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Pacific Northwest, United States
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

An Age of Wonders

On July 20, 1969, I had just turned 15. The Apollo moon landing was the entire preoccupation of the day. The feelings of that moment remain vivid in memory: awe that the future I had read about so avidly in science fiction had arrived; inspiration -- an expansion of consciousness -- at the thought that the moon in the sky was now and forever a place where people had walked (and danced!); a deep, unifying sense of participation in a moment and event of almost unimaginable historic significance: to be of the generation privileged to witness a wonder that in all preceding ages of human life could only have been dreamed, if even imagined.
Photo: David D. Rose, July 20, 1969
I still reflect often and with amazement on the age of wonders we inhabit with such nonchalance ("we" privileged affluent First World folks, anyway). We are the generation of humankind who dine and watch movies as we fly above the clouds in gigantic machines; who cross oceans in hours, journeys that once took weeks or months and were fraught with every danger and possibility for calamity; who converse instantly with others anywhere in the world; who choose books, clothes, groceries, anything from a screen the size of a post-card and see them delivered to our homes within hours or less; who, if we choose, at the press of a button immolate entire cities in the blink of an eye. The list of wonders -- and horrors -- goes on and on: landing spaceships on comets; watching suns explode trillions of miles away; conceiving a world of physics in which the unimaginably small is essentially linked to all the magnitude of the universe; accepting a world in which a few delight in spectacular opulence while countless others die in abject, unheeded misery.
What dreams may come ahead? What future generations of humans, ages hence, if any remain, may look back at this age as a time of lost glory and immense cruelty, of mythical magic, of preposterous legends: when mystics saw visions from the far edges of the cosmos, vehicles flew faster than wind from one end of the world to the other, and people danced not only under, but on the Moon itself?

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Braking for Squirrels

It was a young squirrel, scampering out from the overgrown dandelion shrubbery lining the country road below the turn-off to my street in Monroe. I was on my way to work, adjusting the radio dial, checking the rearview mirror to be sure no one was right on my tail -- when there it went -- tail a-quiver, making a dash across the pavement right in front of me.

In a split-second I took in the chance of missing it if I hit the brake. I bore down, coming almost to a stop, and saw the critter disappear into the brush on the passenger side of my car. With relief, I drove on, glad not to see its mangled corpse behind me in the mirror.

How little it took to avoid desecrating the beautiful spring morning with the spilled guts of a fellow creature. Just some presence of mind, but even more, some presence of heart. My own heart, by nature and upbringing, is a tender one. Yet within the privilege of my human form, I can, if I choose, ignore my impact on the world around me. I didn't have to lift my foot to the brake, didn't have to care, or even to notice that questing small forager about to cross paths with a monster beyond its power to conceive.

When it comes to life on Earth, humans are the 1%. We live in splendid ignorance of our advantages, our power, and our potential for harm or good. Like the old mock mantra of Bell Telephone: "We don't care; we don't have to..." We don't have to care about the creatures and creation around us -- or so we thought.

Turns out, we just might. Recent estimates of the current extinction rate are between 1,000 and 10,000 times faster than the normal "background rate" -- the rate at which species naturally die off without human-caused decline (wwf). Lack of regard for the consequences of human action on the natural world, combined with exponential population growth and technological advances that enable exponentially more widespread impact on natural ecosystems, are wreaking havoc on the life of our planet. We are part of that life, vulnerable in our own way; global ecological collapse beyond our power to conceive is a monster bearing down on us like my car on a country road. When it hits, there will be no one left to look in the rear-view mirror and mourn the shattered corpse that was humanity.

Before humans can be moved to act even in small ways to alter their behavior, like lifting a foot to the brake pedal, they have to care. And we largely don't, or not enough.

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/monarch-butterfly
What is it to be a non-human creature on this planet? Consider the humble butterfly, a worm in a blanket of silk (good metaphor for many a human, I suspect). What is its life?

