What Does The Goat Man Say? Baa, Maa Or 'I'm Crazy'

Wearing his prosthetic, goat-like legs (and a crash helmet, just in case), Thomas Thwaites interacts with an alpine goat.

Wearing his prosthetic, goat-like legs (and a crash helmet, just in case), Thomas Thwaites interacts with an alpine goat. Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Thwaites did goat research at Buttercups, which he says is “the United Kingdom’s (if not the world’s) only sanctuary for abused goats.” Its 250 goats live down the road from Thwaites’s home. Thomas Thwaites/Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press hide caption

toggle caption Thomas Thwaites/Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

The blog “Goats and Soda” obviously has big love for goats.

And so we were very excited to learn about the new book GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.

Last week, NPR’s Scott Simon spoke to author (and designer) Thomas Thwaites, the man who goatified himself because, as he put it, it’d be “an interesting and slightly different way of looking at the world and thinking about ourselves in relation to other people, other objects, other animals.”

Of course, as the editor of Goats and Soda (and a Capricorn), we couldn’t resist talking to him as well.

You walked on all fours and went up down steep cliffs in the Alps with a herd of goats for three days, eating grass and sleeping outside. Can I ask: Are you crazy?

No. I mean, occasionally I sort of catch myself talking about, ‘Oh yeah, I became a goat” and [I think] this must sound really weird. But I’ve lived with the project for quite a long time, since September 2014. It doesn’t seem crazy to me.

Initially you wanted to become an elephant until a shaman convinced you otherwise.

Her point, which I think was slightly valid, was that you don’t have anything to do with elephants, you’re so far removed in terms of your environment and your cultural history. The only time I see elephants is in a zoo.

So a goat was a more familiar alternative. And you designed a suit that enabled you to walk on all fours in a goatlike way. How much did the suit cost?

The front legs were like 1,500 pounds [$2,190] and my back legs, cost, I dunno, like 1,000 pounds [$1,460]. [For more on the design of the suit, click here.]

Was it hard walking like a goat?

It was much more physically demanding than I thought. My fingers and hands were extended to attempt to mimic a goat’s foreleg. I’d lose balance because I wasn’t used to the length of my front limbs. Moving fast on this really steep, scary Alpine mountain terrain and going downhill was really difficult psychologically and physically. It was much easier for me to go uphill.

Any goat-human tension?

Going uphill, I found myself at the highest point in the herd. I looked up and everyone else had just stopped chewing and were all kind of staring at me. It felt a bit like the goats were sizing me up. That was the only time I was scared of the goats. I know they can break each other’s legs by getting the leg between their horns and twisting their horns. I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t really know how to fight like a goat, to butt heads.’

Did a fight happen?

No, no. I’d made a goat ally, this goat I’d just been hanging around with. This goat ally walked straight through the middle of this tense sort of group and it seemed like it diffused the situation. I just followed my goat ally, and then we all walked off together as a herd.

Did you learn anything about goat behavior?

I was trying to forget myself. I wasn’t trying to learn about them.

In the moments when you were a “goat,” what was it like?

I guess it was kind of meditative.

Do you have new respect for goats?

They’re just as evolved as humans. They’ve evolved to eat grass and travel down mountains extremely dexterously and survive in the wild, and I don’t think you quite realize how difficult that is. For all the technological power that we have, we’re still not close to being as good as a goat at going down a steep path.

They’re not a lower form of life. And they’re very good at being goats. But we’re very good at being humans and carrying shopping bags and philosophizing.

This is a very important question. In the book you say that goats go “Baa.” Isn’t it “Maaaaa?”

I had a conversation with the editor of the book. I stuck with “Baa” in the book but it really was like, “Wahmarhrrr.”

When do they make such utterances?

They tend to make sounds when they’re agitated or calling their young.

So they’re not big conversationalists?

No, they’re much more about smell and body posture.

Have you changed after your days as a goat? Do you, for example, worry less about stuff?

It’d be nice to be able to say, ‘Now, whenever I get worried or down, I just think, Thomas, be more the goat.’ But that’s one of the difficult things about feelings and being worried and depressed or whatever. It’s difficult to rationally think your way out of it.

Any plans to return to being a goat?

I’ve remade the back legs to be a bit more comfortable and help me balance my weight a little more. I’m kind of kneeling into [the new prosthetic rear legs]. It’s a bit more natural for a human.

