Thursday, May 21, 2015

'Only a Paper Moon' or 'Look This Way and Smile'

When watching the news, do you ever find yourself asking, "OK, but what's the REAL story?" (No? Wow! I'm coming over to your house--your reception must be different from mine!) Of course, by the way I've asked the question, it's obvious that I have had experiences of doubt, and I'm not saying it's just the fault of the media. Certainly, there's faulty and incomplete reporting, but sometimes I have the feeling that, no matter how accurately journalists record events, what's shown is little more than a badly written skit complete with props, flimsy backdrops, and bad actors. ("OK, Senator McConnell, you stand here and look mean, and I'll stand there, and it'll look like we're fighting. Meanwhile, Rand will be shaking his fist." "Sure, Mr. President, glad to help.")

This is especially true when the news emanates from the rarefied vicinity of Washington, D.C. There are exceptions, of course. I certainly don't believe everyone in Washington is a lying coxcomb, but I do believe a lot of them are. I won't put a percentage on it, but let's just say I think it's alarmingly high. There, I haven't said anything you would probably disagree with yourself, since it's a truism that politicians lie. My question is, why aren't we more upset about it? Why aren't we angry? Are we uninformed? Is it mere apathy (which may be understandable but is still, by the way, bad for democracy)? Or don't we care if someone lies as long as their lies coincide with the ones we tell ourselves? I've come very reluctantly to believe that the latter is often true, which certainly doesn't reflect well on us as a people.

This is how bad it is: Last week I read the article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh alleging that the story told to the public about the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 is largely false. Shocking, right? Mr. Hersh alleges that the Obama administration not only lied to the public about what happened but also double-crossed the Pakistanis. I certainly have no trouble believing that the true version of events is different from what the public was told, but Mr. Hersh's whys and wherefores didn't convince me either. He suggests that Obama's version of events may have been politically motivated (which I have no trouble believing). What I don't believe is that Mr. Hersh's article gives an accurate account of what transpired any more than Obama's did.

I don't know what happened in Abbottabad, but, personally, I wouldn't be surprised if U.S. officials had always known where bin Laden was. It always seemed strange to me that despite all the apparently strenuous efforts to find him, he managed to elude detection. The United States can apparently do anything from bug Angela Merkel's cell phone to spy on the phone calls, emails, and who knows what else (library accounts? hotel records?) of its own citizens, but it couldn't seem to zoom in on the allegedly low-tech, out-numbered bin Laden.

I don't believe that all the connections between the Bush administration, the Saudi government, bin Laden, and other players in this game--including the current administration--have ever fully come to light. There's simply too much paranoia from the administration in its stance toward the media and its own citizens, too much willingness to disregard the Constitution (allegedly for our benefit, isn't that a neat trick), for me not to conclude that something's fundamentally wrong. Eleven years ago, I was reading Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud on my lunch hour at work and noticed the way the atmosphere in the office turned perceptibly colder after I discussed it with someone else. Mr. Unger's book does nothing but document the (by now, I think) well-known closeness between the Bush family and the Saudi royal house. My life was never quite the same in the office after that, so from my own experience, I know what an unpopular topic this is with some people.

My knowledge of what's happening in the world comes from reading, watching current events, and trying to think things through. I have the same sources as other people but often seem to come to different conclusions. My distrust of President Obama (someone I voted for twice) is based on his own actions, including his administration's interference with the press, his attempt to slip such serious deals as the TPP past public scrutiny, and, quite frankly, his seemingly obsessive concern with being ubiquitous on the talk show circuit and any place else that'll take him. It's all polish and no substance, a bit too Big Brother-ish for me. Nobel Peace Prize? Are you kidding? I don't believe he's really that different from some of the biggest hawks and warmongers out there. Some of these highly publicized political spats are, in my opinion, mere disguises for a mutual agreement to present the "facts" in a certain way to the public while a vastly different story goes on behind closed doors.

You may say things have always been this way. Maybe, but I think we've come to a critical point in the life of our democratic experiment (and remember, it is an experiment; it's only as good as we make it) where we have to decide how serious we are about our founding principles. Do we still think taxation without representation is tyranny? Do we still believe in certain inalienable rights? (Chris Christie evidently thinks it's hard to enjoy them in a coffin. Whatever happened to "Give me liberty or give me death"?) Do we still believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people? Do we still think the government is privileged to work for us and is obliged to tell us the truth about the things it does in our name?

