Thursday, July 30, 2015

Finding Arthur

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been reading Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" series for young people. I read the second book, The Dark Is Rising, years ago when I was studying children's literature, but I'd since forgotten most of the plot details. What I mainly remembered was its tone of eerie suspense and the elaborate interweaving of the ordinary with the supernatural in the adventures of its young hero, Will Stanton.

I've been reading the books out of order, which has actually made it more fun than if I'd done it linearly. This is not surprising if you know the story line. The plot involves a lot of time hopping, past lives, recovery of things forgotten, and travel from one world to the next, so jumbling the order of the books just increases the pleasurable sense of not knowing what's going to happen next mixed with a bit of deja vu. It's similar to the way I might have read the books when I was a kid, coming across one at random and not being overly concerned with sequencing. It's a very relaxing way to read, I have to say.

After reading just The Dark Is Rising for class, I didn't realize the extent to which the series relies on British and Celtic mythology for some of its characters and themes. This would have been clear if I'd read the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, first, because it contains a major plot reveal concerning one of the characters. Finding out the probable identity of that character makes it clear that the series is steeped in Arthurian legend, which for me is the icing on the cake. I knew there was a reason I liked that book!

Taking a children's lit class cured me of any tendency I might have had to think of young adult literature as escapist. The Dark Is Rising (as well as many of the other young adult books I read) has a much more serious outlook on life than you might imagine given the sometimes fantastic elements of plot. All of the fantasy and magic is in the service of a gigantic and ongoing battle between the Light and the Dark, or Good and Evil, in which even a little boy has a great and inescapable responsibility. Young Will, with his unique role in the age-old struggle, sometimes feels the loneliness of a burden that's impossible to share with others, including his family.

The series deftly portrays ordinary time and mythic time co-existing and interacting. A basic dualism in the stories is somewhat complicated by natural magic, which is independent of Light and Dark and not easily biddable. While it's essentially neutral, it sometimes plays a role in the fight by lending its influence to one side or the other. There's an indication that the Light/Dark struggle will end, although I don't know how because I haven't gotten there yet. If the Light wins, presumably this ushers in a Golden Age of some kind, so that although the membrane between past, present, and future is very fluid in the stories, there is a kind of historical movement. Does that mean that ordinary time will be subsumed into eternity at the end of the story? It's hard to say, which is why I'm continuing to read.

I was thinking today about the role of figures like Arthur and Merlin in this story, guardians for the Good with a special authority and responsibility. This is, I suppose, a bit elitist, since they are portrayed as a category of beings with powers and superior wisdom that more or less set them apart. The author plays down the elitism by incarnating her heroes into fairly conventional people who find out that they are not merely who they think they are but something more. Will comes from an average family, and so do many of his allies, but they are born with inherent abilities that are part of their special destiny.

There's an old saying that King Arthur never really died and will come back again in an hour of great need; this series interprets that part of the legend in its own way, depicting a world in which anyone, even the youngest boy in a large middle-class family or a lonely child on a working-class farm, can discover inner nobility and purpose. That matches my idea of the return of Arthur, which is to say that if he lives anywhere it's inside all of us. It's no good waiting around for him to come back; if we want him, we have to discover him in ourselves and bring him back around that way. Even in America, where we don't have kings, this is possibly a good thing to remember.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Is That Really Necessary?

Is it noisy where you are? One of the hardest things to come by in this day and age seems to be the simple ability to hear oneself think. A bit of peace doesn't sound like much to ask, but, even as someone who lives a quiet life, I'm constantly inundated with noise--specifically, noise in the form of loud people. I'm not sure when yelling became the normal mode. I, personally, don't feel the need to announce every idea I have in an ear-splitting voice to all and sundry, so I must ask: Is all this noise, strictly speaking, necessary?

I occasionally switch coffeehouses when the one I'm going to seems to get too popular (which always happens sooner or later). Finding one in an unfrequented part of town, going at off-hours, sitting in an unoccupied corner--none of these tactics seems to hold off the noisemakers for long. People who can't seem to speak without yelling are drawn to me as moths to an open flame (it's a bit like the old saying that cats always seek out the person who doesn't like them. I actually think cats are smarter than that, but I'm unsure of the people).

