Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nothing to See Here, Except . . .

Things have been quiet around here for the last week or so. Traffic is light, Starbucks has been mostly empty, and there's a feeling that everybody must be out of town on vacation. It's very pleasant. Even the fireflies seem to be off napping somewhere.

Coinciding with that, we've had sort of a summer version of a polar vortex, with a storm front moving in and cooling things down, trailing ragged thunderclouds and pinkish-gold sunsets in its wake. It's amazing how charming a cold spell can be when it happens in the middle of July, dropping temperatures to the 70s, lowering humidity, and still allowing the sun to shine.

A little over a week ago, it was so humid that even at 8:30 at night, walking was like wading slowly through curtains of moisture. I much prefer that to walking through sleet and snow, but it does sap your energy if it goes on long enough. After a week of storm clouds wildly chasing sunshine, and vice versa, we're back to heat and humidity, though I understand we're in for another cooling spell in a day or so.

Among the charms of a summer evening's walk this week, I have spotted: toadstools, like something from a nursery rhyme, right on my street; a cardinal on a treetop silhouetted against the sky; two rabbits sitting together in a field; scampering chipmunks; porches edged with riotous flowers; and a complex sunset of mauve, pink, and orange. Tonight, big, fat cumulus clouds, tinged with apricot from the setting sun, seemed too lazy even to move, as if an artist had painted them on the backdrop of the sky and then went off on tea break, leaving them hanging.

If you looked at the image of July in one of those medieval books of hours, like the Très Riches Heures du Duc Berry, you would see what July looks like around here, minus the sheep and the castle. In fact, there is a street named Kastle near here, and there's a house not far away where (I'm not kidding) a sheep used to graze in the yard, so with a little imagination you can see some overlap. It's a pity the sheep is gone. I never saw it in the summer, but it would have made a lovely Très Rich Hours scene, Kentucky style, to go with all the cardinals, rabbits, hostas, and begonias of our suburban summer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Shall We Gather at the River?

In my first year of graduate school, I tried to figure out the myths we currently live by in America, in the absence of a single religious tradition and the presence of multiculturalism. It was hard to identify one thing that most people hold as sacred until someone mentioned money. I guess I was reaching for something loftier, thinking that surely there was something grander we all subscribe to. I was slow to come to the realization, but you know, money explains a lot of things.

This unpleasant truth has slowly become clearer to me as I've watched the news over the last few years. It's not that there's anything wrong with making money, but when it becomes the highest value, with no other principles to check it, things get out of whack pretty quickly. Jung talked about the importance of balance in psychic health, of not having too much of one attitude or value to the detriment of others, and this is true at the collective level as well as the individual.

Some depth psychologists, like Thomas Singer, talk about the idea of "cultural complexes," recurring themes in the nation's psyche that play out in social life, politics, cultural trends, entertainment, and the media. Over time, it's possible to work through some of these complexes, as we grow conscious of them, through debate, compromise, lawmaking, and social change. It's a long process, and one that only works when all of the viewpoints on an issue, whether it's gun control, abortion, or affirmative action, are heard, considered, debated, and tested. Singer has said that it's usually a mistake to locate soul and "rightness" on only one side of an issue. Only deep engagement, passionate disagreement, consideration, argument, reconsideration, and compromise, over and over, for as long as it takes, can ever resolve things.

Interestingly, the cultural complex surrounding materialism in our society is the area in which Singer sees little engagement, meaning that we remain stuck in any issues touched by money--which, after all, covers a lot of territory. From tax reform to corporate regulation, from consumer protection to the role of money in political campaigns, from economic growth to health care, we run into stalemates time and again because the high value placed on the making of money clashes with so many of our other values.

Everybody knows the story of King Midas, who was gracious when one of Dionysus's satyrs fell asleep in his vineyard and was in turn granted anything he desired by Dionysus. When Midas asked for the power to turn anything he touched into gold, even Dionysus (not exactly a model of moderation) asked if he was sure that's what he wanted. Midas got his wish, which seemed like a great thing for the first half hour or so, until he killed his own child by the touch of his hand and found that even his food and drink turned into metal. It turned out there was a cure, which involved bathing in the river Pactolus, though Midas couldn't undo the damage he'd already done. It's assumed he emerged from the river considerably chastened.

