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Do You See What I See? A Scientist's Journey Into 3-D
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It wasn't until my guest, Susan Barry, was in college that she realized
she didn't see like other people did. She didn't see in 3-D; her world
was only two-dimensional. She didn't have 3-D stereoscopic vision as the
result of having developed severely crossed eyes when she was a baby.
Once she comprehended that she was missing something important, she
found a developmental optometrist who taught her how to train her eyes
to see in 3-D. Susan Barry's success challenged the popular theory that
certain aspects of sensory development, including stereoscopic vision,
had to be acquired in the first few years of life.
Neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks devotes a chapter to Susan Barry in
his forthcoming book. Barry has written a memoir called "Fixing My Gaze:
A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions." It's just come
out in paperback.
She's a professor of neurobiology at Mount Holyoke College. Her husband
is an astronaut who has dealt with sensory changes in space, as we'll
hear a little later.
Susan Barry, welcome to FRESH AIR. Describe what you were missing when
you didn't see in stereo.
Ms. SUSAN BARRY (Professor of Neurobiology, Mount Holyoke College): When
I didn't see in stereo, space was very contracted and compacted. So, for
example, if I looked at a tree, the leaves or the branches would appear
to overlap one in front of another. But I didn't actually see the
pockets of space between the individual leaves or branches.
GROSS: Kind of like a movie or a moving painting.
Ms. BARRY: Yes, kind of like a movie or a moving painting or a collage,
yes, something like that.
GROSS: So if you're not in 3-D as you're looking, and the world seems
kind of flat, there's no space between things, where are you? Are you in
front of everything that you're looking at?
Ms. BARRY: That actually was my impression, although I have to tell you
that before my vision changed, I could not have told you that space was
contracted and compacted. I didn't know any other way of seeing. And
that was one of the great surprises of gaining stereo vision was seeing
the world in a whole new way that I could not even imagine.
GROSS: So how do the two eyes produce stereoscopic vision, and what was
wrong with your eyes that prevented you from seeing that way?
Ms. BARRY: So the key to stereoscopic vision is that the two eyes have
to point or be aimed at the same place in space at the same time. And
when that happens, the brain can integrate the information coming from
the two eyes.
I was cross-eyed since the very first months of life, which meant that
if I were to look at you, Terry, I would be looking at you with one eye,
and the other eye was turned in. And so the two eyes were not aimed at
the same place in space at the same time, and the brain then could not
integrate the information from the two eyes, and therefore, I had no
GROSS: So did the brain have to learn how to deal with two different
pictures from two different eyes?
Ms. BARRY: Exactly. Actually, you know, a person is meant to aim the two
eyes at the same place in space at the same time and integrate that
information. And if you don't do that, if one eye is looking one place,
and the other eye is looking someplace else, then you're going to suffer
from two major consequences.
One is double-vision, and the second consequence is a phenomenon called
visual confusion. And that means, for example, if I were looking at your
face with my right eye, and my left eye, let's say, was turned and was
aimed at the clock, then I would see your face and the clock in the same
place in space, as if they were overlapping. That's visual confusion.
And so it should be obvious that if you either see a single thing as
double, or you see two things in the same place that are actually
located in different positions in space, then you are going to have a
hard time moving around and manipulating objects.
GROSS: So your brain was tuning out one of your eyes.
Ms. BARRY: Exactly. You know, I needed to have a single view of the
world in order to move through it. And so, the primary adaptation to
having misaligned eyes, a condition also called strabismus, is to
suppress the input from one eye, and then you don't have to worry about
double-vision or visual confusion. Of course, you don't have stereo
vision, but you don't have to worry about a double view of the world.
GROSS: Is it always the same eye that's being suppressed?
Ms. BARRY: That depends on the person. In my case, no. I alternated
rapidly. So I might look at you, for example, with my right eye and turn
in the left and suppress the left eye's input and then in the next
glance, look at you with the left eye and turn in the right.
GROSS: So youâd keep getting alternating views of me if you were doing
Ms. BARRY: Exactly, exactly.
GROSS: That must have been kind of confusing.
Ms. BARRY: It was very confusing, although, I was not aware as to why my
vision seemed unstable and confusing until I went to see a developmental
optometrist at the age of 48. But I would often look in the distance and
everything would appear to jitter.
GROSS: Now, so what caused your cross-eyed-ness that led to this lack of
stereoscopic vision? Was it a muscular problem?
