Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Light at Five O'Clock

Even in rain, autumn in Lexington has been offering up scenes worthy of framing. Earlier in the week, there was the drive home down a street of vintage houses, newly washed in afternoon showers. As I turned onto this particular street, near downtown, the always-graceful homes were especially lovely in a setting of soft, rain-washed light, autumn colors, and slowly drifting leaves. It made me want to be a painter.

Later that day, evening came on with a tumultuous sunset of storm-wracked skies and billowing clouds, steel-gray on one side and turbulent orange where they reflected the light. Even on an evening of uniformly gray drizzle a few nights ago, the neighborhood appeared cozy in the damp, with house-lamps shining out in the mist, a cat sitting calmly in a driveway, and the cheery hue of chrysanthemums on porches echoing the colors of the trees.

But in weather, as in most things, variety is the spice of life, and of course, we only stand for so much of that English dampness around here, whether it's good for the complexion or not. The sun shines bright on my Old Kentucky Home (or at least it's supposed to), and we've got the state song to prove it.

The sun came back today. As I was driving to the coffeehouse this afternoon, I was struck (not as bad as Saul on the road to Damascus--for which I thank my Elle sunglasses--but rather more pleasantly, let us say, enlightened) by the quality of the sunshine. After a few days of rain and drizzle, I had stepped out into a day that was dazzlingly bright, with a phenomenally blue sky--almost a surprise after all the grayness.

I had put my sunglasses on and pulled out into the street, enjoying not only the sunshine but the subdued Sunday afternoon traffic. I hadn't gone very far when the quality of the light, layered on buildings and trees like liquid gold, brought on one of those zen, eternity-in-a-moment feelings, when the world coalesces around you and (despite strange neighbors, the policies of the Federal Reserve Bank, seasonal allergies, and the decline of modern cinema) the universe seems to be perfectly-imperfectly in order.

I looked at my watch, and it was five o'clock. Hey, it's five o'clock somewhere! Not somewhere else, but here. It's five o'clock here.

You may scoff, but there's a name for these things. Psychologist Abraham Maslow called these kinds of feelings "peak experiences," these occasions when feelings of bliss and harmony seem to fold you into the world and make you one with it. This one was fairly mild, as peak experiences go, but it was nonetheless welcome on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, the kind of thing you never say no to. I take bliss as I find it, and I also take it as a sign: I must be doing something right.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Game of the Surreal, or: The Not-Quite-Haunted Apartment

The human mind just naturally wants to make sense of things and see passing events in a coherent manner. Writers, given a disparate group of facts and the leisure to make of them what they will, come up with stories. I often find myself musing on events and trying out different plot lines. Who knows, I may make a novelist yet.

Take this past week, for instance. Beginning last Saturday night, the noise from the apartment above me began to take on added life (this is a continuing saga, as those who follow my blog are aware). From repeated horrendous crashes (what passes for normal around here) to mysterious tapping sounds to remarkably persistent creaking floorboards to muffled, inexplicable noises directly overhead while one is trying to sleep (as if someone is doing a full-body buffing job on the floor) to other things I won't mention, it's akin to living under the sound effects department of a Hollywood B movie studio.

Then there are my adventures with the probate court system, where I went to correct a mistake in my middle initial (which is not "J"), simply because I don't like typos and the confusion that can arise from muddles. This mistake was in the file of my mother's estate case; while the case isn't active, the errant "J" (from a misreading of a signature) has always troubled me, and even more so lately, as I've seen from my own experience just how many Mary Hackworths are out there beating the bushes of the world. It's not as distinctive a name as I used to think it was.

In adding a note to the probate record, I discovered another anomaly: the case number originally assigned by the court is not the one that ended up on my mother's case file. The original number, for reasons no one was able to explain to me, ended up on the file of another person (who may or may not even be dead, since one document listed the date of death as June 31, 2007).

Then, too, there are the current events one reads about, spinning away in the background of all our lives . . . politics, money, corruption, etc. If you pay attention to the news long enough, you begin to see patterns, and in that case, you may be tempted to either run out and become an investigative reporter yourself (though who has time for a journalism degree) or let your imagination run wild in the creation of a fictional narrative that ties motley pieces of facts into a rational story line.