I may go back to being a goat. I think I barely scratched the surface.

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'Letters To Kevin': What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate

Letters to Kevin

Known mostly for graphic novels, Fantagraphics has ventured occasionally into prose — including His Wife Leaves Him, the 2013 novel by award-winning author Stephen Dixon. Letters to Kevin is Dixon’s second book for Fantagraphics, and while it’s also a work of prose, it veers a bit closer to the publisher’s wheelhouse: It’s profusely illustrated by Dixon himself. It’s a risky move; most of Dixon’s rudimentary sketches are of the don’t-quit-your-day-job variety. But they bring an extra dose of loopy, madcap charm to a book that’s already plenty unhinged — although not always in a good way.

The novel’s premise is as simple as it is ripe with comic potential: a young New Yorker named Rudy Foy decides to get in touch with his friend Kevin Wafer in Palo Alto, only to be foiled at every turn — and always absurdly. Rudy attempts to call Kevin, only to realize his pillow doesn’t work like a phone. He tries a payphone but gets trapped inside before it’s whisked away to a warehouse in Alaska. Figuring he must see Kevin in the flesh if he ever wants to speak to him again, he tries convincing a cabbie to take him to the airport; a farcical exchange of currency, wit, and inverted logic ensues. From a cabin in the woods to a submarine that travels under the continent, Rudy finds himself in all sorts of bizarre settings and conveyances. One thing drives him: He must reach his friend at all costs and, you know, catch up with the guy.

As its title implies, Letters is an epistolary novel. In a funny twist, the letters that comprise it — penned by Rudy and addressed to Kevin, documenting his odd odyssey across America — are all written on Rudy’s antique typewriter, which he carries with him wherever he goes. Dixon notoriously writes all his novels (Letters included) on exactly such a typewriter, which makes it hard not to view Rudy as a surrogate for the author. If so, Dixon might be a very frustrated man: Poor Rudy is tripped up again and again by uncaring, intractable people, too wrapped up in their routines and institutions to offer him any real help. At one point he tries to catch a ride from a politician — and winds up, innocently enough, jumping on a literal bandwagon.

Wordplay and ludicrousness abound in Letters. Rudy’s entire journey is a tower of absurdities, each one thrown precariously on the one that came before. But the book’s wackiness grows rickety as it moves along; much of it lapses into a repetitive, episodic rhythm that starts to make all the weirdness seem routine. “Let me write about it before I forget it,” writes Kevin at on point, “because if I write about it after I forget it, there won’t be anything to write about.” It’s one of many cute little brain-twisters; they just don’t add up to much, especially after the book settles into its rambling groove.

If Letters‘ shaggy-dog status is ever in doubt, it’s dispelled by the ending, an anticlimactic shrug of a conclusion that feels unsatisfyingly hollow. To make things worse, the final pages are rendered in an invented language called Giffiggof that comes across like an afterthought rather than an integral part of the story. At least Giffiggof isn’t hard to read — no more so than, say, Pig Latin. Maybe it should be more difficult; the whole book cries out for a more challenging, better developed execution of its basic idea. A wide streak of the whimsical strangeness of Lewis Carroll and Shel Silverstein runs through Letters, but not enough profundity or poignancy. Dixon, however, does succeed in delivering a breezy, goofily illustrated road-trip of a tale, even if the book’s bigger message — something about the futility of communication and the fruitlessness of pursuit and desire — gets a little lost in the lunacy.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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'Sounds And Sweet Airs' Remembers The Forgotten Women Of Classical Music

Classical music fans are familiar with Robert Schumann. But they might not know that his his wife, Clara, was an accomplished composer, too.

Classical music fans are familiar with Robert Schumann. But they might not know that his his wife, Clara, was an accomplished composer, too. Franz Hanfstaengl/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Franz Hanfstaengl/Getty Images

Classical music fans know the names Mendelssohn and Schumann. Chances are, Felix and Robert leap to mind — but Felix’s sister Fanny was also a composer, and so was Robert Schumann’s wife Clara. Those are just two composers featured in Anna Beer’s new book, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music.

Beer spoke with NPR’s Rachel Martin about the strategies women composers have used over the centuries to succeed in such a male-dominated field. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, or read on for an edited version.