Ms. BARRY: Unlikely. In fact, I have very good eye muscles. I can move
them in all directions, and that is generally true for people who
develop strabismus in infancy.
It's generally the case that their eye muscles and the innervations of
the eye muscles are fine. The problem is in the way the brain
coordinates the two eyes.
My guess is that if I was unable to fuse images as a baby, that means
point the two eyes at the same place in space and therefore merge the
input from the two eyes in my brain, if I was unable to do that, unable
to fuse, then I'm going to suffer from visual confusion and double-
And so the brain needs then to suppress one eye's input. And it's
actually easier to suppress and eye's input if you turn the eye. So I
might have started out with a subtle eye misalignment and had trouble
fusing input from the two eyes. And so that the brain then did was turn
in one eye even more, leading to a very frank strabismus, a very obvious
And often, parents notice with their cross-eyed children that they start
out with a little misalignment, and it gets worse over time. And that
may be because a child is adapting to this confusing view of the world
by turning in and suppressing one of the eyes even more than it was
initially turned in.
GROSS: Now, you had several surgeries as a child to try to correct your
crossed eyes. So how many surgeries did you have, and what were they
doing? What was surgery supposed to accomplish?
Ms. BARRY: So I had three surgeries, and the first one was when I was
two years and four months old, and the second one was when I was three
years and four months old, and the third surgery was when I was seven.
And the idea behind the surgeries was to realign the eyes in the orbits.
So your eyes are actually suspended in the orbit by six, what are called
external ocular eye muscles. And what my surgeon told my parents was you
could sort of think of the eyes like being suspended in their orbits
like a horse's head being held by the reins, and if you pulled one rein
more, let's say if you pulled the rein on the right side more and
loosened the one on the left side, then the horse's head would turn to
And so what the surgery was supposed to do was to re-align the eyes in
their orbits by taking the eye muscles, shortening some of them,
reattaching them to the eye orbit to, you know, kind of reorient where
the eye sat.
Also by doing those operations, the idea was to sort of make it harder
for me to turn in my eyes and easier for me to turn out my eyes in the
hopes that that would correct the tendency I had to look with one eye
and turn in the other one.
GROSS: My guest is neurobiologist Susan Barry. Her memoir, "Fixing My
Gaze," has just come out in paperback. We'll talk more about learning to
see in 3-D and other aspects of sensory perception after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Barry, and her
memoir, "Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in Three
Dimensions," has just been published in paperback.
Because in early infancy she became cross-eyed, she was unable to see in
3-D and basically saw in 2-D, but at the age of 48, she came upon a
therapy that helped her train her eyes and focus them together so that
she could see in 3-D.
So the theory has been that if you don't train your eyes to see in
stereo by a certain age, it's never going to happen. Your brain can't
relearn how to process imaging after a certain age. And what was that
age believed to be?
Ms. BARRY: So you're talking about a theory called the critical period,
that there would be a critical period for the development of stereo
vision, the ability to see in 3-D, and some people would say, oh, that
critical period lasts through the first year of life or maybe the first
two years of life or the first six to eight years of life but certainly
not past early childhood. That was the mental mindset for the, oh, past
GROSS: But at the age of 48, you started therapy to retrain your eyes.
What convinced you, knowing what you knew about this critical period
theory, that you could maybe do it anyways, that you could maybe retrain
your eyes anyways?
Ms. BARRY: So I actually went for vision therapy not to gain stereo
vision. I am a neurobiology professor. I had taught for years in the
classroom about the concept of the critical period, that stereo vision
had to develop in early life or it was not possible to gain it in
And when I went to see a developmental optometrist, what my major
complaint was this jittery world view that I had, that when I looked in
the distance, everything seemed to jitter.
I couldn't drive and read road signs at the same time. And, in fact,
even in the classroom, I wouldn't look at students in the back of the
class because to look, especially in a large classroom, to look into the
distance took a great deal of effort even though the vision in my two
eyes, with my glasses, was 20/20. My acuity was just fine but because of
the conflict between the two eyes, it was difficult to look in the
So when I went to see my developmental optometrist, a woman named
Theresa Ruggiero, my major goal was to find a way to see more
comfortably, to be able to drive more comfortably, to be able to read
signs while driving, to be able to drive at night, to be able to play
tennis or read for more than 20 minutes without feeling some eye fatigue
and so on.