A dim, warm nestling; a growing constriction; an urge to spread and grow; sudden liberation, and then -- oh glory! Sunshine and roses, color and movement, endless space of light and shadow, colors beckoning with sweet fragrances and tastes; others of its own kind, flickering bodies of color mirroring the steady beat of life pulsing invisibly and unknowingly in the lightest of wings. And yet, it's a battle with the ever-changing, invisible forces of breeze and gust; a drive to dart and flit and perhaps evade the snapping beak of death or the clinging entanglement of web and piercing bite. To say nothing of the slap of glass at 60 mph, or sudden capture in a collector's net, to be pinned to a velvet bier for all eternity.

If butterflies don't move you, look at the Orca, popularly known as "killer whales," a moniker that does disservice to their kind -- it might be more accurate to describe humans as "killer apes."

Birthed from womb into water, light, and sound; physical connections of bumping, sliding, slapping; language of chirps and clicks and whistles from mother and family as you are carried upward and held aloft into sun and wind and new sounds, dreamlike in clarity and vividness; your first breaths of air with semi-emergence from the weight of water into the lightness of an outer world, then back into the dim underworld of waking, singing, surging movement, snatch of food, the rhythm of movement between the two worlds: the world of breath and mystery and brilliant skies, warming sun, glimpses of infinity, and the dive back to family, the bonds of language and contact and shared experience.

Over time, you understand the concept of clan, the sharing of food, the practice of hunting and evasion. You discover the danger and wonder of the overworld creatures: noise-makers, trappers, poisoners, those who steal and hurt and kill your kind. You grow to understand that this outer world, like dreamscapes, holds meaning and intelligence unlike your own, power beyond your understanding, actions and consequences that to you are arbitrary, unthinkable, impossible to predict. That world of light and air: forever beckoning, necessary, fascinating; forever dangerous, and somehow responsible for most of the incomprehensible tragedy of your otherwise rhythmical, cyclical, peaceful existence beneath the waves, suspended in the rich layer of livable space between the warm emptiness of the upper world and the cold, dark, impossibly heavy underworld from which most who descend never return.

Consider the recent case in Washington State of the mother Orca who, upon losing her new-born calf to starvation despite her own sacrifices, carried the dead calf aloft in the air for more than two weeks, perhaps hoping against hope that the calf would take that first breath that ushers in the mammalian life cycle.

https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/12/us/orca-whale-not-carrying-dead-baby-trnd/index.html

https://www.humanesociety.org/
https://earthjustice.org/
Can we care enough about whatever this orca mother and her pod were experiencing, however we interpret her behavior, to take some action on her behalf? To lift our foot to the brake pedal, as it were? Make a donation to an organization that is professionally working to protect and preserve the ecosystems of the ocean on which orcas and so much other life depends -- not least our own lives? Boycott salmon industries that over-fish, or reduce our appetite for salmon and other fish needed in greater numbers in their ecosystem? Mobilize friends and neighbors to pressure representatives to sponsor legislation in defense of ocean ecosystems and the lives within them, making this a priority above commercial interests like fishing, oil exploitation and transport, and coal shipping; military activities like undersea sonic testing; and systemic ills like the mountains of trash and debris expelled purposely or accidentally into the oceans every minute of the day?

"Braking for squirrels" is not a joke. Learning to love the world around us and treat it and its life with compassion and respect, even at sacrifice to our own comforts, luxuries and privileges, is an evolutionary step that the human race needs to make, and make soon. Evolution produces winners and losers; we have won the power and skill to fly to the moon and other planets, to build machines of colossal power and intelligence, and to reshape Earth. Have we the wisdom to see that winning isn't everything? Or will we succumb to the "Darwin effect" as we wreak irreparable damage on our complex, beautiful ecosystem of a world, so full of life and purpose and sentience beyond our imagination? Will we brake for life, or just break it?