Rachel Martin: Your book profiles a handful of women composers dating back to the 17th century. What was it about the sexism of the time that made it so hard for them to be recognized for the music they were composing and creating?

Anna Beer: Well, sexism, like everything, changes over time. So I think we’ve got two broad kinds of sexism working: one in the earlier period, and one which brings us right up to today. In the earlier period, there were beliefs about the appropriate spheres and appropriate behavior for women. But if you were an exceptionally talented composer, and you did produce astonishing, wonderful music, people would make a kind of exception for you. They’d say, “Your music is equal to men.”

The only thing you had to be very careful of, as a woman, was to behave. You’d have to watch out for being described as courtesan, and you had to marry who you were told to marry, and be innocent and chaste and all the rest of it. But under certain circumstances, in the right place and the right time — particularly if there’s a really powerful female monarch in place who wants somebody to justify their rule and their power, [and] might want a kind of poster girl for female talent — you could succeed.

Let’s talk about one female composer that you’ve written about in this book: a Venetian woman from the Baroque era, a composer by the name of Barbara Strozzi. Who was she?

Barbara Strozzi is a woman of mystery, in many ways, and certainly her parentage is. But she was taken up by the man whose name she took, who was a leading figure in the Venetian, libertine, creative musical world. And she was brought up as a singer and as a performer, amongst men, performing erotic songs for men —

Erotic songs for men?

Erotic songs for men, yes, as a teenage girl. That’s how she cut her teeth as a composer. And her father figure used her in various, interesting ways. I mean yes, he created a platform for her, but he also prostituted her to his most important musical patron. So, it was very much a Venetian world where the courtesan — who, as we know, in Venice, was professional in so many ways, but one of her skills was to provide music as well as sex.

What’s astonishing about her life is that she published her work under her own name. She has more music in print than any other composer, male or female, in that Baroque era in the 17th century. And I like to think that it was kind of her way to bypass the prince’s bedroom, or the nobleman’s bedroom or even just the impresario’s bedroom — to leave a legacy. Because this is always the challenge for women: They might be stupendously successful in their time, but how do generations after hear their music?

Let’s talk about Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel — Felix’s older sister.

She grew up very, very close with Felix Mendelssohn, her little brother. And they were both seen as geniuses in many ways. They both had the same education, until a crushing moment; I can only imagine that it haunted her throughout the rest of her life. When she was 14, her father came back from a business trip with gifts for the two children: Fanny was 14 and Felix was 10. Felix got a notebook and pen to write his first opera — as you do when you’re 10, if you’re Felix Mendelssohn! Fanny, who was already writing the most complex, advanced compositions you could possibly imagine, was given a set of jewels — and told that in her life, music could be an ornament, like the jewels, but it would be an ornament to her life in the home as a wife and mother.

Perhaps the most painful part of Fanny Hensel’s life is that she did marry a wonderful man who supported her enormously — an artist, Wilhelm Hensel. She tried so hard to be that perfect wife and mother. She embraced it; her diaries are full of joyous little domestic details. But she kept composing.

Did you discover anything more about their adult relationship as siblings, Felix and Fanny? Did he recognize her talent?

Yes. He absolutely recognized her talent. They wrote constantly about musical matters. He would run his latest piece by her; she would do the same thing. But he could not bear the thought of her going out into the public world. He opposed every step of the way — as did her father — her publishing her music. She obeyed him until finally, at around 40, I think, there was this moment, this awakening. There’s this very touching letter where she remembers the girl she was at 14. She says, “I’m as anxious writing to you today, Felix, as I was when I was 14, standing up to father. But I really, really want to publish my music.” And the heartbreaking thing about this is that she died very soon after this very late foray into any kind of public recognition at all.

One last composer: Lili Boulanger, a French woman who also came from a musical family.

Yes, and even more of a musical world. I mean, Gabriel Fauré was a neighbor, a professor of composition, lived in the flat above. It was the 9th arrondissement in Paris, the perfect place for a composer to flourish. And, you know, we are in a world in which as a woman, it was beginning to be possible to be a composer. But Lili is so interesting because her big sister, who is often much more well-known, Nadia Boulanger, succeeded at every possible level, but didn’t win the top prize. You couldn’t break through that glass ceiling. And Lili watched. And you could almost see the cogs working. She thought, “Nadia has tried to do this like a man.” Lili presented herself as a femme fragile, a fragile woman, a girl. She was not a threat to the establishment. She always dressed in virginal white. She won the award that eluded her sister.

