Friday, September 12, 2014

Colors and Memories

We're making the transition around here into fall, and it was really evident today. Yesterday when I walked to the library, a heavy rainfall had made the field behind the sports center as fresh and green as May; the major tell-tale signs of September were a few scattered brown leaves on the sidewalk. But somehow, overnight, the oak tree on my street has let loose a load of acorns, the air is cool and damp, and the sky has turned gray.

When the harvest moon rose a few days ago, it almost seemed too soon for it. We've been having summery weather, including thunderstorms, and the trees and lawns still had the look of July, if not June. The night before it was full, the moon had an evanescent spring appearance, rising pale and ghostly above the rooftops in a sky still full of daylight. Cicadas were shrilling, and the air was muggy. Now, just a few days later, the grocery store has a huge pumpkin display, leaves are falling in greater numbers, and the summer heat is nowhere to be found.

Well, fair enough. The summer days seemed to just melt away, so that it's hard to believe the entire season has come and gone, but fall is often brilliant around here, and change, as they say, is life. Sometimes a dry summer causes drab fall colors, but with all the rain we've had this summer, we may really have something to look forward to as the leaves begin to turn.

I still clearly remember our first fall in Kentucky, after we moved back here from Florida, many years ago. Days of an unbelievably gray, wet dreariness, in stark contrast to the hot, bright light of Florida, alternated with glowing days in which dazzling orange and yellow leaves stood out so sharply against the cloudless blue that it almost hurt your eyes. That's autumn in Kentucky, which can veer from crisp and energetic to funereal and back again many times over.

When I was out walking earlier, acorns crunching underfoot, I had a sudden memory of myself as a first-grader in Florida, coloring in leaves and acorns with those big, fat Crayolas they make for young children, helping to decorate the classroom for fall. I can still see those autumnal browns and oranges, which were largely conceptual for me, since colors didn't change much with the seasons where we lived, practically in the Everglades. We imagined fall (and winter). How nice it would be to be able to see this fall's colors with imaginative beginner's eyes all over again.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sounding Brass School of Oratory

A news item on CNN caught my eye the other day: in it, President Obama said he blamed the media for stirring up fears and making things seem worse than they are in our country. Here's a link to the story:

After I posted the link to the article, along with my reaction to it, on my Facebook page, I noticed it was not showing up in my news feed. I had to post it a second time before it appeared, and that little difficulty got me to thinking about the importance I attach to freedom of speech.

I'll repeat what I said on Facebook: yes, one must be judicious in evaluating news sources. You definitely can't believe everything you hear, and no librarian would ever say otherwise. However, it's the media's job to report the facts, even when they're unpleasant, not to be a public relations outlet for the status quo. I appreciate the complexities we're all facing but would respect the president more for acknowledging the country's mood instead of blaming the messenger. That's a diversionary tactic that, to my mind, insults the public's intelligence. My sense is that people are responding appropriately to sobering realities while trying to figure out the best way forward.

It's true: we're facing a difficult set of circumstances. But blaming the messenger is a species of logical fallacy, which I'm sure the president knows as well as I do.

I agree with him that America is a great nation, insofar as its founding principles and its people go, imperfections notwithstanding. The difficulty I see, as I discussed in a previous post about our current guiding myth (see "Shall We Gather at the River?"), is that power has shifted away from the people and into the hands of monied interests. This has happened gradually, and many factors have contributed, but the end result is that the story most Americans believe in--the one about freedom and opportunity--is not the story we're being governed by. There are now conflicting stories, and one of them is called "It's About the Money."

It's sad to say it, but there have been times in recent memory when "patriotism" seemed synonymous with "jingoism." If you considered yourself a patriot but didn't go along with the "Might Makes Right" style of things, you felt uncomfortable. If you called yourself a patriot, would people assume you supported every clause of the Patriot Act, even the ones that infringed on your rights? If you displayed a flag, would people assume you were a hawk? If you believed that the duty of a patriot is to question things, would people call you un-American? These were real questions.

For better or for worse, it now seems fashionable for Democrats as well as Republicans to openly drape themselves in the flag. The trouble I have with it, as regards politicians, is that it often comes across as self-serving, as if they're trying their darnedest to bask in Lady Liberty's reflected glow while having circumvented--in numerous, cynical ways--all that she stands for. Gilded phrases about America have a hollow sound falling from the lips of people who wouldn't know "making ends meet" from a golf outing but know exactly where Wall Street is.

