Saturday, December 24, 2005

Oh, Tannenbaum

A friend told me about getting a Christmas tree this year, and I started thinking about how, very early in my life on my own, I put up lights, sprayed "snow" on my windows, and put up a few decorations along with cards, but that lasted only a season or two. I couldn't tell you then why I stopped, or when I started trying to ignore Christmas, trying to turn it into nothing more than a mid-winter respite from work.

I think now that decorating made me feel lonely. It couldn't bring my mother back; it couldn't bring my father's vitality back; it couldn't transport me back to my family life; and it couldn't be a substitute for a family. "You can't go home again."

Some of my favorite Christmas decorations were a plastic Santa in a chimney (going down, as his bag was full), a tiny Nativity scene that went on top of the skirt under the tree, and a string of green bells we hung between the living room and extra room. There were others, but even now my memories are fading.

For me as a child, these decorations, along with the snows that we usually had, symbolized the specialness of the season. At night, with the lights off and the colored tree lights on, I felt that the trailer looked as warm, comfortable, and cozy as any home, more so than at any other time of the year. It was truly a magical transformation.

One year at the public library there was a caroling event. With snow on the ground and a few flurries in the air, voices raised in song, and little lights all around, I felt more of the Christmas spirit then than I ever have—that the world is a beautiful place, and that all really was right with it. I thought then that I would be able to repeat that experience and that feeling many times, not knowing what it means to be an adult and how rare that feeling would be when I grew up.

The store displays that move native Chicagoans as part of their traditions leave me cold. To me, they have no associations with my childhood, and instead appear to me as the worst of commercialism—expensive, gaudy, overdone, the kind of thing that impresses with size and scope rather than with originality, simplicity, and meaning.

Only once have I felt like a happy child again. It was a few years ago in downtown Oak Park, in the midst of the small, quaint shops decorated with charming scenarios, where I was strolling with a friend. The stores and streets were softly lit, snow was on the ground and then in the air, and for an elusive moment the world itself seemed to be at peace with itself. I can't describe the scene or the mood or evoke it in anyone else; I can experience it, and that only rarely and unexpectedly.

I'm tired of people who run down Christmas. As I wrote last year, you choose what Christmas, any holiday, or any occasion means to you. You can choose it to mean frequenting malls and listening to bad music, out-shopping the Joneses (or your mother-in-law), getting into debt, hating the gifts you receive (or don't receive), and resenting half your family if you're lucky enough to have one. You can choose to spend Christmas whining about the problem that you are part of and contribute to. You can bellyache about everything or try futilely, as I tried, to create or capture the impossible, and make yourself miserable when the magic doesn't work.

Or, instead of stressing yourself out by trying to create joy and being crushed by the inevitable and invariable disappointment when you fail (and getting angry that no one is cooperating with your efforts), you can understand that moments of true joy, of epiphany, are unplanned and unexpected. Let them happen and savor them forever when they do.

In the meantime you can bring joy to yourself by bringing it to others—those out who have no money to spend, no one to buy for or to outdo, and no family to fight with.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.

Diane

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The error of my ways

When I moved to The Flamingo I upgraded to digital cable, which required a box. A "trained technician" was dispatched to perform this intricate installation. When he was done we tested it, and the cable and TV appeared to be working. Then I had the idea of testing the VCR (yes, I still have a VCR), which didn't work. The technician played around with it for a few minutes, then said, "It doesn't work; the movers must have dropped it." I told him the movers had never seen or touched it; a friend and I had personally carried it over from the old place a block away—and that it had been working earlier that week. "Maybe you dropped or bumped it, then," he said. No, I think we would have noticed that. It was not a point worth arguing, however; the VCR didn't work, and the technician was unable to help or to admit he didn't know how to. He left, having placed the blame squarely on me.

A few days later I looked at the setup and decided that something didn't look quite right and that switching a couple of the cables around might work. It did; voilà—a working TV, cable, and VCR setup. And I'm not a trained technician.

When something goes wrong or doesn't work, the first reaction seems to be, "Did you . . .?" that is, to avoid responsibility and shift the blame to someone, anyone, else. At work, if there is a mistake in a report it must be the fault of the assistant or the junior staff person, even though they are not the reviewers who sign off.

Even our political leaders refuse to admit their errors, no matter how obvious they are or how thoroughly they have been demonstrated. The question is, do the leaders set the tone for the rest of us, or do we choose and support them because they reflect the standards we embrace?

To me, the ability to admit mistakes is courageous, while the inability to admit them is cowardly. It takes strength to face up to errors and their ramifications; it takes only stubbornness, arrogance, and bravado to deny culpability.

In our world, though, a leader is "strong" when he or she clings to their own errors and prevarications, as though wishes were horses. People perceive them as having the "strength of their convictions"—no matter how flawed the convictions. Those who confess to mistakes and errors in judgment are seen as weak, tentative, and indecisive—even though they have been brave enough to face the people and the consequences, whether it's mere humiliation or a more serious outcome, such as a trial and potential conviction and sentence.

In everyday life, we blame someone else for our failings; if children don't learn, it's the teacher's fault; if there's a mistake on the printed page, it's the printer's fault; if a team performs badly, it's the weather or travel. So it's not surprising that we vote for leaders who are just like us, fallible yet self-righteous and frightened of punishment. When they do prove to be wrong beyond doubt, we abandon them like proverbial rats. It's not our fault for choosing them. How were we to know?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The population clock

For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder. —Paul McCartney

When my dad was born in 1913, there were about 97,225,000 Americans. In 1927, when he was 14, the world population reached 2 billion. Now, in 2005, the U.S. population is about 297,871,654; the world census is about 6,484,942,703. These population clocks will show you how fast these numbers are rising now. We had to invent computers, satellites, and the Internet simply to stay connected and to communicate.

To me, the world feels smaller and more crowded. Every weekday, someone looking out my north windows would see a long line of traffic, moving only in bits and spurts, between about 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. More people, more crowding, more strain on resources and infrastructure.

What affects me most on an emotional level, however, is the increasing scale of our endeavors—increasing in size, not in vision. Cities and suburbs sprawl further and further outward, taking over farmland like an out-of-control slime mold takes over a lawn. There are more towering skyscrapers, more massive office parks. High school buildings without windows that look more like prisons than like places that inspire curiosity and learning. Soulless McMansions, with spacious living rooms no one uses and entire bedrooms used as closets. Urban streets congested with so-called "mini"-vans and hulking SUVs.

Stores have become bigger and bigger, offering more and more stuff that is is both unnecessary and cheap. Walgreens, once a small local pharmacy, is a burgeoning chain. Walmart has achieved world domination not only of consumers (of the unnecessary and cheap) but of suppliers, too, not to mention the Chinese labor market. At the cold, uninviting, gray Sam's Club and its warehouse clones, you can buy copious quantities of toilet paper, huge chunks of cheese, and olive oil by the gallon.

Corporations are out of control. Friendly, familiar-sounding local brands like Marshall Field's have been sold off to conglomerates with generic names like Federated, General, Retail Brand Alliance, etc. Local bookstores, once small, cozy havens for bookish introverts, have been replaced by Borders and other national chains, as well as Amazon.com.

All this bulk is emphasized even in the materials with which we build. Warm brick and wood have been replaced by concrete, steel, and glass. Even stone and marble, hard but warm in color, have lost their cachet with modern sensibilities.

I saw part of an interior design program in which burnished steel kitchen cabinets had been finished in an icy blue. The kitchen, which should be one of the coziest, warmest rooms in the house, resembled a luxury morgue for the wealthy. Yet this appears to be the latest and greatest in design—dehumanized scale and dehumanized appearance. This room looked more appropriate for conducting lab experiments than for sharing a cup of coffee or tea with a friend.

Clearly, a scale that is larger than life and a design that is colder than death are very popular for the moment. People are buying these buildings, homes, and cars; they're shopping at these stores. And they're admiring the newest designs. A man on the street was quoted as saying he was glad to see new concrete, steel, and glass towers; he disliked the traditional brick and wood. Other comments were similar.

There's nothing inherent in our natures that makes us gravitate toward the stupendous and cold, but what does? I wonder if all this ostentation in size, all this pretentious modernity and mass, is simply our effort to stand out, to raise ourselves above our 6+ billion fellow travelers, to be "bigger and better." With every new tower higher than its neighbors, with every new store more comprehensive than its fellows, with every new car larger and meaner looking than its highway companions, with every house more spacious than the ones around it, the result is a weird uniformity and blending in. All the rows of McMansions with SUVs parked in their driveways and garages, all the steel-and-glass office towers, and all the warehouse stores, all the 12-lane expressways inspire little more than a dull sensation of "standing out by fitting in." It's all a mass of cold gray.

As the population grows, shouldn't we preserve our individuality and the significance of the individual by returning to a human scale, a personal style?

Think big—think small. Most of all, think for yourself. Is that monotonous gray wall of office tower really "beautiful"?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Cynical marketing: Bratzpack

There's an organization for children that collects Christmas gifts for their charges. The organization provides the name, age, and gender of each child as a paper tree ornament; participants select their ornaments and buy two gifts for each child—one practical (hat, glove) and one fun (toy). There's no official spending limit, but participants are supposed to use common sense so one child doesn't receive something extravagant like a Game Boy in front of children who may have received stuffed animals, trucks, and dolls.

The person managing this program showed me a toy that, to me, could not be more appalling (and which she in good conscience chose not to send along with the rest). It was a doll named "Dana" from the "Bratzpack." "Bratz" comes in all ethnicities, but interestingly they all look exactly alike (clearly cast from the same mold); only the hair, eyes, skin tone, and makeup tints change to indicate ethnicity. So far, "Dana" sounds no worse than a cheap doll. But there's more.

