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.

Friday, June 10, 2016


I read an article just before Memorial Day weekend about Manhattanhenge, the twice-yearly phenomenon in which the setting sun lines up with the east-west streets of the city and turns the thoroughfares into canyons of light. It's a charming notion, to me at least, to think of those busy New Yorkers stopping in the streets to turn their faces west, transformed for a minute or two into quasi-sun worshippers amid traffic, skyscrapers, and all the trappings of urban life. This year, the spring event coincided with Memorial Day, lending real star power to the day most Americans consider to be the true start of summer.

It's kind of a slow week here, but I've had the image of Manhattanhenge in mind ever since I read the article and saw the very striking photo accompanying it. You may be thinking, jeez, what is it with you, Wordplay, if you're not talking about the moon, you're talking about the sun. Are you some kind of astronomer or something? The answer is no, I'm not, but at least the sky is still one place you can look that's free of advertising and marketing efforts, except for an occasional Goodyear blimp or low-flying plane--and you've got to expect a few things like that.

At any rate, I was taking a walk a few evenings ago that was blessed by a relative absence of people on the streets, as pleasant a June evening (weatherwise) as you could wish. I had made my way through the neighborhood and turned toward home on an east-west street when I noticed how gorgeous the sun looked going down, fiery round and orange-red over some trees and the edge of a building. It had set a bank of clouds glowing in shades of lavender and seemed to me almost as good as Manhattanhenge. I glanced at a leafy lane to my left on which an early streetlight was burning, its glow muted by the daylight that still hung in the air. It looked homely and inviting, even though I'm not particularly fond of that street.

A few steps more, and a slight breeze caught the corner of my camp shirt. I looked at the almost tropical-seeming sunset and felt, for a few seconds, a rush of summertime ease. With a little imagination, I could almost believe that the street I had just passed was the last row of houses before the dunes and that I was now walking on the beach, a sea breeze in my hair and a relaxation in my step that wasn't there before. Even my clothes felt looser. The illusion was probably helped by the fact that I'd been seeing some unfamiliar birds--attracted, no doubt, by the newly engineered watercourse in the neighborhood--that resemble sandpipers in both their movements and their calls. Seeing them run across the pavement with their quick steps, calling to one another with shrill cries, has the capacity to turn even a land-locked parking lot into a shining expanse of sand.

I breathed in and enjoyed my mini-vacation, which was over with very quickly. As I turned away from the sun and passed the stadium, some loud popping noises that started up out of nowhere resolved into fireworks being set off at the back of the lot, attracting a bit of a crowd in the process. There was nothing else going on that I could see, so perhaps someone from the city was practicing for the Fourth of July. The display was modestly impressive, but the noise broke up the last of my beach reverie, and I was unmistakably back in the neighborhood with a number of people milling around.

That little dab of beachiness will no doubt last me for quite some time. I've tried, on my last couple of walks, to recreate the experience, but due to the timing being off and one thing or another, it hasn't happened again, and I doubt if it can be repeated in the same way. However, the night it happened was also the night I saw the first fireflies of the season twinkling above the grass on my street, a sign in Kentucky that summer has unquestionably arrived, no matter how far away the beach may be. Greetings, Manhattanhenge. Greetings, fireflies. Finally, we have summer.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

School for Fascists

Well, speaking of cosmic events happening on your own street . . .

I told someone recently that I never thought I'd look back and think of the last apartment I lived in as "The Golden Age," but compared with where I am now, it's starting to look like that. When I moved here, I was ready for a change, and I've mostly been happy with the apartment itself. It has amenities that the other place lacked, and until a few years ago, I would have said that the move coincided with a new and more satisfying phase of life. The process of having my HVAC unit replaced the other day underscored some of the reasons why this is no longer true.

Because of some unsettling incidents in and around the building in recent years, I wasn't happy about having strangers in my apartment, but since I wanted air conditioning, I responded to necessity by resorting to, of all things: research! I decided the least I could do was to check out the contractor's credentials, and one thing led to another, and I was soon looking at information about the actual owners of this building. Business filings with the Secretary of State are standard forms and not terribly exciting, but as I learned as a law librarian, they can reveal interesting facts. In this case, I learned that that there is a second owner I hadn't heard about who actually has a couple of points of intersection with me. One is that his business address is the same suite that used to be the main office of the law firm I worked for. The other is that he is on the board of a local Christian college attended by a couple of people I know, including the son of my former supervisor.

It certainly is a small world, as every day proves anew, and these types of coincidences happen, but the information also fits in with some recent experiences I've had. I recalled someone mentioning that some of the part-time staff employed here for odd jobs belong to a Christian youth group. That probably doesn't sound like particularly bad news, but I can tell you that the atmosphere here has changed in recent years from what you might expect of a place with some students in residence (i.e., occasional rowdiness) to something akin to, oh, I don't know, let's say The Stepford Wives. It's as if everyone has drunk some strange Kool-Aid.