Not long ago, I was sitting in a coffeehouse wearing earplugs, with my fingers in my ears, as a parade made up (apparently) of every friend and acquaintance ever known to the baristas made its way through the line. In that posture, I usually hear little of what's actually said, though I always feel annoyed that I have to go to that length to maintain psychic space. After switching seats for a corner perch, I got so annoyed with the high-pitched laughter of a woman standing in line that I simply left. It sounded like she'd just come from Bedlam (no exaggeration). I wouldn't be surprised if all the milk in the place had curdled after that performance, but the barista stood there like it happens every day.

Even the public library isn't immune to noise displays. I went to return some books the other day and found myself sitting in the car, reluctant to go in, knowing I'd have to pass through a crush of people just to get to the Circulation Desk. I decided to wait until almost closing time to let the place empty out, which wasn't a bad plan. Understand, I'm not a misanthropic person and generally enjoy polite society, but I don't like wading through crowds of exhibitionists, where it's not uncommon for someone to walk right in front of me, screaming on a cell phone, or even to bump me. For heaven's sake, the place is not that cramped. In fact, it's fairly spacious.

The park is another wide open space that should have plenty of room for all but starts to seem like a very small world indeed once you begin encountering all the declaimers and lollygaggers it pulls in. I hate wearing my earplugs in the park, but if I don't, I have to endure one screeching group after another. It's worse than parrots. This even happens at times when you'd think the park would be nearly empty. And don't get me started on people who stop right in the middle of the path to gab, blocking access for everyone else. I'm assuming that at least some of these people are tourists, because most people would behave more considerately knowing that they're likely to encounter friends and neighbors--though tourism is still a poor excuse for rudeness.

I do occasionally get crotchety with someone over this, and you can never really tell when it will happen. I'm sort of a believer in live and let live, but I also believe in appropriate boundaries, which are really a necessity (not an option) for social living. Here's a hint: If I wanted to hear what you have to say, I'd invite you over for tea. Otherwise, we haven't met but are actually perfect strangers in a public place, and in public settings, a little politeness goes a long way.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Pluto, Is That You?

Yesterday I took an online quiz to test my knowledge of the planet Pluto, and to my surprise I got all the questions right. I didn't know I knew that much about it, but I have seen a couple of news articles about the New Horizons space probe and recently read the story of how Pluto was discovered in 1930. I understand that the photographs received by NASA have revealed the planet to be a bit bigger than scientists thought it was, and I'd like to congratulate Pluto in this regard. It must be hard enough hanging out there in the Kuiper Belt without being demoted; maybe being bigger will give Pluto back its bona fides.

When I was growing up, I thought of Pluto as almost the mascot of the solar system, probably because it shared its name with that friendly but goofy Disney dog. At the same time, its remoteness gave it a mystique no other planet had. Now all these years later, images of its surface are raining down on us from the space probe, and we're getting acquainted with its actual features. Imagine an object the size of a piano traveling safely for nine years across the vastness of space, arriving in the vicinity of distant Pluto in good enough condition to send back crisp images. What a miracle.

I read today that scientists are excited about the size of the mountains on Pluto and the likelihood that the planet has water. Pluto seems to be defying expectations in lots of ways, but surprisingly, the images I've seen don't stray all that far from what I might have imagined if you'd asked me to draw it when I was growing up. I think I imagined it as a very cold, silent, dim place, a place it would be hard to get to know.

As everyone knows from mythology, Pluto was also called Hades and was the god of the underworld--conceived as being below the ground, not out in space. Pluto was in some way connected with wealth, which may have come from the fact that he ruled his own vast kingdom, quite distinct from that of the upper regions. Despite the riches below the earth, his realm was a dim, inaccessible place for the living, not a place to go willingly even if you could get there, in contrast to all the effort it's taken to get to his planetary namesake.

We've sent a spacecraft as our emissary to the planet Pluto, a destination that will, in its own way, have a wealth of features to discover. I sometimes have mixed feelings when I read about explorations of other worlds and plans to possibly exploit them for our gain (though I realize anything like that is probably far in the future for distant Pluto). If only we could get our own house in order on Earth I might feel better about the possibility of colonizing other worlds, but I guess if we waited until we were perfectly wise we might never get anywhere.

