Friday, July 29, 2016

When Light Summer Reading Gets Away From You

We've definitely had dog days of summer here this week. The heat index was 114 on Sunday, and I had to change my clothes immediately on coming in from an evening walk. Thunderstorms today eased things off a bit, but it's late July, so the air is still heavy even though it's a lot cooler now.

My reading habits have been as unsettled as the weather. I revisited my shelves the other day to find something I was in the mood for and picked up Jack Finney's Time and Again. I read this rather unusual time travel story some years ago and thought it might serve for some light summer reading this week. If you haven't read it, it's the story of a young ad agency artist who gets recruited for a secret government project that involves going back in time.

Yikes! The first time I read it, I enjoyed the suspense and build-up at the beginning of the story as the main character gradually learns what the project entails and what's being asked of him. This time, I confess that it struck me in a completely different way, namely, that I was horrorstruck at the deal that's offered to Si, who's only told that he's being given a rare opportunity to participate in the adventure of a lifetime. The catch is that he has to agree to participate and be sworn to secrecy before he learns what he's agreeing to. Sounds like something you'd just jump at, right? Drop everything, tell your family and friends you're going away for an undetermined period of time, and place yourself in the hands of government agents you'd never met the day before yesterday--yes? In the story, Si's handlers lament how few candidates actually make the grade and pass all the screening. To me, it's a wonder they find any, given the conditions.

Nonetheless, I kept reading, and found that I really enjoyed the passage in which Si and his friend Kate manage to go back together for a couple of hours to 1880s New York. Kate is not actually part of the project and has no business being there, so I liked the way she and Si decided to subvert the rules and jump in together. Their goal was just to observe and not do anything to bring attention to their presence, so this passage is basically a description of what it's like to stroll through Central Park and take a trolley ride late in the afternoon of a winter day in 1882. It's a charming sequence.

I've certainly wondered what it would be like to be able to go back in time just for a few minutes to see what my street looked like 200 years ago, say, or what the Great Plains looked like when buffalo still roamed there. Si and Kate get a chance to see what New York was like before the advent of skyscrapers, and to observe the dress and appearance of its inhabitants in the age of top hats and bustles. I was fascinated by Kate's observation that the people's faces were somehow different from those of modern New Yorkers in some indefinable way. Personally, a quick there and back like this ride down Fifth Avenue would probably have been enough for me, but for Si, the first subject to actually succeed in time travel, it's only the beginning.

I started to lose interest in the story when Si went back again, this time without Kate, and took up residence in a boarding house, where he started involving himself in the lives of the other residents and beginning a flirtation with the landlady's niece. I'm not actually that fond of time travel stories, and I kept thinking of what a mess things would likely end up being if such a scenario were actually played out. Far from the "We only want to try this to see if it can be done" attitude of Si's government employers, I can only imagine chaos ensuing if, for example, our government (or anyone else's) somehow managed to send an agent back in time. Undoubtedly, the real purpose would end up being to manipulate events to come out in somebody's favor, which would of course unleash a whole host of other consequences, with everything spiraling out of control before you could say "jackrabbit."

Mr. Finney's story was published in 1970, which may, perhaps, have been a more receptive time for this kind of thing. I'm thinking of the state of the world today and how much less faith many people have in the good intentions of government and in the ability of humans to bend nature to their will without making a mess of it. Also, I suppose I have a greater appreciation now for the law of unintended consequences. I know, I know . . . you're supposed to suspend disbelief to get into the spirit of an adventure like this, but somehow or another, the book kept seeming to mutate from an adventure into a horror story, so I put it back on the shelf and found something else. So much for a little light summer reading.

Whatever time we find ourselves in is going to have advantages and disadvantages. I might be more amenable to the idea of time travel if we seemed to be making more of a success of our own era, but I'm afraid the jury's still out on that one. It's a little bit like the way I feel about traveling to other planets: not a bad idea, but could we please do a better job of managing life on our own turf before packing our bags and hurtling out into the galaxy? Sounds like a plan.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Drawing Room Marlowe

The other day I started reading Raymond Chandler when I couldn't find the book I had been looking for (an adventure-romance, and not at all noirish). Here's the thing about Chandler's Marlowe stories: when you read one, you enter a universe that seems not only amoral but also tawdry and cheap, albeit in a glamorous, Old Hollywood sort of way. Gangsters, thugs, cops on the make, spoiled rich kids, ruthless millionaires, shysters, confidence men--the first time I read Mr. Chandler, I was simultaneously impressed by his witty style and appalled at his characters.