Talk abut a tale for our time!

I read an article yesterday discussing the recent Pew Research Center finding that the number of Americans who think the United States is "exceptional" is dropping. This is true regardless of political party, and the trend is especially evident among those aged 18-29; only 15 percent of them think the United States stands above other nations. There is more than one way to look at these statistics, of course (exceptional in what way, exactly?), but Aaron Blake and Jaime Fuller of the Washington Post suggest that this finding is related to another trend, revealed by a recent Gallup poll. In 2013, Gallup found that Americans' satisfaction with the level of freedom in their lives has fallen 12 percentage points since 2006 (we're now in 36th place). Gallup explains the drop in terms of unhappiness with the economy, the government, and corruption. In other words, the New Normal.

Most of the people I know do live by other values besides money, and I believe we've always taken it for granted that our country stands for much more than power and greed. The question is, are we still justified in feeling that way? And if money is the root of so many of our current problems, what can we do about it?

I think a reasonable first step might be to get clear on the things that matter to us most. If we want to curb the influence of money and support other values in our culture, we can do it, but we have to have the will. Do we have that will? It's a big question. What else do we hold dear, and what else do we think makes life worth living? What do we want our country to stand for? Maybe the right place to start the conversation is with questions like these.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Wine for the Palate, Yarrow for the Heart

There's something in Vanessa Diffenbaugh's novel The Language of Flowers that makes me think of the movie Sideways. It may not seem that a teen-age orphan making her way in the world after years of foster care and a frustrated middle-aged oenophile should have much in common, but they do. There's the central role of grapes and vineyards in both stories, of course, but there's also a similarity of mythic themes.

At first glance, Sideways seems to be about one thing primarily, and that is romance. The film is replete with sensual images: wining and dining, epicurean picnics at sunset, flirting, and long drives through gorgeous fields of ripening grapes. Aphrodite's presence is so strong and beautifully rendered that it initially diverts attention from another, more patient figure in the story.

In keeping with Miles' tendency to devote himself to sybaritic pursuits while shying away from love, the movie seduces with soft-focus images of romantic dinners and voluptuous wines. Meanwhile, another goddess bides her time, making herself known only through subtle gestures. That's Demeter, notable mostly for her absence at first but coming into clear focus in the scene in which Maya asks Miles about his obsession with Pinot and in turn shares her feelings about the life cycle of the grape. No mere aficionado, Maya is the real deal. She not only loves to see things grow but is perceptive enough to understand that the key to Miles is bound up in his appreciation for a temperamental grape that needs a lot of nurturing to thrive. The subtle language of wine, shared by Miles and Maya, leads from sensual appreciation to something more deeply sustaining.

In The Language of Flowers, Victoria seems to have little going for her on her emancipation at age 18 from the group home in which she's been living. She shares Miles' penchant for acting out and has her own troubled and unhappy past. She, too, has a secret, sophisticated, and sensitive knowledge of a little known subject, in her case the symbolism of flowers. Desperate to avoid living on the streets, she asks a florist for a job, revealing her innate gift at combining flowers not merely in beautiful arrangements but in a manner that speaks true. Unknown even to herself, Victoria is a healer, skilled at hearing what a giver wants to say to a recipient and knowing how to say it.

Like Miles, Victoria has betrayed and been betrayed and is afraid of intimacy. As her growing success as a flower arranger begins to open a new life for her, she, too, confronts the possibility of love. The not-easily-deflected interest of Grant, a farmer and purveyor she encounters in the flower market, simultaneously leads to a halting romance and a re-engagement with the traumatic past. Grant also speaks the rare language of flowers, which both intrigues and frightens Victoria but ultimately proves too difficult to ignore.