I hope the images we're receiving will make all the work that went into the New Horizons project pay off, and I'm glad the ashes of Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, went along for the ride. That was a lovely gesture that puts a human face on the whole enterprise and makes a nine-year voyage seem perhaps a bit less of a lonely ride. It also makes Pluto seem not quite as remote as it once was--though regardless of the distance, Pluto will always be a part of my solar system.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Off-Trail on the Fourth of July

The Fourth of July has come and gone, and it was a quiet one here. I considered taking my lawn chair to the top of the hill and watching the official fireworks from there, though I never found out if the show was even being held downtown, and the weather didn't seem that promising. I also considered seeing if I could buy sparklers for my own mini-celebration: I had a momentary vision of myself twirling one in each hand like a majorette while running around the yard. In the end, though, I settled for a walk in the park, conducted with what I believe was the proper amount of adult decorum, though I did sing a little when no one was near.

It was a humid, cloudy evening, and most of the action was obviously elsewhere as the neighborhood was quite still except for the sound of firecrackers going off here and there. The June bugs, the fireflies (which lit up the woods and grass like a convocation of fallen stars), and I had the place mostly to ourselves except for a few determined walkers. I went off-trail, which I enjoy doing now and then because there are a number of beguiling paths winding across the meadows and through the trees, and anyway, why rush? The Fourth of July should be spent outdoors.

It was while I was wandering through the trees that a partial clearing in the west revealed a fiery orange sunset, which faded briefly to pink before sinking into grayness. Something about that brief, almost lurid glow, along with the fact that I was remembering a particular family Fourth of July from long ago, got me to thinking about my grandparents' backyard, and before I knew it, I had mentally transposed this sunset onto that setting. I don't recall ever seeing a sunset like that at my grandparents' house, but my mind brought the two things together in a sort of magical prelude to a short story in which I imagined walking out of the woods and into that long-ago yard (which doesn't exist anymore) with an adult sensibility.

I wrote the story in my head while standing in the woods, imagining how it would end, and by the time I did that and walked out of the trees, the actual sunset itself was going. I'm not sure why an image never seen before melded itself so seamlessly to an actual memory, but it did, and that was how I came to be writing a short story in my head, in the park, on the Fourth of July, instead of barbecuing or celebrating in some other more expected way. But after all, it was Independence Day, a holiday in the spirit of defying tradition if there ever was one.

As the sun went down, I got a glimpse of some far-off fireworks exploding on the horizon, and on the way home, I paused briefly to watch a more modest fireworks celebration being conducted by a family or two on a court behind the student housing complex. So, in the end, my low-key Fourth, unambitious as it was, was not devoid of either inspiration or firecrackers--as no Independence Day should ever be.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Taking Posthumous Advice

The other night I was reading a book by a man with lifelong interests in science and literature. He mentioned Henry David Thoreau's incandescent opening chapter of Walden, with its powerful statement on man's relationship with nature. This led to my having to go find Walden, pull it off the shelf, and dip into the first chapter, which is titled "Economy." I remembered having a strong reaction of my own to Thoreau's opening pages the first time I read the book almost 30 years ago.

I should say "the first time I read the book all the way through," because I'm pretty sure I had tried to read it before, probably while I was in college, without getting very far. It was another example of a book whose time hadn't yet come for me. I'm not sure what prompted me to pick it up again that particular autumn, when I was struggling not so much to find the meaning of life as to find an employer who required the skills of an English M.A. It was a rather discouraging juncture, which was probably what put me in the mood for philosophy.

Something Thoreau said stopped me in my tracks, so applicable did it seem, almost as if he had reached out across time to say something I needed to hear. The experience was similar to the one I had in seeing Joseph Campbell for the first time on public television (which hadn't happened yet when I was reading Thoreau). It's safe to say I wasn't used to those types of peak experiences, and the force of it was almost as if Thoreau had clapped me on the shoulder.

In after years, I went back to locate this statement that had affected me so strongly, and--guess what? I couldn't find it! So much of what Thoreau says in the first chapter is memorable, and I kept reading one beautifully observed statement after another without recognizing the one. What! How could this be? I was left to consider the possibility that in all the living I had done post-Thoreau my experience might have expanded to encompass a few more of his observations. The one that had struck me so forcibly in the beginning was now one of many.