"Dana" is, in fact, a cheap whore. Her makeup is the first clue, but it's the outfit that seals the deal. The halter top and platform shoes are just the beginning; they merely top off a skirt so mini that, were "Dana" anatomically correct (they do have navels), would reveal pubic hair. On the back of the box, her quote is: "Hey! My name is Dana! My friends call me 'Sugar Shoes' because when I step out I do it sweet!" Clearly, she's dressed to "step out."

Yes, "Dana" is decked out exactly like the working girls in certain districts, who lean into stopped cars to negotiate rates with the drivers.

This "doll," which had been donated for a 5-year-old, is recommended for 6-year-olds and up. I imagine that's based solely on parts small enough to swallow, not on appropriateness.

If you gave this trash to my (theoretical) 6-year-old, you'd never see her or me again.

While we were discussing the utter inappropriateness of "Dana," a third person came along who said "Bratz" dolls are hot (in the sales sense) and that some are programmed to talk—including to talk back to their mothers. "And mothers actually buy these things for their kids," she concluded.

I visited the "Bratz" Web site (I'll spare you the link) and noticed that there are even "Bratz" babies—which look exactly like the other dolls, just with shorter torsos and legs.

So people are buying their small children dolls that overtly represent urban prostitutes and sleazy second-rate rock stars and that are rude and smart-mouthed to boot? Who are these parents? Can we provide them with the latest in free and effective birth control before they breed again?

And who are the greedy bastards who developed and proposed marketing this garbage? What discussions went on during those meetings? "No, wait, the skirt's not short enough . . ." "The girls on the corner of X and Y do the black outline lipstick . . ." "That's it! The perfect slut for my little Ashley to cuddle with. We'll be rich!"

Not being a parent and not having friends with children nearby, I have no idea what kids are playing with these days, other than the obvious—computer games. My 44-year-old mind is in a time warp, where Barbies were the raciest toys we had, which we tortured by tearing off their heads and limbs, or by pushing them face down into the dirt. We had dolls that looked like babies or toddlers and that talked, cried, and even wet their diapers. I had one that was about my height, but she still looked like a child. We had Matchbox cars. We had trucks and model trains. We played tag, freeze tag, and redlight/greenlight. We slept with stuffed animals. The most realistic movie we'd ever seen was Charlotte's Web, which made us cry (but not give up ham or pork). When I see things like the "Bratz," I wonder how much the world has changed and why, whether it's for the better, and how much has passed me by.

What happened to giving wide-eyed innocent 5- or 6-year-old girls sweet, soft, comforting dolls like Raggedy Ann and Andy or little stuffed animals?

As for "Dana," I felt relieved that she was encased in plastic. Given her makeup, dress, and demeanor, who knows where that ridiculous mouth has been?

Afterthought: I looked up the correct spelling of Game Boy and clicked on a site where the first ad was for a "Bratz" Game Boy game. The world is officially over the top and beyond all hope.

Friday, December 9, 2005

What is a life worth?

Every time you look into the printed photographic eyes of someone who's been killed, are you seeing the trials of pregnancy and the pains of childbirth? The countless feedings plus clothing and diaper changes? The education, whether informal or formal; at home, at school or on the streets?

Beyond an act of love, passion, or lust (or all three), combined with intentional or thoughtlessness, it takes considerable effort to make a human being. And that effort can be destroyed in an instant, just as intentionally or thoughtlessly—an exploded vehicle in Iraq or a blown-up bus in London, a bullet ripping through an organ, a beating that ends in internal bleeding, an accidental blow to the head.

How does each of us determine what a life is worth? For most people, human life seems nearly sacred until our person, our family, or our property is threatened. A mother who never dreamed of killing might do so without thought if her child is endangered. A man might kill if he catches someone in the act of looting his home. Most of us will never face these circumstances, but we do have an idea of our priorities and an instinct for self-preservation.

How do we really feel when a stranger is killed? When soldiers are ambushed in action, it's sad and regrettable, but all too often they're just a face and a name, with perhaps a brief biography and some quotes. We don't have any personal attachment, and while parents may empathize with those of the fallen (and feel gratitude that it wasn't their child), and the same for girlfriends, boyfriends, brothers, sisters, spouses, it's nearly impossible to become emotionally invested beyond the superficial when it comes to most strangers (with well-publicized exceptions). Undoubtedly this is programmed into our psyches; no one could afford the energy it would take to grieve every loss as though it were personally meaningful. So our reaction tends to be, "I feel bad for the parents," "Doesn't he remind you of Steve Flynn over on Sixth Avenue?" or "What a shame."

Then there are those who invest their emotions in dead celebrities, in John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, John Lennon, Princess Diana. Years, decades, after the death, they write of their loss, sadness, and heartbreak as thought it were a deeply personal tragedy. Do such people value life? Or do the value the artificial association they have created with a person or an idea that is bigger than themselves? For such people, was it Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana who died? Or was it the idea that died, not just of beauty, but of fantasies of lives that never existed, of their own youth and memories that began to fade long ago? Is it the lives of these celebrities that they miss and mourn, or their own lives, doomed never to achieve the impossible fantasy that no one's life can?

Soon there will be more deaths in the headlines, and the cycle begins again. Very little changes. We spend billions trying to treat and cure disease because disease will affect us and every one we know; we hope that violence, in whatever form, does not.

Every day, though, the behavior of seemingly ordinary people reveals a combination of egotism and lack of empathy for lives that are not our own. I thought of this when another case of a child in joint custody of her divorced parents was mentioned. The girl supposedly hates her time with her father, who fought bitterly for joint custody, because he ignores her. She senses that she was an object in a power struggle. It is long since over, so she seems to hold no interest for her own father. I find myself wondering how I could look into the face of my child, a face that would surely resemble mine in some ways, and not feel enough love and compassion to show it in everything I do, to feel only cold indifference. Doesn't what he helped to give her—life—have any value to him? How can he not know or not care about the effect of his indifference on his own child?

In another case, the mother has one child with one man and two children with a second man. As a toddler, the first child was not welcome in his mother's home. He has spent most of his childhood living with an uncle and aunt. How can anyone value life so little that they don't want their own child living with them, that they prefer that someone else raise them even when they have the ability and the means? Does he understand why his mother doesn't want him and can foist him off on a relative like he is an unwanted item for which there is no room? What value will he place on life when he is older?

The same boy had a docile, affectionate cat. One day, the boy's half-sister, with an established reputation as a bully, decided to scare the cat while the boy was holding it. Already, she has learned her mother's valuation of her half-brother. Predictably, the startled cat panicked and clawed the boy badly. Rather than punishing the girl for her bullying behavior, the family decided that the life of the victimized cat was forfeit. What value does life have under such circumstances, when victims are victimized twice, when they are victimized permanently?

Children are life, animals are life, trees are life, just as we as stewards of the Earth are life. Those who kill, those who destroy—they are anti-life, like matter and anti-matter. For some, it is a socially accepted hobby or habit—the hunter, the fisherman. Soldiers must kill when ordered to. Butchers slaughter animals every day of their working lives on our behalf. For others, it's an accident, a temporary suspension of judgment, the proverbial crime of passion or anger or fear. Then there are the sociopaths, who kill compulsively, without empathy or compassion. Some value the life of some but not that of others; some value life but must destroy it, however regretfully. The sociopath doesn't understand the value of life, if it is not his own.

For those who die to nourish ours and to protect it, we should never fail to feel gratitude. For those who have lost their lives, we should stir our memories. For those who have lost a life that they created, we should feel the deepest of sorrow. And for those who have taken life for the vilest of reasons, what must we feel? Hate? Contempt? Loathing? Pity? Anguish? Pity and anguish that that person could destroy the only thing of value that has been granted to us, the only thing that has meaning? Life itself, without which there is nothing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Dream: Timespace

A dream in which time does and does not matter . . .

I went to my cousin's for lunch. While we were watching television, there was a commercial for a dentist. I was thinking that the wood paneling during one video clip shown as part of the commercial looked familiar. Then I realized it was a clip of my dad, my brother, and me in the trailer, on the sofa in the living room (it was similar to many photos that I have). The clip, which was dark, blurry, and old, made no sense in the commercial. I was trying to make a point to remember the name and location of the dentist, because I wanted to know how he obtained the clip and because I wanted him to stop using it without my permission, which I would never have given.

Suddenly, I became panicky that I had to get back to work; it was already late in the afternoon, and I had a sense that I was supposed to catch a 5:45 p.m. flight from Chicago to a client's. This was obviously an impossibility as I would need to fly back to Chicago. Then everyone seemed unconsciously to delay me, probably because I didn't really want to go. My cousin's daughter, who is usually standoffish, surprised me with a kiss on the mouth. Clearly I have been reading too much Colette.

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Dream: Speech, speech!

I was going to a reunion; it felt like it should be a high school reunion but could have been a college one. I had been asked to be a speaker. I was confused about the destination, thinking I'd passed it, and felt utterly lost, so I pulled the cord to stop the bus. The driver told me that it was between stops, but he let me off anyway.

At first the area was completely unfamiliar, but as I walked (seemingly upward) it became Promontory Point or an area like it. I wandered around and saw other people speaking, but they were standing in front of a small group informally. I thought I was to speak to the entire group in a more formal setting, and I couldn't find the person who had arranged it. Knowing that I could be asked to speak at any moment, I tried to adjust the belt on my dress. One time, it was the wrong color, while the next time I looked it was dirty underneath. At any rate, it wouldn't fasten properly.