A few organizations to learn about and support:

https://www.orcaconservancy.org/

https://earthjustice.org/

https://www.humanesociety.org/

https://butterflywebsite.com/butterfly-conservation.cfm

https://www.forestsformonarchs.org/


Thursday, March 28, 2019

The delight of reading Patrick Leigh Fermor




Several years ago my sister Debbie gave me a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Between the Woods and the Water,” the second half of his two-part memoir of walking across most of Europe, from Holland to Constantinople, between Christmas 1933 and January 1937. Why Deb gave me the second of the two books to start with I don’t recall; it may be that she considered the second one a better book, or one that I would especially enjoy because much of it takes place in terrain I had explored to some extent during travels in central Europe in 1989-1990. I only know that I was quickly drawn into Fermor's journey, and traveled gladly with him across central Europe.

I only got around to starting volume one, “A Time of Gifts,” during my April visit to Australia where I attended a commemoration of the life of my sister Debbie, following her death in December from multiple myeloma. As I threw together my suitcase the morning of my departure, I considered and discarded several reading possibilities: too bulky, too dry, too familiar; I wanted something that would be just the right mix of narration and information. 

I hastily scanned my bedroom bookshelf's eclectic collection, and my eye settled with joy on the shelf devoted to Fermor. My untouched paperback edition of “A Time of Gifts” suddenly seemed the perfect choice. And so it proved to be.

Myself working in France around 1972, at 18

In the book’s introduction, a long letter to his friend Xan Fielding whom he met during World War 2 as they served as fellow soldiers in Greece, Fermor describes his upbringing and early education, all of it marked by periods of instability, disaster and recovery. He’s 19 when the idea occurs to him to walk across Europe, and his descriptions of himself and his thought process, his attitude toward the world around him, capture something about a young man of that age that remind me of myself, living semi-independently in France at 17 and 18, working in a French village, hitchhiking from Paris to Holland at Christmas, 1971, to visit a Dutch friend from the summer camp in southern France that started my two-year adolescent adventure in European living. 

It’s easy to fall in love with Patrick Fermor as a writer and as a person. His evocations of places and times, settings and people, states of mind and states of the world, are incredibly precise, colorful, lively, and specific. His style is both fluid and dense, written with a quality of graciousness that seems to my American ear distinctly English, and proper to an earlier era of eloquence and literacy. Only rarely might his writing feel ponderous; almost always, he hits the canvas of his page with the deft flecks and precise lines of a master. Consider this excerpt, from early in his journey:

"It was still a couple of hours till dawn when we dropped anchor in the Hook of Holland. Snow covered everything and the flakes blew in a slant across the cones of the lamps and confused the glowing discs that spaced out the untrodden quay. I hadn’t known that Rotterdam was a few miles inland. I was still the only passenger in the train and this solitary entry, under cover of night and hushed by snow, completed the illusion that I was slipping into Rotterdam, and into Europe, through a secret door. I wandered about the silent lanes in exultation. The beetling storeys were nearly joining overhead; then the eaves drew away from each other and frozen canals threaded their way through a succession of hump-backed bridges. Snow was piling up on the shoulders of a statue of Erasmus. Trees and masts were dispersed in clumps and the polygonal tiers of an enormous and elaborate gothic belfry soared above the steep roofs. As I was gazing, it slowly tolled five.
The lanes opened on the Boomjes, a long quay lined with trees and capstans, and this in its turn gave on a wide arm of the Maas and an infinity of dim ships. Gulls mewed and wheeled overhead and dipped into the lamplight, scattering their small footprints on the muffied cobblestones, and settled in the rigging of the anchored boats in little explosions of snow. The cafes and seamen’s taverns which lay back from the quay were all closed except one which showed a promising line of light. A shutter went up and a stout man in clogs opened a glass door, deposited a tabby on the snow and, turning back, began lighting a stove inside. The cat went in again at once; I followed it and the ensuing fried eggs and coffee, ordered by signs, were the best I had ever eaten. I made a second long entry in my journal – it was becoming a passion – and while the landlord polished his glasses and cups and arranged them in glittering ranks, dawn broke, with the snow still coming down against the lightening sky. I put on my greatcoat, slung the rucksack, grasped my stick and headed for the door. The landlord asked where I was going: I said: ‘Constantinople.’ His brows went up and he signaled to me to wait: then he set out two small glasses and filled them with transparent liquid from a long stone bottle. We clinked them; he emptied his at one gulp and I did the same. With his wishes for godspeed in my ears and an internal bonfire of Bols and a hand smarting from his valedictory shake, I set off. It was the formal start of my journey."