Nurturing takes many forms in this story. As in Sideways, Demeter is first absent, ineffectual, or deflected and then unmistakably central. Victoria begins to encounter one maternal figure after another, from her employer, to her roommate, to her employer's mother, a midwife and wise woman. Even Grant is a nurturing figure. Finally, and surprisingly, Victoria discovers that the imperfect mothering she received in the past, which had seemed so insufficient, was in fact perhaps enough. Grant leads her to a rapprochement with the woman who nearly adopted her years ago and whose teachings about the language of flowers proved to be a true mother's gift.

Flowers generally fall into the realm of Aphrodite, with their beauty and sensual appeal, but in this story they represent nurturing, care, true insight, and love. As in Sideways, a symbol with one meaning proves to have unsuspected dimensions, leading the way delicately from mistrust to trust and from insufficiency to abundance. Miles and Victoria play multiple roles, through the most prominent one for each is perhaps Persephone, at first sojourning in the Underworld and finally returning to life. Miles, Victoria, and the characters who surround them are examples of the way mythic themes surface in remarkably different contexts, all but unrecognizable sometimes but ever persistent.

Unlike some love stories, which seem too lightweight and inconsequential to be believed, both Sideways and The Language of Flowers have a gritty layer of reality. My guess is that this is because neither story stops with physical attraction but also acknowledges the importance of nurturing and understanding. Both stories are ultimately grounded in the earth.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Agree to Disagree

Is it good to "be consistent"? As far as ideology goes, maybe not. Being able to see things from another point of view may come in handy sometimes.

I'm thinking about this not only because of some research I came across but, more importantly, because of what I read in the news every day. A recent Pew Research Center study confirmed something that doesn't come as a shock to most of us: political polarization is a reality in the United States.

Many sociologists and political scientists have examined divisions among Americans in recent years--whether under the name of polarization, fragmentation, or culture war--and they have come to varying conclusions. Some of these researchers have found evidence for fragmentation along political, economic, or religious lines; others have concluded that the perception of a deeply divided country is greater than the reality. The findings often seem to depend on the way polarization is defined and measured.

The Pew study examined political affiliations and opinions on an array of questions. Essentially, the study found that significant numbers of Americans are now consistently liberal or consistently conservative in their views, that these consistent viewpoints align closely with Democratic or Republican party affiliation, and that members of both parties are increasingly likely to view the opposite party with deep disapproval. In fact, according to the study, 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans view the other party's policies as "so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being." Ideological division has grown significantly over the last twenty years. (See "Political Polarization in the American Public," Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.)

In addition, Congress is more divided than it has been "since the end of Reconstruction," according to data compiled by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. Analyzing roll call votes of senators and representatives, the researchers found that the ideological overlap formerly commonplace between Republicans and Democrats (as recently as the early 1970s) has evaporated. (See Drew DeSilver's article, "The Polarized Congress of Today Has Its Roots in the 1970s" on the Pew Research Center's website.)

While it's true that the public is more divided than it used to be, the majority of Americans, according to the Pew study, have mixed ideological views, still believe in compromise, and would like to see their politicians meet each other halfway to get things done. This is sometimes not apparent because the majority group tends to be less mobilized and vocal than those who are more polarized.

Jung's comment on ideologies, which he viewed as a "blight," comes to mind here. Could it be that the belief that we're in the right because of the reasonableness of our views and that others are all wrong because they refuse to agree is the biggest mistake we're making?

I used to wish myself away to a more liberal geographic location, where I might find more people who thought the way I did, but I think of it differently these days. I now believe that being surrounded by a variety of political views, including some that are very different from mine, has been a blessing in disguise. It's just harder to vilify people with opposing viewpoints when they're valued coworkers, friends, and acquaintances. When you like someone and understand their aspirations, joys, sorrows, and beliefs because their lives intersect with yours, it's easier to see where they're coming from. It seems likely in such a case that you'll discover the things you do agree on more easily.

Some people believe that harmony results from bringing people with a lot in common together, and that may be true. It's also possible that lack of friction is not always the highest goal. After doing some research on the Myers-Briggs test, I once concluded that having people with various personality types in a workplace is preferable to having a lot of people of a single type because including various perspectives makes the group smarter and more creative. It can be uncomfortable to live with differences, but in the long run, it may result in unexpected insights and new approaches to problems. That's if there's no unspoken belief that one way is inherently better.