Suddenly, the speaker arranger found me and I went to talk. There was no one sitting or standing to listen. I had not prepared a speech, but I talked to a random group coming and going about how I was in college and how college had changed me. I mentioned that my mother used to mistake me for Hervé Villechaize [laughter]. I discussed the majors I'd rejected, which also provoked laughter and consternation. I talked about the influence of a late professor over me; a few cheered like they knew him, so at this point this seemed to be a college reunion—but it felt like the people were from high school.

My speech and delivery were wonderful, but the crowd became amorphous. I didn't know if I was really supposed to be speaking at that time or in that place.

I found myself sitting next to three women, two of whom were Asian, who were interested at first but who soon drifted off as people do at parties, where no meaningful conversation can take place. Was I supposed to "work the crowd," delivering my speech in snippets here and there to whatever groups I found?

I felt panicky that I'd blown my opportunity (but I don't mean to talk before a gathering). I found myself sitting in another group, where everyone was smoking, including me. I threw the cigarette away in disgust.

A man who was with a group of royalty set up chairs in front of me, facing me. Was I supposed to speak?

Then there was a presentation about linguistics and the relatedness and variety of languages involving hands of different hues in a row, like performance art. Suddenly, I was in the midst of a few of them, observing them trying to find the correct translation of a particular phrase, but nothing we found made sense.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Nothing personal

Someone commented once that I don't say anything personal or express excitement and other strong emotions in my journal. The latter is a challenge especially because nothing exciting has happened, and I can't think of anything to be emotional about that I'd want to talk about publicly.

I think it must be close to a year since my team and I went through an exercise to determine our individual work styles. Virtually everyone was a (theoretically) organizer extrovert of varying types, while I was an off-the-scale creative introvert. I'm not sure what the exercise proved, as how we interact has not changed. The only thing that changed for me is that my sense of alienation and isolation deepened. I feel a little like the Spock or Data characters on Star Trek who can never know what it is to be human.

Visually, it would have been humorous to an outsider to see a dozen people spread out over one half of a line, with one individual all the way at the other end.

And the funny thing is that I'm better at organizing than all the so-called "organizers."

I think of people who are leaders not only because they are charismatic, but because they have an exciting, appealing vision of something better. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a leader. I wonder what I am, since I can be neither leader nor follower. Am I T. H. White's one wise man (The Book of Merlyn? Potentially I have a vision, but I don't want to see it because I don't know what to do with it. It's behind a symbolic door, along with a lot of emotions I don't want to experience. As long as I focus on the ordinary and mundane, the door to the room, with its vision, dreams, thoughts, and feelings, may stay safely secured.

I've been sick for almost a week. Just before I got sick, I had a week of dreams odd enough that I hated to wake up. Once I got sick, the dreams stopped, and now I am tired. Tired but alert. Then this morning I had a dream about an annual contest that usually pitted a very large, sleek, streamlined modern train against a much smaller, quaint forebear; they were supposed to be toy trains, but they were also large, nearly life-sized.

Behind the scenes I kept trying to arrange other trains, switches, etc., so they would always thwart the modern bully. One train was set at what was somehow a blind crossroads, with its nose buried in a mountain tunnel, so that the modern monster ended up slamming on its brakes and hitting it, but not doing much damage. The incident allowed the quaint train to escape. I was trying to minimize the damage to all the old trains, as they were unique and irreplaceable. I didn't not want to sacrifice any of them and spent a lot of time agonizing over what to do.

Someone else intervened on the modern train's behalf with what appeared to be a military train and possibly ships in a harbor using missile launchers. Fortunately, the little old train disappeared into the safety of the underground. At about that point, I started to look for a bathroom from which to do my planning, so it was time to wake up.

The old train took my emotions underground with it, where they are safe from me, and, more importantly, I am safe from them.

Friday, December 2, 2005

Community

What makes a community? What keeps it together? What do the members have in common?

In the U.S., old towns and neighborhoods in cities were often settled by immigrants of the same country and/or ethnicity. My hometown of Hamburg, New York was primarily German and Polish. In Chicago, of course, there are Chinatown and Greektown, and entire neighborhoods, like towns, of Indians, Mexicans, Asians, etc. In these cases, the residents for the most part have a common language, history, and culture, and many have the same goals—American citizenship and prosperity.

There are also company towns where nearly everyone works for the same employer. When I was involved in a consulting project for Gateway Computer, nearly everyone I talked to in town either worked at Gateway, had a family member who did, or had a business patronized by Gateway employees. The connections here are somewhat more tenuous; while the success of nearly individual depends on the success of the company, and while there area always a lot of family relationships in any town of limited size and growth, the people themselves may not have that much else in common. The residents might include everyone from cleaning staff and security guards to engineers and executives, with different social values, economic standings, and religious beliefs. The community is built based on the company, not on the people.

Now, many have flocked to suburban and master-planned communities, where the attractions are people of the preferred ethnicity (more important than most people will admit), large houses that are increasing in value, good school and services like police and fire, plus attractions like dining and shopping. There may be some common desires and even values, but this type of community may consist of people who have lived in it their entire lives, people who have moved from the city, people who have moved from other suburbs, and even people who have moved from other parts of the country. They may share a national culture, but the local cultures from which they came may be very different. Maybe the town has always rolled up the sidewalks early in the evening, while new arrivals from urban areas are used to lots of excitement and noise late at night. In one case I know of, the local culture is largely centered on hunting and fishing, and new residents from out of state were surprised to see their neighbors in their backyards cleaning their guns and other equipment.

It seems to me that the concept of community is a natural one, while the construct is often not. People need to live in communities to share in services and goods, to form social connections, and provide one another with the safety (and sometimes risk) of numbers. That said, anyone with the means and the desire can live in a community, but no one needs to participate in it. If most of us don't participate in the community, or know our neighbors, is it a community, or is it just a conglomeration of dwellings?

When the U.S. was a fledgling nation, was there a greater sense of community? At a time when I may have lived miles from my nearest neighbor, with only the horse for distance transportation, would I have relied on him more, to help build my house and barn, plant and harvest my crops, cope with weather and natural disasters like droughts and tornadoes, and fend off enemies? I would have needed my neighbor, and he would have needed me.

Do I need my neighbor, whose house is within feet of mine, in the same way today? I might ask him to watch my house or my pets, plants, and mailbox while I'm away. His children might play with mine, but if they go to different schools they might be more likely to spend their time with their school friends. The only time we might have contact is at community association meetings, where our only exchange might be for one of us to complain about the condition of the other's lawn. There's not much sense of belonging to a greater whole or of real service to it, mainly of asserting one's rights and privileges.

The Wall Street Journal ran a feature about Dallas and the city's attempt to revitalize its business downtown. The story mentioned a national trend of people buying houses and condos downtown in large cities. Certainly this is true in Chicago, where downtown housing is booming (at boom prices). I wonder if some of the people making this move are seeking a sense of community, where they have a doorman or concierge who knows them by name. I wonder if they are people who want to be able to walk to the grocery and drugstore and encounter neighbors on the sidewalk rather than breeze by them in self-contained, climate-controlled SUVs. Are they pioneers of a sort—people willing to give up the known for the unknown and unfamiliar?

It's an interesting experiment, and it's natural to wonder how long it will last. Will these pioneers develop true urban communities, where the people are as important as the trappings? The kind of community Colette writes about in the Claudine novels, where people of disparate backgrounds but similar socioeconomic status pay visits and gather for one another's "at home days"? What will people find to be the downside—the lack of personal, open, and natural space? Isolation from friends who have not made the move? Lack of neighborhood recreational opportunities for children? Lack of convenient schools? Lack of malls and familiar stores?

Is this a reaction to "cocooning," when we rented movies and ordered food in, staying home and avoiding our community?

Is it a fad or a trend?

Are we waking up to the sense of community that we may have lost with the advent of the car and suburbia?

For how long?

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Medieval minds, modern technology

A world in which government officials issue e-mail statements about the hanging of a man is strange and surreal.

Monday, November 28, 2005

"Your grandfather's moon shot"

A friend and I saw the Omnimax film Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon narrated by Tom Hanks. The beginning and ending sandwich premise is overdone, butt the middle is wonderfully evocative of the era in which I grew up—the era of the Apollo missions.

To my parents, the Apollo missions were major events, and I remember watching at least a few of them. It didn't matter that much of the television footage was of the launcher on the pad or of the men at Mission Control monitoring grey, flickering screens. We didn't want to miss the critical moment: "10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . . 6 . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . liftoff! We have liftoff!" We sat on the edge of our seats at home and counted along with Mission Control, trying not to get ahead in our excitement and impatience.

Liftoff, that fiery, roaring, thunderous, glowing moment that the television of the day could not do justice to, always signaled the beginning of a letdown to me. There was so much buildup to that emotionally intense moment—and then it was over. The craft would get smaller and smaller, and after the last of the launcher broke away, I felt a sense of both completion and anticlimax.

Even when Neil Armstrong took his first historic steps on the lunar surface, I didn't feel the same sense of relief, accomplishment, and pride that I think many if not most adults did. I was simply too young to understand. Countdowns and liftoffs made sense to my single-digit mind; the historical significance and the national sense of pride did not. Now I can look back and appreciate what I was privileged to witness—a daring experiment that millions of us simultaneously viewed and discussed, each launch an event that brought together people of all politics, faiths, ages, and avocations for "one brief shining moment," glued to our television sets (some of which were still black and white!).

I watched the launch of the first shuttle, but emotionally it wasn't the same experience. The space program had come under scrutiny, many wanted to cut or eliminate the expense, many didn't understand the benefits, the battle with the Soviets had changed, and I was older and perhaps a bit jaded. Maybe we all were.

