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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.

Monday, November 25, 2019

30 years ago - Berlin

It is Thursday night, November 9, 1989. Night falls on Hasliberg, Switzerland, where I am a teacher at the École d'Humanité, an international boarding school perched high on a verdant alp above Meiringen, just east of the Lake of Brienz. Katrin, my German co-teacher, tells me she had a call from her parents in Berlin, and the city is "mad with joy." The wall has been breached, the west and east are opening to each other. I am 35 years old, with an adventurous streak as wide as I can reach, and am seized by an ineluctable resolve to witness this historic event.

Katrin agrees to take care of our student "family" over the weekend and cover my Friday morning classes -- very generous of her. I hastily consult the Swiss almanac of trains, a book like a small dictionary kept in the library and fully reliable. A train bound for Luzern and the north leaves Brünig at 6:45 a.m. Given the complicated connections to reach West Berlin, even this early train will not have me in Berlin before nightfall, and to get back to Hasliberg for Sunday evening requires a Saturday night departure from Berlin. The twelve-hour trip each way will give me just twenty-four hours in Berlin. The adventure seems fraught with opportunity for disaster, but I have heard the call and cannot turn away.

First obstacle: the earliest post-bus from Hasliberg on Saturday morning runs later than the train at Brünig Pass. I don't own a car; few people do at the school, and in any case, though I have covered my basic responsibilities thanks to Katrin, my journey isn't exactly sanctioned. I'll have to slip out under cover of darkness, as it were, before the morning wake-up gong, and ride my bike the 9 km of winding mountain road along the flank of Hasliberg to Brünig. I'm confident that forgiveness will be given upon my return, but less sure of the outcome of a conversation with the school director requesting permission.

I wake early, stuff a small bag with my journal and a scarf and a book or two for the train. I don't have to worry about phone chargers or cables -- this is 1989. I don't even own a camera, let alone a portable phone. My journal will be my documentation. I don't want to be bothered by a large pack, so no sleeping bag or other camping gear comes along for this ride. I'll figure it all out in Berlin.

The view from Twing, at Wasserwendi. (Hotel Twing)
As the eastern mountain peaks sharpen against a pinkening sky, I hop on my bike. The wooded slopes and meadows where no cowbells toll in this late season of the year whisper past as I toil up the first long slope to Wasserwendi. There's no time to pause for the extraordinary view -- the lights of Meiringen twinkling 900 feet below in the Aare valley, a ruddy glow now on the peaks of Schwarzhorn and Wildgärst across the valley, the dim grey film of the Lake of Brienz taking shape in the distant widening valley. I race along the downslope to Hohfluh, the road smooth and dry and nearly deserted. Working up a sweat, I sense I'm behind schedule; the hands on my watch seem to have sped up. I pedal harder, racing now along the final winding, dramatic stretch of road -- cliffs above and below, a sheer plunge to the miniature buildings far below in Meiringen -- aware of the emerging possibility that I might miss my train and lose the whole adventure.

As I reach the bridge over the tracks above the station, my fears are confirmed: the red rear lights of the last wagon are in motion, pulling away from the station house; the station master on the platform is just turning away to return to the warmth of his office. I take all this in as I glide momentarily, but instinct and some deep reserve of hope -- it's not over till it's over -- drive me on, faster, to the intersection, whipping around the corner; then a swift right turn into the parking area beside the wooden station house, bumping over gravel along the side of the yard toward the train, still visible a hundred yards or so up the track; it has come to a stop with just its rear car sticking out of the canopy of fir trees.

With a running leap, I hurl my bike to the ground and race full tilt after the train: it has paused, I recall from many trips to Luzern, to drop the gear-wheel that engages with the middle cog rail used on the steepest part of the rail line between Brünig and Lungern. I hear the "chunk" of the cog wheel dropping; the forward lurch of the train sends a final shot of desperate power to my limbs and and I half-fly. I'm within reach -- just -- snatch the chrome handle of the rear door and yank, swing a foot onto the iron stair, and stumble into the heat of the wagon. The conductor, already punching tickets, turns in astonishment and along with four or five travelers in the car regards me, I suspect, with a Swiss hint of disapproval at the sudden breach of decorum and protocol. Who cares! I'm on.

Of course there's a surcharge, but my heart sings a victory chorus as the conductor writes my ticket, takes my money, and wishes me " 'ne guete Reise von hier ab." I settle into a seat, sweat running down my face and under my clothes, embarked on the first leg of my 12-hour ride to Berlin.