Are we still Americans? Or are we now something else? Inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Celestial Nights

For myself, I declare I don't know anything about it. But the sight of the stars always makes me dream . . . Vincent Van Gogh

This past winter, I noticed an unusual number of evenings on which stargazing was difficult. I like to spot Orion (and maybe one or two others) when I look up past the roofs and treetops, but there seemed to be few opportunities to do so. I wondered at first if we were just having a lot of haze or clouds, but then it dawned on me: there are so many more lights around here than there used to be.

Whether it's good news or bad news depends on how you look at it, I guess. A new, brightly illuminated parking lot, extra lights from a large construction project, a well lit and expanding medical facility . . . all of these are in my near vicinity, signs that I'm living in a dynamic area. Certainly, it's no backwater. There are as many as three road and utility projects ongoing in addition to the other construction. I haven't moved, but the world seems to be beating a path to my door. Once the road is finished, there will probably be even more lights, making the neighborhood safer (we presume), busier, and less shadowy, and yet . . there will probably be fewer stars.

One of the great compensations of winter has always been the brilliance of the stars on clear, frosty nights, and no matter what the time of year, there's usually something to see: a planet or two, the rising moon, or some passing clouds, faintly luminous against the blue darkness. We don't see nearly as many stars here as I remember observing as a kid in semi-rural Florida--there, the sky was awash in them, the Milky Way a familiar sight. And yet my current neighborhood used to be a nice enough place to watch the more limited number of constellations available to us here.

I even stood in line to see Mars through a telescope once, in the park, some years ago, when that planet was especially close to the Earth, a lovely evening when astronomy, neighborhood camaraderie, and whimsy coalesced (when I looked through the telescope, Mars was the exact color of an orange popsicle, the perfect tint for a warm summer night). I can't imagine another such occasion ever being repeated. It's hard for me to imagine now that it ever happened, but it did.

The last time I actually remember seeing the Milky Way was more than a dozen years ago, when I was visiting a friend in a rural Northern Kentucky county. The sky was glittering with stars that evening, much as I remembered it looking when I was young, and, yes, the environs were pitch dark, almost spooky. You actually wanted a streetlight or two just to show you where you were--we urban dwellers are accustomed to a baseline of illumination--but one or two would have been enough. Illumination shouldn't be blinding.

I was enchanted once by a painting I saw displayed in an exhibition of Latino artists, in which two young girls sat on the roof of a house gazing at the stars. Visible through a window inside was an older woman, presumably mom, going about her business in a quiet way. The scene depicted a perfect balance between the yearning and adventurousness of life yet to be lived and the anchoring security of family and home. I've often had something like that feeling, scanning the sky as I walked to my building from my car--or I used to, before these latter days of light pollution descended in a blaze upon us.

I've sometimes dreamed about having a house with a little viewing area for a telescope, so that I could look at whatever celestial wonders there were to see whenever I wanted, but being more of a town person than a country one, I know that this wish might be difficult to translate into reality (though you never know). I try to think about the changes in my current neighborhood as progress, but I have to admit . . . I miss the poetry of those evenings of pre-industrial strength lighting. I'm all for practicality, but it's always nice to leave a little room for enchantment. So are we really any better off, or is there just more "stuff" around us? Is trading glimpses of the night sky for parking lots and stadium seats a good trade or a bad one?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Libation for the Green Man

I saw a picture of the Green Man on someone's website yesterday, and that got me looking up images of this popular, virile, but somewhat mysterious nature spirit; you know, the one with the face wreathed in greenery and vines. Some renderings make him look jolly, sort of like a Santa Claus with vines growing out of his mouth, but many images depict him more ambiguously, so that you're not really sure you'd want to see him peering at you from out the foliage. Some are downright scary (look up the Bamberg Green Man for one of the less friendly-looking nature spirits you'll ever see).

I think B and C above are closer to the truth where the Green Man is concerned; a nature spirit should seem remote and inhuman, because he is. He's not your pal, and he wants you to know that; hence the inscrutable expression. If he's smiling about something, be assured it's not necessarily something you yourself would find amusing.