I was at work when the Challenger exploded; like everyone else, I was stunned as I saw the footage replayed again and again on the news. But I wonder, at that time of day, how many people were watching the launch, how many had planned their day around it, how many would have talked of it for days afterward had it been successful, that is, a routine launch. By then, the sense of wonder had passed, and sending astronauts into space had become so commonplace that all of us began taking it for granted.

At the beginning of Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon, several children are asked to name any of the Apollo astronauts. They can't (although they come up with some amusing current cultural references). As James Loewen notes in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, even the most recent history can be the first forgotten. Once, Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon inspired generations of viewers. Now, even NASA itself seems determined to downplay the achievements of the Apollo crews and to undermine our memories of wonder, just as the countdown to the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 should be beginning. The following is from NASA's Web site:

"Before the end of the next decade, NASA astronauts will again explore the surface of the moon. And this time, we're going to stay, building outposts and paving the way for eventual journeys to Mars and beyond. There are echoes of the iconic images of the past, but it won't be your grandfather's moon shot."

There's nothing wrong with "your grandfather's moon shot." There had never been anything like it before for Americans, and may not be again for a very long time. It was a moment that helped to define us, as World War II defined my father's generation. Rather than downplaying Apollo in their marketing hype, NASA should be reveling in it, taking full advantage of its remarkable emotive and historical power to excite us about future exploration. (Note to NASA: "Building outposts" isn't exactly the most compelling goal or prose imaginable. Take a lesson from Armstrong.)

Let's never allow space or space travel to become ordinary, or NASA to transform it into another dull commodity. "Out there" may be our last repository of mystery and awe.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Gratitude

I'm thankful for my:

• wonderful parents, even if I didn't appreciate them at the time. The older I get and the more I see, the more I appreciate them.

• brother and his family. We complement each other well.

• extended family. They help me keep much in perspective.

• inspirations and everyone who has taught me something, from teachers and professors to family and friends, even some non-friends.

• job. It's not ideal, but it fuels most of my habits, like shelter, food, and books.

• shelter. Moving has brought me to life, and I need to keep up that momentum.

• health. I have my problems, some typical, some a little unusual, but none very serious.

• freedom. Love it and guard it for few have so much, and it's so easily compromised.

• books and poetry. As the song says, they protect me.

Happy Thanksgiving. May we gain more in all things than we lose.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Popularity

Every time something happens like at Columbine, a distraught, shaken society returns to the same questions—about adolescence, about high school, about cliques and social class, and about a sense of disenfranchisement that some kids feel. Some teenagers (and, in some contexts, adults) believe they are so alienated that they must resort to a type of violence that will either end or ruin their own lives. Afterward, hands are wrung, task forces formed, "at risk" kids identified, etc., etc.—but ultimately how much changes? What about the large group in the middle—the kids who are neither popular nor shunned. How many are on the fringe, craving attention? How many will come to view high school as a happy memory?

I suspect that the answer is few, based admittedly on my own conversations. Most people I know don't have fond recollections of high school, and those were on the fringe loathed it. Yet few cite those things that seem most hateful to kids at the time: boring classes, homework, difficult teachers, dull routine, and so on. For those who didn't like high school, the sense of "not belonging," "not fitting in," "not having lots of friends," or "not having a girl-/boyfriend" left bitter memories. For those on the fringe, it was blatant ostracism. It seems that, for a lot of these people, favorite classes, teachers, and assignments were the highlights of their school experience.

I remember not having a lot of friends and feeling that there was something wrong with me because I didn't. Now I'm aware of that this is part of being an introvert—introverts focus on a few close relationships, while extroverts establish a far-reaching network of friends and acquaintances. Neither type is right or wrong, good or bad, although we do seem to live in a dichotomous society with a distinct "us vs. them" mentality. Yet both "us" and "them" are necessary. Introverts (the minority) and extroverts both contribute to their world, the former more as advisers, the latter more as leaders and implementers. We're all interconnected and interdependent.

I didn't know all of that at the time, nor that my personality type, INFP, was the rarest and most difficult for others to understand. I continued to wonder what was wrong with me, why I was not well liked, why at best I was ignored and at worst tormented. At some point, I stopped worrying so much about it, probably because I understood that I was powerless to change the perception. Noting I could do would let me slip into the mainstream. This was confirmed for me in college, where at first I was completely unknown and where I could reinvent myself (I thought). The problem was—I didn't know how to.

I couldn't figure out what separated me from kids who were generally liked (I didn't aspire to be popular). It wasn't an economic issue; there were others worse off (although they probably dressed better!). It wasn't weight or looks; there were others were fat and unattractive. It wasn't intelligence or grades; there were others who were smarter and who received better grades. It wasn't living in or coming from a trailer park; while that may have been a factor in high school, no one at college knew that. Now I think it was primarily my INFP, highly sensitive personality, combined with a high level of insecurity and overcompensation and all the other factors, none of which helped my cause. I won't say I was unpopular; I was mostly, as I felt, invisible.

I also didn't understand the opposite—why certain kids were very popular, attracting others to them to the point where they could hold mini-courts. Most of these were not the stereotype of the handsome football player/pretty cheerleader. Many of the most popular were not particularly attractive physically, and I always found them a little hard to approach, a little hard to talk to, even a little phony at times. I didn't understand the appeal.

The odd thing is that, at high school reunions, the same people are still popular; they still hold court. Some of them have not accomplished all that much, let alone anything noteworthy, yet there always seems to be a crowd hanging onto their every word. Their appeal still escapes me. What elevates them above the people who are treated as though they are more ordinary? Yet some of the more "ordinary" are far more interesting—they've traveled, earned advanced degrees, and held either high-level or unusual jobs, sometimes in relatively exotic locales.

In the end, and especially at my age, I don't want hangers-on; I don't need superficial friends or popularity. I'm happy with who I know, although I wish some of them lived nearby so we could do more together. I simply remain curious—how does it all work? I may never understand.

Dream: Rich, powerful, and suspect

I was a rich and powerful man, and I was hosting an importance conference about something that did not pertain to me. I knew all the participants (government? U.N.? business?), but their meeting did not concern me.

During a session in a particular room, someone was shot, and a pall fell over the concert. I became like a private investigator, freely looking into what happened. It was very mysterious. Then, when it seemed the same thing could not happen again, during another session, there was a smokescreen that hid the killing of someone else. They were taking more sophisticated measures to obscure the killing, although the first still remained utterly mysterious. No one had seen or heard anything; the victim had simply been shot and died.

I went to investigate the second murder; I was not a suspect, and until now everyone had treated me with great deference. But even though I was allowed into the room, there was a wooden bar across the doorway that made it too small for me to fit through. It was one of those moments when you realize bitterly that your status has changed.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Dream: The vampire and the oubliette

My sleeping brain turns my need to wake up and go to the bathroom into a nightmare.

I was in a house with a woman I thought to be my mother and children I thought to be my siblings. One of the boys, or one of his friends (strange I couldn't tell), was mocking his friend (or my brother, depending on who he was (strange I couldn't tell). I was eating something when it occurred to me I was being held captive by a vampire and that the food could be poisoned. If I stopped eating, I would be letting him know I was onto him (wherever he was); if I kept eating, I was ensuring my own death. I found a bathroom, which was all brushed stainless steel and had no mirrors. It was very high-ceilinged and long and at the end was a toilet, but it was in at ground level, not raised. There was no mirror over the sink, just brushed stainless steel. That horrified me, as did the toilet, which I was sure was really the entry to a bottomless pit, an oubliette, down which I would be flung (alive or dead?) at some point.

Then I found a normal bathroom, small, tiled, with mirror. He had read my mind and provided me with what I expected to throw me off . . .

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Dream: Rescue and resuscitation

My dad was sitting by the edge of a pond and asked me and my aunt to go and bring back some paper. He made it clear he wanted regular sized sheets of paper, something that could be written clearly on as he wanted to say something important. I started to explain computers to him but turned around to get the paper. My aunt was ahead of me when I heard a noise. I turned to face the pond and no longer saw my dad. After a second or two, I realized he must have fallen in and ran back. I looked into the water, not knowing how deep it was, and saw his hand somewhat below the surface, but nothing else. I grabbed it without thinking about how I could fall in and effortlessly pulled him out of the water onto the bank. He started to say something but then his voice weakened, and I called to my aunt for help, but I don't think she heard. I started to push on his chest, but I don't know CPR, and my cries to her became more panic-stricken. At that moment, when I didn't know what would happen, I woke up—feeling that it would have turned out well, although he looked terrible. I also wondered how he stayed in a vertical position in the water and didn't sink.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Colette and Mansfield

Old photos and paintings fascinate and disturb me. They fascinate me because they are often the only visual recored that remains of historical, literary, and other notable figures. They disturb me because they reveal the face of the person at a certain point in his or her story, when I, the viewer, know the ending.

Based on my recent reading, I've been looking up biographies of Colette and Katherine Mansfield. I don't know much about Mansfield, but I do know that both she and Colette were sensualists who devoted themselves to living life to the fullest. They each had a wealth of experiences, not to mention lovers. Yet, invariably, all of each writer's photos show an unsmiling woman with expressions ranging from serious to glum. There is no joie de vivre in the countenances of either Colette or Mansfield. Even the 10-year-old bespectacled Mansfield looks grim, with lips tightened and teeth clenched, as though she were acting out a scene from a particularly dreary Dickensian childhood. Even the young Colette, wearing breastplates in a theatrical production, looks as though she has had enough of this earthly life. It's not just Colette and Mansfield. Especially at the turn of the century, women seemed unable to smile, at least for the camera, even on their wedding day. What message are they trying to send us across time?