There's a verse from Corinthians that comes to mind: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal." As we know, it's always a good idea to judge more by what people do than by what they say, but since they will talk, I've made it a practice to watch their body language and to notice how I feel when they speak. This can be quite revealing sometimes.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


This week I've been on a Miss Marple jag. I've been watching videos from a TV series starring Joan Hickson, who seems about as perfect as anyone could be as Miss Marple. The character is a cross between a fairy godmother, a cool-headed logician, a busybody, and an avenging angel. In the first episode I saw, in which the elderly crime-solver was vacationing in the Caribbean, she spent a lot of time just sitting quietly and watching the other guests. It was hard to tell from her subdued demeanor how astute she'd be once she sprang into action, but when she did, she was a true force of nature.

With her knitting, old-fashioned clothes, and keenly observant eye, Miss Marple walks a line somewhere between maternal and formidable. She's easily underestimated by strangers because she seems like a harmless old woman, but her tongue can be as sharp as her eye. While entertaining a local police detective, who resents her tendency to solve cases under his nose (and doesn't mind saying so, loudly), she is both assiduously proper and slyly satirical, telling him that the wine she's serving is a bit bold but no doubt suits his character.

In one of my favorite episodes, a young, newly married woman has settled into a new house with her handsome and loving husband only to be plagued by a sense of déjà vu and foreboding. Fearing that she is going mad, she confides in Miss Marple, who calmly points out the possibility, overlooked by everyone else, that the simplest explanation is that she has in fact lived in the house before--which turns out to be the case. 

Later in the same episode, Miss Marple dispatches a would-be attacker by blasting him in the face with hot water--hardly the reception he expected--and turns to comfort the young wife without missing a beat. She is both Demeter and Nemesis. The latter appellation, "Nemesis," is actually the title of another episode, in which a deceased acquaintance charges Miss Marple--from the grave--with solving a murder case involving his n'er-do-well son. Of course, she does it, while at the same time looking after her own newly separated nephew and figuring who's who and what's what on a motor coach tour of the English countryside.

Despite her quaint ways and kindliness, Miss Marple is a consummate philosopher, serving up some surprisingly pointed observations for such a conventional, god-fearing aunt and godmother. When a character is shocked at the full revelation of a character's wickedness, Miss Marple responds, "That's because you believed what he told you. It's very dangerous to believe people. I haven't in years." While staying in a posh hotel that hasn't changed since she was a child (and is actually a cover for a diabolically clever operation involving doppelgangers and stolen cash), Miss Marple observes that what had at first seemed comforting now seems simply wrong, because even when some changes aren't to our liking, "life is about always moving forward."

Of course, Miss Marple has her faults, like anyone else. While hardly a snob, she doesn't seem overly fond of Americans and is not above a put-down where they're concerned. When a friend tells her over tea of an American repast in which a tea cake with raisins was passed off as a muffin but wasn't one a'tall (in the British sense), Miss Marple tsk-tsks and replies, "The Americans have a lot to answer for." Ouch! Touché, Aunt Jane! But that's a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, isn't it? No doubt you're right, but after all, the murders have all been committed by seemingly proper members of English society. (If pressed, I'm sure Miss Marple would agree to the justice of that observation, while perhaps pointing out that had she been in America, she would no doubt find murderers there, too.)

Of course, I'd love to have my own Aunt Jane, despite her faults. How comforting to have her wisdom and steadiness and inability to let go until the case is solved. Despite the blood-chilling frequency with which she encounters evil deeds, things always seem to come right in the end, and people are always getting ready just before the credits roll to be married, have a baby, plant a garden, or in some other fashion live happily ever after. Except for her tendency to attract crime, she'd be jolly to have around. Who couldn't use a fairy godmother?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

After the Storm

Yesterday we had a thunderstorm that, despite its brevity, managed to wreak a maximum amount of havoc in a minimum amount of time. It seemed to happen in the space of only 15 minutes. I was in the coffeehouse when it hit and would nearly have missed it if I hadn't glanced up from my book and seen how extremely Stygian the view had gotten through the front window. It wasn't even 5:30, but it looked like night was falling. It had all happened in a hurry.

Since I was planning to go to a movie, I left the coffeehouse to go home for dinner. The rain had passed over, but I heard thunder off to the east. I moseyed through quiet residential streets, not realizing the storm had done any damage until I got to a stoplight, half a mile from home, which was not working. When I turned left, I found myself stuck in a line of molasses-slow stop-and-go traffic. When I got clear of that, the next stoplight I came to was also on the blink.