When I was leafing through the book the other night, I decided to try once again to locate the statement I'd once taken as a motto. Reading at leisure, late at night, by lamplight, I suddenly recognized it and remembered why it had moved me so much when I was in my 20s, out of tune with my surroundings and wondering when life would start falling into place. "But man's capacities have never been measured," wrote Thoreau, "nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. Whatever have been thy failures hitherto, 'be not afflicted, my child, for who shall assign to thee what thou has left undone?' "

I now see that the last part of Thoreau's quote is from the Vishnu Purana, a Hindu scripture, so that in effect Thoreau was speaking along with the Hindu sages of long ago, speaking with them in unison. No wonder the statement had seemed like a revelation. These words greatly encouraged me then and helped me believe that, no matter how disappointing the present was, there was so much more life ahead, and some of it was bound to be better.

Thoreau had been dead for 125 years when his words moved me; Joseph Campbell died right around the time I was reading Walden, perhaps the very week, and the following year I heard him say "Follow your bliss" on PBS. Dead white males, both, and father figures. Mentors come in all sizes and shapes, living and dead, and I say, never ignore a good piece of advice.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Obama and the White Bull

I saw a description for a course someone is offering on learning to recognize myths and archetypes in current events. What a good idea for a course--because how challenging is it to separate the real story from the apparently real in the news we see every day? Separating the false from the true is both an art and a science, and familiarity with myths can be a great help in discernment.

It helps, as I've said before, to view the political stage as just that--a stage. It's the practiced performance you see, not actors standing around being themselves (with a few exceptions). Unrehearsed events are so rare that it makes me wonder how often reporters even ask the right questions. I get the feeling sometimes that press events, talk shows, and public appearances of all kinds are predicated from the word "go" on certain things not being asked, so that it's not a matter of an official parrying a tough question or refusing to comment on something. The conversation never even gets to that point.

I've read reports in the news media that President Obama has been showing more emotion lately, as if to imply that he's "loosening up" and revealing a more human side. I view those reports with some skepticism, based on my observation that almost everything that happens in politics happens for a stone cold reason. I'm not saying that the President doesn't have any of the emotions he might be displaying, but I am saying that if he's letting you see them, that's a calculated decision on his part (the same goes for other warm and fuzzy Washington people).

Was there a time when being presidential carried more gravitas and less of the aura of carnival side show, or am I just imagining that? President Obama seems to want us to think that he's a great guy with feelings just like ours, a sense of humor, lovable foibles, etc., and that he's not even above appearing in someone's garage to record a podcast. I know this folksiness is meant to be disarming, but what I find interesting (and disconcerting) is the fact that Mr. Obama works so hard at projecting this image.

I try to read events--whether they're press conferences, speeches, interviews, or news items--a little like advertisements and a little like poems. If it's an ad, what are they trying to sell me? What's the motive? What's the gain? Reading an event like a poem means reading intuitively or slantwise--literal understanding is just the beginning. The more elusive truths only appear if you don't stare at them head-on but listen instead to your gut feelings.

Here's a Greek myth that surfaced for me this afternoon, in thinking about our President: Poseidon sent King Minos a beautiful white bull, a magnificent animal that, because it was sacred, was meant to be sacrificed to the gods. Minos coveted this bull, and instead of offering it up, decided to keep it for himself, substituting a lesser animal in its place. Much havoc ensued from this self-serving act; Minos' wife even fell in love with the bull, which led to the birth of a monster, the insatiable Minotaur, and the need for an elaborate labyrinth in which to hide it.

The currency in this myth concerns the bait-and-switch, which in our day is the slick appearance and trappings of power as a substitute for the true working of democracy. In matters of personal rights, trade, and economic justice for ordinary citizens, the President, as I see it, is too often on the side of the moneyed and the powerful (a true son of Zeus, like Minos)--but he doesn't want it to look that way. So in place of that just, self-sacrificing, and courageous leader of the free world that we need but don't have, he gladly offers up a shiny, photogenic, and urbane substitute. We'd like to believe it's the real thing, but the truth is, you know, it's just some old bull. And you're not fooled, because you know your mythology.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Buddy Holly's Glasses

I checked out two library books a couple of weeks ago and read them back to back. Both were novels, one by an American and one by a Briton. I was deep into the second one when I came across a character described as having Buddy Holly glasses. This was an interesting coincidence because the first novel also had a character with Buddy Holly glasses. Synchronicity or accident?