Looking at the young Colette, whether in a portrait pose or in theatrical costume, it's difficult to reconcile the pagan country girl so clearly defined in the Claudine novels with the urbanite haunter of opium dens and the demimonde of Paris. The older Colette looks more like the worn woman of the world that she was, although her expressions are even harsher and more forbidding. While the author Colette is judgmental, she is also approachable in her knowledge and understanding of human weaknesses, especially those of the flesh and heart, including her own. The pictured Colette does not invite the viewer to come closer; her eyes suggest that distance is preferable to intimacy. Yet this may reflect Colette as she was; for all her understanding of the heart, her public face is dispassionate, even when troubled.

In Mansfield's photos, limited by the brevity of her life, you can see the evolution in style from old-fashioned to modern. In her childhood photos, she could be Laura from The Little House on the Prairie books. Her hair is long and soft, her dress conservative and feminine. Only the look of determination hints at her future as a thoroughly modern woman, and nothing reveals a predilection for a life of sensuality. By the time she is an adult, however, her hair is shorn and her clothes naturally reflect more modern, more urban—and less charming—fashions. Like Thea Kronborg from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, she appears to have been transformed by her new world, status, companions, and opportunities into a weary artist. In some ways, the adult Thea seems different from the child Thea; I wonder how much Katherine Mansfield changed over the 24 years between her serious childhood portrait and her death.

By the time she was in her mid- to late twenties, Mansfield looked much older. Her face, still grim in expression, seems worn and shadowed, and she looks like a woman to whom life has been difficult. She does not look like life, warm, inviting, enticing, but like death, cold, forbidding, and distant. She suffered from tuberculosis and, according to some biographies, gonorrhea—similar to the ailments that plagued a bon vivant like Errol Flynn.

While I read the words of Colette and Mansfield, sometimes I gaze into the eyes of their images and wonder what they knew—about themselves, about their world, about their futures. I wonder what they told and what they kept secret. There seems to be more in the eyes than can be told in words. What more could they have said?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Dream: Castles into silos

I had a dream about being in a computer class; at a critical moment I asked if learning something—Java, CSS, or something—was very much like coding or mathematics. The room went dead. The instructor was dumbfounded. Then I woke up because I heard Hodge trying to chew up a box.

The earlier dream was also more involved than I can remember, but I was at home, and something happened (trees or houses removed, perhaps), and suddenly we were surrounded mostly by forested hills. There must have been water, because I could see clearly things in the water. One of them was a curved, L-shaped island with red stairs leading up the peak of it to the top. Then I found myself floating over the sparkling water toward it, as though to realise a dream. It appeared to be a castle perched on top.

Then the sky changed to grey and rain or snow appeared, and I suddenly saw that the hilly, forested island with the castle was two grim, metal industrial silos.

Blackness.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Edmund Fitzgerald

I'm reposting this from 20 October on this, the 30th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Please take a moment to think about the men who died and their families, and all who die or are injured performing their work.

I was listening to one of my favourite songs from my adolescence, the eerie, haunting "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." I think I've always assumed Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 tune was about a shipwreck that had happened long ago, but today I decided to find out more. To my surprise, two of the best sites dedicated to the Fitzgerald have been developed by young people who weren't yet born in 1975, which I learned is the year in which the Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior, killing all 29 members of her crew.

The first site, S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online, has information about the ship, the crew, and the wreck. The second site, 3D Edmund Fitzgerald, features 3D drawings, meticulously detailed and with documentation where details are missing, for example, the hole for the ladder to the crow's nest. I give these kids a lot of credit for their thoughtful interest in an event that is minor in the scheme of history and that most remember primarily because of Lightfoot's tribute. Both sites are well done and worth bookmarking.

I won't get into the details of the Edmund Fitzgerald or the wreck—just visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online. What the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald reminds me of, though, is what all of us too often forget—the work of those who keep us comfortable and in comfort. The Fitzgerald was carrying iron ore in her hold for the auto industry. Who mined the ore? Who loaded the Fitzgerald? Who would have unloaded her? Who would have hauled the ore to the plant? Who would have processed it? People—people who risk their lives so that we can have heat, food, necessities, comforts, and conveniences. People who may like danger and risk and who are often fatalistic about it. People who work on farms, in mines, in processing plants, in rail yards, in dockyards—and on freighters. How many farmers killed or maimed, miners buried, rail men crushed, how many injured, amputations a testament to the risks of the machine age? How easy it is not to think of the essential work we've never seen or experienced, like that performed by stagehands behind the scenes at a theatrical production.

The men of the Edmund Fitzgerald experienced bitter cold, howling winds, and crashing waves—and the knowledge of wrecks that "the gales of November remembered"—November, one of the stormiest and deadliest months for shipping on the Great Lakes.

This November 10 will mark the 30th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the deaths of all her hands. No one knows what caused the wreck itself. But we do know a great deal about her crew. For the most part, they were seasoned seamen, as well as family men. One had survived Iwo Jima, while another pursued a passion for learning cooking and baking. A couple, including the captain, were looking forward to retirement. They were ordinary men who knew they could die on the job but probably never expected to, or to be memorialized in one of the decade's hit singles—or online.

When you take a look around you, at your food, at your clothes, at your appliances, at your furniture, at virtually everything you own, remember the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald—and everyone else who, sight unseen, keeps you warm, fed, clothed, and comfortable. They deserve to be recognized for all they are willing to do—and all they are willing to risk.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

The art of politeness

Whoever one is, and wherever one is, one is always in the wrong if one is rude. —Maurice Baring

Politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax. —Arthur Schopenhauer

Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Politeness is the art of choosing among one's real thoughts. —Abel Stevens

There can be no defence like elaborate courtesy. —E.V. Lucas

I was about to walk into a busy chain store one Friday evening after work, opening the right-hand door of the double doors, when a herd of college-age people burst through both doors, nearly knocking me and everyone behind me over. They were oblivious to everyone around them and the unspoken assumption that you keep to the right and not take up the whole road, so to speak.

I was very tired after the week and also still recovering from 'flu, so my first cranky thought was, "RUDE, SELF-CENTERED BRATS." And, unconsciously, unaware of what I was doing, I started thinking about how rude young people are nowadays. In other words, at some point in the past few years, I've turned into my parents.

Once aware of what I was doing, I asked myself why I would think that. Why do so many young people seem rude to me, especially lately? Part of it is because some are. Some people in any age group are self-centered and domineering, which can lead to what appears to be rude behavior. It's possible that some young people, not yet quashed by life, exhibit these attitudes to a greater extent than some of their more muted, experienced elders.

In this case, part of it was the herd effect. A group is more likely to exert the power of its numbers, and seldom do middle-aged people gather in groups as the young do.

Some of my perception is based on my expectations. My parents were a generation older than the parents of my peers. This is was a generation that believed in instilling respect and politeness in every child—and also in controlling children. For example, I was taught to call every adult "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss"—even if the person preferred to be called by their first name. This was during the 1960s, when some 25- and 30-year-old parents were dismissive of the old-fashioned "Mom" and "Dad," encouraging their own children to call them by their first names.

When anyone sent me a gift, I was expected to send them a handwritten thank you note promptly, which mean within a week. How often do you receive handwritten thank you notes from five-year-old children?

I also understood that children were to be seen, not heard. This sounds absurdly strict today, but this is an example of what it once meant to be polite. In a way, I skipped a generation, going from one that was very firm in its ideas to the current one, which is quite relaxed in its rules, especially when it comes to children.

Mostly, though, I think it's because of my age. In 44 years, a lot of people have been knowingly and unknowingly rude to me. I've also seen a lot of rude behavior that has made me cringe. I've become painfully aware of the effects of rude behavior, of how it can ruin your day, affect your attitudes, even influence your own behavior. I'm more aware of the benefits of seemingly insignificant little gestures, like holding the door open for someone, even when there's no reason to, and how that can make both giver and recipient feel happy and positive about their fellow travelers. I doubt I noticed such things in my youth, and I'm sure I didn't appreciate them. Now they can make all the difference in how I feel.

I won't be surprised if, in 20 years, that young man who led the herd out both doors finds himself thinking of a passing group of youths, "SELF-CENTERED BRATS." I'd like to think most of us catch on. Sooner or later.

Saturday, November 5, 2005

Dream: Movie set

I was on a movie set in a hilly area, like the Alleghenies. I wasn't being used and tried to leave. The path down was narrow and rocky, and suddenly a boulder appeared in front of me. I was trying to decide how to get around it when I realized there was one behind me now. I turned around to return, but then pushed a boulder down the hillside. For a long time afterward, I heard a lot of loud, booming noises and tried not to think about how I'd started a rock slide. I looked around and the area was now mountainous, making me think of the Grand Tetons.

On the movie set, a man was threatening a young blonde star for not doing something. Using a knife, he traced a cut down and across her face, probably in the shape of a cross. Meanwhile, the person who'd gotten me into this was saying something about this, was telling me that she'd wanted to leave, too, even though she was being used. I think that's what happened. To my shock and horror, the next time he actually did cut her face. Not deeply, but enough to leave a faint red mark.

I also learned that this movie was set in Florida. I looked around at the snow-topped mountain peaks and could not think of how any of it looked like Florida.

I continued to wait.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Dream: Venomous snakes

I was about to jump in a body of water filled with reptiles when someone pointed out that two small snakes with triangular heads that had just come to the edge were venomous. Then I noticed two more larger ones that looked just like them. There was also an alligator with its face half rotted off. The part that was rotted looked like grey petrified wood.

I don't know if I ever did go in the water. I think so.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

International out of sorts day

I declare today "International Out of Sorts Day." (If I cite the switch to standard time as one of the causes, I can claim international status.)