After a full day of travel and connections across Switzerland and Germany, I arrive at Marienborn (if my memory serves me well) and the train passes through passport control. From this point on, I feel I am in new and alien territory. The rail line crawls along a section of track with high walls on both sides; then the landscape opens, but still, walls and wires mark the border as the train completes its passage across the territory of the DDR (German Democratic Republic) and into West Berlin, suspended deep inside East Germany like a soap bubble at the end of a straw.

By the time I arrive at the Zoologischer Garten station, night has fallen. The air is startlingly cold, far chillier than at Hasliberg. I have no idea where to go, but I follow crowds toward an epicenter of light and noise impossible to miss. Many streets are closed; clumps of revelers stroll and wander down the Kurfürstendamm. I pass the ruins of a church tower, apparently preserved as a monument -- the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, I learn later. It's good to walk after my hours of confinement in the train, though the relief fades; I'm to be on my feet almost non-stop for the next twenty-four hours. I've made mental note of the train I must catch to get back to Switzerland on Sunday: 9:15 pm Saturday at the Zoologischer Garten. Later trains have bad connections: I'd have to overnight somewhere, and arrive late for Monday morning classes. I've already pushed the bounds of what I can justify as an unexcused absence from my job; whatever befalls, I must be on that train.

I wander down unfamiliar streets, largely ignorant of the history of Berlin. I have sketchy knowledge of events at the end of World War II and afterwards; the divisions of the city into quarters controlled by several Allied victors; the building of the Wall in 1961. I've seen the photo of the German soldier leaping across the early fence practically all my life. For my generation, a sinister Iron Curtain lay across Germany and all of Europe, and the demise of this emblematic schism in Berlin is a sign of immense change toward, as one could only hope, a better world.

Zeitgeist -- Photographer unknown


This world seems literally to be blazing to life at Potzdamerplatz, where I find myself in a crowd of thousands packing a wide area along an expanse of brightly painted Wall straddled by young people singing, chanting, waving, at times standing, dancing. No one seems fully confident that no sudden outbreak of violence or repression might erupt, but a state of exuberant joy reigns nonetheless. Hours pass; I wander along the Wall, an endlessly diverse gallery of political and cultural expression, briefly joining various groups, watching street performers gather impromtu audiences around music or puppetry, squeezing into packed cafés for moments of warmth. I glimpse vistas of city boulevards and plazas where traffic provides a semblance of normalcy as a foil to the madcap revelry of the night. I grow hungry, weary, cold. My legs ache; the only relief is to walk, or occasionally sit on a curb or bench. I don't want to miss anything. I've heard that the wall is to be breached at Potzdamerplatz sometime on Saturday, and I return to that locus regularly, checking the progress as drilling commences and a crane is set up. I and others collect shards of concrete near the drill sites as mementos.

Exhausted, I find a restaurant open all night and devour a serving of sausage and "spätzle," nurse a hot drink for as long as I can make it last, and rest my limbs. Sleep tries to conquer me. Finally, outside again and tired beyond caring, I find some cardboard to use as a combination mattress and blanket, and creep into an out-of-the-way spot under some stairs, my head on my bag of books, my wool cap pulled tight over my ears. Shivering, I capture a couple of hours of sleep.

The precise timeline of Saturday escapes me now, and regrettably, I find no details in my journal. I'm sure I had it with me but I must have been too caught up in the activities of the day and night, too cold, too peripatetic, to write anything. And when I returned to Switzerland I was immediately caught up the final weeks of school before Christmas break, and with preparing a talk for students and staff about my journey. By Christmas, my attention had turned to events unfolding in Romania, and while my journal contains good accounts of my journey there at the end of December and my volunteer work with Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) at the Romania-Hungary border and inside Romania, there is only the barest mention of my "trip to Berlin." So I am going strictly by memory here.