That was more than 10 years ago. Today, I'm still rather horrified by the meanness and lack of honor one encounters in his pages, but I'm no longer able to view his world as a fiction I can leave behind simply by closing the book, because . . . well, don't some of these people seem oddly familiar? One of the many things growing up does for you is to remove some of the misapprehensions you may have entertained in your youth. While this is not altogether a cause for despair, it's certainly an eye-opener. Your first realization that you might have more in common with some of Shakespeare's characters than you ever dreamed of as a high school freshman is one thing; to realize that the world you know is not so very different from the gritty, hard-bitten L.A. underworld as seen by Philip Marlowe is quite another.

I remember being fooled by the first Chandler story I read into thinking initially that the Marlowe universe had no moral center. This is wrong, of course: Marlowe is the moral center. Because he himself has no illusions and blends so successfully into the jungle with his tough talk and willingness to play hard and fast, I mistook his coloration for something else. A similar thing happened the first time I saw Fargo; I thought the film was ridiculing not only the villains but also the police officer played by Frances McDormand. It was only on a second viewing that I realized how heroic, if unglamorous, McDormand's Marge Gunderson actually is. Likewise, in Marlowe's case, I had to learn to distinguish the manner from the man. Once I did that, it became easier to find my way through the story, as if I had suddenly found the thread in the maze.

If I asked you to stop right now and think of what legendary or mythological character Philip Marlowe reminds you of, what would you say? My breakthrough moment 10 years ago came when I realized that he is really the noir equivalent of a knight in armor, a Galahad, or, more likely, a Lancelot, operating under his own moral code rather than a knightly one. His chivalry might take very unusual forms, and his failings are much more apparent than those of a saint like Perceval, but like a knight errant wandering in the forest he is motivated, underneath it all, by ideals. If he loses his way, he always finds it again, though he may get little thanks for it.

The dispiriting thing about Chandler's world at first glance is that Marlowe's character appears to be operating in a vacuum. There is no Grail, no apparent center to the maze, and no apparent meaning to the struggle other than the will to survive. If you scratch a little deeper, though, it becomes apparent that there is something more, a determination Marlowe has made to live life on his own terms. If there's no justification for the brutal world he finds himself in, fine, he'll be his own justification. Like Childe Roland in Robert Browning's poem, he goes off to meet his adversaries in a bleak and somewhat joyless landscape with an attitude of defiance and a touch of style that really makes all the difference.

It's certainly possible to rail against one's fate and to feel that one would rather be living in a different book. I might picture myself more easily in, say, Jane Austen's world, where people are polite, conversation sparkles, there are plenty of picnics and dances, and behavior is constrained by certain expectations and mores. That's the upside. The downside, of course, is that after a while, all of that dancing and drawing room conversation is bound to get a little old and some of those societal expectations a little confining. Don't you imagine that, if you had been sitting around the fire with your needlework for years and spent one too many evenings making polite conversation with the vicar that you might welcome the sudden appearance of a Philip Marlowe, cynical, unapologetic, and unreconstituted, in your social circle? Certainly, I would.

The main difference between a Marlowe and a Galahad is that, as a postmodern hero, Marlowe navigates without a map. Galahad and Perceval operate under a Christian worldview that gives their universe meaning and supplies the moral compass that guides their actions, even when they are far from Arthur's court. The spirituality underpinning their quests lends a certain ethereal beauty to their landscape that is lacking in Marlowe's, but perhaps that makes his heroism all the more striking.

The difference between a Mr. Darcy and a Philip Marlowe? Well, obviously Mr. Darcy has more polish, and Mr. Marlowe has more swagger, but who knows? In an Austen universe, without all those layabouts to keep in line, maybe Marlowe would relax his cynicism and Darcy would learn to make coffee and scrambled eggs. One thing's for sure: those evenings in the drawing room would never be the same. Maybe the vicar wouldn't welcome the change, but I suspect everyone else would.

Friday, July 15, 2016

City Pastoral

There was a popular book in the 70s called The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, which I still have on my bookshelf. It consisted of nature notes taken from the journal of Edith Holden, an Englishwoman in Warwickshire who incorporated her observations of weather, seasonal changes, and plant and animal life into her writing. It was nothing earth-shattering, just closely observed details of such occurrences as the finding of a bird's nest, the first wildflowers of spring, or a walk on a blustery day. I sometimes feel I might be turning into Miss Holden, though I don't have her talent as an illustrator (she included paintings with her notes).

