception. I continued to study area MT (it is now surely the second most well-studied piece of the primate cerebral cortex; the first being V1), later in collaboration with Hillary Rodman (an enigmatic graduate student who had arrived from Yale). Ricardo Gattass, Aglai de Sousa (another happy visitor from Rio), and Ellen Covey (a postdoc from Duke who had previously studied taste cortex with Robert Erickson) were mapping RFs in the far hinterlands of occipital-parietal cortex and tracing connectivity in collaboration with Carol Colby (a postdoc who had just completed her PhD in Peter Schiller's lab at MIT), Sue Fenstemaker (a graduate student coming from Middlebury), Leslie Ungerleider, and Carl Olson (a first-rate neuroanatomist newly recruited to the Princeton faculty). Later in this era, we were joined by two new graduate students, Earl Miller and Jim Skelly, who continued to probe the functions of IT cortex.
The third phase of Charlie's career began after I left Princeton in 1987, with the arrival of Michael Graziano. Michael had conducted an undergraduate thesis in Charlie's lab before joining the graduate program at MIT. He returned to Princeton to complete his PhD (remaining as a postdoc), whereupon he and Charlie, along with students Tirin Moore and Dylan Cooke, carried out a series of groundbreaking experiments that revealed the contributions of motor cortex to complex directed actions in personal space.
As a backdrop to the last 20 years or so of operating his lab, and since then to the present, Charlie seriously pursued a longstanding interest in the history of neuroscience. He has now written numerous scholarly articles and two books that feature the players and transformative (some frankly bizarre) episodes in our evolving understanding of the brain. During my tenure at Princeton, I took the seminar course Charlie had developed on the history of neuroscience. Fleshed and animated vividly by Charlie, the towering and quirky figures of the field populated my mind and left me with a rich appreciation—one I have carried through the years—not simply of the historical facts, but also of telling patterns and trends, which are all too often lost in the dust spun by a fast growing field.
Charlie's two history books—Brain, Vision, Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience (1999) and A Hole in the Head: More Tales in the History of Neuroscience (2009)—are collections of compelling and deeply researched essays that are a matter of great pride for Charlie. Both books are also accessible and engaging enough to be suitable for the popular press. But Charlie went with MIT Press, which satisfied his intellectual's desire to be represented by the gold standard in academic publishing. MIT Press naturally expects books from intellectuals of Charlie's caliber to sell on their scholarly merit alone, without any marketing or entreaty to a popular audience. Most sell a few hundred copies, at best, regardless of their merits.
Shortly after publication of the second book, Charlie was invited by my wife, Lisa Stefanacci (also a neuroscientist), to speak and sign books at the lovely atmospheric book shop she owned (The Book Works) in Del Mar, California. Charlie happily agreed (I'm not sure he'd ever done a book signing before), but the deck was steeply stacked against him, for the arrangement also included an appearance and book signing by Joyce the day before. Joyce naturally packed the house. She was eloquent, brilliant, and funny, and the signing line snaked outside and down the path long after her presentation. When Charlie took the stage a day later, the room was sparsely filled with a nonetheless eager audience (a few local physicians and clinical psychologists, a handful of UCSD faculty, coffee-house regulars, and some New Agers from the local beach community [this was, after all, Southern California]). I know Charlie to be a practical realist with a good sense of irony, but I have rarely seen him as dejected as he appeared when the short line ended and a tall stack of unsigned books remained on the table by his side. Science can seldom compete with a good novel on the open market, but Charlie's next book, we hope, will be delivered to a more inclusive publisher.
Brain research often attracts outsiders with unusual perspectives. I think, by force of his own personality, Charlie has long been a magnet for quirky characters. During my tenure in Charlie's lab, we received occasional visits from a once esteemed senior neuroscientist, who by this time was wont to appear in robes and beads and spoke breathlessly of holograms in the brain. On more than one occasion, we were approached by otherwise decorous individuals who proposed experiments to explore the responses of IT neurons to pornography (a provocative but not entirely silly idea). For some time, Charlie and I worked closely with a student—someone for whom we both came to have great respect—who had the priceless habit of showing up for a gritty 36-hr experiment as though she had prepared for a fashion shoot. Charlie is fond of telling this latter story, I think, in part, because he was enthralled by her curious behavior, but also as commentary on my reaction to it. The truth is I think the experience held a mirror to my own slovenly appearance—ripped dirty misfitting jeans, faded t-shirt, unkempt hair, and several days of beard growth (Ted Adelson, who worked those years at RCA Sarnoff Labs in Princeton, once accused me of sporting the “Yasser Arafat look”; this long before extended stubble became fashionable)—and I was arguably better (cleaner, at least) for the self insight it gave me.
One of the most interesting of eccentric characters in Charlie's circle was Eric Schwartz. Eric was a former Columbia particle physicist, who had been adopted by (equally eccentric) neurophysiologist E. Roy John at NYU. Eric came to us with a theory (they all come to us with a theory…) about the coding of visual patterns by IT neurons. There was something distinctly compelling about Eric's idea, and Eric himself was a trip, so we (Charlie, Eric, Bob, and I) began a collaboration in which Eric (coming down from New York) and Bob (returning from his new position as a research scientist in the NIMH Laboratory of Neuropsychology) would converge on Princeton every couple of weeks for a two-day recording experiment. Eric was loquacious and funny and thought about things differently from most people. He and Charlie clicked, whereas Bob and I actually did the experiment. The results were fabulous: The pattern of neuronal responses provided tentative support for Eric's hypothesis but, more broadly, they stood as the clearest evidence to date for position, size, and contrast-polarity invariance in cortical neurons. The whole experience was distinctly positive—the success of the study combined with the quirky intellectual banter and good food that we all shared.