When I walked into my building, there were no lights in the hallway, and an alarm was sounding insistently. In my apartment, there was no electricity at all, though I did have phone service. I called to let someone know about the alarm, discovering from our apartment manager that he had no power either. I went back out into the hall, crazily lit by a white emergency light on the exit sign but otherwise dusky, to locate the source of the alarm, which turned out to be a wall panel next to the stairs. The building seemed unfamiliar, transformed into a slantwise, alternative version of itself by the shrilling alarm and altered lighting.

I thought to myself that it was a good thing I was planning to eat leftovers anyway; my pasta salad was still chilled inside the non-functioning refrigerator. In the back of my mind while I ate was a lingering memory of the great power outage of February 2003, which lasted on my street for almost a week and for much longer in other places. I knew this outage would likely be resolved within a few hours but thought it best not to count on the lights being on when I came back home. I was doubly glad I had plans because watching a Jimmy Stewart movie in the familiar environs of the Kentucky Theatre seemed much more appealing than trying to read a book by battery-operated candles with an alarm shrieking in the background.

I took my pink piggy LED flashlight, my umbrella, and my foldable rain cape with me when I left, feeling somewhat like a Girl Scout assailing the wilderness. There were no functioning traffic lights as far as I could tell. Things were moving surprisingly well, if slowly, though I don't think I'd have wanted to be a pedestrian trying to cross the street. I encountered an officer directing traffic at the biggest intersection, but otherwise, it was inch forward, keep your eye on the cars approaching from various directions, inch forward some more, and wait for your chance to go. The slightly chaotic air gave the scene an upside-down quality that might have been more carnival-like if it hadn't also been nerve-wracking.

It wasn't until I reached High Street downtown that I finally found a working stoplight, and then it was as if I had crossed the border from a topsy-turvy country teetering toward lawlessness back into the familiar world of everyday, just by passing through an intersection. The trip had seemed longer than it was, and I was sure I was late, but by the time I found a parking spot, I realized I was right on schedule. It was as if time had slowed down in the place with the power outage, but the clock came right again as soon as I passed out of it.

The crowd was a bit smaller than usual for a summer classics movie, so the rain had no doubt kept some people home, but everything else was as usual in the theatre as we waited for the movie to start. The organ played, the crowd sang "My Old Kentucky Home," the smell of popcorn hung in the air, the movie was introduced, and the lights went down. Up on the screen, Jimmy Stewart's smiling face appeared, and we settled in for an evening of Harvey, which in itself is a comic meditation on the intersection of different worlds--one everyday, and one uncanny. It was rather appropriate, under the circumstances.

My trip home from the movie was uneventful. By the time I got back, the stoplights were working, the power was on, the alarm had been silenced, and we were back to business as usual. It was, I guess, a little reminder of how we are all, always, at the mercy of nature, no matter how secure the trappings of civilized life seem. None of us are bigger than the most fleeting of summer storms. I guess it's good to be reminded of that from time to time.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Prospero Drowns His Books

I was watching a Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest, with Christopher Plummer, the other night and was having a little trouble hearing all the dialogue. Rather than turn the sound up, I decided to let it be and follow the events instead of the words. It was rather enjoyable just to be carried along by the story instead of hanging on every syllable. I don't know if that isn't the best approach in any case; academic habits of analysis can sometimes get in the way of simple enjoyment.

It occurred to me that I was trying to watch the play with "beginner's mind," and I started wondering what it would have been like to see it as a child. There are so many fairy tale elements in the plot that I think I would have loved The Tempest, without understanding all the nuances, if I had seen it as a little girl. What else should a play with a magician, an enchanted island full of invisible voices, castaways, airy spirits, talking monsters, a violent storm, true love, comedy, and the righting of wrongs be except charming?

There is a way in which searching for meanings and parsing phrases can actually get in the way of understanding, and to me this play is proof of that. I think Shakespeare wanted above all to enchant, to be Prospero, to exert his powers of creation to make a new world, or possibly just remake the old one. We're meant to fall under the island's spell, to dwell for a while with incantations, sorcery, and inexplicable happenings, to feel ourselves out of our usual element. The initial storm, which deposits the seafarers from the kingdoms of Milan and Naples onto Prospero's island, is a portal to a different world, and it pulls in playgoers, too.