The joke's all on you where he's concerned. For instance, the Green Man seems just the type who would think up a concept like pollen. While it's lovely to see all those butterflies and bees spreading the stuff all over everything (and thank goodness they do), it's not so lovely in the form of allergens. Whatever it is that bothers me in the spring is fairly mild in the scheme of things but enough of a nuisance some years to be annoying. So why can't we just enjoy the flowers and the trees without all this sinus congestion and sneezing? Because the Green Man is a trickster, that's why. It's kind of a reminder that nature isn't a show put on for our amusement. Tornadoes and spring floods are other reminders of the same type, and of course there are many others.

In one mythology class I took, there was some discussion of the ancient concept of sacrificing to the gods as a way of showing respect for the powers and forces that surround us. It sounds old-fashioned and superfluous today, but I think it's the spirit of humility and the recognition that there are larger forces at work (larger than us), not the burnt offering or the fatted calf itself, that's beneficial. The spirit of our age tends toward bending nature to suit our purposes. I don't say this is always bad, but it does seem that an acknowledgement that there might be other laws at work other than just what suits us could be a sane and healthy thing at times.

The ancient Greeks were always pouring libations on the ground; the Wiley Encyclopedia of Ancient History defines a libation as a "ritual outpouring of liquid"--wine or something similar--done to honor a god. I haven't done any laying on of spiritous liquors, but I have been spring cleaning, which is less lyrical but possibly more practical. Instead of spilling wine on the earth, I've been lavishing baking soda, vinegar, and bleach on every surface I can lay my hands on, and dusting, mopping, and running the vacuum like it's going out of style.

Really, I'm just trying to keep ahead of allergens, but it's a ritual cleansing, too, if you like to think of it that way. It's a tip of the hat to the Green Man, a way to let him know that I got his message about nature not being a tame thing (just like Aslan wasn't a tame lion, I guess), that I know I'm just a minute speck in the universe at large (and I'm OK with that, too: in fact, I'm glad of it), but that I do like to be able to breathe through my nose and to smell all those lovely flowers he's been spreading around. Call it a libation with a purpose.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Scene II: A Tempest

My brother, who lives in a sparsely populated state, once said he'd like the place even better if it had fewer people than it did. That may sound misanthropic, but I can sympathize. Where I live, it's nearly impossible to walk out the door without falling over someone or getting an earful of overheard chatter from people you don't even know. One expects occasional inconveniences such as these as part of the price of living in society, which is why rules of courtesy are necessary. Of course, that only works if people follow them, while my observation is that people seem not to have heard of them. Whose idea was it to do away with the Golden Rule?

People talk about feeling alone in a crowd, but in my experience that would be a rare thing these days; others are all too apt to enter my personal space, whether I'm drinking coffee, reading, walking through the park, or shopping for groceries. If someone isn't blocking my light in the cafe, he's talking too loudly on his cell phone, pulling out in front of me on the street, or failing to keep his dog under control so that I can walk in peace.

Were all of these people raised in a barn? Are they exhibitionists? Are they merely addled? Are they trying out for reality TV? Who told them being obnoxious is a good idea? Am I less forgiving than I used to be? (Any and all of these could possibly be true.)

This afternoon, I was sitting in a corner chair in the coffeehouse, minding my own business, as usual. I had been sitting outside, though it was a shade too cool for that, and I moved indoors when it looked like I could find a seat. I had, unfortunately, forgotten my earplugs, which is a real no-no if you plan to spend any time at all in Starbucks, but I was engrossed in my book, and things seemed to be going fairly well until other people started filling up the corner where I was sitting.

Now, don't get me wrong, I get it that Starbucks is a public place and that they're in business to keep the seats filled. But this particular Starbucks has a number of segregated seating areas, designed, I'm told, to create quiet places for people who want to read or study. I was sitting in a screened-off area near a large table where people usually congregate with books and laptops, but for some reason, everyone who entered that space was incapable of doing so without creating a scene, a not uncommon thing in Starbucks. People in line near the pastry case seemed intent on projecting their voices to the farthest corner; a large woman flounced in front of me, noisily taking the adjacent chair with a bit more ado than was really required; another patron walked back and forth in front of me several times, talking loudly on a cell and (quite unnecessarily) bumping my footrest; someone else camped out in my peripheral vision, apparently to read his text messages--not quite in my space but just close enough to be annoying.