I did not expect that I would be able to gain stereo vision. In fact, I
was quite convinced of the opposite, that stereo vision was well beyond
GROSS: So what are some of the things she taught you that enabled you to
see in 3-D?
Ms. BARRY: The most important thing that Dr. Ruggiero taught me was that
I had to break my old habits, my old ways of seeing. And the way that I
saw was to look with one eye and turn in the other. When I turned in
that eye, I could suppress its input, and that gave me a single view of
What she taught me was how to point the two eyes at the same place in
space at the same time. And when I could do that, I no longer had to
suppress one eye's input because the brain was receiving correlated
information from the two eyes.
And to my absolute astonishment, the result of learning that skill was
that I began to see in 3-D.
GROSS: So you've done a series of exercises, a whole course of training,
to get your eyes to look in the same place at the same time, to work as
a team, as opposed to having each eye do something individual. And this
has enabled you to see in 3-D. Give us an example of one exercise that's
been very helpful to you.
Ms. BARRY: Well, I think people now are aware of various 3-D displays
through 3-D movies like "Avatar" and "Up!" and "Despicable Me," and in
these 3-D movies, perhaps people are aware of the fact that what's
happening is that a different image is being presented to the two eyes
through the 3-D glasses.
So I did a lot of work, as well, using 3-D glasses and stereograms or
stereo displays. And basically, the way these stereograms worked is that
when I wore the 3-D glasses, each eye only saw one image.
So the right eye saw a different image from the left eye, and then it
was up to me to fuse the two images into one. And when I did, the image
I was looking at would pop off of the stereogram sheet and float in the
air, either in front of the sheet or behind the sheet.
And I continued to work with stereograms like that and see those stereo
images floating in space, either in front or behind the sheet, depending
upon the way that I'm looking, and that helps to keep reminding my brain
to see in stereo.
GROSS: Interesting. What is the most thrilling thing that you've seen
since learning to see in 3-D?
Ms. BARRY: I guess I would have to say trees. Over and over again,
something that I see every day because I walk to work every day and so
on and so forth, the way tree canopies are, where the branches are
reaching out toward you, where the different branches enclose palpable
pockets of space, I sometimes find myself just admiring the pockets of
space between the different branches in a tree and actually walking and
immersing myself into those pockets of space. It is just beautiful. It's
just a beautiful sensation.
The sense of immersion in a 3-D world is very dramatic and very
different from the way that I used to see. For example, in the past,
when I would look at a snowfall before my vision changed, the snow would
appear to fall in one flat sheet at a distance, just a little bit of a
distance in front of me.
I did not feel like I was part of the snowfall but I was looking in on
the snowfall. But after my vision changed, when I watched the snow
coming down from the sky, each flake is in its own space, and there are
palpable volumes of space between each snowflake. And all of the
snowflakes produce this beautiful three-dimensional dance, and I feel
myself immersed in the snowfall, surrounded by these snowflakes,
enveloped by the snow, and this is just a wonderful experience.
And so it's not like I would tell you, oh, one day, I saw the Grand
Canyon and that was spectacular. It's as if every day, over and over
again, I get these moments of absolute joy when I look at a tree or a
snowfall or the leaves coming down from a tree and so on and so forth,
and I see all this in three dimensions. And it is, it's just a very
GROSS: But you write that sometimes, your new immersion in the world can
be unnerving and even frightening.
Ms. BARRY: Yes, it can, and I've developed a fear of heights, which I
really never had before. When I am looking, let's say, down from a
window in a very tall building, I find that unnerving, or shortly after
my vision changed, we took a trip to Hawaii, me and my husband and kids.
We all went to Hawaii, and we stopped at one of those scenic viewing
points. And I went up to the fence at the viewing point and looked down
over the fence at this spectacular canyon, and I had this sense of just
how much volume I was looking into, how much space I was looking into,
how deep that canyon was, how big it was. And I found it extremely
nerve-wracking and backed away from the fence, put other people in front
of me, other tourists who were also looking, you know, down at that
And later on that day, my children and husband and I went for a hike,
and every time they came close to the cliff's edge, I really had to
discipline myself not to scream out at them, don't get so close. Because
now with this greater sense of the volumes of space around me, I did
develop a sort of fear of heights. I mean, it's not a pathological fear
of heights but certainly a greater sensitivity to that sense of being up
high than I had before.