We considered follow-up studies but with the lack of proximity this never happened. I did eventually collaborate with Eric on some related experiments in his lab at old Bellevue Hospital on 1st Avenue in Manhattan. The lab was in an abandoned surgical ward that was only accessible by taking the elevator to the 8th floor and then climbing a creepy stair well to what appeared to be the 8th and ½ floor, where one confronted a small battered steel door with 14 locked deadbolts. On the other side was a magnificent 19th century art nouveau surgical suite that Eric shared as lab space with the aging Roy John. Somehow the fact that Eric worked (lurked) here was perfectly in character. I'm not sure that the hospital or the university (old Bellevue was by then operated by NYU Medical Center) even knew he was there or that the space existed.
That Charlie not only attracted but also embraced these many odd and interesting characters speaks volumes about him. For Charlie himself is an outsider, albeit a highly credible one, and the creative path he has taken owes much to the different points of view he's been willing to consider through the years.
Many adventures with Charlie have featured food, oftentimes as a central character in the plot, but nearly always part of the story in one way or another. I'm not sure that I thought much about it during my years in Charlie's lab—sharing food has long been to Charlie, I believe, a natural element of human social behavior and attachment, so I may have eventually taken it for granted. But a review of photographs from those years reinforces a (frequently comedic) view in which food was the ever-present thread that knit together the social fabric of Charlie's lab.
The profound importance of food bonding for science and for life was initially made clear to me when I first met Charlie, in the winter of 1979. I had just been accepted to the graduate program at Princeton and I had driven from my home in Maryland—in a raging blizzard, no less—for an interview with Charlie. I arrived in time to eat and experienced the lunchtime ritual that was to become a rich part of my life for the next several years and which I later incorporated in my own lab.
The ritual began, as it did in those days, with calls down the hall for “lunch!” and the Portuguese “vamos almoçar!” (“let's eat lunch!”). After a designee returned with sandwiches and such from Davidson's Market (just across Nassau Street), all gathered in a circle in Charlie's spacious office, or in warmer months at picnic tables in a small grove of trees behind Green Hall. The conversation was bright and lively and ranged from politics to a critique of the latest art film, to the merits of a new Indian restaurant that had opened up on Route 27, to gossipy discussions of graduate student sex or the lazy know nothing faculty member down the hall. Laughter was frequent and unrestrained, Charlie was boisterous and satirical—occasionally waxing intellectual on subjects like Palestine, AIDS, and scientific misconduct—Bob affectionately mocking, often regaling us with bits from last night's Johnny Carson monologue, and Ricardo patiently listening with the amused sensibility of a Brazilian aristocrat (while at the same time peeling a grapefruit with astonishing finesse). Aglai, who could talk faster than all of us combined (even in English), offered sarcastic commentary on everything, often illustrated with off-color anecdotes. The air was communal and open. Absent were the hierarchies of traditional academia; everyone was a player.
I had never experienced anything like this before. I came from a rather provincial background and traditional bland public education (we were taught to listen rather than to speak). Although I had worked for some time in a lab while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, I generally ate lunch alone at my desk. Even under the strain of my Princeton interview and frazzled by a long drive in the snow, I was captivated by this collective lunch, with its patent esprit de corps, and therapeutic laughter. It would be years before I would have the opportunity to implement communal lunch in my own lab, but I knew immediately that this egalitarian social eating with colleagues and coworkers, as practiced so well by Charlie and his clan, was hugely important for building the mutual trust, confidence, and respect needed to collaborate on hard work.
Another interesting thing about lab lunch was the opportunity to see what other people ate. I had grown up in a uniformly white Protestant suburb of Washington with very limited exposure to different varieties of food. My mother prepared traditional southern cooking—she was quite good at it—but that was pretty much all she knew (and thus all I ate). By the time I made it to Princeton, I barely knew what a bagel was and Chinese food came out of a can (“Chun King Chicken Chow Mein”). At Charlie's lab lunch, it was commonplace for lab members to interrogate your meal—all in good spirit and with honest curiosity, but I was initially intimidated by the questions I faced from Charlie and Bob about my chicken salad sandwich. At the same time, of course, it was an opportunity to learn. I learned early on about yogurt, which I had never eaten before Princeton. Charlie, who seemed different from me along virtually every dimension I could think of and for whom I had naturally developed an obsessed fascination, ate yogurt for lunch nearly every day, commonly in large-tub quantities. (Charlie had no qualms about eating meat [or anything else, for that matter], but I rarely saw him do so at lunch, except for his pointed consumption of roast beef after surgery.) At some point I also began to eat yogurt. Initially not in the big tubs, like Charlie, but rather in those tiny Dannon containers where yogurt came smothered with sticky sweet jam. With time I made tentative efforts to eat it as Charlie did, plain or complemented with fresh berries and chopped fruit. Soon enough my lunch consisted of nothing but yogurt and fruit, often in massive quantities, and I have maintained this habit for over 30 years (Figure 4), as has Charlie. I like to think that I developed this pattern because it was rational, because it was healthy and inexpensive, but the truth is I was always modeling Charlie and, in doing so, trying to impress my lunch companions.
Dinners in those early days were also often consumed in the lab during long experiments. A staple for Princeton students and postdocs was Hoagie Haven (“Hoagie Heaven”), a few blocks north on Nassau Street. It seemed that Bob, Charlie Bruce, and I lived on 12-in. “cheese steak” and “meatball” hoagies for weeks at a time during 1979–1981. Dinner in the lab became more interesting (or challenging) when Charlie joined us, as he often did when we were working with out-of-town collaborators like Leslie or Eric Schwartz. Those dinners acquired a bizarre quality, in that Charlie was always angling for spicier food (generally Indian or Chinese) and we became extremely competitive about our ability to tolerate the spice. Charlie the omnivore had traveled in India just before my joining the lab and was enchanted by Indian cuisine. I, on the other hand, was courting a real Indian girl, which gave me a leg up on Charlie the capsaicin dilettante. I was planning an extended trip to India with my future bride to visit her family and wasn't sure what food I would face, only that it would be very hot and I would be compelled to eat everything. So I went into training, in which I regularly ate “mircha” (Punjabi for intensely spicy raw green chili pepper) with my meals.