Any one of these would have been irritating by itself; in the aggregate, it was just plain ridiculous. I got up and left.

Well, this story ends a little better than it begins. Rather than going home mad, I decided to take a short drive. I checked out the site of the future branch of the public library on Richmond Road and stopped to get gas. While I was doing that, I noticed some very dark clouds massing in the northwest: really Old Testament, Wrath of God thunderheads. I thought I could get home before they arrived, but since I was on a side of town I rarely visit any more, I drove around for a while, marveling at how little I remembered of the streets, though I used to be out there quite a bit.

Over here lived someone I interviewed when I worked at the newspaper; back there somewhere is a church I've been in, though I couldn't begin to find it now; my brother used to live on that street; I used to know someone who lived down that hill. It was almost as if I'd driven into a time warp, and I wandered around for a while, pleasantly lost. The leafy suburban streets looked both familiar and unfamiliar in the altered light of the approaching storm; it felt a bit like Van Gogh's Starry Night, a little town drowsing under a tumultuous sky. I seemed to be reclaiming something that belonged to me in the process of driving around.

When it started to rain, I was still in the wilds of suburbia. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and small bits of hail hit my windshield. I decided I should be getting home, in case the weather got worse, so I started in that direction. I kept remembering people I'd known who lived in this house or that one--where are they now? The church steeples on Tates Creek Road stood up dramatically against the thunderheads, water was ponding by the side of the road, the wipers could barely keep up with the rain, and I . . . was feeling much better.

A spring thunderstorm doesn't sound calculated to be calming, but somehow it had that effect. Actually, I think it was just catharsis. Just when I was feeling like a thundercloud myself, here came a real one, washing everything clean. When I pulled out onto the road I live on, the changed light (aided, maybe, by my feeling of having revisited the past) made the street look subdued and elegant, like an old black and white photograph. I almost expected to see a Model T drive by.

It was still raining when I pulled into our parking lot, and I still had a little coffee left in my cup, so I sat for a few minutes and read some more of my book until the downpour eased a little. It's ironic that driving around in a thunderstorm could be more relaxing than sitting in a dry, well-lighted coffeehouse, but those are the facts. Sometimes a little solitude is better than a crowd.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Shadows and Mirrors

I saw an article online a while ago that, in honor of Shakespeare's birthday, listed his Top Ten insults. Apparently, there's a tradition of doing this every year, since I found similar lists in various publications from years past. That started me thinking about what Shakespeare means to me and whether I could compile a list of my own--Favorite Shakespearean Moments, or something like that.

I remember someone saying to me once that she wondered if people pretended to like Shakespeare more than they do because it seemed to be expected of them. Maybe that happens sometimes, but I think the Shakespearean allure is very real and due to a variety of factors, including the fun of costume drama, the power of his language (which sometimes catches people unaware), and the appeal of his sense of humor.

I can recall many hours spent in a local park on warm summer nights as the annual Shakespeare festival played to a large audience of people of all ages. Gathered together in the humid dark, with trees framing the stage and crickets trilling in the background, everyone seemed to fall into the spirit of things, willingly entering Shakespeare's world for an evening, despite the time, distance, and nuances of language separating us from him. These evenings were always festive; even children seemed to respond to the pratfalls and physical comedy though they may not necessarily have understood the plots.

As with many people, the first Shakespeare play I ever read was Romeo and Juliet, which I still enjoy. Of the other tragedies, I like Hamlet best; of the comedies, it's hard to pick just one, but maybe A Midsummer Night's Dream would do for a favorite. In high school, I once had to memorize and recite Hamlet's soliloquy, and, on another occasion, enact the witches' scene from Macbeth, along with three other students and a cooking pot borrowed from my mother (dressed in black crepe to stand in for the cauldron).