I awaken to pale dawn. An icy haze has settled over the city. Yellow street lamps carve little worlds of light from the surrounding penumbra. Pigeons startled upward again and again by night-long mobs seem wearied by the unceasing commotion; resigned to a strange new order, they wander where they can in little gaggles amongst the humans, or settle hastily onto bare limbs of trees edging Potzdamerplatz, their usual realm at this time of day. The city seems not to have slept a wink. Workmen have resumed toil at the Wall, drilling away between concrete panels. It's unclear what will happen when, if or at all.
Everyone enjoying the ride!  Photographer unknown

Sometime in the morning I find myself at the Brandenburg Gate, its ornamental arch visible above the multicolored Wall. Here, as bright wintry light dissolves the haze and a clear day breaks forth, soldiers stand guard atop the Wall and repel the occasional youth striving to mount it. The atmosphere is somewhat tense, and the crowd murmurs, chants slogans, surges one way or the other in currents and streams. I feel I'm inside an epic movie of the Roman Empire or a massive street production of Julius Caesar: Marc Antony should emerge and seize control of the headless monster of the populus, giving shape to the unformed chaos of the uprising. Instead, for no apparent reason but clearly on orders, the soldiers stand down and disappear. Soon revelers have mounted in their place and wave flags and signs and take pictures.

Somewhere during this I learn in a passing conversation that the border to East Germany is officially open, and that one can take the city S-Bahn train to a stop across the border and visit East Berlin. This seems worth attempting. The first step is to get on a train. At an elevated station some blocks away, the first sleek grey train to arrive is packed full. No one gets off as the doors open; riders and would-be riders stare at each other. There isn't an inch of space. The doors close. Another train arrives, equally impregnable. Eventually I am able to press into one and ride a few stops, soaring over a river and arriving at Friedrichstraße Station in the eastern sector.

The Iron Curtain is palpable; a life-time of espionage movies and books have conditioned me to sense a kind of invisible horror hanging over everything. Perhaps everyone felt it, I don't know. I join a line of travelers waiting to have their passports checked by stern-looking East German border agents, but when my turn comes, the tall, impassive agent gives my American passport a close look, scrutinizes my face, stamps it, and hands it back. "Wilkommen in Berlin," he says with a smile. "Darf ich überall laufen?" I ask (May I walk everywhere?) He nods.

I press through a turnstile and emerge on a station platform, looking down at a city street lined with, to my eyes, odd-looking colorless shops with generic names, where people bustle along sidewalks
Schramm family, parents and son, with employee 2nd from left, in 1986
Photo: Harf Zimmermann


Photo: Harf Zimmermann 1986
as on a normal shopping day. Many faces turn and look with some wonderment at the brightly-dressed westerners exiting the station, their Nikons and Sony video cameras, stylish winter wear, and whole demeanor of foreigners visiting a strange new land setting them apart. The euphoric madness of the western side has not yet fully dawned on the east. Perhaps their news coverage has been less breathless than that on the other side, or still answering to the demands of censorship bureaucrats whose instructions haven't been updated. In any case, I feel self-conscious and alien as I reach the street and begin a random exploration of this newly-opened world where East Germans seem to be going about their lives normally, though perhaps they are just as dazed as everyone else.

I buy a sweet roll at a bakery, delighting in its flavors of cinnamon and raisin that recall my beloved pain aux raisins in France. My West German currency is gladly accepted. For no particular reason, I follow the curve of the river Spree past several bridges, then along what seems more like a canal to a small footbridge, across which rises the imposing front of a building marked "Pergamonmuseum." A museum tour might focus my attention beyond the aimlessness that has marked my visit thus far, I think. It's open; I don't recall if it was free or merely dirt cheap; in any case, it strikes me that I am in a city and society that values culture and its accessibility to the masses. Today, I am one of the "visiting proletariat." I enter and look around the museum about which I now remember nothing whatsoever except that first glimpse of its modern exterior facade. I was so tired as to be almost in a walking dream by then.

I continue along the river in the general direction of the iconic tower whose bulbous spire rises above all but the tallest buildings of the neighborhood. I come to a park and large church that strikes me as ugly, the Berlin Cathedral, quite different from the cathedrals I am familiar with from France and West Germany.

The midday sun is moving toward the southwest and already less warming as I wander about on a large, empty square that I remember as Karl Marx Platz. Studying contemporary maps of Berlin, I think this must have been what is now called "Lustgarten," a rather empty-looking ornamental park with a water feature at its center, adjacent to the Berlin Cathedral and the Altes Museum. Again, I am relying on 30-year-old memories of a young man who'd slept only a few hours and was wandering aimlessly around an unfamiliar city. This is how I remember it.

I'm close to the Alexanderplatz spire, but the day is moving on. Anxious to see what is happening at Potzdamerplatz, I turn my steps west. I hope to see that Wall open before I have to head to the station for my return trip back to Hasliberg.