Charlie, Bob, Charlie Bruce, Eric and/or Leslie, and I (but not Ricardo, who had a weak stomach, was far too sensible to play this game and arrived with his own really tasty home-cooked Brazilian food anyway) would order up Indian, Chinese, or Thai seasoned at ever increasing numbers on the 10-point scale. Bob would order a 6, and next time I would order a 7, or Charlie would up the ante to a 9. When the food arrived, we ate together in the back of Green Hall and suffered massive sympathetic nervous system arousal, thermogenesis, hyperhidrosis, tachycardia, and occasional lapses in the ability to speak coherently. But we did it together and learned more about one another in the process. Some of us (Bob, Charlie Bruce, Leslie, and I) thought Charlie was insane in this practice—it was a strange form of physical competition, sought by eccentric gourmand intellectuals who rarely engaged in traditional sports—but with time, I came to realize that it simply reflected Charlie's insatiable desire for new forms of sensory stimulation, a desire that he has manifested as long as I have known him.
Additional opportunities for bonding with colleagues through shared food and drink came in the form of lab parties, which were generally held at Charlie's house on Woodside Lane. Charlie naturally found many reasons to throw a party, including the arrival or departure of Brazilians, a momentous step in someone's academic career (thesis defense, job offer, fancy award, important publication, etc.), or visits by distinguished scientists. Not surprisingly, gregarious Charlie knew lots of people and the Princeton Interdepartmental Neuroscience Colloquium Series was a parade of the very best, who were often entertained for the evening by a party at Charlie's. He was never hesitant to introduce his students, and by this means I sidled up to some of the greats (many of whom became my heroes and friends), including David Hubel, Torsten Wiesel, Bob Wurtz, Ed Evarts, Mort Mishkin, Sue Corkin, Brenda Milner, Pat Goldman, Pasko Rakic, Joaquin Fuster, Peter Schiller, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Mickey Goldberg, Mark Konishi, Semir Zeki, John Allman, Jon Kaas, Alan Cowey, Larry Weiskrantz, Colin Blakemore, Steven Jay Gould. (I pinned down David Hubel in the back room of Charlie's house and forced him to learn about the direction columns I had discovered in area MT.) This was a rich life for a neuroscientist-in-training, and the connections—not just scientific but social—that Charlie helped us all forge were golden as we later embarked on our independent careers.
The Brazilians were always coming and going. After an initial three years, Ricardo and his wife Cerli returned to Rio to handle various professional and personal responsibilities (Ricardo was a cattle rancher, in addition to being in the top echelon of Brazilian science). But before long they came back to us (several times, actually), as did Aglai, and they hosted frequent visits by their Brazilian families, friends, and students.
Although Ricardo was (is) dearly loved by all of us, it was Cerli and Aglai who brought a festive Latin spirit to many of Charlie's parties—with promises of Caipirinha and late-night Samba lines twisting and thumping through Charlie's kitchen. These parties also featured fabulous Brazilian food (“delicioso” is one of the few Portuguese words I still recall). Cerli and Aglai were both great cooks; Cerli taught us how to make a dish of Brazilian black beans, rice, and farofa—a simple staple in Rio—that was to die for. (I still make it today at home in California.) Ricardo, who is Brazilian of Lebanese descent, actually produced his own cookbook of exotic Arab dishes, which he and Cerli would lovingly prepare for parties at Charlie's house. I think Charlie was so taken by these exotic flashes of Brazilian life in our midst (Figure 5) that he fell in love with the people and the culture and made repeated visits to Brazil over the years—to enjoy the company of his (by then, large) Brazilian “family,” to teach at the Federal University, to explore the multifarious neighborhoods of Rio, and more remote destinations such as Belém and deep jungles of the Amazon. We (Bob, Leslie, Charlie Bruce, and I) all did as well, in time, and the Brazilian connection that Charlie opened up for us has vastly enriched our personal and professional lives.
Perhaps the biggest lab parties that Charlie would throw were those to celebrate unique occasions, such as a successful thesis defense or a wedding. These were sometimes potluck or Charlie would grill something mysterious with an Asian flair. I would often make huge lasagna and cheesecake (Figure 6), which I had learned how to do during my college years working in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. In the warmer months, we'd sit together on Charlie's lawn in the twilight drinking wine (Figure 7). Sometimes we were graced by the presence of the inimitable Julian Jaynes or George Miller, as well as Princeton neuroscientists Byron Campbell, Bart Hobel, Darcy Kelley, Carl Olson, and Bill Prinzmetal, and Ted Adelson from RCA. We talked science until we got tired of it. We gossiped about our colleagues—who they were screwing and why they were over- or underrated—all with benign intent but exaggerated expression. And we embraced the community that Charlie had built.
Food always came back to the fore. After a while, our traditional party menu was not sufficient to satisfy Charlie's eclectic tastes (and I was bored of making lasagna). My memory is unfortunately not entirely clear on how this happened, but at some point we experienced a paradigm shift and began to spit-roast large animals in Charlie's backyard. Probably Charlie tossed this idea out as provocation, and I naturally took the bait. There's some complex technology and art involved, as we discovered, but I'm generally fearless (or pathologically overconfident) about things like this. How hard could it be?
For our first effort, we decided to roast a pig. There were two key technical hurdles: (1) we needed to procure a large charcoal grill with rotating spit (this in pre- Home Depot America), and (2) we needed a pig, ideally deceased, gutted, and cleaned, but with head and face intact for dramatic effect. The Princeton psychology department machine shop was many things to Charlie's lab through the years. These guys were serious craftsmen, and we were their biggest patrons for custom lab equipment. We kept them inspired and employed. With this type of working relationship and with the university's deep pockets (Princeton was then and remains, after all, the wealthiest per capita university in the world), we convinced them to fabricate a large charcoal grill with motorized rotating spit, with our generous concession that the psychology department could use it whenever we didn't need it. The first-generation finished product (Figure 8) was state of the art.