GROSS: And do you think that's because you perceive being high up more
clearly and more three-dimensionally than you did before and therefore
perceive the potential for horrific damage if you fell?
Ms. BARRY: I think it is because I perceive much more volume than I did
before. But I don't think the fear is because I then sort of cognitively
imagine, gee, if I fell, I would kill myself, let's say. I think it's a
new sense for me still of where I am in space, how I am located in
space, how far away I am from that cliff's edge and how, you know, how
much space there is beyond the cliff, that I am still learning.
GROSS: So once you learned to see 3-D, do you think you were any more or
less clumsy than you were before, not to imply that you were ever
clumsy, but everybody's a little clumsy?
Ms. BARRY: Oh, I was clumsy. I was definitely clumsy, and once I learned
to see in 3-D, I was indeed less clumsy. I found I could do things like
my kids love to play Ultimate Frisbee. And sometimes we will go out and
play a Frisbee game. And I could actually jump and turn and catch the
Frisbee all in one motion. That would have been impossible before I
learned how to use the two eyes together.
GROSS: Does driving seem any more or less risky with 3-D than it did
with 2-D vision?
Ms. BARRY: Oh, it is much easier to drive now than it used to be,
especially at night, when your sense of depth, stereopsis, sort of
stereo vision, is really important.
And I had a funny incident because I drive very, very slowly. In fact, I
had one neighbor who told me she didn't even have the nervous system to
drive behind me when we were driving down our neighborhood streets, just
that it would drive her crazy because I drove so slowly.
After my vision changed, driving became much smoother. I could come up
to a corner, look both ways and turn the car without sort of having to
stop, assess the situation and then move on.
So driving became much smoother, and I can remember one day driving
along a country road between South Hadley and Northampton,
Massachusetts, and my son said to me, mom? And I said, yes. He goes, do
you know you're going 50 miles an hour?
And I didn't normally drive 50 miles an hour, but this was after my
vision had changed. I was much more relaxed. I was actually enjoying the
drive down the country road. And I had no idea that I could comfortably
drive at that speed. So yes, in short, driving became easier after my
GROSS: My guest, Susan Barry, will be back in the second half of the
show, her memoir, "Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in
Three Dimensions," has just come out in paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross, back with neurobiologist
Susan Barry. Her memoir, "Fixing My Gaze," is about how she learned to
see in 3-D when she was in her 40s. She'd been severely cross-eyed since
infancy and her uncoordinated eyes produced only two-dimensional vision.
Oliver Sacks devotes a chapter to Barry in his forthcoming book and he
wrote the introduction to her memoir which has just come out in
You were told that if you didnât develop the ability to see in 3-D in
your childhood that you'd never develop it because the brain basically
isn't plastic enough to relearn things like that, you know, to relearn
how to process vision.
Dr. BARRY: Correct.
GROSS: But you disproved that...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...at the age of 48. But you had some inklings that the brain was
more capable of relearning perception than scientists said. And one of
the reasons why you thought that was because of your husband's
experiences. He is or was an astronaut and his perceptions changed when
he was in space in a gravity-free environment, and then he had to
relearn how to be back on Earth in a gravity environment. Can you talk a
little bit about his perceptual changes and what implications they had
Dr. BARRY: So my husband, Dan, was an astronaut from the years 1992 to
2005, and he flew on the space shuttle three times during that period.
And when an astronaut goes up into space and is orbiting the Earth on
the space shuttle, everything is in freefall. And so what that means is
that he basically appeared to float on the shuttle and everything that
was not attached with Velcro to the walls of the shuttle floated along
with him. Well, when that happens, your brain experiences sensory
So let me explain that. For example, if youâre on Earth and you tilt
your head downward, then your percept is it looks like the visual world
goes up as your head goes down and there are sensory receptors in your
neck muscles that say hey, I just flexed my neck and I just bent my head
down, and there are receptors in the vestibular system in your inner ear
that say gee, I just moved my head down toward the center of the Earth.