How about this one: a person dies without a will. Unknown to the descendants, he was worth a fortune. However, someone else knows about the money and sees an opportunity to make off with it when a simple typo creates an opportunity for confusion about identities. A series of lugs are hired to move into the apartment building of the unfortunate heir, causing enough noise and unpleasantness that (it is hoped) the tenant will move, creating the possibility of a cold trail and misdirected mail. (If that doesn't work, the lugs are instructed to create an "accidental" fire or some other disaster that cannot easily be traced, thereby eliminating the party.)

The plot thickens when it becomes apparent that the fortune -- not just any garden-variety fortune, but a rather large one -- has actually been targeted by not just a greedy opportunist, but one with shadowy connections to the financial world, highly placed politicians, the deep state, and terror organizations. The money is wanted to grease the wheels of war, misery, and disaster in order to create even larger fortunes for those who stand to gain from all of the above.

This jolly group of plotters, making use of everything from unscrupulous acquaintances, hired guns, secret operatives, mind games, foul plots, harassment, spying, and all sorts of mayhem, tries to silence or eliminate the descendant, his friends, and any possible allies. Various people stumble onto parts of the plot and attempt to join forces to stop a heist that could be the prelude to World War III. Some act out of love, others for altruism, and others for love of country--and some for all three.

Thrillers and espionage have never really been my thing, so I'm not sure how this would hold up to scrutiny by John Le Carré or Robert Ludlum, but I'm fairly proud of it as a novice's contribution to the genre. I've been equally influenced by actual events, things I've read and heard, things I've experienced, and the same daily news to which all of us are privy. If I ever write this novel, I will, of course, include the statement that all similarities to actual persons and events are purely coincidental and not meant to be construed otherwise.

When the royalties start coming in, maybe I can move out of this noise-infested apartment and into something more to my liking. I'd start with peace and quiet, but a fireplace, a front porch, and a rain-bath showerhead would be nice. Oh, and I want a garden, too.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Kale and Zen

It's a football Saturday in Lexington, and that means coming up with a plan. Not only do you have to figure out how to outwit gridlock on the streets, you have to decide how sociable you want to be if you're on foot. Cars and people stream in from everywhere to converge on Commonwealth Stadium; if you don't meet humanity on the road, you meet them on the sidewalk . . . lots of them. Late this afternoon, I was still trying to decide how to find some fresh air without getting caught up in crowds and finally let my stomach make the call. If I went ahead and fixed dinner, I could go for a walk afterwards and get back before dark.

I spent an hour or so chopping and rinsing and putting things into the Dutch oven while sounds of cars and people increased to a mild roar outside. After eating two bowls of Italian soup with tomatoes and kale, I decided a walk in the Arboretum would likely involve fewer crowds on a football evening than it would otherwise, so I put on my shoes and started out.

I walked outside into the quintessential fall evening in Lexington, with football fans everywhere on my block, a bustle on the streets, golden sunshine, and a pleasant coolness in the air. Though I sometimes don't enjoy crowds, the feeling of festivity was very congenial after a quiet day spent mostly inside. There were cars inching along, white tents with knots of people under them, smells of barbecue, radios broadcasting sports chatter, and faces bright with anticipation of the game. The atmosphere was merry but not rowdy.

I passed fans heading toward the bleachers, security officers directing traffic, and RVs jamming the parking lots opposite the stadium. Once I got into the Arboretum itself, a mellow air of quiet reigned. Most of the people I saw were passing through the park on their way to the main event. It was lovely to be able to set my own pace and not have to contend with a crowded path. I noticed lots of squirrels rustling in the leaves for acorns, seemingly at leisure in the absence of the large numbers of fast-moving exercisers more typical of a mild evening.

The sun was going down in tangerine splendor, I could hear myself think, and the air felt newly washed after yesterday's rain. Near the footbridge, I passed a black cat under the trees, intent on some business of his own, though he paused to take a look at me. After the path bent toward the north, I had a view of the campus water tower up ahead, bathed in apricot light from the sun, and further off, the stadium, its powerful overhead lights contrasting sharply with a dark mass of clouds building up behind it. It looked suitably dramatic as a place of contest, and I could hear the noises of the crowd. When I got to the part of the path that parallels the road, I saw that traffic was still heavy around the stadium, and I was glad to be on my own feet.