She would likely have found a walk in our local arboretum a little tame, given as she was to striking off on foot across the countryside in defiance (or actual absence) of roads, but for us city dwellers it's nice to have a park to roam in with plenty of divergent paths if the main track gets too crowded. There are certain things you're unlikely to see, such as bears or wolves, but there are plenty of birds and small mammals. Unlike Miss Holden, I don't know the names of all the birds, trees, and flowers I see, but I sometimes look them up. Once in the spring, I was so amazed at the beauty of a flowering tree in the garden that I asked one of the horticulturists what it was (it's a Japanese Kwanzan, and it looks like a tree you'd see in paradise).

With the recent re-landscaping of the field next to the arboretum and the introduction of a widened and re-contoured watercourse, I've noticed some new wildlife. If we were on the edge of town instead of in the center, there would probably be deer, but as it is there are some new species of birds. The smallish, quick birds with the piping calls might be terns; I've also noticed a pair of hawks or falcons that seem to have a nest in the vicinity. They land on the tops of light posts, looking magisterial, and call to one another; the other day I saw a smaller bird darting out of the way, as swiftly as I've ever see a bird move, as one of these larger creatures flew over its path to a lamp post. The smaller bird moved as if it had the fear of God in it, which it probably did.

That might have been the same day I came across a rabbit sitting bolt upright near the woods. I often see rabbits nosing around in the grass, but I've never seen one in such a watchful pose; he didn't even seem to mind me very much, and I was curious as to what had made him so alert. I felt for a moment that I was living in Watership Down and the rabbit was about to turn around and announce some momentous change affecting the neighborhood. That same day, or maybe a different day, there was a cat on the other side of the arboretum, intent on something I couldn't see in the bushes. I would have liked to know what it was, though I'm sure it was only a drama involving field mice or chipmunks, or perhaps groundhogs, which I have also seen.

One sees butterflies of course, and bees, and fireflies at twilight. Last year, there were large numbers of June bugs in the park, scattered throughout the grass and covering the walkways, though I have yet to see one this season. There are always robins and cardinals, and I sometimes see bluejays flashing showily through the trees. I had always assumed that the cooing sound I commonly hear is pigeons, but when I started hearing it in the evening, I wondered if it might be an owl instead. When it starts getting dark, I sometimes see a bat or two flitting overhead. Most magical of all, a bird landed on a fence near me the other evening, of a type I don't think I've ever encountered before, with an unusually melodious and liquid song. I thought of a nightingale, though I don't know if we even have them here. If it hadn't been dusk, I would have gotten a better look at it.

Two nights ago, I was sitting on a bench under a tree in a quiet spot, watching the fireflies as they rose twinkling out of the grass. It's a quintessential Kentucky activity to watch fireflies on summer evenings, and I was making the most of it when I realized I could hear the piping of some of those shore birds coming from a little distance. It was a bit incongruous but not unpleasantly so, a noticeably new voice in a land-locked pastoral of woods and fields.

Tonight's highlight: I came across a beetle of some sort that had gotten turned over at the edge of the sidewalk, unable to right itself. I know it's better not to intervene in nature, but I couldn't help but feel sorry for this little insect, which was waving its legs in the air for all it was worth. I put my shoe next to it, and it instantly seized the opportunity to grab hold and turn itself over. I hope I'm not in too much trouble with naturalists for doing that, but I really feel that I was just helping him to help himself. I watched him for a while as he made his way through the grass, apparently well on his way to wherever he had been trying to go, though he looked a little stunned.

If I were Miss Holden, I would have pulled out my drawing materials and made a sketch, so you could have seen the beetle as I saw it--ungainly, but determined--but I only have words, so that will have to do. The park was crowded tonight, and I went off the path a few times myself for a little extra room, but the evening was pleasant, and there was a pretty pink sunset. I saw one of the hawks floating over the parking lot as I was on my way home, and he peeled off to the right as I watched, followed half a minute later by the second one. I wouldn't mind knowing what they're saying to one another (they're very vocal), but there's no reason I can think of why they should tell me.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Persephone in Philadelphia

So, how was your Fourth of July? Mine was quiet, the highlight (or lowlight, depending on which term you prefer) being an evening walk interrupted by a police officer, who informed me that the Arboretum was closed for city-sponsored fireworks. I love fireworks but had no interest in either crowds or city-sponsored anything, so I walked away from the gathering people to a path through the woods that I'd been meaning to explore anyway. When I came out the other end (on a quiet residential street), a police car was parked at the exit. Back on my own street, the first thing I saw was a drone flying overhead. I've never seen one before, and though it's not surprising that there was security in the area, the overall effect was the opposite of reassuring. It was a bit Big Brotherish, to tell you the truth. This is our brave new world, I guess.