When youâre up in space, and you move your head downward, your visual
system says the head went down, the receptors in your neck muscles say
the head went down, but your inner ear is now giving you not
particularly truthful information because youâre in this freefall
condition. Youâre not in the normal gravity conditions of Earth. And so,
youâre experiencing conflict. Youâre experiencing the conflict between
what your inner ear is saying and what your other sensory systems are
And so, like with me, experiencing sensory conflict between my two eyes,
Dan had to find a way to cope with this, and the way he coped and the
way all astronauts cope, is you sort of turn off your vestibular system
or you use it a lot less. You ignore that information from your inner
ear because it doesnât correlate with the information youâre getting
from the other sensory systems, like your vision. And that is how he
learned to move about in space. And then when he came back from space,
he initially ignored his inner ear. So, for example, if you asked him to
close his eyes and stand on one foot, he couldnât do it, because he was
ignoring that inner ear information which is important for us on Earth
to know what is up and what is down and it's important for our balance.
He couldnât walk in a straight line with his eyes closed when he first
returned from space. But, he readapted to the gravity environment of
space in about three days. But after his third flight it only took about
an hour for him to become perfectly attuned to Earth's gravity again.
GROSS: Did you immediately see implications for your vision when your
husband had to learn how to adapt to space and then readapt to Earth?
Did that immediately make you think oh, well, maybe I can retrain my
eyes, maybe I can retrain my perceptions?
Dr. BARRY: Yes and no. I was actually at the time working at the Space
Center studying adaptations to, you know, changes in gravity and so on
and so forth. And I was very aware of the fact that these changes were
habiting(ph) to astronauts who are adults who presumably have a nervous
system that isn't supposed to be so plastic anymore. And so it did occur
to me that if adults were - if their brains were that much more
adaptable, then perhaps there was something that could happen that could
allow me to see better. But I had no idea what kind of training I would
need for that to happen, for me to be able to learn how to see in 3-D.
And so, when I ended up in 2002 first visiting with a developmental
optometrist, and she started to guide me through these exercises, then I
thought to myself, well, if Dan could adapt to space and could change
his habits and learn to adapt to a new way of living, then perhaps the
adult brain really is plastic and with these procedures, these vision
therapy procedures, perhaps I, too, could learn how to see in a new way.
GROSS: You say something in your book that I suppose is obvious but it
wasnât obvious to me. You write: seeing isn't passive.
Dr. BARRY: Not at all. And it isn't obvious to a lot of people. Even
people who study stereovision, they just assume that the two eyes are
pointing to the same place at the same time and therefore, what really
matters is then how that input from the two eyes is getting to the brain
and what the brain does with it. And they donât step back to yet a sort
of more beginning point, which is that you have to move your two eyes
into position so that the two eyes are aimed at the same place.
When you look at a close object, you have to turn in your two eyes so
that the image that youâre looking at falls on the central part of the
retina, called the fovea, of the two eyes. When you look at a more
distant object, your eyes will turn out. And those movements, they're
called vergence movements, are the movements that I had to learn to
make. A person with strabismus, a person with misaligned eyes doesnât
make those vergence movements. I had to learn how to make them. And once
I learned how to make them, then everything else followed.
So for me to learn to see in stereo was a very active process. I had to
be very aware of how I used my two eyes and the procedures gave me the
feedback to know that. And then I had to learn in a very conscious way,
how to move my two eyes differently and it was only after that that I
could begin to see in stereo. So yes, it's all a very active process.
GROSS: Since it was only after the age of 48 that you were able to see
in 3-D with the help of eye-training exercises that you did, and when
you saw in 2-D, you couldnât really imagine what 3-D was like therefore,
you had no idea what other people were seeing. So does this make you
think that maybe all perception really is relative, that maybe what we
each think of as visual reality is relative?
Dr. BARRY: Yes, I do think that what we all think of as visual reality
is relative. Take for example, somebody with red, green colorblindness,
that's a pretty common condition found in about seven percent of men.
Their perception of what red looks like may be very different from what
your perception of what red looks like, so their visual reality is a
little different from yours. And I think at various levels - some
subtle, some not so subtle - that is true in general for visual
GROSS: Do you spend a lot of time looking into people's eyes? And if so,
do you think youâre looking for something different than other people
Dr. BARRY: I do now. When I was younger and my eyes were crossed, or
even after my surgeries when my eyes didnât look so crossed but still
looked a little odd, I didnât look into people's eyes for the obvious
reason that I felt that I didnât look so normal. Now I do look into
people's eyes and yes, I'm always looking to see if their eyes are
straight as a result of my experience.