I cross the Spree again on a wide boulevard, Unter den Linden, which strikes a chord in me from my growing knowledge at the time of popular German songs and medieval lyrics, in which linden trees figure importantly. I trudge down this tree-bordered avenue, noting the impressive buildings, though little is left in Berlin of pre-war architecture. Virtually anything with a 19th century look is a reconstruction. My observations and musings give me a growing sense of the distinct culture of East Germany: a country formed in the aftermath of a murderous war and national catastrophe, rising from ashes as a Soviet protectorate and taking initial pride in its socialist workers' paradise. I approach a squat stone building with heavy columns and gaping doors. A plaque announces it as a "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism." Armed soldiers stand honor guard on pedestals on either side of the entrance, in full uniform, and seem to me as massive and immobile as statues.

I recall the border agent's smile and permission to wander at will. I dare to address one of the soldiers, looking up at him and feeling for all the world like a child: "Darf man hinein?" He gives a nearly imperceptible nod, without so much as moving his eyes. I hasten inside, and spend some time circling the "eternal flame" inside its prismatic box, and the plaques commemorating the remains of an unknown soldier and a concentration camp victim. I needed reminding that both east and west, in the aftermath of the war, suffered the consequences and the hideous memories of what fascism had wrought. The carving out of an eastern country under Soviet influence, and of a western enclave within it, were all consequences of the strange ending of the war as armies of various common enemies of Germany converged on Berlin, virtually razing it in a final deadly engagement, and then occupying according to their divergent ideologies and goals.

After a respite in this quiet and virtually unadorned sanctuary, I return to the street, again nearly dead with walking. The Brandenburg Gate I recall being shut off at that time, and I cut back toward the Friedrichstraße station and again wait my chance for a place in a crammed wagon.

Back in the BRD (West Germany), I grab something to eat from a street stand and sit to rest my aching back and legs. Twilight is falling by the time I reach Potzdamerplatz. Where workers had been drilling earlier there is now a 20-foot wide gap roped off and surrounded by TV cameras and media vans. Atop a platform brightly lit for the cameras a somewhat incongruous figure sits at a microphone -- Dan Rather, the famous anchorman for a US news channel. Despite living for years now in a remote boarding school in the Alps with almost no contact to American TV culture, even I recognize him. He seems a bit silly to my eyes, perched under bright lights on this vantage point in the midst of the crowd, with a make-up assistant and coffee thermos at his side. He appears to making a live report at that moment. His presence adds a note of theater to the proceedings, and what at daybreak had still seemed a purely spontaneous and completely unpredictable situation now bears trappings of a media event and civic celebration. I slowly work my way through the crowd and nearer to the gap.

Somewhere in the night, Berlin, November 1989 - Photographer unknown

Within the next hour or so I watch as the mayors of east and West Berlin shake hands under the unnatural lighting and unflinching gaze of TV cameras, standing in the gap where the Wall stood. Some words are spoken, there is some applause which swells and spreads through the crowd, growing to a roar.

Once the ceremony is over, the cameras move away and through the gap I catch my first full view of the expanse of no-man's land -- the flat open field of death between the two walls. A channel of metal fencing stretches across to the wall on the east side; uniformed soldiers stand along its length and gaze stoically through the wires. The crowd begins to press through the gap into the channel, and no one works very hard to deter them. An open avenue is maintained in the center, but I drift with the tide through the gap and along the the fence a hundred feet or so inside the forbidden zone. As the jocund crowd presses up against the fence, the guarding soldiers loosen up, some even daring to smile and say a few words to the westerners. Anticipation and disbelief reigns; no one, it seems, can quite believe what is happening nor guess what is next.
Photo: Getty  - The author is somewhere among the crowd up center, along the fence.


A cacophony rises from further to the east: honking horns, shouts. Through the channel comes a parade of people, bicycles, tiny Trabants, the people's car. Germans are coming through, their faces animated with wonder, joy, disbelief. As they reach the western end of the channel they join a cheering throng that includes me: a pretty clueless American expatriate who has skipped out of work and traveled across half of central Europe to share this moment, and all the other moments of joy and astonishment as a world order gives way to another yet to be created. The police -- I don't know whether they are of the east or west and don't care at this point -- gradually push those few hundred of us who had breached the gap back out along with the transiting eastern citizens, and willy nilly I find myself in their midst, passing through the newly-opened Berlin wall from the east into the bosom of a welcoming crowd of celebrating westerners.