This strikes me as quintessential journal work. My own journal writing tends toward the descriptive at times, not here on this relatively infrequent public platform, but in my book journals which fill another shelf in addition to the current volume always with me and to which I return, in the best of times, several times a week or month. I often start an entry stating where I am, what I’ve just been doing, who I’ve been with, and what has been or is at that moment on my mind. Unlike Fermor, though, I generally make a jump from these concrete accounts to something more internal and reflective: observations on my mood and its current source; concerns about my future or my state of mind; complaints about this or that unfulfilled dream or wish; and often, what I take to be thoughtful, perhaps insightful musings on the nature of time and space, consciousness, mystery, magic, dreams. And at times, as now, I write about journaling itself, which Fermor seems rarely to do.

Fermor tends to place landscape and portraiture in the foreground. He rarely soliloquizes on his own state of mind or proffers introspective glimpses of his soul. Rather, he allows the reader to perch like a raven on the shoulder of his wandering youthful self. We see the frosty canals and misty belfries across flatlands, and the jarringly surreal sight of a full-masted ship on the Maas that from ground level seems to gliding across fallow winter fields; hear the voices and shifting regionalisms of those he encounters along the way; taste the beer of northern Germany and the wine of the Rhine valley; sense the kindness and the hospitality of inn owners and humble farming families he encounters, and enjoy the easy friendships that spring up between himself and other young men of his age along the way (to say nothing of the discreetly fleeting encounters with certain young women.)

Fermor certainly does go well beyond the concrete world of things, but his reflections turn toward the philosophical: the nature of art and the role of the artist, the permeability of the present infused with the weight of the past. Take this excerpt, for example, where he describes the familiarity of landscapes in Holland that he has seen in great paintings, and how they differ from those of Italy:

“Imaginary interiors… no wonder they took shape in painting terms! Ever since those first hours in Rotterdam a three-dimensional Holland had been springing up all around me and expanding into the distance in conformity with another Holland which was already in existence and in every detail complete. For, if there is a foreign landscape available to English eyes by proxy, it is this one; by the time they see the original, a hundred mornings and afternoons in museums and picture galleries and country houses have done their work. These confrontations and recognition-scenes filled the journey with excitement and delight. The nature of the landscape itself, the colour, the light, the sky, the openness, the expanse and the details of the towns and the villages are leagued together in the weaving of a miraculously consoling and healing spell. Melancholy is exorcised, chaos chased away and wellbeing, alacrity of spirit and a thoughtful calm take their place. In my case, the relationship between the familiar landscape and reality led to a further train of thought. 
 A second kind of scenery – the Italian – is almost as well known in England as the Dutch, and for the same gallery-haunting reasons. How familiar, at one remove, are those piazzas and arcades! The towers and ribbed cupolas give way to the bridged loops of a river, and the rivers coil into umbered distances between castled hills and walled cities; there are shepherds’ hovels and caverns; the fleece of woods succeeds them and the panorama dies away in fluted mountains that are dim or gleaming under skies with no more clouds than a decorative wreath of white vapour. But this scenery is a backdrop, merely, for lily-bearing angels who flutter to earth or play violins and lutes at Nativities; martyrdoms are enacted in front of it, miracles take place, and mystic marriages, scenes of torture, crucifixions, funerals and resurrections; processions wend, rival armies close in a deadlock of striped lances, an ascetic greybeard strikes his breast with stones or writes at a lectern while a lion slumbers at his feet; a sainted stripling is riddled with crossbow bolts and gloved prelates collapse with upcast eyes and swords embedded across their tonsures. Now, all these transactions strike the eye with a monopolizing impact; for five centuries and more, in many thousands of frames, they have been stealing the scene; and when the strange deeds are absent, recognition is much slower than it is in the Low Countries, where the precedence is reversed. In Holland the landscape is the protagonist, and merely human events – even one so extraordinary as Icarus falling head first into the sea because the wax in his artificial wings has melted – are secondary details: next to Bruegel’s ploughed field and trees and sailing ship and ploughman, the falling aeronaut is insignificant.  So compelling is the identity of picture and reality that all along my path numberless dawdling afternoons in museums were summoned back to life and set in motion. Every pace confirmed them. Each scene conjured up its echo. The masts and quays and gables of a river port, the backyard with a besom leaning against a brick wall, the chequer-board floors of churches – there they all were, the entire range of Dutch themes, ending in taverns where I expected to find boors carousing, and found them; and in every case, like magic, the painter’s name would simultaneously impinge. The willows, the roofs and the bell-towers, the cows grazing self-consciously in the foreground meadows – there was no need to ask whose easels they were waiting for as they munched.”