The plot is simple and appeals strongly to the love of a happy ending and sense of justice restored. Prospero, the wronged ruler, stranded for a dozen years on the island with his daughter, has used the time to perfect his knowledge of magic. He seizes the chance to bring his enemies within his reach by calling up a storm that brings their ship to his island. They are punished as much by the strange, uncanny air of the place (which almost brings them to madness) as by the fear of being castaways, although the violent storm and near drownings give way to a less dire, if initially befuddling, fate.

What child hasn't fantasized about the magical ability to control his surroundings and shape things to his liking? Prospero can actually do it, in an unusually potent display of what psychologists might call "agency" that more than makes up for his prior helplessness in the face of wrong. Prospero's ultimate purpose, despite the fear and confusion he creates, is benign: it's the restoration of his own rights and reconciliation with his adversaries. His daughter Miranda falls in love with the son of the King of Naples, setting the seal on the theme of restoration and healing. The King, who had feared his son drowned, finds that he is still alive when Prospero, like a stage magician pulling back a curtain, suddenly reveals the two lovers playing chess together. Everything that had seemed wrong, after a satisfying amount of confusion and trouble, comes right again.

As a child, it wouldn't have bothered me perhaps, but it does occur to me now that a few hours of torment isn't really the equivalent of twelve years of confinement. The events following the shipwreck take place in less than an afternoon, though of course, it's a magical three hours, which could very well seem longer. My better nature tells me we're meant to think that the experience was so bewildering that to have continued it much beyond that would have been cruel . . . Ariel seems to think so, at any rate.

Prospero also makes it plain that he is finished with magic once his ends have been accomplished: "This rough magic, I here abjure." Ariel is freed from Prospero's service, Prospero drowns his books, and there is a sad sense of something numinous passing. Should Prospero really have to give up the knowledge that saved him and become like other men once more? And yet again, maybe it's for the best. It would be unwise and dangerous to continually be calling up the powers of air, light, and storm to correct every little problem that might arise in the future. There are supposed to be laws for that.

It's a wonderful play, wise and affecting, and I wish I had seen it when I was young. It would have been lovely to have seen it just for itself without study or preconceived notions. Somehow Shakespeare has become high-brow and lofty, and one is often taught to believe that a lot of scholarship is required to make sense of it. This play simply overturns those notions.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mayhem, Murder, and Magicians

Yesterday I finished Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a novel about dueling English magicians in the Napoleonic era. It took me more than two weeks to read it, which tells you something about the length of it (782 pages). It's wonderful when an engrossing story is also a lengthy one so that you can stick with it for a while . . . if your budget doesn't allow for vacations, isn't a good book a great alternative? Wasn't it Emily Dickinson who said, "There is no Frigate like a Book, to take us Lands away"? (Yes, it was--I just looked it up.)

If you saw the movie The Prestige (which was also a book), you have a little of the flavor of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, though Clarke's book is comical, and The Prestige, in my memory of the film, is rather grim. Strange & Norrell is recommended by my local library for readers who enjoyed The Night Circus, which is how I came across it. Some reviewers have said it combines high fantasy with the drawing room humor of Jane Austen. Certainly the social contretemps endured by Clarke's characters seem more in keeping with the brightness of Austen's world than with the deadly earnestness of The Prestige, despite all the magic and references to Faerie.

Personally, though, I can't imagine any of Austen's people holding much truck with the spell-strewn, whimsical characters of Clarke's book, though I see what reviewers mean about the society humor. The book is funny as well as fantastical, and the humor is a nice balance to the dark twists the story takes. I don't think the book would be as effective without the sniping social climbers, jealous rivals, mystified government ministers, and long-suffering servants who inhabit its pages and counteract some of the eeriness. There are many good fantasy writers, but the ability to seamlessly combine wildly imaginative plotting, alternate worlds, wit, history, and satire is rare, I think.

I would compare the tone of the book to Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, with its sense of menace and otherworldly mayhem, crossed with the quirkiness and dark humor of Sadie Jones's The Uninvited Guests, with some Neil Gaiman-style chaos, a la American Gods, thrown in. This description is not to detract at all from the author's originality and sheer imaginative brilliance, but it does give you an idea of the territory the novel occupies.

The genius of the story lies in the characterization of the magicians as just another species of "gentlemen scientists," men of standing who happen to have chosen the art of magic for their profession instead of law, the military, or the Church. They approach the most arcane and fantastical of tasks--walking through mirrors, bringing someone back from the dead, moving a city across the ocean to affect the course of a war--with the matter-of-factness of scholars; they study, hoard books, publish, curry favor, seek publicity, become arrogant, and jockey for position. Historical figures, including George III, the Duke of Wellington, and Lord Byron, mingle easily with the book's characters, exhibiting none of the artificiality of "cameo" appearances. They are just a few more well-drawn personages in a large, sprawling, and lively cast.