I don't know what it was--a burst of energy from the crisp air, the feeling of revelry nearby, the waxing moon overhead, the placid beauty of the park (or maybe it was the kale--it has a lot of healthy properties, I hear)--but as I entered the final Arboretum loop, I experienced a rare thing: without meaning to, I stumbled into the Zen of walking. There seemed to be no resistance to my forward movement; my legs felt strong and my feet invincible. Even the feeling of my feet coming into steady contact with the path was a pleasure. My stride became so effortless that I almost felt the need to put the brakes on to keep from floating off. (I know what you're thinking: If it's the kale that does that, I'm getting some.)

The feeling held, then passed, and then I was making my way across the grass toward the sidewalk skirting the parking lot, encountering stadium-bound stragglers and the same slow line of cars trying to go who knows where and not getting there very fast. The game was underway, things had calmed down on my street, and I could see the lights of home ahead. I was moving at a more mundane pace now, having crossed the invisible line back into ordinary, purposeful walking, and was thinking of dishes and other things I needed to do.

I'll tell you what, though. After I got home and put the dishes in the sink, I sat down with some good, old-fashioned Hershey's dark (with almonds and toffee for extra zest) and tried to eat it slowly. Maybe, somewhere in my mind, I was hoping to build on the essential vitamins and minerals I'd already derived from the kale, but mainly, I just wanted dessert. It was one of the things I was thinking of as I walked down my street.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The New Romance (But I Liked the Old One)

By happenstance, a couple of movies have come my way recently that ended up surprising me. One of them was the 2007 version of A Room With a View (from E.M. Forster's novel), and the other was last year's Before Midnight, the third in a series of romances starring Ethan Hawke and Julia Delpy. Both movies play with and in some ways topple expectations set either by prior versions of the same story (A Room With a View) or previous films in the series (Before Midnight).

A Room With a View is set in the Edwardian age and concerns a respectable but inwardly adventurous young woman named Lucy on holiday with her chaperone in Italy. While there, she meets and is attracted to a young man who is not only of a different social standing but whose father is a socialist. Lucy gets engaged to another man, Cecil, who is outwardly suitable but emotionally incompatible with her. The first young man, George, shows up in Lucy's village back home, and she is faced with the problem of deciding whether to honor her attraction to a young man who loves her or take the conventional route of marrying the respectable but insufferable Cecil.

The theme of the story is authenticity, or the lack thereof, as it relates to passion and love. In Lucy's world, passion is a disreputable thing, especially if paired with unconventionality. Many of the people around her feel that appearances are more important than truth, and Lucy partly believes this herself; the main reason for her engagement seems to be a wish to protect herself from a strong vein of emotion that she recognizes, fears, and is encouraged to discount. Her decision to break her engagement and trust her feelings for George is a tremendous act of rebellion.

The 2007 TV movie goes further than the lovely 1986 Merchant-Ivory film by including a coda dimly inspired, apparently, by Forster himself but not included in the version of the novel I read. Instead of ending with the newlyweds in Florence, the TV movie concludes with Lucy alone in Italy, George having died in World War I. The revelation of George's death comes as a shock, and the reason for the film's introduction, in which actress Gillian Anderson rather chillingly invites viewers to decide for themselves whether letting Italy "change your life" is a good thing or a bad thing, is finally clear if no less strange. Are we supposed to think Lucy would have been better off if she'd never met George?

I take it that the more modern version of the story is attempting to tamp down the romance with a dose of reality: this is what happens once they live "happily ever after." It's true that George, in real life, would have been likely to meet such a fate, and in a way I admired the gumption of this production. On further reflection, though, it began to seem as if tacking a second story with a different emotional vibe onto the first one had more to do with shock value than realism. The beginning and end of the story don't seem to match; however, I can see that someone coming to this film knowing nothing of its antecedents might not see a disconnect. It might become, for that person, a different story, a darker one about the uncertainty of life, not an ode to being true to yourself. In the 21st century, we're supposed to be over those old hang-ups, so perhaps this film wanted to be about something else.