I was entranced by Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V and captivated by a filmed version of The Tempest from Stratford, Ontario, that starred Christopher Plummer. (To date, I haven't seen a version of The Tempest that I didn't like.) I finally appreciated Othello when Mr. Branagh's Iago reminded me of some Machiavellian workplace politics I had experienced, and A Midsummer Night's Dream ended up in my dissertation when I remembered that mazes are mentioned in the play, giving my fourth chapter a welcome buoyancy.

But my favorite Shakespearean moment is the evening I spent watching a production of Much Ado About Nothing on a London stage years ago. I'd probably read the play but had never seen it performed, and that production remains for me the most magical Shakespearean experience of all. The play starred Derek Jacobi, and, I believe, Sinead Cusack, as Benedick and Beatrice. What made the production memorable was the staging, the brilliant use of a deceptively simple set of angled mirrors on a dark stage, lit from the front, so that all the action took place in a circumscribed area, a pool of light in a sea of black. The characters appeared out of darkness, enacted their scenes in front of the mirrors, and disappeared into shadows, so that the entire proceeding seemed to take place at night, giving an urgency, intimacy, and hectic, dreamlike quality to the quarrels, jests, complications, and ultimate reconciliation of the lovers. The acting was outstanding, and the characters, in contrast to the dimness and confusion of their reflected images, seemed very much alive.

If I could recommend only one Shakespearean production, this would be it. I see myself, wide-eyed and probably open-mouthed, 25 years old, sitting in that darkened theater, the same girl who had recited "To be or not to be" word for word and played a somewhat clueless Macbeth (my main dramatic contribution to that scene being, quite honestly, the soup pot). This may have been the first time I actually got it, the first time I entered Shakespeare emotionally. Every now and then, I can still see Beatrice, still feel the sadness beneath her witty one-liners and her yearning for authenticity in the midst of so much surface show. The happy ending was all the more poignant for complications narrowly averted, and I feel certain everyone left the theater happy that night.

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare, and thanks for the memories.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Death and Taxes, Not Necessarily in That Order

"April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land . . ." --T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I was looking up the quotation above in my copy of The Waste Land and saw that I had written a note in the margin about Eliot having turned Chaucer's pilgrim gaiety on its head with these opening lines. Chaucer's spring fever is Eliot's elegy: clearly, these are two different views of spring. Is one more apt than the other? It probably depends on who you ask, or, maybe, when you ask. I don't think the sentiments really contradict each another.

Almost all of us have felt the surge of renewed energy that arrives with spring. Likewise, most of us have known times when we felt out of step with this mood, for one reason or another . . . a personal tragedy or an illness, perhaps. And regardless of anything else that might be happening, April is tax season, not really the highlight of anyone's year. It always seems like a shame to be preoccupied with 1099s and schedule Cs just when the weather's finally getting nice, but, in the wisdom of the Federal government, it has been so ordained that we must suffer (so you know it must be right).

Somehow, I hadn't really paid much attention before to the fact that April 15 is the date of Abraham Lincoln's death. Had you? Maybe it's because April 15 is overwhelmingly associated now with the Internal Revenue Service, e-filing, and tax forms, but it seems a shame that these things so far overshadow such a major tragedy in our history. I hadn't noticed much being made of the anniversary in the past, but this year, as you've heard, is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's death, and so it has come to the forefront.

To me, collecting taxes is an odd way to honor President Lincoln, but apparently the date was appointed in the 1950s to give taxpayers more financial leeway (the filing deadline used to be March 15). I'm wondering now how much thought went into the selection of the date other than its being conveniently located an exact month later than the previous deadline. Did no one think of Lincoln, did it not seem to matter, or was the need to pick a date already associated with taxes (and thus easy to remember) the most pressing concern? Many people probably make little of the coincidence, but looked at from a symbolic viewpoint, it almost feels like a "papering over" of a painful moment from the past. (Don't tell me these things don't happen--they do.)

Of course, we now have a more recent tragedy associated with April 15, that of the Boston Marathon bombing. I was out walking the other day, a lovely, mild evening on which the local park was filled with young people dressed for prom night, the sparkling colors of their clothes competing with the tulips and blossoming trees for brilliance. As this exuberant crowd of students, parents, and friends milled around, the Boston tragedy came into my mind. I agree, it's sad that such a festive evening turned my thoughts toward something so tragic, but there it is: the mood near the finish line in Boston that day must have been similarly exuberant.