When she was interviewed about her prizewinning piece — she was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, the highest musical honor — she was interviewed with her mother, even though she was a grown woman. And she was asked, “How did you come up with the piece?” And she says, “I dreamed it. Didn’t I, mother?” Her mother says, “What?” And she says, “Well, that I was a little child and I was teaching my little doll to play the piano.” “You see,” said her mother, smiling, “she’s still only a child.”

She knew how to play the game.

She knew how to play the game. The tragedy is that she was seriously ill for much of her short life, and so this femme fragile [image] was very close to home. A question that has haunted me writing about these women is that clearly, each and every one of them had to come up with a strategy to beat the sexism of their time. And to pretend to be a child-woman, when actually you’re an assiduous professional, is one strategy. But how well does it serve the women coming after you?

What is the situation for women composers today?

I think it’s still very difficult. It breaks my heart every time I read Clara Schumann writing in the 19th century, saying, “I can’t be a composer; there haven’t been any female composers. Why do I even try?” And you think, “Of course there are! There’s 300, 400, 500 years of women writing before you, Clara. You can do it.” And if there’s one thing I learned from all eight women I wrote about: boy, the professionalism, the determination, the sheer skill. Let’s pay homage to that, in the past, and indeed in the present.

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Corporate Funds Pledged For Republican Convention Under Fire

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at West Chester University in West Chester, Pa., on April 25.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at West Chester University in West Chester, Pa., on April 25. Matt Slocum/AP hide caption

toggle caption Matt Slocum/AP

As Donald Trump prepares to accept the Republican nomination, just over eight weeks away, he’s let it be known he thinks the nominating conventions are boring.

He’s right. Every nominee since 1980 has been known before the opening gavel. Floor fights are nearly extinct. The TV audience is dwindling.

Trump wants a flashier GOP convention. But the event already has its own controversy, because of the nominee himself.

It’s about money.

This spring, several progressive groups said Coca-Cola, Microsoft and a few other big corporations should retract $100,000 contributions pledged for the Republican convention in Cleveland.

The progressive groups said the money would help promote Trump, thus compromising the corporations’ own policies not to discriminate.

“They can’t be out there professing their commitment to those core values, when they end up making decisions to align their brand with Trump’s racist and sexist campaign,” said Murshad Zaheed, political director of Credo Action. “They can’t have it both ways.”

The contributions were for Cleveland’s nonprofit host committee, not the Republican national committee.

Zaheed said Coca-Cola and Microsoft both backed out of their pledges. The two companies dispute that. They told NPR that yes, they have reduced their cash contributions for both conventions — but those decisions were made last year. And both still plan to supply their products — drinks and technology — to the conventions.

The groups are also putting pressure on Google, which is the official live-streaming service for the convention. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the company’s cash contributions.

All three corporations emphasized that they don’t make political endorsements.

David Gilbert, president of the Cleveland host committee, said, “I wouldn’t say there’s been no effect, but overall it’s been pretty small.”

In fact, the host committee so far has raised $56 million, so a couple of $100,000 checks are not a crisis.

“We have actually already raised more money than any other political convention in history,” Gilbert said.

And the host committee in Philadelphia, site of the Democratic convention, isn’t far behind. A spokeswoman there declined interview requests.

The Republican and Democratic national committees are raising money, too.

What moves corporations, unions and wealthy donors to give? Among the reasons: hometown spirit, civic responsibility and, of course, access to powerful politicians.

“These conventions are all about providing one-on-one access to the very well-financed donors behind the conventions,” said Craig Holman, of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen.

Forty years ago, the conventions were financed purely with public funds. The 1976 conventions cost about $9 million each, adjusted for inflation. In the 1990s, the Federal Election Commission relaxed the rules, allowing host committees to raise money without limits. Private funds flowed in. The 2012 GOP convention cost $74 million.

Since then, Congress has ended the public funding, and Congress and the FEC have opened two new channels for more private money. The only federal funds this year are $50 million for security at each convention.

The upshot, said Holman: Bloated soirees that are “seen by party leaders as being an excellent opportunity for lawmakers and candidates to embrace the very wealthy special interests and the corporate interests.”