And I'd like to tell you one story about a student of mine who was
walleyed, that is she had one eye that looked straight and the other eye
that turned out. And she asked me once about a year ago what it was like
to look into somebody's eyes. And I said to her it could be a very
intense experience. And then she went through vision therapy. And one
day I saw her about a year later and I was working very hard. I was - my
head was down. I was reading a book and she came up to me and said
hello, and I knew who it was. Let's call her Liz(ph). And I said hello,
Liz but I didnât look up because I really wanted to continue to do the
work I was doing. But I did say to her, how are you, Liz? And she said,
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. BARRY: And I looked up and I looked into these two straight eyes,
and a chill just went down my spine, it was like an electric moment, to
see her looking at me and to return her gaze. It was spectacular.
GROSS: So part of the way that you taught yourself how to see in 3-D was
through the use of 3-D glasses. I assume you went to see "Avatar."
Dr. BARRY: Oh, yes. I loved "Avatar."
GROSS: Good experience for you? Uh-huh, right.
Dr. BARRY: Oh, yes. Yes. Especially the scenes of the forest that sort
of receded way past the screen, the seeds - oh, I think there were seeds
of a tree that sort of evoked that image of the snowfall that I was
describing earlier in the program. Oh, yeah, I loved "Avatar," and all
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Great. Sue Barry, thank you so much for talking with us.
Dr. BARRY: Thank you.
GROSS: Sue Barry is the author of the memoir, "Fixing My Gaze: A
Scientist's Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions." You can read an
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Milo Miles reviews Dr. John's new CD, "Tribal." This is FRESH
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Dr. John: Righteous Anger, Graced By Wit
TERRY GROSS, host:
Mac Rebennack, known as Dr. John, has been a rock and R&B ambassador for
his native New Orleans since the late 1960s. Although his public profile
has risen and fallen over the years, the spirit of his city is a
constant presence on all his albums.
Music critic Milo Miles has a review of Dr. John's new album, "Tribal."
(Soundbite of song, "Big Gap")
DR. JOHN (Musician): (Singing) There's a mighty big gap, she's original.
Oh, so. (unintelligible). Get the rich were the rich with a poor M.O.
Oh, so. (unintelligible). It's a mighty big gulp since I head to
(unintelligible). Oh, so. (unintelligible). I (unintelligible), what
they got. Oh, so. (unintelligible).
MILO MILES: So many famous folks are turning 70 this year - from Ringo
Starr to Al Pacino to Nancy Pelosi - it almost seems to be the hip thing
to do. But among the musicians hitting the milestone, Dr. John of New
Orleans, the eternal Night Tripper, is alone in hitting a creative peak
not heard since his youth. His new album, "Tribal," along with 2008's
"The City That Care Forgot," present a veteran wizard who blends blues,
rock, soul, pop and his own take on New Orleans voodoo-music that he
calls fonk. These days, he sounds wise but juicy, righteously angry but
graced by wit.
(Soundbite of song, "Manoovas")
DR. JOHN: (Singing) Donât you go maneuvering round me, (unintelligible)
my words so cheap. Press my dreams every time I see. Donât maneuver me
round your finger. The taste of your tongue lingers. I knew was in for a
loser. Why you can't leave me be?
MILES: The endless horrors wrought by Hurricane Katrina seem to have
roused Dr. John out of an autumnal trance, as it did other New Orleans
natives Randy Newman and Allen Toussaint. In the 1990s and early 2000s,
Dr. John was thumbing through America's back pages - the songbooks of
Johnny Mercer and Duke Ellington, for example - not responding to
current headlines. No question, these ruminations were delightful, full
of ideas and never tossed off. But Dr. John wasn't worked up, didn't
develop a head of steam.
That changed with "City That Care Forgot." Dr. John had never made such
a protest album, filled with broke-down people, built-up profiteers and
pithy lines like: life is a near-death experience. One prophetic
highlight was "Black Gold," which could serve as the anti-anthem to the
Gulf oil spill.
(Soundbite of song, "Black Gold")
DR. JOHN: (Singing) Offshore, they keep on filling way down in the
hole(ph), all for that black gold, there's all they think to worry(ph).
They may not cure it in that deep black hole, like some old hope, they
just don't let go.
I saw this guy (unintelligible). Even our veterans getting treated like
dirt. Our folks don't count, they ain't been counted, with the fear(ph)
how much we all doubt it.
MILES: "City that Care Forgot" was heavy with star turns from the likes
of Eric Clapton and Terence Blanchard. And if the guest appearances on
the new "Tribal" are much more low-key, they're also less of a
distraction. And despite caustic numbers like "Big Gap" and "Only in
America," "Tribal" is not as angry an album as "City that Care Forgot."