Acquiring the pig also proved to be simple. It turned out that neighboring Trenton had an astonishingly large meat-eating population, with many Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe for whom pork products are king. I rang up the Trenton Meat Market and asked if they could get me a 40 pound pig (post-evisceration), and they told me confidently that they would bid on one (still standing, I assumed) on my behalf at the weekly auction. This worked, and I obtained the beast in an outsized cardboard box from their Trenton refrigerated warehouse on the specified date. I squeezed him into the trunk of my car and checked-in regularly with Charlie, whose reaction throughout was one of amused excitement.
The art in this involved (a) mounting our Pig on the spit, trussed up tightly with wire so that his center of gravity was as close as possible to the bar and (b) the marinade. I had never actually seen a dead animal as big as our Pig before, nor had anyone else in the lab. Once we got over that psychological hurdle, we wired him up with pieces of coat hanger and smeared him with a special marinade (lots of olive oil and various herbs and spices) that we'd found for this purpose in one of our cookbooks. We were naive about how long he would take to grill, and we set him above the coals mid morning (Figure 9A). The electric motor spun with much fanfare, and the Pig whirled, but for the first 2–3 hr he looked disturbingly more like animal than food—like we had put the family pet on the grill (Figure 9B). With time, he acquired an edible appearance and smelled distinctly like bacon (Figure 9C). As more people began to arrive, we developed the Pig Basting Ritual (Figure 9D), in which every member of the lab would, in serial order at ∼20-min intervals, baste the Pig with the olive oil herb marinade. Somewhere in the middle of all this, we had a motor crisis—with the heat of the fire and the torque of the Pig, the small electric spit motor was toast, and we spent the next several hours cranking by hand. By mid evening, our Pig was cooked. We hauled him to the picnic table and carved (Figure 9E and F). Doubtful that Charlie or I or any of us could today remember the actual reason for the celebration, but a true celebration it was.
The first animal roast was so incredibly successful, notwithstanding technical glitches, that we decided to try it again, this time with a lamb (Figure 10). Our university machine shop produced a second-generation device, with an upgraded motor and reinforced suspension for larger animals. I readily obtained the lamb from my new friends at the Trenton Meat Market. It turned out that Charlie and I had the same Middle Eastern cookbook (A Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden, 1969), which contains on pages 208–210 a recipe for “Whole Roast Lamb on a Spit.” The recipe begins with the encouraging “Whole roast lamb is a festive, ceremonial repast… prepared for parties, festivals, and family gatherings.” This seemed perfect, but a few lines down, we found more specific instructions: “The victim must be fat, young and unblemished. The eyes of the animal are blackened, a piece of confectionary is placed in its mouth, and its head is turned toward Mecca. The words, ‘In the name of God,’ are spoken as the animal is slain. It is then usually roasted on a spit…. These offerings are made on important occasions such as moving to a new house, the start or the end of a long journey, or the arrival of an important guest.” Although the celebratory sentiments were precisely what we were aiming for, the process itself seemed a little too intense for a backyard barbeque. At the same time, Charlie and I are both sticklers for cultural authenticity and so, not surprisingly, we actually thought about butchering the animal on the lawn (aimed toward Mecca, of course), but only for a minute or two. At the very least, it would have frightened the neighbors.
With each major cause for lab celebration, we gained more expertise at roasting. We tried additional pigs, lambs, and the occasional goat. One Thanksgiving, we were inspired to put a trio of geese on the spit (again supplied by the Trenton Meat Market, though the Canada geese on the Princeton Township greens were so prolific and so incredibly obnoxious that it was tempting to eat them instead). This proved to be a bad idea, as it turns out that most of the volume of a goose is fat, which upon rendering by the intense heat of the grill drips copiously onto the coals, causing plumes of greasy smoke that blackened and bittered the birds. As biologists, we probably could have figured this out beforehand. But the truth is, we—Charlie and I and our colleagues—did all of this, as the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese, Vietnamese, and tribal Polynesians, and otherwise rational people often do, not so much for the food, but as part of the art and ecstasy of communal celebration. In the end, that was all that really mattered to us.
The members of Charlie's clan enjoyed the company of one another greatly in those days, and we incorporated outdoor adventures into our bonding routine. Charlie and I—the boy from Brooklyn and the boy from postwar tract-house suburbia—were both lovers of the great outdoors. We were both accomplished Boy Scouts, with many merit badges between us in survival subjects such as hiking, camping, canoeing, swimming, life saving, first aid, cooking, archery, and marksmanship. (Charlie achieved the coveted rank of Eagle Scout, whereas I was merely a Life Scout, three merit badges shy of the 21 required for Eagle. There is a story behind that, but the fact needled me whenever it came up.) Through these childhood experiences, Charlie and I knew well how to “be prepared” in the woods, though “clean and reverent” was no longer our style. As a lab, we often went on hiking excursions in upstate New York (Charlie had a fondness for the Catskill country around Woodstock and an erstwhile house on the outskirts of town), canoe voyages on the little rivers of New Jersey, or white water rafting in the wild river gorges of eastern Pennsylvania.