Landscape with the fall of Icarus, attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder


 We come to know the young Fermor by the care he takes to paint for us what he remembers and what strikes him as worthy of note. The details are the characters, the protagonists; he, the journeying youth and the writer, is the artist standing outside, facing the easel of the page, immersed in resurrecting and reliving long ago events and places, at least the bones of which he preserved in his journal at the time -- forty years before the publication of the book -- but much more, one presumes, held in memory or painted in from later visits and research.

For example, walking through Germany in "A Time of Gifts," he observes with implicit alarm the signs of rising Nazism and the threat of nationalism. He devotes considerable space to the innkeeper family he befriends, the Spengals of The Red Ox, among them young Fritz, a youth his age with whom he explores some of the countryside, and who in a pub rescues him from a confrontation with a belligerent drunk: 

'That night at the Inn, I noticed that a lint-haired young man at the next table was fixing me with an icy gleam. Except for pale blue eyes set flush with his head like a hare’s, he might have been an albino. He suddenly rose with a stumble, came over, and said: ‘So? Ein Engländer?’ with a sardonic smile. “Wunderbar!” Then his face changed to a mask of hate. Why had we stolen Germany’s colonies? Why shouldn’t Germany have a fleet and a proper army? Did I think Germany was going to take orders from a country that was run by the Jews? A catalogue of accusation followed, not very loud, but clearly and intensely articulated. His face, which was almost touching mine, raked me with long blasts of schnapps-breath. ‘Adolph Hitler will change all that,’ he ended. ‘Perhaps you’ve heard the name?’ Fritz shut his eyes with a bored groan and murmured ‘Um Gottes willen!’ Then he took him by the elbow with the words, ‘Komm, Franzi!’ and, rather surprisingly, my accuser allowed himself to be led to the door. Fritz sat down again, saying: ‘I’m so sorry. You see what it’s like.’

Indeed, yes. We see what it’s like. Extremist, intolerant, resentful young men, drunk with the headiness of myths that would  “make ____________________ great again,” wear similar garb, whether brown or black-shirted, white robed or black-hooded, red-arm-banded or red-hatted. They say the same things, choose the same targets, and are generally just as amenable and harmless as “Franzi” until their numbers grow and the infection spreads, the demons are released en masse, and the world falls into another fever of murderous fury and aggression. Writing from his journals and memory well after the end of World War  2 ("A Time of Gifts" was first published in 1977), Fermor chillingly but unemotionally conveys the sense of a country still at a stage of its history when it might have turned back from the abyss -- but didn't.