Before Midnight induces a similar cognitive dissonance in its look at two lovers who met on a train in their youth, reunited nine years later, and nine years further on are the parents of twins, weighted down with worries over kids and careers but apparently still happy. The first two films in the series were wistful, cheery, and romantic. There are a few signs in the third movie of darker undercurrents in the relationship, but overall the film maintains a gentle, humorous approach to its protagonists until a final, protracted fight scene in which resentments boil over into ugly words, venom, and incompatible viewpoints.

Holy mackerel! Personally, I've never had a fight like this one, but I'm sure many long-time couples would say it's realistic. Evidently, a decision was made with this film to brings things out of soft focus and into the nitty gritty, but the difference in tone between this and the first two films is a bit shocking. I'm surprised the script didn't find a way to explore the tensions inevitable in a long-term relationship with a bit more humor in keeping with the élan of the earlier films. Even fighting can be funny, but here the two people actually become unlikeable, and one is left not really caring if they stay together or not. It's not the movie you think you're going to see.

So, is romance dead in the edgy new light of the 21st century? Are we supposed to believe now not that it's everlasting but that it never lasts? Of course, it depends on the people and the circumstances, but I would take a less harsh view than either of these two films. Is it "better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"? I think most people would still say "yes." I don't know that I'd ever say "happily ever after," but I would say "it's up to you." Isn't romance simply an opening?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Seventh Heaven

The other night I watched, or rather re-watched, Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders' rumination on angels and humans. I first saw this movie, if I remember correctly, in 1992, and though I've thought about it many times since then, I hadn't seen it again until Wednesday night.

In the film, angels exist unseen (except by the very young and perhaps a few others), brooding, watching over, and sometimes helping people without their awareness. The setting is 1980s Berlin, which looks rather austere and lonely from an angel's-eye view (and from a human view as well). Parents, children, subway passengers, library patrons, circus performers, clubgoers, passersby on the street . . . all seem caught up in isolated worlds, although the angels can hear their thoughts and sometimes intervene in their lives in small, delicate ways.

How much less lonely would all those Berliners be if they knew where that encouraging thought, in the moment of deepest despair, really came from, or with how much sympathy their private sorrows were known, or the degree of anguish with which angels view human suffering. And how surprised would they be if they knew with what longing angels sometimes view their troubled, painful, complicated, but glorious mortal lives full of color, sensation, tastes, smells, and three-dimensional embodiment. Yes, as it turns out, eternal life can be tiresome; omniscience and invisibility are not all you might expect. Sometimes all you really want is a hot cup of coffee, the feel of the sidewalk under your feet, and a good hamburger.

One of the angels, Damiel, falls in love with a trapeze artist, Marion, whose costume includes an awkward pair of wings that make it difficult for her to perform. In one scene, Damiel paces below, invisibly and nervously, as Marion does her act, dazzling and graceful but all too fragile with her imaginary wings. After observing her loneliness for some time, Damiel tells another angel, Cassiel, that he's decided to give up eternal life and become human. It turns out this is an option for angels that's taken more frequently than people realize.

Damiel gets his wish and wakes up one day on the ground to the rude sensation of his breastplate thunking him on the head. He wanders about with a bleeding scalp, drunk with the rapture of having a living, breathing body. It is now apparent that, without his omniscience and ability to fly and walk through walls, he will have to search for Marion, and it takes an effort to find her. They meet at last in the bar of a club where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are performing, and the connection is instantaneous. At the movie's end, Damiel spots Marion, his true love, as she practices, anchoring the rope watchfully while she dances above him. Who's the angel now? It's obvious that in Damiel's eyes, it's Marion, a struggling trapeze performer with a traveling circus that can't pay its bills.

Imagine, angels giving up eternity to slum for a few years on this old earth--and being grateful for the privilege! Not on the Riviera either, or in Beverly Hills, Miami Beach, or The Hamptons. In Berlin, a city of broken buildings and urban desolation still suffering from the wounds of its past. You'd think there must be something truly wonderful in the world to make an angel, who's above all the earthly cares that weigh the human race down, fall to ground and throw in his lot with the rest of us. But what could it be? Are we missing something?

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.