These adventures necessarily involved a bit of car travel, which struck fear in the hearts of those who had ever ridden with Charlie behind the wheel. Charlie driving is a little like how you might imagine he'd play tennis, with a lot of jerky repetitive movements, occasional wild flailing, and rushing the net, all without ever hitting the ball. I have burned into my brain the full experience, circa 1983, of Charlie driving me on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, desperate to make his plane (departing Kennedy) on time. Even under the best of conditions, the BQE is not for the fainthearted. Charlie rarely respected the rules for lane changing and following distances and drove the car (a heavy metal, chocolate station wagon, which was thankfully sturdy) with a tight interplay of gas and break and made seemingly impossible lane changes, like a dysfunctional or whacked out Mario Andretti. But to his credit, I am alive today. (The only time I've had a comparable vehicular experience, similarly accompanied by PTSD, was on a small bus cruising like a bat out of hell along narrow windy Himalayan mountain roads in Nepal.) Despite this reputation, Charlie could usually get from A to B without a major mishap, but most of us prefer an element of smoothness in transit and less a priori risk. When there were other options, we quickly competed for the limited spaces in cars driven by Sue or Carol. With time, Charlie came to realize this and, having no ego invested in driving anyway, simply deferred and handed the keys to someone else. Even today, when renting cars together in foreign countries, I conveniently collect the car without Charlie, so that he cannot add himself to the contract as a legal driver—a simple act that may have saved many lives and prevented untold property damage.
Perhaps our greatest outdoor adventures were camping excursions on Lake George, deep in the Adirondacks. The campsites were situated on the remote and idyllic Lake George Islands, which are maintained by the New York State Park system. These adventures entailed a long carpool to the Adirondacks, followed by a drive along a quiet country road on the western shore of the lake to the tiny village known as Bolton's Landing. We arrived with camping gear suitable for a few rough days on the lake. The weather was famously mercurial, even in the summertime. (A brisk thunderstorm could easily flood camp, wash out trails and swamp a canoe.) Our routine involved loading up with provisions at the local market and then hiring canoes (two persons paddling, front and back, with gear or a small person in the middle) at Smith's Marina. There are a couple of miles of open water between the marina and the islands, which was not to be taken lightly in a loaded canoe, so we scouted the weather carefully before heading out. Our destination was usually one of the midsized islands—islands with 10–15 campsites around the perimeter—on which Charlie had spent many childhood summers with his family.
Charlie's continued devotion to this place was steadfast and unqualified, and it was easy to see why. The lake itself sits in an enormous elongated basin carved by one of the southernmost glaciers of the last ice age. Fed by subterranean springs and small mountain streams, Lake George drains north into Lake Champlain. The water is cold, clear, deep, and remains potable to this day. The surrounding mountains are laced with boreal conifer forests, close, quiet, and imposing.
Once we set camp, we planned hikes on marked mountain trails or meandering paddles amongst the islands. A climb to Black Mountain peak, with its expansive view of the Adirondacks, was always a highlight (Figure 11). There was no end of such adventures, but for the most part we filled our days with swims in the lake, punctuated by novels and naps on the shore. In the evenings we cooked, sat by the campfire, listened to sounds of the lake and the dark brooding mountains, drank wine, talked and laughed together long into the night. Since my childhood, I have camped in many lovely wilderness locations, but there was something truly magical about this place Charlie had introduced to us. Part of that magic, of course, was born from the company we kept.
A pervasive theme in Charlie's life and work has been the exploration of other cultures—particularly those vastly different from the one he came from—not simply by reading about them, but through immersive experience, experience sufficient that he might, in some meaningful sense, integrate some elements (arts, social priorities, food) into his own. The practice of science today is well suited to this type of cultural exploration. Recent demographic changes in the United States and the emergence of new megaincome career priorities (e.g., banking) for young Americans have lead to a huge influx of foreign science trainees. My lab at the Salk Institute has included natives of India, China, Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Russia, Lithuania, Germany, Portugal, France, Holland, Italy, and Israel. Foreign postdoctoral trainees at the Salk now constitute fully three quarters of the population. But in the 1970s, Charlie's recruitment of foreign scientists, although not unprecedented, was unusual. Charlie thrived on this injection of culture. We all did. It altered the way we thought about the world and gave us insights into ourselves. It also gave us a very different perspective on the value of scientific research. Like Charlie, we incorporated new cultural elements into our own lives and were better people for it. (It is not mere coincidence, I think, that since knowing Charlie, I—the kid from white Protestant suburbia—married an Indian from Calcutta, a pure-blooded Italian Catholic, and am now dating a woman from Vietnam. [The fact that I keep changing, however, is an issue that keeps me in therapy…])
The presence of other cultures in the lab was only the tip of the iceberg, for Charlie loves to travel. The cultural diversity, intellectual richness, and social enlightenment of his Brooklyn/Harvard upbringing were surely factors at the outset, but the truth is he hadn't held a passport until his enrollment at Cambridge. Whereupon Charlie became hooked and has since boarded an international flight at every opportunity. But only to countries with interesting culture and appropriate politics—thus excluding the bland, bourgeois, or reactionary. (I don't think he has ever been to Australia or Switzerland. History and culture aside, he does not seem fond of the modern state of Israel.) In addition to his early Brazilian contacts, Charlie has made connections with scientific communities in China, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, Cuba, India, Poland, and many of the usual western European countries. By Charlie's inspiration and through his connections, he has given us all opportunities to learn about the world in the service of science.
As he has done for many students and colleagues, Charlie kindled my passion for travel. He also taught me how to travel. As a rule, Charlie's style of travel involves the usual intellectual's strategy—investigation of history and culture through books, guides, museums, and films. Never content to merely observe, however, Charlie adopts the immersive approach—sleeping, eating, and shopping where the natives do, relying solely on public transportation, living the life of the people. This latter approach can be hard, particularly in underdeveloped countries lacking the creature comforts that most Americans expect and seek out in the form of Hiltons and Holiday Inns. It's not for everyone. Regular power outages, mouse-sized bugs, riding on the roof of a city bus, or shitting squat-legged over a hole in the floor are deal breakers for most people. But the payoff includes a true understanding and appreciation of the world beyond our fences.