Passionate partisanship is nothing new and certainly has precedent in the early years of our country. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists come to mind; the debate over the importance of a strong central government, states' rights, and civil liberties had strong, intelligent advocates on both sides. In the end, both sides got some of what they wanted, and most of us would agree that the addition of the Bill of Rights championed by the Anti-Federalists was a vitally important amendment to the Constitution. Our system of government was greatly improved by a disagreement that was eventually resolved by compromise.

Why aren't we doing the same thing now?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Herm on the Road

Yesterday morning I drove to my hometown to accompany a family member to an appointment. The distance is not great in miles, but it has always seemed to me that mere miles don't reflect the real distance between here and there. While it's just down the road, my hometown has always felt a lifetime away. When matters called me there more frequently 15 or 20 years ago, I usually gave a big sigh of relief on the return journey once I hit the outskirts of Lexington, scene of my adult life. Now I wonder if even the psychological distance between here and there is as great as it always seemed.

I don't have the same kind of nostalgia for my hometown that a lot of people probably have for theirs. Some of the good memories I have are for places--like my grandmother's house--that are long gone. I used to have dreams in which I would somehow end up moving back into one of our childhood houses, and I usually felt trapped. I shouldn't be here, I'd be thinking. I'm an adult. I have my own life. More recently, when I dream of being there, I'm often on Main Street, passing the familiar shopfronts as if searching for something, feeling not exactly trapped but perhaps a bit frustrated.

One way I can tell I still have some of my old town with me is through my inner concept of "home." A lot of my ideas for what a neighborhood should feel like are based on my hometown experience of being able to walk just about everywhere, of spending time on tranquil front porches and in pleasant back yards, of being able to get an ice cream cone down the street and a library book a few blocks over. When I think of buying a house, I imagine a scenario that includes these possibilities. So, paradoxically, as much as I wanted to get away, some of my hometown experiences have had a positive, lasting impact.

Yesterday, on the way back here, I started thinking of the many memories I have just of the road I was on. I passed the little church where we once had an end of the year school picnic and water balloon fight, circa seventh grade. A little farther out is the electric co-op building where I attended a high school seminar that resulted in trips and a college scholarship. There's the drive-in where I saw movies with my family and napped in the back seat. Closer to the county line is the house that used to have a Chinese gong and a little Oriental museum, a bit of exotica on that country road that we always liked to look out for.

Then there's the little lane on the right that goes to Avon, where I went swimming with the other sixth-grade girls one summer, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" blaring on the sound system, and jumped off the high dive for the first time. A few miles more, and there's the quick-mart where I once stopped with my Dad on the way back from Lexington. I don't remember what we stopped for, but I remember the occasion--a gray Saturday afternoon in November--because it so closely matched my mood. I was full of dread over having to find material to make a skirt in home-ec class, a prospect that overwhelmed me. (I wish that was the biggest problem currently facing me, but at the time it seemed a terrible ordeal.)

I've driven that road many times in a more businesslike frame of mind, but yesterday, perhaps because of some pictures of venerable local landmarks I saw while visiting, I was in a mood receptive to memories. As I passed the stately church with the classical facade about halfway between there and here, I thought for the first time in years of a short story I once attempted. It was all about that road, and that church (though I've never been inside it), and the journey from one place to another, short in distance but great in meaning. Something about the prospect of that church, with its Greek columns and its hilltop view, has always seemed to mark an invisible boundary between past and present. It's a herm, if you will: a milestone.

Maybe I'm now approaching a similar prospect, a place with a wider view. Maybe that's one of the benefits of staying with the journey long enough.

Monday, June 16, 2014


In between dusting, making iced tea, and chopping vegetables for dinner, I've been thinking about old Robert Frost. To be precise, I've been thinking about his poem "Mending Wall." Did you ever study it in school? We came across it in the 5th grade, though what I gleaned from it then other than thinking the neighbor in it rather grouchy, I couldn't say.