Photo courtesy NY Review of Books

Fermor’s footnotes occasionally show the hand of the author returning in the role of editor to fill in details or make an observation. Slightly lower on the same page (73 of my paperback edition), is a poignant example: 

“After writing these words and wondering whether I had spelt the name Spengel right – also to discover what had happened to the family – on a sudden impulse I sent a letter to the Red Ox, addressed ‘to the proprietor.’ A very nice letter from Fritz’s son – he was born in 1939 – tells me that not only my host and hostess are dead, but that Fritz was killed in Norway (where the first battalion of my own regiment at the time was heavily engaged) and buried at Trondheim in 1940, six years after we met. The present Herr Spengel is the sixth generation of the same family to own and run this delightful inn."

Even here, Fermor refrains from sentimentality or reflection. The fact that he was curious enough to write that letter, await its response, and include the gleaned news as a footnote says more about him than any description of his feelings perhaps could. Or maybe they show a man of his time and nationality -- “stiff upper lip and all that” – who leaves it to the reader to form his own conclusions and indulge, or not, in his own feelings. In any case, one can't ignore or be untouched by the fact that his wayside friend Fritz was killed battling Fermor's own regiment six years later, at the very onset of the horrific war foreshadowed by that sharply observed confrontation with the drunken Franz at the Red Ox.

 As in the Dutch Renaissance Bruegel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," in "A Time of Gifts" Fermor's inner experience is almost incidental. The landscape is the vessel in which other stories unfold, through which his protagonist moves like a camera. In the painting, the tiny splash of Icarus hitting the water in one corner of the bustling, busy world is almost lost, and intentionally minimized. And yet, it’s needed. Without Icarus’ wild flight and over-reaching desire to reach the highest zenith of the sky, there is no narrative. Humans need a story with a flight to it, a rise into some sky or another of imagination and wonder, some danger and escape, or climactic fall to destruction and possible redemption. Fermor – Old Master that he is – paints the great picture within the frame, and places himself and by extension us peering over his shoulder, in a corner: a point of consciousness, a curious, observing eye all but lost, yet essential in the midst of the wonder - and tragedy - of creation.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

MAP Theater's "Trevor"


Jesse Calixto, Michael D. Blum, Zenaida Smith,
Terri J. Lazzara, Danielle Daggerty...
Not shown: Brandon Ryan
Photo credit: Brett Love

MAP is back! Nick Jones’ “Trevor,” directed by Julie Beckman, spins real events involving a celebrity chimpanzee named Travis into a fierce and phantasmagorical fable about human miscommunication, self-delusion and isolation.

Brandon Ryan (Trevor, the chimp) pulls off another amazingly full-throttle characterization as the aging chimpanzee (who better than Ryan for such a role?) whose best years in show biz are behind him. The increasingly manic attachment of Trevor’s owner Sandra (Teri J. Lazzara) to her “child” mirrors the protectiveness of her neighbor, the young mother Ashley (Zenaida Smith) and sets up the basic plot conflict as Sandra’s need for companionship blinds her to the unsustainability of the relationship (sound familiar, anyone?)

Michael D. Blum brings depth and compassion to his role as the stolid local cop uncomfortably trapped by his duty. The remaining cast (Danielle Daggerty and Jesse Calixto) do fine work as the animal protection officer and Trevor’s imagined friend Oliver, a former chimp star like himself whose career has taken a dive. The strong cast delivers energy enough to carry the somewhat over-burdened script swiftly to its climax.

“Trevor” is madcap and touching, and in true MAP fashion, mixes weirdness and hijinks with revelatory glimpses into that weirdest of all creatures: homo sapiens.

Despite occasional repetitiveness, the script rewards with food for thought about the delusional worlds we inhabit, interpreting events and other people through our personal languages and filters, never fully knowing what we truly are or why our lives unfold as they do.

MAP reliably delivers entertaining, thoughtful work, and its commitment to making theater accessible to everyone through its "choose your own price" ticketing model is an admirable commitment more companies in town should emulate.

The venue is small, so I suggest buying tickets in advance, through Brown Paper Tickets (select your own price range, and MAP waives service fees!) MAP isn't on stage that often, so catch this while you can.


Trevor, by Nick Jones

Directed by Julie Beckman

18th & Union, an Arts Space on Capitol Hill
Now through March 30

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