Like Charlie, my first trip abroad came in my 20s, when I traveled to India with my wife first Rina. Charlie had recently traveled there and provided me with various forms of guidance, but for the most part I was influenced by the style of foreign travel he had imprinted on me. I read everything there was to read, watched Satyajit Ray and goofy Hindi (Bollywood) films. None of this truly prepared me for the sensory onslaught that was India, the fact that everything was vastly different from all that I knew. I approached it the way Charlie had taught me, I embraced every new experience, I lived like an Indian, and I fell madly in love—with Rina, with India, and with Charlie's way of discovering the world.
Learning to travel like Charlie by imitating him was one thing. But actually traveling with him brought things to a whole new level. My first foreign travel experience accompanied by Charlie came the following year, when he arranged for my invitation—as he so commonly did for his students—as a guest at a meeting of the International Neuropsychological Symposium (a neuroscience club of sorts that was founded by Brenda Milner and meets annually in Europe, generally in exotic locales). This meeting was held in Beaune, France, in the verdant Rhone valley, famous for Côtes du Beaune vineyards and gastronomical delights (Figure 12). One evening perhaps a dozen of us went on a dining adventure chosen by neuropsychologist Charlie Butter, good friend to our Charlie and a serious foodie. The venue was a farmhouse in a rather remote location—a Michelin two-star, for sure. I was in a car with Charlie, John Allman, Evelyn McGuinness, and Lucia Vania. The route involved tiny unmarked roads. We had a crude map, but no compass, phone, or GPS (this was 1984). After wandering around in the dark for some time, long after we were expected at the farmhouse, a heated argument erupted in a car full of self-confident PhDs and Boy Scouts. Charlie was vociferous about the route—his reputation as Eagle Scout was on the line—but John (the driver) wouldn't back down, I had my own strong opinions (as did Lucia), but stepping back I saw only a mirror of scientific debate (amped up a bit, because dinner was on the line). We made it eventually, of course. I think Charlie was wrong, but a fabulous convivial meal masked all tension with good memories.
After the meeting, I was to return to Paris and wait a day for the arrival of Rina. Charlie also had a day in Paris, and we traveled together on the train with plans for dinner in the city. Along the way, Charlie discovered that we had a 30-min layover in Dijon. His travel bible was then and remains today the Lonely Planet, which highlighted the crypt in the Dijon Cathedral. The cathedral was 5–10 min walk from the station, which Charlie reasoned would leave us an ample (!) 10 min to see the crypt. Given my conservative temperament, the iffy French trains, and the promise of a good Parisian meal, my gut feeling was that Charlie's crypt plan was nuts. But at the same time, I saw the spark in his eyes and his carefree and confident approach to travel. We sprinted to the crypt, which was interesting only in the sense that crypts are generally interesting. It has long faded from my memory. What I do remember is that there were way too many trains lined up when we returned to the station. I spoke French but Charlie did not (oddly, given his for penchant foreign travel, he has studiously avoided learning even a single word in any language other than English). With only a minute or two until departure we quickly boarded what looked to be the right train. I confirmed this, but in the meantime frenetic Charlie had exited the train and was quickly lost in the crowd. What I learned from this was that playing with Charlie meant playing on the edge—not in any dangerous sense, of course, but with a significant element of risk such that the adventure was never prescribed, so that the unexpected could always happen. I think that this is much of what travel—and life—is for Charlie. The crypt itself was surely not worth my loss of Charlie's evening companionship, but his willingness to take a risk and, by doing so, elevating and unchaining the larger experience, provided insight that has served me well through the years.
The INS meeting in Beaune was the first of many that I attended with Charlie. Although the scientific sessions are often good, we frequently found time to play hooky and headed out on some sort of adventure (Figure 13)—in the earlier days together with my wife Lisa and our son Anthony, later also accompanied by Joyce. We explored hilltop castles and Fado bars in Portugal, marine grottos in Sardinia, cliff-walks in Corsica, canoeing the Dordogne while stuffing ourselves with foie gras, dinners in Dubrovnik, perched high above the Adriatic, exotic gelato on the island of Ischia, winding drives along the Amalfi Coast, and Tuscan villa life in the hills outside Florence. These were wonderful times, uniquely painted for all of us in a way that only Charlie can do.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I made several trips to Rio, mostly as part of collaboration with Ricardo (based on some ideas he and I had developed in Charlie's lab many years prior). We accomplished much on those trips and made important scientific discoveries in the lab, but it was hard to resist the temptations of Brazilian life outside. On one occasion, Charlie and I happened to be in Brazil at the same time, and I knew this was trouble. Ricardo and Cerli introduced us to the lovely parents of their son's fiancé, who graciously invited us to spend a weekend on their yacht cruising around the Baía de Ilha Grande (Bay of the Big Island) south of Rio. The boat cast off in the morning, and we cruised across the bay (Figure 14). In addition to the Big Island, the bay is populated with many dozens of smaller islands surrounded by coral reefs and colorful tropical fish. We anchored at several, each more beautiful than the last.
Food was naturally a vital part of the day and included the fish we caught or sometimes Ricardo's Lebanese treats (Figure 14D). Our meals were prepared by the boat pilot, whom we addressed by the dubious but fitting “Lindo Mar.” Lindo Mar was also in charge of Caipirinha preparation and began offering them up by 10 in the morning. Traditional Caipirinhas are made with Cachaça and lime juice, but outside of proper Carioca society, they are frequently made with exotic Brazilian fruit. On the yacht, we drank them with pineapple, cashew fruit, and coconut, but most significantly we drank them one after another, for Lindo Mar presented the next as soon as your glass was empty. Charlie and I spent our days snorkeling, fishing (kind of), hiking on the islands, or engaged in animated banter with our hosts (Figure 14B, C, E)—alternated by periods in which we simply floated listlessly on foam noodles, Caipirinhas in hand (Figure 14F). Naps on the deck were common (Figure 14G). Perhaps because he was confined to the boat or maybe it was the Cachaça, this was not Charlie in frenetic or thrill-seeking mode. On the contrary, these were long lazy exotic days shared with the warmest of friends.