I am out of sorts today, which is wretched because this is my respite from the soul-wrenching grind of working life and all that goes with it.

It began yesterday, when "Charles" (a euphemism) arrived three days early and for the second time this month. Just as a blue moon should be rare, so should a second Charles in a month. As a result, I'm tired, cranky, listless, and in pain—for the second time in October.

Then I woke up this morning at what would be 5:00 a.m., which I do sometimes, especially when Charles is around. Today, of course, it was really 4:00 a.m. I stayed up. I've had three cups of coffee and one cup of tea; I've tried unsuccessfully to nap or at least to relax, but I remain tired, cranky, listless, and in pain . . .

I did see a thin crescent of the moon brightly lit, with the dimly outlined glow of the sphere on top, sometime between moonrise and sunrise.

When it was light, I could see that the two trees below my windows are now bare except for one stubborn twig at the end of one branch on each. The leaves of the magnificent horse chestnut across the way in the park are not coloring and falling off so much as turning brown, curling up into a crisp, and dropping. The maples and some others at Promontory Point are half red or orange and half bare. A few trees are still relatively covered with slightly colored or even mostly green leaves. From bare to green, even the trees seem out of sorts.

I'm reading the Claudine novels by Colette and am nearing the end of Claudine in Paris. Claudine is homesick for Montigny and the country; she is disturbed by her discovery of Luce and her new status as mistress to her fat, elderly uncle-by-marriage; her other friends have left school and are getting married or otherwise settling into inevitable adult life; she believes Marcel's lover to be somewhat of a fraud; mostly, she is 17 and starting to feel caught between a childhood to which she can never return and something—"more than a husband"—that eludes her; she is lonely, tired, cranky, and listless.

Claudine is out of sorts.

And, although in this novel she is 27 years younger than I am, we seem to be out of sorts for some of the same reasons. It's autumn, and I miss the country and the annual drive with my parents to see the fall colors. I don't always like the people with whom I am surrounded, and there is no escape from them. I don't know what to do with myself, or, if I do, I don't have the energy or will to do it.

As with Claudine, something is eluding me, something I can't define. I think of things I could do that I might enjoy for a moment, but none of them would scratch the itch that torments but that I can't find.

Claudine is, to some extent, Colette herself. Colette would live a rich, full, varied life. Was her itch ever scratched? Or, for such a woman, does a new one take its place in the heart?

While no one ever has everything they truly want, which is part of what keeps us going, there seem to be some for whom the hunger is constant, the longing acute, the water and fruit always beyond reach.

To you I say: Happy International Out of Sorts Day.

And may it not last a lifetime.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Dream: Gothic Teaneck

At the end of a day, someone had left me a bag of work. It was all pieces that had been around for a while and were due, so I would now have to stay late to finish them. I saw the VP, who works part time and would not be in for a few days, in the women's room and had a monstrous temper tantrum about how we work and how this simply could not continue. It was the proverbial straw.

Later, I realized I was at the community in Teaneck, New Jersey, which didn't look like what I was expected. There was a porch all the way around, with Gothic windows looking inward to Gothic windows. I'd decided to eat my work instead of doing it, because it was appetizers and desserts. Just as I noticed that there was a lot and that maybe I couldn't finish it, I realized there was a big party inside with lots of lights and hundreds of people. The chefs and wait staff were looking for what I had to set out, and I panicked. Then I saw Martin waving and thought, "Oh, maybe I can get away with thinking he left it for me as a thank you." They really weren't looking for the food, and he had, at least I think so. I found myself being waved at by the chefs, the executive director, and the sales director. Everyone seemed very happy I was there.

Suddenly, everything was gone. I was on the Gothic porch/hallway. I started panicking about getting home. A housekeeper came out and resentfully said I probably expected to be taken somewhere where I could get to New York (so I could catch a flight). I said that would be wonderful. She got in a car in the parking lot and drove around the block, I thought so she could be facing the other way. Someone else came out and pointed out that she was being difficult. Meanwhile, there was a pony pulling a carriage, and the pony accidentally bumped a woman who looked homeless, so she started abusing it, which horrified me. I thought the driver would try to back the carriage up to get away from her but there was no room.

Suddenly I was home, which turned out to be only a block away, and the community was still there. I could still see the Gothic porch/hallway as though I were still there. But I noticed now the brick work was painted in places, but irregularly, as though the paint had come off. I found a brush and remnants of paint and tried to cover up a spot, but overdid it. Just then the lights came on, and another huge party started. I felt like I'd been caught again doing something questionable or wrong, just as with the food, only this time I was giving instead of taking.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Dream: Spirit, trek, sex

My dream was part spiritual experience, part adventure trek, and part sexual experience.

I was flying over trees and water, so low that a few times I crashed. It was frightening, but somehow I never got hurt. I eventually spent more time flying than crashing, and it was exhilarating more in a spiritual sense than in a physical one.

Then I was with a group exploring a mysterious place full of trees, bush, and waterfalls. We could do anything, like we were a different form of life, including going over waterfalls and going anywhere in the bush. It was a wonderful, indescribable setting and emotional experience.

This was somehow supposed to culminate in a sexual experience with one particular person, but I didn't want to wait until the end. The person I found myself with was sweating so much that I had to close my eyes against the sting. He apologized. The last thing I remember seeing was his rear and thinking that what was supposed to happen wasn't going to work unless there was something truly supernatural or different about us. The original person could see all this and didn't like it, but only in a detached way. Still, I was concerned. Despite the circumstances, the sweat, and the uncertainties, it was hot.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dream: In love

I was in love with someone, but the moment I woke up I couldn't remember if it was a mutual relationship or a deep, meaningful one on my part only. I tend to think the former. One day, unbeknownst to me, he met one of my friends, and they fell for each other instantly—so instantly that they announced their engagement and got married almost immediately.

I was devastated. To make matters worse, I was having a hard time finding a bathroom stall that I would fit into.

Soon it was the day of the wedding, and everyone would, without thinking, tell me they were going. I wasn't invited, but my friends were because they were dating or married to friends of the groom. I didn't know anyone so I wasn't invited.

I found myself at a picnic table under a tent. The setting felt like a reception, but I don't know that it was. I couldn't eat anything put in front of me, most of which seemed to be bizarre fruits. I was sick, physically sick, not about having loved and lost, but about having been betrayed and forgotten, about having become nothing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Golden Rule

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Some people should apply this to their own pets and children.

I see runners jogging along, dog in tow. Except no one asked the dog if he likes jogging. A lot of dogs love the thrill of a spurt of speed after a Frisbee or ball, like taking off after prey. Those attached by the leash to joggers, however, seem torn between exhaustion and boredom. And what good is it to pass all those trees, trash cans, newspaper boxes, etc., if you can't stop or at least slow down enough to pee on them?

Then there are the jogging parents who push their charges along in strollers in front of them. This strategy enables Mom or Dad to avoid seeing their baby or toddler with its sensitive eyes and its chapped little face screwed up against the cold, wind, and sun hitting baby head on, eyes streaming tears.

I've been reassured that dogs and babies love this activity.

Well, of course they do! They are unable to voice an opinion except with the miserable expressions on their faces and the contortions of their body language, both of which are always conveniently out of sight, out of mind.

Dream: Bucking train

I am walking along what looks like a stony ledge near water, looking for a place to shower, but then I remember I don't have a towel. I mention this to someone, then realize I do have a towel on my hair.

Elsewhere, we see a train pass through a surrounding car that is set up like a sitting room and has a fireplace that we can somehow see as though the side were partially open. I tell the other person that the engineer can stop there (like a docking station) for a bit of rest and comfort, but then it occurs to me (in my mind) that the engine would block the tracks, so how does that work? I don't even wonder how the engineer gets access to this tunnel-like contrivance or any of the dozen other impracticalities.

A train comes along just then, an engine with a couple of cars, going in the other directions. It is jumping the tracks repeatedly, looking just like bucking bronco. The effect is horrifying. I say, "Why doesn't he slow down?" but the train didn't seem to be going that fast. I wonder how long it will keep landing perfectly on the tracks as it bucks high off them and continue moving forward. I tell the person with me that I lived with train tracks right behind my home, that they curved around my brother's ash tree and ran behind the trailer (a recurring theme).

We enter the respite tunnel and find it is quite elegant and comfortable. There is all kinds of fancy furniture for which I don't have names, although I speculate. I think we contemplate ordering tea and cookies or something but don't know how it all works, especially since no one else seems to be there, at least that we can see. We sense something.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Glorious October

The light from the sun has grown softer as it strikes obliquely from the south. For me there is respite from Chicago's high skies and, this summer, unrelenting brightness unmitigated by grey. As the chlorophyll fades and the reds, yellows, oranges, and browns emerge, for a moment I feel like I'm 18 years old again, arriving in Chicago for the first time, adapting to a sunrise and sunset that occur earlier in the day here at the eastern end of the central time zone than they do in Western New York, in the midst of the eastern time zone.

Of the first few weeks I don't remember much—a cab driver taking me to Kimball instead of Kimbark, meeting my roommate and her parents, orientation, placement exams that made me stressed and sick, adapting to communal living and the concepts of status and pecking order, a field trip to see Monty Python's Life of Brian. If the new experiences and freedoms of adulthood away from home inspired exhilaration, the strangeness of the new life and setting, plus the unanticipated rigors of academia compounded by loneliness, inspired detachment and depression.

Still, it's October, when sun glows gloriously through the multi-hued leaves and the black clouds lower to crush the land, tinting memories of long evenings drawn out by pain and warmed by conversation, like a harsh movie scene softened by artful focusing.