Disclosure of those interests has to wait. The host committees don’t file their reports until September, two months after the balloons drop on the nominees.

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Longtime Couples Get In Sync, In Sickness And In Health

Robbie Porter/Ikon Images/Getty Images

Robbie Porter/Ikon Images/Getty Images

We think of aging as something we do alone, the changes unfolding according to each person’s own traits and experiences. But researchers are learning that as we age in relationships, we change biologically to become more like our partners than we were in the beginning.

“Aging is something that couples do together,” says Shannon Mejia, a postdoctoral research fellow involved in relationship research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “You’re in an environment together, and you’re appraising that environment together, and making decisions together.” And through that process, you become linked physically, not just emotionally.

It’s like finishing each other sentences, but it’s your muscles and cells that are operating in sync.

Doctors tend to treat people as individuals, guided by the need to ensure patient confidentiality. But knowing about one partner’s health can provide key clues about the other’s. For instance, signs of muscle weakening or kidney trouble in one may indicate similar problems for the other.

Looking at married couples who were together less than 20 years and couples together for more than 50, Mejia and her colleagues have found striking similarities between partners who have spent decades together, especially in kidney function, total cholesterol levels, and the strength of their grips, which is a key predictor of mortality. They presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Gerentological Society of America.

The data came from 1,568 older married couples across the United States. The couples were part of a larger dataset that included information on their income and wealth, employment, family connections, and health, including information based on blood tests.

One obvious reason for partner similarity is that people often choose partners who are like them — people from the same stock, with similar backgrounds. But that didn’t explain why there were more similarities between the long-time partners, compared to the others.

To learn more about this element of partner choice versus spending decades together, the researchers analyzed couples by age, education and race. When they accounted for the effect of partner choice, they found that the biological similarities persisted, based on markets in blood tests.

The way Mejia puts it, this likeness includes “something the couples co-created” over time, not just what they started with because they were similar at the beginning.

She’s now studying what may be causing these “co-created” biological similarities. “We’re working on a few things,” she said, such as the effect of partners’ shared experiences and of sharing an environment where they have similar advantages and disadvantages, like the ability to walk in their neighborhoods or find other ways to stay active.

Mejia’s work follows that of Christiane Hoppmann, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. She and her colleagues found that long-time couples experienced similar levels of difficulty with daily tasks, such as shopping for food, making a hot meal, and taking medications. They found the same for depression, and with both depression and daily task difficulties, they found that the couples changed, for better or for worse, in sync.

They also found that the effects crossed over from the mental to the physical. In other words, increases in feelings of depression in one spouse led to more daily task limitations in the other.

Hoppmann and Denis Gerstorf, of Humboldt University in Berlin, suggest that a key factor here could be physical activity. For instance, if a depressed partner refuses to leave the house, the other may feel compelled to remain at home, too. The longer the two remain sedentary, the more vulnerable they become to a range of problems, from worsening depression to diabetes, that can limit their ability to function from day to day.

But the news in these partner studies is not all not bad.

William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, has found evidence of the power of optimism. He and his research colleagues studied optimism, in addition to health and activity limitations, in 2,758 older couples in a national dataset. Optimism scores came from a test that measured their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.”

The researchers found that over a four-year period, when one partner’s optimism increased, the other partner experienced fewer illnesses such as diabetes and arthritis compared to people whose partners did not become more optimistic. So, “the fact that (your spouse) increased in optimism is good for you,” even if your optimism didn’t rise, Chopik said.

He isn’t sure why this is happening in their study, also presented at the Gerontological Society meeting. He and his colleagues had accounted for age, gender, and education differences. He speculates that optimists are more likely to live healthy lives and use their influence over their partners to get them to live healthier, too.

Chopik is currently studying how two partners’ levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, change and become coordinated over time. He plans to compare couples whose relationships span at least 40 years to those who have been together for less than two.

These investigations of how couples affect each other’s health are relatively new, particularly the research into the biological changes, and the researchers are still searching for explanations.

Nevertheless, they say, the implications for health care are clear. People in relationships don’t experience chronic health problems on their own. When a spouse comes in with a problem, the other spouse could be part of the cause — or the solution.

Lindsay Peterson is a graduate student and freelance science writer in Tampa, Fla.

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