My wife Lisa had often expressed a desire to travel to Cuba. In 2005, we'd both read Oscar Hijuelos' powerful Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which immersed our thoughts in Cuban life. Lisa somehow discovered that the International Conference on Cognitive Neuroscience (ICON) was meeting in Havana that September. I had some friends on the program committee and wangled invitations for the both of us. Our Salk colleagues, Gene Stoner and John Reynolds, also signed on. Naturally Charlie wanted to go to Havana too, as much for what Cuba represented in his socialist ideology as for the unique cultural experience. The ICON organizers practically begged Charlie to be a keynote at the conference. After jumping through many hoops imposed by the U.S. government—it turns out that participation in a scientific conference is one of the few legal means by which an American can travel to Cuba—we landed in Havana and spent several days in a state of excited engagement (little of which actually involved the conference).
There are many ways to experience Cuba, some of which involve lounging by the pool or on white sandy beaches, drinking Mojitos. To a large degree, foreign visitors are steered in this Caribbean party direction by a façade consisting of official tourist hotels and restaurants, regulated forms of transportation, and tight-lipped discussions of Cuban society and the Castro government. All of this was insufficient for Charlie, who had lived his life in support of this strange experiment in social reform. It turned out that it wasn't hard to look beyond the façade, and with Charlie leading the way, we veered well off the tourist circuit and tapped into the local economy (where one might get beer, pizza, and ice cream for pennies). Everywhere we went, we were immediately identified as Americans, and despite the fact that these were people who had been vindictively crippled by our government, we were everywhere embraced. Charlie attracted the most attention because he cut a striking resemblance to Ernest Hemingway (Figure 15), who had spent his last 20 years on the island and is universally revered by Cubans. Charlie seemed much amused by this second-hand attention, as children and adults alike called out “Papa Hemingway!”
It was much harder to get people to talk about their lives. To that end, Charlie arranged a meeting between a small group of Americans, Pedro and Mitchell Valdes-Sosa (leaders of the Cuban neuroscience community) and some of their students. We were all driven to Pedro's modest home in a village outside Havana, where we dined on exotic fruits, talked about the future—a future perhaps without Fidel or American oppression—and explored ways in which the American neuroscience community might help. The world is better changed by education than by guns and embargoes, so we resolved to organize a course in cognitive neuroscience to be held at the Cuban Neuroscience Center (under the direction of Pedro and Mitchell). Charlie promised that he and I would secure funding and invite foreign neuroscientists to lecture on a variety of topics.
In practice, what this meant was that I was to secure funding and make all of the invitations and necessarily complex arrangements. U.S. government funding (such as the NIH) was off the table, so we applied to the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO), which enthusiastically embraced our plan and generously offered 6000 Euros. This was of course far from that needed to fly in a party of foreign (largely American) scientists as well as provide for local transportation and housing. I invited a dozen or so top neuroscientists who also happened to be my friends, including Gene Stoner, John Kaas, Ed Callaway, Asif Ghazanfar, Ranulfo Romo, John Reynolds, and Jeff Krichmar. The response was hugely enthusiastic, and all volunteered to pay for their travel. We had told Mitchell and Pedro at the outset that we wanted to stay in the dormitories with the students, but that was like asking them to perform magic spells, so we acceded to accommodation in the tourist hotel.
In the end, the two-week neuroscience course that Charlie had brokered was held in May of 2007 and proved to be a huge success. The visiting faculty eagerly drank in the unique culture of Havana and explored areas beyond (Figure 16). And we penetrated a little deeper in our efforts to understand life in this enigmatic little country. There are no easy explanations for Cuba, and debate is generally reduced to shouting matches informed by naive leftist or rightist dogma. But the complexities of our impressions remain captured by a now iconic memory from our first trip: Hurricane Katrina had ripped across the island just before our arrival in Havana, where they know well how to cope with such things, and the Castro regime ensured that no one lacked for shelter, food, or medical care. Two days later, Charlie, Lisa, and I watched CNN from our upscale Havana rooms in surreal horror at our own government's tragically inept response to the storm.
The successes of our Havana workshop led me to think, in a way much inspired by Charlie, that we could take this thing on the road to other developing countries and thereby make the world a better place. Although I had learned what was required to organize such an event, as a practical matter doing so required committed contacts on the ground in a targeted country. In the early 2000s, I reconnected with India (long after my divorce and 20 years since my first trip there). I had been invited to a conference in Delhi, sponsored by the new Indian National Brain Research Center (NBRC), and I jumped at the opportunity to return. On that trip, I made a number of key contacts, most notably with the founding director of the NBRC, Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath. Viji soon invited me to join the Scientific Advisory Committee of the NBRC, and in 2008 we organized together a cognitive neuroscience workshop to be held at the new NBRC campus in Manesar (on the outskirts of Delhi). We acquired financial support from IBRO, once again, and from the NIMH director's discretionary budget (Indo-U.S. scientific exchange had become a priority for the NIMH). My Havana team, this time enhanced by Mickey Goldberg, Aniruddha Das, Giacomo Rizzolatti, and Dan Salzman, converged on the NBRC in January 2009 and was once again a huge success, this time playing to 50 of India's best and brightest students (Figure 17).