It was a time for long, cool walks under the sun or the clouds, and in the evenings under the slowly awakening lamps. It was a time for sharing herbal teas and discovering a rare kindred spirit over them. It was a time when there was still hope that classes would go well or at least not badly. It was a time when it was comfortable outdoors, not hot, not cold, not humid, but brisk and invigorating. Memories of those first Octobers and the feelings they evoke have made living here all these years bearable. It's not home, but nothing is. There is only October.

October is also a bittersweet month. It was in October 1987 that my brother and I returned home for the final time, to help our dad sort through his belongings in preparation for his move to Pennsylvania, closer to his family.

Most of the week was memory perfect, often sunny and cool enough to require big, comfortable sweaters. It made my sister-in-law want to move to Western New York, and it made me wonder why I'd ever left. Now I was leaving, forever, the only place that had ever felt like home to me, the place that, small and cramped as it was, had been my only home for 18 years.

Between packing and shopping, we had time for a visit to my dad's cousin John in Eden, New York, a place I had always loved, where on other visits I'd seen hummingbirds in the garden. Returning home one night from a visit many years before, we'd seen a shooting star ahead as we navigated down the strangely dark country road. My dad and I must have had the same thought—that our eyes were not to be trusted. "Did you see that?" "I think so. What did you see?" Such sights are so rare and so lovely that we were almost sure we could not have been so fortunate as to be in the right place at the right time. I don't think I've seen one since; I don't know that I want to, because twice in a lifetime might diminish the rarity and beauty and uniqueness of the shared vision.

Now we were in Eden again for what we believed would be our last visit. I wasn't 16 years old any more, and all of John and Catherine's seven children were long gone, just as we were, all well traveled down their paths in life, just as we were.

When you're a child or teenager, you have no way of realizing that the moments spent with other kids in their houses and rooms, play fighting, admiring possessions, tickling, teasing, perhaps even flirting, will one day evoke painfully strong memories of a sweet, unburdened time that can't be recaptured and evoke emotions that are as elusive as a dragon, as intangible as beliefs that can never be experienced. Adulthood has its joys, but they are never as artless and unaware as those of a child. So while a feeling was born that those were rare times that somehow ended before I could know what they would mean, the children had left, along with the youth of the parents, now grandparents, and my own sheltered naivete. With all that gone, the magic is only a memory.

Had we seen a falling star on our return that day, it might have interrupted the conversation or the silence, but would it have inspired awe? Much of the time the adult mind is so crowded with facts, thoughts, concerns, worries, anxieties, love, lust, fear, anger, skepticism, a host of processes and emotions that it can't relax and open itself to uncensored experience and emotion, the kind of passion that inspired so many scientists, writers, and poets as children.

We went to Niagara Falls late on an oppressively grey day. It was little like my memory, which had when I was very young become fixed on walking through the parkland around it and encountering my first squirrels, lovely creatures I'd envisioned as appearing only in deep woodlands only to woodcutters and lost children. It was impossible that there were squirrels in such a crowded sitting, only a few feet from me, sitting in the dappled morning sun falling through the tall trees of the park. Now I see a dozen squirrels a day. The sight is so common that it has lost its magic, but has the memory?

I took dozens of photos at Niagara Falls and of my home during that final visit, trying to capture something that had either changed irrevocably or had existed only in my head or heart as a feeling. The field where we'd played baseball and football, where I'd picnicked, where I'd discovered and picked wild strawberries, where I'd explored the swampy low spots and hidden behind grasses and trees, where I'd gotten sunburned following the mowing machine and collecting the hay, where my dad had dug up a wild rosebush—now that field is no longer a field, but an extension of the trailer park, covered with mobile homes. The corner of the woods next to the intersection is now a funeral home and parking lot. Nothing stays the same, but does it improve?

I still have the photos. I still have the memories, but like the photos they are flat and lack the power to make me forget 25 years of adulthood that have made me numb my feelings in self-defense. Perhaps when I am older, old, my filters will weaken, my walls fall, and I will once again feel throughout my being the simple joy of seeing a squirrel twitch its tail on a sun-dappled lawn or of going out for a treat like ice cream. When I am old and everything is once more uncommon or difficult, not to be taken for granted, maybe then I will experience the purest and deepest of pleasures and strongest of emotions once again.

Maybe then I will feel October's glow and warmth once more.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

"It's only words, and words are all I have"

There's a student publication at the University of Chicago that gets delivered to The Flamingo every Thursday, so I read it. The past two years, it looked like a newspaper—masthead, several stories on the front page. I liked it. Now it has gone the way of everything designed to appeal to youth—a big, pointless, out-of-context photo on the front, with the contents at the bottom in as few words as possible. Words! No one can stand words any more! Someone in a meeting with me said the biggest turnoff for him on a Web site is "too many words." He's in his mid-40s. Is it my generation that's decided reverting to communicating through the equivalent of cave paintings is chic?

What other animal writes?

How have we come to hate words?

Especially when there are billions of them online?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Edmund Fitzgerald

I was listening to one of my favourite songs from my adolescence, the eerie, haunting "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." I think I've always assumed Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 tune was about a shipwreck that had happened long ago, but today I decided to find out more. To my surprise, two of the best sites dedicated to the Fitzgerald have been developed by young people who weren't yet born in 1975, which I learned is the year in which the Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior, killing all 29 members of her crew.

The first site, S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online, has information about the ship, the crew, and the wreck. The second site, 3D Edmund Fitzgerald, features 3D drawings, meticulously detailed and with documentation where details are missing, for example, the hole for the ladder to the crow's nest. I give these kids a lot of credit for their thoughtful interest in an event that is minor in the scheme of history and that most remember primarily because of Lightfoot's tribute. Both sites are well done and worth bookmarking.

I won't get into the details of the Edmund Fitzgerald or the wreck—just visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online. What the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald reminds me of, though, is what all of us too often forget—the work of those who keep us comfortable and in comfort. The Fitzgerald was carrying iron ore in her hold for the auto industry. Who mined the ore? Who loaded the Fitzgerald? Who would have unloaded her? Who would have hauled the ore to the plant? Who would have processed it? People—people who risk their lives so that we can have heat, food, necessities, comforts, and conveniences. People who may like danger and risk and who are often fatalistic about it. People who work on farms, in mines, in processing plants, in rail yards, in dockyards—and on freighters. How many farmers killed or maimed, miners buried, rail men crushed, how many injured, amputations a testament to the risks of the machine age? How easy it is not to think of the essential work we've never seen or experienced, like that performed by stagehands behind the scenes at a theatrical production.

The men of the Edmund Fitzgerald experienced bitter cold, howling winds, and crashing waves—and the knowledge of wrecks that "the gales of November remembered"—November, one of the stormiest and deadliest months for shipping on the Great Lakes.

This November 10 will mark the 30th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the deaths of all her hands. No one knows what caused the wreck itself. But we do know a great deal about her crew. For the most part, they were seasoned seamen, as well as family men. One had survived Iwo Jima, while another pursued a passion for learning cooking and baking. A couple, including the captain, were looking forward to retirement. They were ordinary men who knew they could die on the job but probably never expected to, or to be memorialized in one of the decade's hit singles—or online.

When you take a look around you, at your food, at your clothes, at your appliances, at your furniture, at virtually everything you own, remember the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald—and everyone else who, sight unseen, keeps you warm, fed, clothed, and comfortable. They deserve to be recognized for all they are willing to do—and all they are willing to risk.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Dream: Eating celebrities

A pre-Halloween dream: I found myself with the eaten (gnawed, even) torso of a celebrity about whom I know nothing other than their name. It looked like a raw side of beef. I had a fuzzy recollection that it had become the rage to eat celebrities, which is why I had these leftovers, but I didn't remember participating in the rage. I must have. I needed to dispose of the torso, though, but didn't want anyone to think I'd killed this person (whoever it was). After all, it was a fashion everyone was participating in, not just me, and it needed to be clear that it was the fashion, not murder. Should I just get some plastic gloves and someone to help me throw it in the trash?

I didn't want to touch it. And it made me sick to think I'd eaten it not just because it was so meaty, but why would I have chosen that particular fad to glom onto when I never glom onto any others?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

My adult censor

When I was a child, I could concentrate. I think I could read for long periods, and I remember being one of the fastest, most accurate readers in my classes. In fifth grade, I breezed through the colours of the reading program so quickly that I ran out of them. I could focus; I could become wrapped up in what I was doing.

Some of the things I did seem silly or amusing now. I recorded music from the radio by holding a microphone up to it. I listened night after winter night to Buffalo Sabres hockey games. I wrote sports columns, often about fictional games and featuring fictional interviews (with real players). I may have written other things, but I don't remember. And I read. A lot. My dad drove me to the public library probably four to six times a month.

At some point in junior high school or high school, I changed. Perhaps it was because I found myself in a much larger school with a huge group of strangers, being swallowed up by the crowd, or maybe it was my growing feeling of being on the outside, or the fact that one of my elementary school teachers had recommended me for a math class for "slow" kids while my few friends were taking advanced classes.

It must have been around then that my confidence in myself began to erode. No matter how well I did in school, I feared failure. The more I feared failure, the harder it was to work. By the time I took advanced and college composition classes, my INFP personality and my fears had teamed up to make me a lifelong procrastinator. My papers were due on Monday mornings, so I would write them on Sunday evenings and type them (painfully slowly on a manual Royal Sabre typewriter) overnight, probably keeping my poor mother in the next room awake.

I never liked anything I wrote, or, if I did, I knew it would be subject to scathing criticism—which it rarely if ever was. I lived in terror that my work would reveal what I'd tried to keep secret—that I'm neither educated nor bright.