I often encounter people who seem to arrive as if by magic at the same time I do while entering or exiting the building, or who arrive in the parking lot just as I drive in. I am frequently regaled by loud conversations that seem, by some invisible edict, to be required to take place right below my window. Of course, there's going to be chatter, but does it have to be so loud and so close? In the old days, there was an instance when residents gathered on the other side of the parking lot were having a 2 a.m. conversation that was keeping me awake. I got up and closed the window, and not long after that, they dispersed, seeming to take the hint (these days, I wouldn't even think of leaving my window open at night). If not for my sound spa, which provides just enough white noise to drown out words if not voices, I would never be free of intrusive conversations. If you try to ignore these people, they seem to get louder.

I was speaking last week about light pollution in the neighborhood, but this sound pollution is an even worse problem. I now have a word to describe what it reminds me of: proselytizing. It's as if people are somehow so convinced of the importance of being heard that they've lost all sense of proportion and common courtesy. I'm not saying that everyone here is a tele-evangelist, but most of them seem to have been influenced by that communication style. It's as if they've all been coached on how to pitch their voices so that you can't help hearing them. They also tend to use a highly theatrical delivery, as if they're all on stage. And you can't get away from them, because they're your neighbors.

From what I've been able to find out, there's controversy about the methods of the youth group that seems to be influencing some of these kids. I can see why. Some people think it's actually a cult, as its methods reportedly run to manipulation and outright deception. This includes such practices as using college students who appear to be the same age as younger kids as contacts to form relationships with them; attempting to circumvent or replace parental authority; and bullying or ostracism once emotional control has been established. It sounds like mind control to me (though many people who've been involved in the group say they haven't experienced this, others strongly disagree).

Evidently, group meetings are big on skits and theatricals. I have to say that living here in some way resembles living in a compound, and I feel I'm constantly witnessing one drama after another. I remember noticing one night that there were five white cars in a row lined up on one side of the parking lot, and while I've got to say that there's nothing really wrong with that, it looked a little peculiar. I didn't know that many people here even had white cars. Some kind of code for "Bible Study tonight in apartment 5?" (I'm being facetious, but only a little.) It's also true that making it clear you don't want to mix with these people does nothing to put a damper on the antics.

In between all the amateur theatricals, on one hand, and all the vehicles with skulls or skull insignia parked on the local streets (including one right outside my door), it's a rather odd mix of neighbors. It's like being the only hippie at a convention of charismatics mixed in with Nazis. I'm not actually sure there's much of a difference between them. That occasion not long ago when I heard some extremely loud bass music in the middle of the night? My impression was that it came from the direction of the building that some of these young guys live in. What happened to all the normal people? Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

To get back to the HVAC that precipitated this essay, it turned out that once it was installed, I noticed a flickering in my lights. Concerned that it might be a sign of an overloaded circuit (and having lived through one serious fire in the building already), I sent an email to the property manager. I didn't get a response, and since I've had a few instances of people telling me they didn't receive my emails, I also left a voice mail. I still didn't get a response. I'm not unduly concerned when I don't get an immediate reply to a service request about a slow drain, but in the matter of something that could be dangerous, I think it's reasonable to expect a confirmation that someone's looking into it (though, I have to say that when I reported a recent car break-in, I never even got so much as an acknowledgment).

There being a lot of activity in the basement beneath me that day (where the circuit box is), I looked out to see who was there and saw a neighbor who is also a part-time odd jobs person. I wanted not only to find out what was going on in regard to my service request but also to meet the person who is so frequently in and out of the basement underneath my apartment. I had to flag the two young men down, since they were already leaving by the time I got outside. When I did, I encountered not one, but two smirking faces.

I would have been willing to suffer through yet another polite but unsatisfying encounter with a management surrogate, but being a bit too self-respecting so take arrogance from a youngster, I told the young man that I had never seen a bigger smirk. I'm peaceable by nature, but I don't mind calling things as I see them. What followed on his part was a denial that he uses an excessively loud voice in the basement, an attempt to place the blame for it on someone else, and even more smirking. I told him I didn't mind waiting if he wanted to look up some of the words I was using. It was sarcastic, I admit, but what are you going to do when someone's main conversational gambit seems to involve repeating everything you say?

When I mentioned that the point of the conversation was to let them know that I needed to reach someone about a possible overloaded circuit, they said they wouldn't do it because they didn't like my attitude. When I pointed out that it was their job whether they liked someone's attitude or not, they still demurred. I confirmed later that one of these guys does in fact belong to the Christian group in question. I wouldn't have said that cockiness, denial, blaming someone else, and shirking responsibility are particularly traits of people who claim to be "Christian," but they are consistent with other behavior I've seen around here.