Well, that was then. I'm now inclined to wonder what it was that set that rock-hauling neighbor's teeth on edge and made him insist on keeping the wall in good repair. You just know there's a story behind it; having had a few bad neighbors yourself, you may be more inclined than you were as a youngster to wonder about his side of the story. I know I am. The something-there-is-that-doesn't-love-a-wall narrator has apparently not lived in my building. If Frost had quoted me in that poem, I'd be saying not only "Good fences make good neighbors," but also "So does soundproofing."

As of today, I have new upstairs neighbors, it seems. I haven't seen them, but I'm going by all the noise, trudging back and forth, and voices I've heard in the hall. Last month, I heard maintenance cleaning the apartment after it was vacated by He-Who-Bangs-Around-Like-Thor (the previous tenant), and I was hoping for a quiet summer, but someone seems to have swooped in already. Over the last couple of summers, there was a two-month break between tenants when things were blissfully quiet. This year, the break has been cut short, but it was nice while it lasted.

June is not a common time for people to move in around here. Nor would I guess it to be common anywhere to start moving in at midnight on a Sunday night, but of course there's no accounting for taste. I don't know how much actual heaving of boxes and furniture took place, but I did hear a lot of footsteps up there right around then, just after I settled down peacefully with a book. Unfortunately, the previous tenant had a penchant for coming in and making a lot of noise as soon as I turned on my reading lamp at night, so last evening's unorthodox arrival already felt like deja vu.

I have several theories as to why that particular apartment has been so troublesome for the last several years, and most of them are tongue-in-cheek. Any one of them would make a great thriller or science fiction novella (and maybe I'll write it some time):

1.) A previous tenant had ill-gotten gains and hid it in the walls or floor. Word got out, but no one knows where it is; hence the use of saws, drills, and other equipment I've sometimes heard up there. Gold diggers.

2.) In that very apartment, an alien lost the wingnut needed to drive his spaceship and can't get back to Alpha Centauri without it (this is the reverse of Lost in Space; call it Trapped on Earth--Without a Paddle). The story of how this happened in the first place involves a wild party, a limbo session, and a spaceman who couldn't hold his bourbon. A succession of neighbors with humanoid features masks a desperate attempt to find the widget, which is smaller and thinner than a contact lens and can move of its own volition. Pod people.

3.) All the upstairs tenants are part of a psychology experiment to see how annoying they can be before the other neighbors within earshot move out. I agree, it would be hard to get this one past an ethics committee, so it would have to be run by a renegade psychologist untroubled by tenure considerations. At the end of the experiment, the psychologist ends up in prison, and the volunteers are forced to flee the country to avoid prosecution. Mad scientists.

4.) The tenants are part of a theft ring, which decided to establish its Bluegrass headquarters in the bucolic environs of a suburban apartment dwelling. No one would ever guess, right? All of the heavy noises and sounds of furniture moving are attempts to hide stolen -- what? Artwork? Gold bricks? Bicycles? Circus elephants? Criminals.

If this were a Douglas Adams or Neil Gaiman novel, the upstairs neighbors might actually be gods, passing mostly undetected as regular humans due to their shapeshifting abilities. The whole thing would end in a major gods-on-gods rumble or some sort of time travel cliffhanger. The trouble with that one is that none of my actual neighbors have had even a hint of mythic grandeur. I'm leaving this one off the list. So, not gods.

I think Mr. Frost's narrator dismisses his neighbor's insistence on mending the wall too naively. After all, healthy boundaries are important in life, as is consideration. The narrator seems to feel that even nature rises up against walls, toppling them in silent protest--whereas I am all in favor of them, within reason. They offer some protection against stray dogs, invasions of privacy, and accidents. A picturesque stone wall like the one in the poem seems eminently reasonable to me--it keeps modest order without being an eyesore. There's an art to stone fences, as well as personal boundaries, and I somehow doubt it's a spirit trying to break the wall in the poem. It could be moles, though.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Gone Fishing

Not really, but Wordplay is on a short break while I wrestle with revisions, labyrinths, cultural complexes, the myth of the rugged individualist, the potency of the myth of the rugged individualist, majority-minority demographic trends, the exact location of the Minotaur, Benjamin Franklin, the Knights of the Round Table, and the peer review process.