Speaking of that, just this week we've had controversy over the Benghazi Committee's report, terrorist attacks overseas, and now, finally, the news that the Justice Department is closing the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email arrangement. While there seems to be a movement afoot to "move everyone along," away from both Benghazi and the email investigation, I don't mind telling you that I doubt justice has been done in either case. In fact, both the Benghazi report and FBI Director James Comey's remarks in the last couple of days have, if anything, only left me with more questions. I gather that I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Accusations of partisan politics will not unnaturally arise in a situation like this one. However, I am not a Republican, but a Democrat, and I believe the current administration is both corrupt and highly skilled at concealing its own deceptions. It gives me no pleasure at all to say this, let me tell you. I wish it were otherwise. I voted for President Obama twice and for Hillary Clinton once in the 2008 Kentucky primary--and these seemed like reasonable decisions at the time. If I have lost all respect for these people, it's entirely their own fault. Far from leading us into what I thought would be a time of healing and greater maturity as a country (sorely needed after the Bush administration), our current leaders have only let us in for more of the same. If they had any integrity, the headlines you'd be reading would be far different than the ones you're seeing.

Mr. Comey of the FBI has always struck me as the no-nonsense type; that he bristled today when someone questioned his integrity doesn't surprise me. So what do we make of the fact that, despite being highly critical of Mrs. Clinton's actions, he didn't feel they met the bar for indictment? He mentioned the lack of evidence of her intention to do wrong and the lack of precedent. I'm a non-lawyer, of course, but I did look up the section of the U.S. Code (18, sec. 1924) that governs handling of classified information, and this is what it says:

Whoever, being an officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States, and, by virtue of his office, employment, position, or contract, becomes possessed of documents or materials containing classified information of the United States, knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.

It doesn't say anything about the need to establish intent, and Mr. Comey characterizes Mrs. Clinton's handling of the classified materials as "careless"--so I understand why so many people are puzzled over the lack of an indictment. I'm puzzled as well. Many Clinton supporters point to such factors as the email practices of former Secretaries of State, Mrs. Clinton's admission that she made a mistake and wouldn't do it again, and the lack of evidence of any harm being done as proof that the entire affair has been overblown. I can't see what bearing any of that has on whether or not the law was broken. Hasn't security been breached, by definition, just by the way the material was handled?

I have no wish to add to the pain of the friends and family of the Americans killed in Benghazi, but my view of that situation hasn't changed either. In what universe are people living that they deem it forgivable to fail to provide security in such a hotspot as Libya? Mrs. Clinton's assertions that she herself never received any security requests carry no weight with me. How could anyone, least of all the Secretary of State, have failed to know what was happening there, when there had already been one attack on the facility? It's not as if the post in Switzerland had reported a loose shutter and been told to find a couple of nails and a hammer until some hinges could be shipped. The failure to protect as any prudent person should have done is so egregious that it seems to me to rise to the level of active culpability.

Now that Mrs. Clinton has seemingly wrapped up the votes of African Americans and Bernie Sanders is a jerk for having marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I suppose we can look forward to a new era of compassion and enlightened policy if she is elected (much like the "kinder, gentler nation" former president George H.W. Bush spoke of once upon a time. Perhaps the Bushes and the Clintons have been trading ideas on how to bring this about, since they all seem to get along so wonderfully now).

I don't doubt that Mrs. Clinton could find it in her to throw a few bones to the working class and people in need if it didn't cost her anything politically, but I doubt she would even dream of touching the underlying issues of economic and social justice, of peace and stability, both here and abroad, that would truly make for a prosperous America. There's money to be made in war and nation building, but I doubt if much of it would make its way to you and me. Even if it did, it would be blood money.