The kicker was that when I finally did reach the property manager, his idea of a solution was that I ought to know someone better before making a judgment on him. (No, thank you.) He also didn't seem to blame the young man for not wanting to carry a message but instead blamed me for not giving him a chance to respond. I gather that I'm supposed to be living in the best of all possible worlds here and that while arrogance and dishonesty are acceptable, telling the truth to the best of your ability is not.

There is, in my mind, a larger significance to this story. If you read this blog regularly, you probably know that I've talked before about instances of pushy and intrusive public behavior that I encounter regularly in the park, the coffeehouse, and other places in and around the neighborhood (even the grocery store and the bank). As a matter of fact, I've recently overheard several intense and loudly pitched conversations about Christianity in the coffeehouse that were notable for being louder than anything else in the room. It is not a condemnation of religion to say that being sure of your beliefs is no license to intrude on the rights of others, nor is it a sign that you are better in any way.

My personal feeling is that it's wise to question your own beliefs and assumptions (I question mine all the time). Questions are healthy. Being too sure of yourself, not a lack of zealousness, is the real sin. There are many, many, many Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, followers of Native American traditions, and others, including many who profess no faith at all, who are much kinder, more considerate, thoughtful, and aware than many of these so-called Christians I keep encountering. I also know many Christians who are fine people, and you can generally spot them by their live-and-let-live attitude.

All of this is important because we're living in a democracy, which requires thoughtful, informed people who can form their own opinions. Being a citizen is no Sunday picnic. If my neighbors are anything to judge by, this Christian youth group encourages people to behave in ways they wouldn't think of on their own. They seem to turn into automatons, which is dangerous, not only for democracy but also for them personally. I read a comment from someone online who responded to a parent concerned about the influence of this group on their child by saying, "What, you're worried about your kid spending time with nice people as opposed to some of the other wackos who are out there?" The perceptive reply to that was that "niceness" in itself is OK but can be the tool of people with a hidden agenda. Beware the hidden agenda and the motivation behind the smile. Be sure it's a genuine smile you're seeing and not a mask.

If I had kids, I wouldn't want them within 500 yards of these people. Why? Because you should never, ever, ever, give up your right to think for yourself--to anyone. If there was ever a time and a place to question authority, it's here and now, in 2016 America. And if this youth group is any sample of the direction our nation is heading in, I'm extremely concerned. There's something troubling about their behavior.

The upshot of the situation here seems to be: I alerted management to what I thought might be a hazard, feeling that it would be irresponsible not to. That opens me to ridicule. I'm not supposed to make independent judgments, based on my own perceptions, about someone else's character, though that is an essential part of taking care of yourself. (When's the last time an apartment manager said that to you?) I'm a middle-aged adult with a PhD, but I don't know how to use logic. Au contraire! Cogito, ergo sum! (It's unseemly to flaunt credentials, but just this once, I'll make an exception.) And management here has always been responsive to my concerns--I just didn't know it because I don't hear from them.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (I didn't make that up.)

Friday, May 27, 2016

It Only Looks Ordinary

Earlier this week, I was reading about the opposition of Mars and the rising of the blue moon and decided to go out and take a look at it. I think I've mentioned before that stargazing isn't so great around here due to the increase in city lights in recent years. It was never outstanding, but the number of stars you can pick out on a clear night gets smaller all the time, as parking lots and new construction crowd in around us. Still, it's hard under any circumstances barring thick clouds ever to miss the moon, and I'm usually able to find a planet or two, light pollution or no.

Officially, the full moon had occurred the night before, but the opposition of Mars was supposed to be that night, so it seemed a great time to catch both moon and planet. Up the street I went, binoculars in hand. I had no trouble finding Mars, even without the binoculars, due to its brilliance and rusty color. The information I saw online had mentioned looking toward the southeast sky; my view in that direction being blocked by trees, I was wondering just how long it would take before the moon cleared them. I alternated between gazing at Mars and looking expectantly toward the trees, so I was caught off guard when I noticed the leading edge of the moon peeking above the horizon near the stadium, farther north than I was anticipating.

I had to catch my breath. The moon was quite large on the horizon, and the color was distinctively orange, more of a harvest moon in my mind than a spring moon. It was a dramatic rising. I noticed someone in a car parked at the side of the road, presumably as dazzled as I was; someone going by on a bicycle also stopped to look. I started thinking about other memorable full moons I've known, such as the one that rose over the sea outside my hotel in Naples, Florida, many years ago, waking me in the night and causing me to wonder who was out on the beach with a spotlight. There was also the time I was driving to my brother's house from Yellowstone and noticed a glow in the sky behind the hills. I first thought there was a fire, only realizing it was the moon when it finally crested the ridge, appearing almost to sit on the hills. And there was the moon that rose over the Santa Monica Mountains in the bright blue sky of early evening as I drove to the airport at the end of my Pacifica days, seeming to mark the end of something, or maybe the beginning.