It's not an earth-shattering coincidence, but it was odd enough. What are the chances of bringing home two unrelated novels and finding that same descriptor? Not great, I would guess. There was no obvious connection between the books, but it got me thinking about possible reasons for the use of the same image by different authors.

In David Guterson's The Other, the glasses belong to Rand Barry, the wealthy father of John William, a dropout, rebel, philosopher, and Gnostic. Neil Countryman, who narrates the story, is John William's best friend, aiding and abetting him in dropping out of society and out of sight to a precarious backwoods existence. Rand Barry's glasses are described this way: "This style of glasses . . . has waxed and waned, but mostly they've functioned as a comic prop or as a prosthetic for the elderly urbane, sometimes appearing on the faces of mods or dissonantly on generals hauled before the press."

In Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, the glasses belong to a minor character named Harold Mather, who has them broken by a street punk as he and the story's protagonist, Edward Mayhew, are walking down a London street in early 1961. His glasses seem less likely to be an affectation (Mr. Barry sports his in 1974), and in any case, suit his character, a hip but nerdy university student who has "an important jazz record collection . . . [and] was hilarious in formal student union debates."

While Guterson describes Barry as a somewhat anxious and uncomfortable figure, despite his wealth, and McEwan's Mather is in his element as a successful and well-regarded intellectual, both scenes describe the removal of the glasses, in one case by the wearer himself and in the other by a violent act. In different ways, both characters are hapless. Barry thinks he's about to be attacked by his son's friend, whom he does not at first recognize, and removes his glasses in a sort of nervous gesture. Mather has them knocked from his head but brushes the incident off, becoming upset with Edward for coming to his defense.

Is there any larger theme in the novels that might connect these seemingly minor incidents? Both novels deal with loneliness, alienation, and the tension between societal norms and the individual. Mr. Barry, as John William's father, is the focus of much of what John William rebels against, and he's not unaware of the role he plays, at least to some degree. Nervously removing his glasses in Neil's presence almost comes across as an unconscious attempt to unmask himself, a futile but poignant gesture in light of his estrangement from his son. 

In the case of Harold Mather, it's Edward who takes the damage to the glasses seriously. While Harold takes the incident in stride, Edward enacts a macho revenge, seeing the matter as a point of pride. The lack of respect for his friend "justifies" his violent reprisal. When I first read this scene, I was surprised that Harold grew upset with (and dropped) his friend over the episode, which seemed to express little more than Edward's instinct to protect. By the end of the novel, I was seeing the incident as evidence of an unfortunate impetuosity, an adherence to a macho code that precludes a more nuanced approach to situations. It was Harold who lost his glasses, but Edward who lacked the ability to "see."

The glasses are in both cases part of a persona relatively easily dropped, in one case deliberately, and the other by accident. Authenticity is achieved to different degrees by Barry and Mather and their counterpoints, Neil and Edward. Mr. Barry seems to realize that his son's friend knows more about his son than he does, even if the realization does him little good. To what extent does he "see" that his son rejects everything he stands for? Harold, on the other hand, sees enough, even without his glasses, to make him reassess his friendship with Edward.

More than aids to vision, more than parts of a mask, the glasses act also as reflectors, as mirrors in which the other character sees himself. For Neil, as he recounts the scene years later, complicated questions of love, loyalty, complicity, and guilt are reflected back. For Edward, an image of who he is as a young man, not yet deepened by experience, chastens him but fails to foster inner change. In one case, the reflection reveals greater depths, while in the other, what shows is mostly an image shaped by social norms.

Why Buddy Holly's glasses? Because of Holly's untimely death, they carry associations with tragedy and early loss that seem to foreshadow later events in both novels. Certainly, the image of Buddy Holly, in conjunction with the character of Rand Barry, an aerospace executive, is both incongruous and apt. For Mather, who seems comfortable with himself as a man despite some physical drawbacks, the glasses are more of a mirror cracked, in which Edward sees, but does not recognize, himself.