On this blog, I sometimes discuss myths that seem to shed light on current events, but I don't know that I've ever mentioned the Abduction of Persephone. That one, I think, captures the spirit of the times as I see them more closely than any other, if you think of Persephone as standing in for the bright promise (a promise only--not a guarantee) of the Constitution and a free and open society. America has already lost its innocence, though I'm not sure how many people are aware of it. We're in the underworld now, and you see the evidence all around you. Only think: as a leader, you can dedicate yourself to doing what's best for your people, to acting selflessly, or you can use your powerful position for selfish and immoral ends. If I, as a Democrat, am critical of the current leadership, it's because I see too little evidence of the former and much proof of the latter.

I was thinking the other night about the upcoming Democratic Convention in Philadelphia when I started to hear Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" playing in my head. I'm including a link to the video here, though I really should ask you to look it up for yourself. I know you're not going to disappoint me by asking what a story about AIDS has to do with either Persephone and Hades or 2016 America, but if you're in doubt, check out the video, which itself makes skillful use of one man's illness as a metaphor for the condition of society. It's very affecting, I promise.

Mrs. Clinton has criticized Donald Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again." Whatever else Mr. Trump may say, I do agree with him on that--there has been some serious slippage of late. Whether or not we, like Persephone, are fated to eventually find our way back to the upper world is more than I can say, but what I do say is that we have to try. In order to do that, though, we have to grow up and stop believing in fairy tales. If we don't, and soon, I don't think you have to worry about looking up the video. The streets of Philadelphia will find their way to you.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Sauron in the Suburbs

There's often a lull in the air the week before the Fourth of July, with people appending their vacations to the holiday and leaving town early. This year's no exception, and coupled with some cooler weather, it's been a fairly pleasant few days--oh, except for Monday, the day I went to the grocery store and came back home to see one of my problem neighbors in the side yard of the building. I decided to cope with this by giving her a wide berth, so I drove around the block. Avoidance is sometimes the best strategy.

When I came back, lo and behold, she was still in the side yard, sitting on the step with her cell phone. Now, I could have gone in through the other door, but I didn't like the idea of doing so while she was hanging around. You never know, she might decide to walk into the building at the same time I was walking in with groceries, and I just didn't cotton to that idea.

So I decided to take a longer drive, really with no set purpose other than to give her time to clear out--yes, even with perishables in the back seat, a 30-minute drive out of my way seemed preferable to the chance of an encounter. So I drove out Tates Creek Road and into a subdivision I had noticed recently but hadn't visited. Years ago, I had done some copywriting for its sister development, but I had never actually visited this section of it--so call it a semi-professional interest combined with mild curiosity. I used to enjoy going on home tours and was frankly interested in seeing how the neighborhood compared with its sibling across the road.

Nothing, it seems, is without adventure these days, even a leisurely, spur-of-the-moment tour of south Lexington. I pulled into the neighborhood and noted the same large, elegant brick houses and meandering streets I was familiar with in the original development (and used to describe glowingly in advertising copy). It's a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs without any through traffic, a smaller version of its twin on the opposite side of the road. I drove slowly along the main avenue, turned off into one side street, then pulled back on and continued to the place where the street dead-ends next to a field. I was afraid I might have to turn around in someone's driveway until I noticed a final cul-de-sac on the right, just before the dead end.

I pulled in and swung the car around the circle, pausing at the end before pulling onto the main avenue. I was thinking how nice it must be for the people at the end of the street to be living next to undeveloped land. As I pulled out, I saw that a gray pickup truck was coming down the street toward me, going fairly fast.

You know what I was saying recently about things somehow seeming a little out of whack though you're not sure why? That truck coming toward me had that look about it. Partly, I think it was the type of vehicle it was, not something you'd typically see in the driveway of one of these manses, unless it belongs to a contractor or someone who comes to do yard work. Then there was the speed, as if the driver were in a hurry. Perhaps an early evening appointment to cut the grass? Could be, but what's the rush? I somehow thought the driver might be unfamiliar with the neighborhood, as I was, but for some reason was in a hurry. I pulled out of the way, and although there was no turn signal, the vehicle pulled into the cul-de-sac without giving me much room to spare.