Fast forward 30+ years; not much has changed. The internal censor triggered by the process of getting out and growing up is as oppressive as ever. I have a terminal case of writer's block and can't do the one thing I'm reasonably good at. I read what others write and feel ashamed that it comes so easily to others and not at all to me.

Although my job requires little meaningful or intellectual effort and although I'm very good at it, I still procrastinate, still out of a fear of being found wanting. I can't focus on reading or anything else for more than a few minutes at a time; my mind never wants to settle down and think things through. And I never want to start anything; if I do, I never finish it.

How do you kill the adult censor, the fears programmed into your psyche over so many years, and how do you recapture the self-assurance and unselfconscious creativity of childhood that time and experience conspire together to repress?

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Review: The Green Dwarf

The Green Dwarf: A Tale of the Perfect Tense by Charlotte Brontë. Recommended.

The Green Dwarf demonstrates that literary achievement owes perhaps as much to experience and craft as to ability.

Set in the exotic colonial city of Verdopolis in Africa, The Green Dwarf is awkward on its own as a novella. It's framed at the beginning as a tale within a tale; the recuperating Lord Charles, apparently a renowned literary figure, requests his venerable friend Bud to tell him a story, which turns out to be the story of The Green Dwarf. There are references near the beginning and end to "Captain Tree," who would apparently figure in other juvenilia by the Brontë siblings.

A time-worn adage about writing is to "write what you know." The Green Dwarf exemplifies the practical reason for this bit of wisdom; the Brontë siblings did not know Africa, so little of Verdopolis resembles a colonial African city or town. Even the descriptions of hills, glens, and forests, save for the occasional mention of a palm, evoke an English or Scottish setting, not an African one. It's also never revealed in which part of the vast African continent Verdopolis lies. The nature of the "African Olympic Games," the characters' names, the occasional anachronism, and the plot of a lady in distress lend The Green Dwarf the air of a fairy tale in a fictional setting.

Interestingly, Brontë's imagination is perhaps limited by her chronological age and her social and cultural experience and milieu. The piece villain says, "Beautiful creature . . . Behold me, fair lady, and know into whose power you have fallen!" A more mature or modern writer might hint at something more sinister to follow, as Brontë will later hint at Rochester's depravity and his paternity of his ward Adele, but after this ominous line the kidnapper merely gloats and then leaves to serve his country.

The Green Dwarf's beginning and early Napoleonic aside are nonsensical, its language overblown, and its plot awkward (and interrupted by authorial intrusions such as, "It may now be as well to connect the broken thread of my rambling narrative before I proceed further."). Brontë's imagination shines through at times, in whimsy, in images, and in words. The ailing Lord Charles is fed a diet that consists of, among other delicacies, ". . . stewed cockchafers . . . and roasted mice." In his rambles, he suddenly comes upon the green, foam-covered sea, which his "excited fancy" sees as a plains covered with "white flowers and tender spring grass and the thickly clustered masts of vessels . . . transformed into groves of tall, graceful trees, while the smaller craft took the form of cattle reposing in the shade"—quite a vision for the recovering poet. And Bertha's comment upon the arrival of Lady Emily answers its own question: "But what have you brought such a painted toy as this here for? There's no good in the wind, I think."

Brontë foreshadows the significance of the "carroty-haired hero of the cart and asses" when he defeats Colonel Percy's magnificent steeds and chariot in a race. She also cleverly keeps him a man of mystery: How did he win the race? How did he happen to be at the right place at the right time to find Colonel Percy's servant "at a very lonely part of the road"? If he is more than human, why does he need Colonel Percy's money to pay for his vices? Or is he a representative?

In many ways, The Green Dwarf reads more like a play than a novella. with the awkward authorial intrusions serving as scene breaks. Even the Ashantees and their king Quashie are mere plot devices who enter the scene, breathe wind into the plot's sails, and add nothing to the drama.

Work on The Green Dwarf and other juvenilia undoubtedly fired Brontë's continued interest in writing. She achieved success when she left Verdopolis and Africa behind and focused her imagination and her ability to convey it on what she knew and had experienced—the often difficult, lonely, isolated lives of independent, intelligent women in the 19th century, women who, like Jane Eyre, do what they believe is right at the cost of their own happiness.

Sunday, 2 October 2005.
© 2005 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

"The Birthmark"

I'm reading this story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which is a dark tale of man's dissatisfaction with the "imperfections" of Nature. Looking for it online, I found a page that references how Leon Kass, who'd been named to head the president's committee on bioethics, recommended "The Birthmark" to the committee.

The writer of this page works himself into a near-hysterical frenzy over how soon, thanks to birth control, etc., there will be a handful of young people supporting hoards of elderly, there will be competition among men for the declining number of women in places like China, etc. Of course, this is the fault of all non-right thinking people, people like Aylmer of "The Birthmark," which story really has little relationship to birth control, managing populations, or anything like that, but is focused on a more Frankensteinish horror. (It's quite a stretch to apply this story's moral to what this writer is trying to get it to fit.)

Then he says something about leftists and libertarians "chattering" about women's rights. "Chattering." What a fashionable, in way to belittle your opposition without having to actually address their issues—use a word that implies they are mindless little twitterers. Of course, I could say this writer drools his way through his argument. But I'll stick to "near-hysterical." It has its ironies with reference to his argument.

I can't help but think the only way to address the issues is to take them seriously. This habit of avoiding the issues by demeaning the opposition ain't it.

Dream: Dorm room

I had just moved into my dormitory room. I was looking around and noticing my roommate's things didn't look like stuff she would have. Too much, too girly. I'd also just read a flyer about a tree-planting social in the courtyard but for some reason avoided it, knowing that I'd regret missing it.

I was pulling smiley nightlights out of my bag or box and putting them on the bed when a friend arrived with my birthday present—a pumpkin smiley nightlight. I was hoping she didn't notice the others, although I kept thinking that my birthday really couldn't be at this time of year. More girls burst in, and one insisted on making my bed, although she mixed together my flowered sheets with hideous grey-striped ones that matched the ugly mattress, despite the fact I told her I had sheets and a bedspread. She covered the bed with an ugly red blanket, so I had layers of blankets and sheets although I like to sleep with nothing over me when possible, or very little.

I discussed the mystery of the roommate with the friend, who agreed that it didn't look like my roommate's things—then I realised I may not have remembered to ask for her as a roommate. I also noticed I'd forgotten hangers. And that there was a curved wooden bar with mismatched wooden chairs.

Just then I heard my parents say something, the girls in the room laughed derisively and whatever it was they'd said, and then I saw them walking away, my dad in sock feet and shorts! They were so unlike anyone else's parents.

Then I woke up, wondering and not knowing if my mother had ever traveled beyond central Pennsylvania and western New York.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Review: The Outermost House

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston. Highly recommended.

In his chronicles of a year spent in a tiny house on Cape Cod's great beach, on a dune between ocean and dunes and marsh, Henry Beston recognises something of which many of us are no longer aware—the cyclical nature of life.

Even the beach itself, embattled between land and ocean, wind and wave, is the result of a cycle. Beston vividly describes the many others that take place during his year, for example, the advance and retreat of the varied plant life upon the dunes and the corresponding changes in colour and tone. Even when the dunes seem dead, Beston finds life lurking in the development phase of its cycle; of the insects he says, " . . . yet one feels them here, the trillion, trillion tiny eggs in grass and marsh and sand, all faithfully spun from the vibrant flesh of innumerable mothers, all faithfully sealed away, all waiting for the rush of this earth through this space and the resurgence of the sun."

The cycle of night and day had been lost to most by 1925, the year of the outermost house, as Beston notes. He says, "Primitive people, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power . . . having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, [we] now have a dislike of night itself." On the beach, however, Beston can experience the "poetry of night"—beach-combing skunks, frolicking deer, stranded skates and dogfish, and great tempests and storms that ground boats and ships and drown or carry off their crews.

Of course, life and death are part of the cycle, eloquently illustrated through tales of shipwrecks (past and present), but perhaps most poignantly shown after a great summer storm, when all that Beston finds of a least tern colony is an eggshell fragment, then, upon further exploration, discovers the song sparrow determinedly sitting on her nest, which is now only inches above the wind-piled sand. Like the Lord, the sea giveth and the sea taketh away, a way of life that is most clear when predators drive in schools of fish to feast on, only to find themselves stranded by the relentless surf.

Immersed in all these cycles and rituals—the seasons, day and night, life and death, migration and hibernation— Beston, perhaps unconsciously, creates his own, including not only the practical such as weekly visits to town for supplies, but also the equally necessary—the regular seeking out of the Nauset light and the companionship of the Coast Guardsmen who man it and who patrol the coastline. These human contacts become the ritual of Beston's own human life, when it is not involved in observing the world and the life around him.

Beston did not write The Outermost House with a purpose, other than to please his fiancée; that is, his intent was not to preach or persuade but to observe and chronicle. At times, the passages ramble accordingly, but at other moments they sing, as when he says of animals, "They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

Given the constant flux of the world, where a thriving colony of terns may be replaced by a storm-tossed sand dune in the course of one night, it seems appropriate that the Fo'castle, the outermost house, along with its beach, was reclaimed by the ocean during a winter storm in 1978. Knowing the ocean and the land as he did, Beston may have been surprised that the house survived as long as it did. Beston does not have to resort to preachiness for the outermost house—and its fate—to make a point about our tenuous connection to our frail world and its rhythms. The outermost house is gone. Discover, explore, and preserve what remains.

Sunday, 18 September 2005.
© 2005 by Diane L. Schirf.