Charlie was much loved by the students—I'm sure they'd never seen anything quite like him—but he was also a subversive element enticing the faculty off to tour the local sights. We were in India, after all. While the rest of the visiting group went on a planned weekend tour bus excursion to the Taj Mahal, Charlie, Gene Stoner, and I traveled for a couple of days to Varanasi, which is an extraordinary beautiful city—in a gritty 19th century sort of way—on the banks of the Ganges. Like Charlie, I am a fan of Lonely Planet, which recommended a budget hotel right on the central Ghats. I think I viewed this as a test of my ability to travel as Charlie had taught me and I could scarcely conceal my pride at the fact that I had secured $5/night rooms for us at the center of action. I had stayed in many excellent $5/night (or less) rooms on my first visit to India, but 25 years had passed and India was now in a far different place economically. What we got for $5 in 2009 Varanasi was a total dump—on the central Ghats, as promised—but nonetheless a filthy, depressing, bug and monkey-infested dump. Charlie was somehow OK with this—he managed to obtain a small bar of soap and a threadbare towel from the front office and was happily in his element. Gene by this time had an intestinal problem that was exacerbated by Charlie's insistence on close-up photography of the Burning Ghats, where the smoky greasy air was filled with the smell of roasting human flesh. So Gene spent most of the weekend doubled-over in his room, oblivious to its filth.
Much of the true beauty of Varanasi is tied to its grittiness—it is a far different world from modern Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, or even Calcutta. But this last visit led me to realize that, despite unwavering enthusiasm for Charlie's form of immersive travel, there was little to be gained (other than disease, perhaps) by staying in grim rooms of the sort we got for $5. Perhaps it's my advancing age and the increased size of my bank account, but I now have less tolerance for abject squalor. I've seen the same trend in Charlie, through the years, occasionally reaching extreme proportions. On some of my more recent foreign adventures with Charlie, we've stayed in deluxe rooms and frequently eaten haute cuisine rather than street food. Some of this is Charlie's affectionate accommodation for Joyce, but the truth is I think he no longer feels compelled to experience everything at the bottom.
The NBRC workshop was a resounding success, and we went on to do another two years later at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, where Viji Ravindranath had relocated after retiring from the directorship of the NBRC. I was granted a prestigious appointment as Visiting Centenary Professor at the IISc and spent the summer of 2011 in Bangalore, along with my son Anthony (then 14), to help direct the Second Indian Conference on Brain and Cognition (the third was held in December 2013). By this time I had relinquished much of my control to Viji's capable junior colleagues, Adi Murthy and S.P. Arun. The conference was a hit and had a very different feel to it because we were now in the south at a stately institution with a long and rich history. Over the years I have traveled extensively in India, but very little in the south, which is distinct from the north on many dimensions. So I took the opportunity to explore things beyond Bangalore.
Immediately after the close of the two-week workshop, Charlie, John Krakauer (workshop speaker on mechanisms of motor control), Anthony, and I traveled to the beautiful coastal state of Kerala. The highly touted experience in Kerala is chartering a houseboat for a few days to cruise through the vast network of rice irrigation canals. The houseboats for this purpose are converted rice barges luxuriously outfitted with sleeping and dining facilities. The staff consisted of the pilot, the cook, and the lackey, who steered us slowly through the canals, with their richly saturated vistas of green rice patties and purple monsoon skies (Figure 18C), and prepared delicious Indian meals of fish and giant prawns. All the while, we lounged on the covered deck, read novels, and bantered (Figure 18A, B). Three days on a boat is a good way to learn who people really are. I quickly learned that John Krakauer is a hoot. Voluble, gushing, smart, literary, and extremely witty, John made the houseboat experience a highlight of our summer in India.
Coastal Kerala was settled centuries ago by Portuguese Christian missionaries and has today a very large Catholic community. As we drifted through the canals, we came upon—in what seemed to us the middle of nowhere—a large Catholic church (Figure 18D). The church was weathered and worn by centuries of heat, rain, and dirt and sat in the jungle like some wild vision. We were in for a treat, for there was a wedding underway (a strange mishmash of Hindu traditions and Catholic rites) when we arrived. Charlie began snapping photos—by this time in his life he was an accomplished photographic artist—and so the big white guys discretely milled about the cathedral, angling for better views. After the ceremony, the huge crowd of attendees, which probably included everyone in the local village, moved down the lane to a large warehouse-style building. Charlie was unstoppable, and naturally, we followed. The crowd pushed through a small door into the cavernous space, and we were injected in.
At this point, it occurred to us, partly out of civility and partly from fear, to ask for permission to remain with the wedding party. We found an elderly man who spoke some English, who was not only encouraging but also found space for us at the long communal dining tables that spanned the length of the room. Servants worked their way through, spooning rice, chicken curry, and dal onto every plate. Food in India is traditionally eaten by hand, and only with the right hand (the left hand has incompatible uses). In the north, curry is commonly eaten with unleavened bread (roti) and with minimal effort one can learn to scoop or pinch up food with the bread. But in the south, curry is commonly eaten with rice (and, importantly, Indian rice is not sticky rice), necessitating a complex maneuver in which rice and curry are squished into little clumps and whisked into the mouth. I think there's a critical period for learning this; a novice adult would either starve or invent utensils from scratch. Charlie and I fumbled messily with our rice and chicken (Anthony was suspicious of it, and John had gone missing) until we were mostly wearing it (Figure 18E). We were saved when the servants handed out little prepackaged ice cream containers with those flat wooden spoons, which had somehow found their way to the jungle of this inscrutable country. Our Indian companions at the table watched in speechless wonder as Charlie and I spooned up curry and rice with tiny pieces of wood.
Within a week or two of my first arrival in Charlie's lab, in the fall of 1979, a second year graduate student with whom I shared an office pulled me aside and quietly said: “You know, Charlie, he's very different from the rest of us.” She refused to elaborate, as though she might be apprehended for revealing state secrets, and I didn't grasp precisely what she was trying to tell me. It sounded ominous enough that Charlie could perhaps be an axe murderer or a pedophile or an idiot savant, or maybe a bumbling spy in the mold of Inspector Clouseau. But at the same time, I knew immediately that she was right—he is very different from the rest of us—and I have known that ever since. It has nonetheless taken me years to fully understand how that “difference” has affected “the rest of us.” We are the lucky ones, to have lived in Charlie's circle of students, colleagues, and friends, for he has made us better and smarter, made our lives richer and fuller, and our beliefs stronger and more true. And for his “difference,” we simply love him.
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