All of this went through my head as I watched Sunday's moon climb slowly above the trees and the power lines, clearing some clouds that partially obscured it. Rather than Flower Moon, I would have called it the Gold Moon; there was nothing delicate or ethereal about it. It was Technicolor orange, and all of its features were sharply delineated. After observing for a little while in the same spot, I started walking home, stopping every so often to look behind me. It seemed wrong to turn your back on something like that, even if it was getting late.

On my street, I stopped again for another view. The moon had barely cleared a rather ordinary and nondescript flat-roofed building, which happened to have a window facing me. There was a light on in the room, giving it that slightly hyperreal air that offices and schoolrooms have when you go into them after hours. The empty room had a contemplative look, which became even more striking when I shifted position and noticed the standard-issue office clock on the back wall. The round clock face made a counterpoint to the moon, and the fluorescent light framed in the rectangle of the window seemed to answer in some way to the luminous orb in the sky beyond. It was such a perfect composition that I would have painted it on the spot if I could. The juxtaposition of mundane and magical, of earthly and celestial, was one of the most moving things I've ever seen. The feeling was a bit like that of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, without the people. It seemed to sum up all the loneliness of existence, but it was also quietly exhilarating and obscurely comforting. I would have called it Time and Eternity, but I see that someone's used that for a video game. Maybe Eternity and the Clock instead.

So that's it, that's my full moon story. I was expecting to see a beautiful moon, but the framing that occurred when I changed position caught me by surprise (how true it is that shifting your perspective can yield unexpected vistas). It's remarkable that I had such a cosmic experience on my very own block, just down the street from where I live--but after all, maybe it isn't. Aren't we always in the midst of burning stars, whirling galaxies, wandering planets, and unseen dimensions? It only looks ordinary.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Where Have You Gone, Tom Bombadil?

I started re-reading The Lord of the Rings the other night--I don't know how many times now I've read the trilogy, but my copy of The Fellowship of the Ring is literally falling to pieces. The back cover and last few pages have come apart from the rest, and I trail tiny bits of paper crumbs every time I move the book. At this point, I should probably stop using my own boxed set as a reading copy and check the books out of the library, though it would also seem strange to read the story under a different cover and typeface. My own copies are almost as familiar to me as the back of my hand.

Why am I reading Tolkien? I've checked a few new books out of the library recently, but more often than not, I've been disappointed. I don't know what's gotten into some of our leading authors of late; they seem to be trying to reach for a meaning that escapes me, so I find myself going back to the classics or re-reading books I've already read. This isn't a real hardship, since I have a lot of books, but I'm sorry that some of the recent fiction hasn't seemed more compelling. Ideally, you keep growing with new authors and fresh stories in addition to revisiting old favorites, but some of the new work seems a little stale to me.

The Lord of the Rings is like comfort food. It's like sitting down with a big plate of macaroni and cheese or a bowl of popcorn: once you start, it's hard to stop. I was struck the last time I picked it up by how much happens in the first book that was left out of the Peter Jackson films. I think many fans were disappointed not to find Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in the films, for example, and while I would have liked to see them included, I understand the reason for leaving them out. So much happens in The Fellowship of the Ring that it probably would have taken a couple of extra hours (at least) to cover what takes place in between the hobbits leaving Hobbiton and the events on Weathertop. Mr. Jackson would probably have needed to make four films instead of three.

There's a part of me that would like to see Mr. Jackson go back into this material and do a prequel, even though I'm not quite sure how that would work. When I re-read the books last year, I remembered why the first one used to be my favorite: it's nonstop action, with so many incidents crowded into the story that it's like a thrill ride. There are the elves encountered in the woods of the Shire, Farmer Maggot, the evening at Crickhollow, Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, the Old Downs, and the Barrow Wights--and that's before the hobbits even get to Bree. The escape from the pursuing Black Riders is handled very effectively in the film, but that sequence takes the place of an entire stretch of other characters and incidents that you never get to see. Making a film requires different decisions of timing and sequencing than does writing a book, no doubt about it. Still, it would have been fun to see some of these other incidents come to life on screen.

Tolkien is best encountered, in my opinion, when you're curled up with a blanket and some hot tea. Even though it's May, we've had a cool spell that has actually made for just the right weather for LOTR. A chilly and rainy day outdoors creates prime conditions for letting your imagination roam in Middle Earth. If you're looking for a tea pairing recommendation, I suggest chai--and a little bit of chocolate or a couple of cookies to nibble on never goes amiss either.