In one of my favorite scenes, Strange, the bolder and more adventurous of the contending magicians, has feuded with Lord Byron, whom he encounters while traveling in Switzerland. The two men share the same publisher, who receives letters from both of them, each complaining about the other, on the same day. The publisher, Mr. Murray, decides that although it's too bad his clients don't jibe, it really isn't surprising, "since both men were famous for quarrelling: Strange with Norrell, and Byron with practically everybody." In a footnote, Clarke has Byron use Strange as the inspiration for the magician in his poem Manfred.

I don't know if Ms. Clarke intends ever to revisit these characters; the story's conclusion seems to leave the possibility open, since the end, though satisfying, doesn't tie all the loose threads up neatly. While this may have been simply a nod to complexity and a refusal to go with a predictable ending, it makes for an easy segue into a sequel if it ever comes to that. I wouldn't count on it, but I wouldn't rule it out either. The trickster spirit of the novel, of taking characters and readers places they didn't expect to go, is evident even in the closing sentences. I turned pages anxiously to see how it would turn out but was obstinately sad when it was all over.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Over the Threshold in Newport, KY

Last week I went to see a concert at Southgate House Revival, an old/new music venue in Newport, Kentucky. Southgate House used to be located in an old mansion of the same name close to the Ohio River but has moved to an old church a few blocks away and changed its name accordingly. The original Southgate House is historic, having hosted a number of prominent people, including Abraham Lincoln; it's also known as the birthplace of the inventor of the Tommy gun. Southgate House Revival's new home is an 1866 Methodist Episcopal church that had been abandoned for some years before being adapted as a music venue.

I had been to the old location a few times and was curious to see the new place. The old mansion was quite an institution, with its prominent hilltop situation, elegant facade--including a tower and a widow's walk--and many steps leading up to a wide porch. My first impression of Southgate House Revival, from the outside, was that it exudes a much humbler ambience. The exterior is somewhat dilapidated and lacks signage to tell you where to go; you enter by an inconspicuous side door off a small, claustrophobic parking lot between the church and an adjacent brick building. The surrounding block is plain and unassuming, almost austere.

When I was growing up, Newport had a reputation for vice, but it has traded its notoriety for more family-oriented entertainments these days. It retains some of the feeling of a ramshackle riverside district, even with all the new restaurants, spiffy bars, and entertainment options in the immediate area. The mix of old and new, wholesome and edgy, combined with spectacular views of the Cincinnati skyline across the river, makes for an interesting, unsettled, and slightly fraught energy. So it's probably fitting that Southgate House Revival seems to represent in itself the coniunctio of the entire neighborhood. It is very much a marriage of opposites.

The show I saw was in the Sanctuary, which has been refitted with a concert stage and a bar. The Sanctuary is beautiful: it has splendid pointed arches, Gothic corbels, vivid stained glass windows, hanging ecclesiastical light fixtures, a ceiling that soars--and numerous shadows. There's a phenomenal pipe organ (Cincinnati-made) behind the bar, which is opposite the stage. I was so struck by the sight of that ethereal organ serving as backdrop to all those bottles of spirits that I had to stare at it for several minutes. Talk about the sacred and the profane (or secular) mingling and mixing and creating a complicated third thing! Talk about an axis mundi. There it is, in concrete, architectural terms.

I was stirred by the extraordinary energy in the room, as I think most anyone would be, consciously or not. The union of worldly and spiritual planes rarely occurs so dramatically. I read an article about the owners of the business that made it clear they're alive to the sacred dimensions of the space and feel it's entirely suited to the business of connecting audiences with music (I agree with them). It would be difficult for any performance not to be shaped by the tenor--part mystical and part streetwise--of this liminal, dreamlike interior. You definitely feel you're on the threshold of something. It's a little like C. S. Lewis's Wood Between the Worlds in Narnia: jump in, and there's no telling where you'll end up.

In Jungian terms, the coniunctio expresses the meeting of the conscious and the unconscious, a process that brings the individual closer not only to his or her innermost self but also to the larger concerns of the world soul. According to Jung, it's a messy process and one that's often resisted. Just a guess: I'm tempted to think that any artistic performance, regardless of style or intention, would affect the listener more profoundly in Southgate House Revival because the room itself amplifies the content and carries it past the conscious mind's defenses. It's rare to be any place where the architecture is so revealing of what goes on within.