"Whut's Wit Dat," for example, is a droll complaint about the oceans of
fast food everywhere. Other numbers are brain-teasers with philosophical
points. A vocal duet with drummer Herman Ernest, "Them," pokes fun at
people addicted to blame.
(Soundbite of song, "Them")
DR. JOHN and Mr. HERMAN ERNEST (Drummer): (Singing) I won't believe that
I hear everything when naturally, what causes other one? It's better on
them. I was wrong.
Mr. HERMAN ERNEST (Drummer): (Singing) That's the problem.
DR. JOHN and Mr. ERNEST: (Singing) As you once told me (unintelligible).
DR. JOHN: (Singing) Let's go together.
Mr. ERNEST: (Singing) It's all of us here.
Dr. JOHN and MR. ERNEST: (Singing) There's a (unintelligible) and you be
you, and I'll just be me. How could we not understand what children do?
I do you, as you do me. I just want to live in harmony. Can we all just
MILES: Mac Rebennack has always been a bone-deep professional, and part
of that means not dropping out of the game and being ready to respond
when inspiration or outrage strikes. Part of professionalism also means
knowing that exposure on a hot TV show like "Treme" indicates it's time
to give it all you got on record, and Dr. John has done that. "Tribal"
has the grandeur and savvy of your favorite crazy uncle. People don't
appreciate how tricky it is to deliver this persona in popular music.
Loudon Wainwright hits it at times. Bob Dylan and John Prine stumble
across it regularly. Richard Thompson should try to find it more often.
However, none of them will be as funky as Dr. John.
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed Dr. John's new album,
Coming up, David Bianculli reviews two programs on Showtime tonight: the
premiere of the new series "The Big Sea," starring Laura Linney as a
woman diagnosed with advanced cancer, and the season premiere of
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Clunky Characters, Cancer Characterize 'Big C'
TERRY GROSS, host:
The cable TV network Showtime has specialized, in the last few years, in
half-hour series about complicated women with major issues, starring
some of TV's most gifted actresses. There's Edie Falco from "The
Sopranos" as the star of "Nurse Jackie," Toni Collette playing multiple
roles in "The United States of Tara," Mary-Louise Parker playing a
mother, widow and drug dealer in "Weeds" and, beginning tonight, Laura
Linney as a wife, mother and high school teacher who learns she has
cancer in "The Big C."
Our TV critic David Bianculli previews that series, as well as tonight's
season premiere of "Weeds."
DAVID BIANCULLI: Television already has one series about a character
whose actions and reactions to life change completely after an
unexpected diagnosis of terminal cancer. That would be AMC's "Breaking
Bad," starring Bryan Cranston as a meek high school science teacher who
reacts to his own medical death sentence by making and selling crystal
meth to provide for his wife and family after he's gone. It's a
brilliant show, but it's hard to imagine a TV series with a less
attractive thumbnail description.
In "The Big C," premiering Monday night on Showtime, Laura Linney plays
Cathy Jamison, who's also a high school teacher who gets cancer. She has
a teen son who's a spoiled brat and a husband, played by Oliver Platt,
who's another spoiled brat, and whom she throws out of the house as one
of her first reactions to her cancer diagnosis. Heavy into denial, she
doesn't tell either of them about what's happening to her. And it's not
until episode three, in fact, that she makes the first steps toward
acceptance by barging in on a cancer support group. But the upfront
honesty she encounters there isn't easy for her to accept, nor is the
sunny outlook, which she finds positively repellent.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Big C")
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. LAURA LINNEY (Actor): (as Cathy Jamison) Oh, I'm sorry. I'm
Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) No, no. Please. I'm Sheila.
Ms. LINNEY: (as Cathy Jamison) Cathy.
Unidentified Group: Welcome, Cathy.
Unidentified Woman #2: (as character) How are you doing?
Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) We're glad you're joining us. Why
don't you tell us a little about you?
Ms. LINNEY: (as Cathy Jamison) Oh, well, I'm Cathy Jamison. I'm 42. I
have a husband and a child, neither of whom are speaking to me. There
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) Cathy, do you have cancer?
Ms. LINNEY: (as Cathy Jamison) Wow, really buried the lead there. Yes.
Yes, I do - melanoma, stage four.
Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) Well. Since you came alone, why don't
you partner with Leon there? Just pull up a chair.
(Soundbite of rustling)
Unidentified Man #1: (as Leon) Leukemia, stage two.
Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) Well, good for you for coming, Cathy.
As we say, cancer is a gift. It allows you to speak up in life and say
hey, life. This is what I want. But, before you speak up, you have to
find you voice. Right, Mitchell?
Unidentified Man #2: (as Mitchell) Right.
BIANCULLI: Laura Linney is just right in this role. She's the reason to
watch, and she never disappoints. And Oliver Platt, as her husband, is
really good, too. They're the core of a good show, and what's best about
"The Big C."
Unfortunately, series creator Darlene Hunt, whose biggest writing
credits include the new "90210," and executive producer Jenny Bicks, of
"Sex and the City" and "Men in Trees" and a cancer survivor herself,
have overloaded this show with characters that just don't ring true. In
fact, they don't ring at all. They just sort of clunk.
The people around Cathy, outside of her husband and son, are little more
than cartoons. There's her younger brother, who's homeless, her across-
the-street neighbor, who's crotchety and solitary and a sassy high
school student, played by Gabourey Sidibe. While Laura Linney elevates
"The Big C," these other poorly conceived characters drag it down.
Now compare that to "Weeds," where Mary-Louise Parker, as suburban pot
dealer Nancy Botwin, has been raising comic hell for years now. Once
again, as this season begins, she's forced to load up her family and
flee - this time because her youngest son, Shane, just killed a woman
who was threatening his mother. So, once again, "Weeds" is about to
reinvent itself, with Nancy, as she shoves her teen boys into the family
car, embodying the polar opposite of a role model.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Weeds")
Ms. MARY-LOUISE PARKER (Actor): (as Nancy Botwin) I am sorry, but now
you have the handbook for what not to do. And as we drive far away from
here, you can talk about the many ways in which I've failed you, or we
can play license plate bingo. I'll let you decide.
(Soundbite of car door shutting)
Mr. HUNTER PARRISH (Actor): (as Silas Botwin) Move over.
Mr. ALEXANDER GOULD (Actor): (as Shane Botwin) Climb over me.
Mr. PARRISH: (as Silas Botwin) I'm not sitting on the hump. Move over.
Mr. GOULD: (as Shane Botwin) I'm already buckled.
Mr. PARRISH: (as Silas Botwin) Well, unbuckle and move to the middle.
Mr. GOULD: (as Shane Botwin) You really don't want to mess with me, you
Ms. PARKER: (as Nancy Botwin) Move over now.
Mr. GOULD: (as Shane Botwin) Ow.
Mr. PARRISH: (as Silas Botwin) What is it with you and the violence?
Ms. PARKER: (as Nancy Botwin) Don't play the whole I'm-a-killer-now
card. That is unacceptable.
Mr. GOULD: (as Shane Botwin) Fine.
(Soundbite of car door shutting)
BIANCULLI: In the case of "Weeds," everyone surrounding Nancy is a
believable, entertaining, complicated character played by a talented
actor. Justin Kirk, as her brother-in-law, is amazingly funny, as
always. "The Big C," on the other hand, has a strong supporting cast,
but the writing is weak. Watch the two shows back to back, as Showtime
is presenting them, and the comparisons are unavoidable - and, to "The
Big C," unfavorable. For its first few episodes, "The Big C" isn't just
the title. It's the show's grade.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com, and teaches
television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.
You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording from jazz singer Abbey Lincoln's final
album, "Abbey Sings Abbey." She died Saturday at the age of 80. We'll
feature an interview with her from our archive tomorrow. This is
probably her best-known original song, "Throw it Away."
(Soundbite of song, "Throw it Away")
Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN (Jazz Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I think about the
life I live, a figure made of clay, and think about the things I lost,
the things I gave away. And when I'm in a certain mood, I search the
halls and look. One night I found these magic words in a magic book.
Throw it away. Throw it away. Give your life, give your love, each and
every day. And keep your hand wide open. Let the sun shine through,
'cause you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you.
There's a hand that rocks the cradle, and a hand to help us stand with
the gentle kind of motion as it moves across the land. And the hand's
unclenched and open, gifts of life and love it brings. So keep your hand
wide open if you're needing anything.
Throw it away. Throw it away. Give your love, live your life, each and
every day. And keep your hand wide open. Let the sun shine through
'cause you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.