Normally, I would have waited to make sure the truck was actually turning before I pulled out, even though there didn't seem to be many other places he could be going, but there was just something a little out of place about that truck rushing down the street, so I decided to get out of the way. I drove back out to the entrance road, where I encountered a jogger in yellow approaching the intersection at the same time I was. I stopped to let him cross, and I may have imagined it, of course, but I thought he looked a little startled. Perhaps my car doesn't look like the typical vehicle one sees in that neighborhood either, but it resembles a Prius to a casual eye, so I don't think it looked that unusual. Thus, though I had been in the neighborhood for only five minutes, that was long enough to have two slightly off-kilter experiences.

Turning left, I noted that I was on Saron Drive and said to myself, "Just add a 'u' and it makes "Sauron" (these myth people and their eternal Lord of the Rings references, you're probably thinking). I would have thought it anyway, but I was unsettled enough by what had just happened to say it aloud. It really does seem to me that I spend my days going from one odd occurrence to another. My neighbor had disappeared by the time I got home, but there was a young man I had never seen standing outside the building next door affecting what I would call a "studiedly casual" manner, so I spent a few minutes parked on the street thinking about everything that had happened before pulling in and starting to unload my groceries. It's a good thing I didn't really have many perishables (except for eggs, and I had nearly lost those when a car suddenly changed lanes in front of me on Tates Creek Road). Nevertheless, my eggs and my paper towels and my produce and I somehow arrived home intact (and not for the first time).

The episode reminded me of one of those Stephen King stories set in a suburb or a small town in which it's the strangeness of events playing out in a very ordinary setting that contributes to the feeling of suspense. Everything looks OK on the surface, but weird little things keep happening to turn normalcy on its head. It's also very much like a dream I had five and a half years ago about horse statues that turned into living horses in front of my eyes. It was the moment when what had seemed inanimate suddenly proved not to be that was so alarming: a sudden spark in the eyes, a slight movement of the head. Once they came fully to life, the bad part was over.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Galleons of Night

The best word for the weather we've been having is probably "unsettled." There's nothing strange about summer thunderstorms in Kentucky, but it has been unusually scorching for June. Over the last few days, huge clouds have blown in that looked like they might have sailed all the way up from the Gulf, and there have been rumbles of thunder and showers off and on. The brief afternoon storm we had on Tuesday didn't do much to break the heat; when I walked that evening, it was like pushing through gauze just to stroll down the sidewalk.

I heard yesterday that some of the storms in the Midwest were turning out to be severe, but it looked like most of that weather was passing to our north. Nevertheless, the sky grew very dark late this afternoon, and I unplugged several appliances while waiting to see if things would blow over. The heat index was supposed to be near 110 today, and I was hoping a good storm would push some of the hot air out. That did in fact happen, though the extreme change in temperature was rather jarring. When I went outside a while ago, the wind was very cool, though the hallway of this building was still humid. We had not one but two tornado watches, issued by two different bureaus, including one in Oklahoma (and they should know).

A few weeks ago, I was nearly caught in a storm when some black clouds that I thought were moving in a different direction turned out to be heading the same way I was. How nice! I hadn't gone very far when a decisive lightning flash put an end to my walk, and I had to scramble up a bank and onto the porch of a nearby office building to avoid a drenching. The worst part was brief, but I ended up having to head home anyway because the light but steady rain that followed showed no signs of letting up, and there were a few dark clouds still on the horizon.

Even though things looked clear when I went out earlier tonight, the wind was gusting, and I decided against the risk of getting caught out in another storm. It seemed more like the interlude between two tempestuous scenes of an opera involving Valkyrie and various agitated gods than a true clearing. Also, I had seen the word "derecho" in yesterday's forecast, a term that apparently denotes very strong winds. While I'm not sure I've ever been in one, it's one of those terms like "wind shear" or "scirocco" that doesn't bode well for a calm walk in nature. It seems a good idea to avoid going out in conditions with exotic-sounding names the mechanics of which you're unsure of.

I'm still hearing rumbles of thunder, though our tornado watches have expired. Although I like summer thunderstorms, the restless conditions over the last couple of days have seemed--except for the heat--more like autumn than June. I saw some high-flying clouds streaming over the moon the other night that were straight out of some adventure story involving Gothic suspense and derring-do, something by Daphne du Maurier, perhaps. Instead of the usual suburban scene, you half-expected to see a cloaked rider heading down the street at a gallop, with a ship moored at a dock at the end of the road and mysterious cargo being boarded. However, it was merely the same old street on a cloudy summer night.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Kafka? We've Got It!