Loss is no respecter of seasons. Personally, I've lived through tornadoes, a fire (which actually occurred on April 15 some years ago), the death of a friend, and traffic accidents, all occurring in or near early April. Some of these events affected me greatly, and some very little in the long run, but one thing I do know is how surreal the beauty of the season seems under circumstances of loss, how disconnected one can feel from the flow of things. I've come through most of these events in no way diminished (except for losing the friend). I love spring, but I can't help but think of the people whose lives were interrupted that day in Boston and wonder how they're coping.

There's no bringing back Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, or Sean Collier, no undoing the devastating injuries suffered by the survivors. It's hard to take in the scope of what occurred until you imagine it happening to someone you love, in which case it comes into focus pretty quickly. I look at the Kentucky springtime unfolding all around me and wonder how long it will be before the survivors can look with anything but grief at the beauty of a Boston spring.

Death and taxes. Death and new life. Tragedies occur, and somehow life moves on. Is there a point to this post? Well, yes, there is. I keep thinking of smiling 8-year-old Martin Richard, holding up his sign, expressing his wish that people would stop killing each other. I often think, when I read arguments and counter-arguments for fighting terrorism with more war, that it's amazing the human race has come as far as it has. Why wouldn't you look for those who support terrorism, financially or otherwise, and charge them in a court of law? Isn't it more salutary to treat acts of terrorism as crimes than to start wars that seem untenable from the outset and may do little to address ultimate causes? We go around in circles, never getting to the bottom of things. Our government makes a show of being tough on terror but merely perpetuates it (and for this, we pay taxes).

Martin Richard will never see it, but for his sake, I'm making a plea that we do some soul-searching as a society and try to look more deeply into the root causes of terrorism. This will probably hurt. I believe that many people who consider themselves completely opposed to terrorism actually support it by trusting the government to fight it on their behalf, a government that is not only dysfunctional but also not opposed to doing away with constitutional rights in its quest to--it tells us--make the world safer. The government doesn't always have a vested interest in telling the public the truth about things--far from it. But the public always has a duty to insist on it.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Tiger and a Unicorn

Just think, only a month ago we were digging out from a foot of snow. Although the calendar said March, the reality outside was deepest winter. And that was our second storm in little more than two weeks. A lot of people said the second one was worse. In my little pocket of the world, we seemed to get the same amount of snow both times, although there was more drifting with the first storm; a car I could see from my living room had snow to the top of its wheel wells and wasn't moved for a week. Driving across the parking lot was akin to sledding on a glacier.

The second snow, though formidable enough to halt travel statewide, ended up melting away like a mere dream of winter in only a few days of sun; it just couldn't hang on like the first one. A week later, it was hard to believe it had even happened, though memories of digging a path for my car with a dustpan as a frosty afternoon turned to purple twilight and my nose turned pink assured me that, yes, I had indeed been there. One week more, a mild, sunny day, and I was driving around with the radio on and the window rolled down, and the world seemed a different place, if only for an afternoon.

After lingering in the borderland of winter's-over-but-it's-not-quite-spring, we had another cold night on Saturday--but the next day, Easter, I saw my first blossoming trees of the season, and a day later there were even more. With the heavy rains of the last few days, the border of the sidewalk next to our building has sprouted some ground cover that almost looks like small shrubs, and the grass, which had been brown and lank except for some green tufts, is suddenly thick and lush, a riot of vegetation.

If March came in like a lion (and it did), April has been tigerish in its own way. We've gone from frozen waste to uproarious jungle, with pollen flying, birds darting, and lightning flashing. If this spring were music, it would be Stravinsky's strident Rite of Spring, not Vivaldi's sweet and chirrupy Four Seasons. The human world may flounder and fumble, but the natural world streams on.

I saw a political headline today: "2015 is all about 2016." I guess I should care, but I'm more excited at the moment by the weeping cherries, crab apples, and redbuds and the prospect of putting my winter things away. Show me a politician as reliable as the return of spring, and I'll show you a green and gold tiger romping in the tall grass with a unicorn. I'm not sure that the first sight isn't much rarer than the second one.