Today, I read a Reuters news article in which several experts, including officials from the FBI, weighed in on the current discussion about domestic terrorism and the reporting of suspicious behavior. An officer from the LA Police Department suggested that people think along the lines of profiling "behavior" instead of people, which seems to me to be good advice. Any self-defense suggestion I've ever received has always emphasized paying attention to feelings that something isn't right and trusting those instincts.

There isn't a day that goes by when I don't see something that looks odd in my neighborhood, and if I reported all of it, I'd never do anything else. When you've lived in a neighborhood as long as I have, you've got a good baseline for what's ordinary and what isn't, and it's just a fact that this place is not the same as it used to be. When I'm out walking, I often see people who look like they don't belong here, but it's also true that I've seen lots of ordinary-looking people, some of whom do live here, do strange things. It surprises me that people don't react more to some of the wild things that go on around here, though when I tell an outsider, I sometimes get a reaction like, "I'd report that if I were you."

I joked a few years ago about a WiFi handle someone in my building had called "FBI Van." I was speculating on whether someone actually with the FBI would have such an identifier or if it was some kind of a joke. Assuming it was a joke, I found it sort of humorous, though I'm not sure I would if I were the FBI director. Evidently, the owner of that one has moved on, and we no longer have an "FBI Van," though we do have "Limemoose," "Winterfell," "Zeldalink," and suchlike. My neighbors around here are very creative.

But to give you an example of what I mean by something strange that I wouldn't necessarily call the police on but that I would wonder about, here's what happened last night. I went out to walk under an overcast sky that had turned very threatening by the time I got close to home. It was one of those "Wrath of God" storm systems, and the wind was kicking up to boot, so I ran part of the way. When I entered the side door of my building, I saw someone else coming in through the front lobby, and although I can't say exactly why, I didn't like the look of her (besides the fact that someone suddenly appearing just as I'm entering is usually enough to get my attention anyway).

I decided to go back out and take another look around, letting this person go on her way. I should note that before I had gotten close to my street, there was hardly anybody out, as you would expect with such a storm impending. As I ran up to the building, though, I noticed not only someone on a bicycle but also a pedestrian on the main road that runs in front of my building. Nothing wrong with that, but it did catch my eye. When I walked back outside, I saw several people walking down my side of the street, as well as a man on the opposite side. They weren't close to me, but they were walking in my direction. I stood and watched for a minute, and the man, who was closer, kept coming until he suddenly turned around and went back the way he came. I kept watching to see where he was going, and he turned into a driveway farther up the street; the people who were coming down my side turned in at almost the same time to the driveway across from his.

Well, obviously, no one broke any laws there, but I've got to say it looked strange to see so many people in the vicinity of my building all at the same time, especially with a storm on top of us. It may not sound strange in the telling, but it looked strange, and I've lived here long enough to have a sense of that. It's not the first time, either, that I've noticed someone switch directions suddenly for no apparent reason (unless it was the fact that they saw I was watching). No safety expert would ever advise you to discount your instincts, even if you can't always explain why something bothers you--and I don't discount mine. It doesn't matter how many other people seem to take no notice.

I've often come across strange debris around the building that makes me wonder how it could possibly have gotten there--a branch and a plastic bag in the hallway, for instance, left there as if by chance; dog droppings that someone had concealed with a rock; bottles and cans in the hall; rubber bands in the driveway. Some of that would not be out of the ordinary as plain carelessness, but some of it seems more than just accidental, as if someone were trying to recreate some bizarre Blair Witch Project hijinks. I also noticed a number of people, not only here but also across the street, who seem to leave their lights on at all hours. I used to leave a window lamp on in my living room but stopped doing it when I noticed how many other people suddenly seemed to be into window lamps. I can't say why it bothered me, but it did. And what's with all the extreme door slamming?

I have never had a security briefing or been interviewed by the FBI, but I could certainly tell them a lot about this place. Perhaps the things I'm talking about would mean more to them than they do to me. I suspect a thorough investigation of not only this neighborhood but this town would uncover a lot of things. I do know that, while outwardly looking the same, Lexington doesn't seem at all like the place it used to be. It's a little bit like being in a Coen Brothers movie that never seems to end. It's also more than a little Kafka-esque. And as for the upstairs neighbors, the weird laughter and other noise that floats down sometimes make me feel I'm Jane Eyre, living downstairs from Mr. Rochester's crazy wife. Yeah, it's just about as much fun as it sounds.