Just at that moment I notice on the ground beneath my feet a camera with a broken strap. I stoop to save it, lifting it up in the air, craning ahead, scanning over the heads of the crowd so its owner might see and claim it. No one does, though I continue to hold it aloft and look for anyone who might be trying to work back through the crowd for something lost or left behind.

Meanwhile, I struggle with a sense of being an imposter: I am among the entering inward surge of easterners, but I know very well I don't belong there. People in the welcoming crowds are popping bottles of champagne, throwing packs of cigarettes and candies and gum, rushing up to grip the hands of deliriously excited families hanging out of the windows of their little cars or walking hand in hand, walking bikes, leading children. Elderly folks lean on the arms of younger; people embrace and weep openly; children stare in shy amazement; dogs bark; whistles blow; horns honk; songs are sung. It is mayhem, unbridled and unreserved. It is the end of an era of oppression and tragedy and everyone is part of it. I have every reason to celebrate along, but given the forward press and irresistible weight of the crowd, it takes a minute for me to reach the edge of the surge and find a spot to enjoy the scene from the sidelines rather than from the midst of the action. I'm a spectator, and the import and profundity of the hour make me despise anything smacking of role-playing.

That is the high point of my trip, the most vividly poignant and memorable of all. Much else has fallen into oblivion, as my narrative betrays, but the privilege of being present at that moment of rebirth, as the broken city healed and a divided people found themselves again one German Volk, is one of the great treasures of my life. It has taken me days to pull together this narrative, checking memories and maps, pondering apparent contradictions in my recollection and gradually straightening out a flow of events that represents my best effort at reconstruction of my part in that weekend of historic change.

I was sorry never to locate the owner of that camera, but there seemed no better alternative to keeping it. My train was leaving in a couple of hours; to locate a police office and turn it in seemed hopelessly complicated and pointless. I had tried, really, to find someone in the crowd who was missing it, but there it was, in my hands. I couldn't tell if there was any film in it and didn't want to open it to find out and risk destroying any photos. Later I rewound the film and had it developed. There was nearly a whole roll of unexposed slide film, and three shots that had been taken from the western side before the wall was breached. I was glad to know it belonged to someone from the affluent west rather than a crossing "Ossie." Those few slides appear above as the unattributed photos illustrating this long-delayed report of my journey to the Berlin Wall in November, 1989. If you recognize those three pictures as your own, feel free to get in touch. I'd love to know who took them and hear your story.

The camera was barely damaged by its fall; I used it for years. Eventually its age and perhaps latent injuries caused it to cease taking sharp photos; it was also surpassed by a new generation of camera technology. It's gone now, I forget where -- sold "as is" perhaps, or lost again, or or donated to a thrift store. It seems in some ways like an apt metaphor for the history I rode into and then out of again on the 9:15pm train: an imperfect instrument of memory neither stolen nor given, but changing hands and moving on at the meeting place of two worlds which have since melded into one. Memories fade:

"Time like an ever-flowing stream, bears all its sons away, 
they fly forgotten as a dream fades at the opening day."

I spent the last hour of my time in Berlin on a grassy park meadow adjacent to Potzdamerplatz in the company of a group of young people who lit a fire and danced and sang a hit song of the 60's that they, or someone, had rewritten to honor the demise of the Berlin Wall:

Marmor, Stein und Eisen bricht
doch die Mauer steht ewig nicht,
Alles, alles geht vorbei
und wir reisen frei!

My free translation:

Marble, Stone and Iron break
Walls break too, make no mistake,
All things pass and cease to be
and we travel free!


Postscript: 

I got back to the École d'Humanité sometime Sunday, November 12. Word of my unauthorized trip to Berlin had been widely commented on, and I was greeted with much joviality by students, friends and colleagues. One or two older teachers, who would perhaps themselves have greatly loved to make such a trip, gave me a cold shoulder. I bore it. I put together a talk on my adventure and shared it with those interested in my view of events. I honored then as now the inner voice that prompted me to that Quest, and to bring back and share what I was granted by both the journey and its gift.

I found my discarded bicycle at Brünig, where someone had leant up against a wall of the station house and it had waited out the hours till my return. Dear Switzerland, it has a certain charm.

Ecole d'Humanité, Hasliberg, CH

Follow my blog for updates for continuation of this narrative a week later, as the Czech Velvet Revolution brought down another socialist government; and a month after that, in a violent but swift uprising, the Romanian people threw off their dictator, Ceausescu. How my Berlin journey brought those events into my life can be read next, as it comes to me.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Ok, that's not Okay



I only recently learned of a new zone of hate speech and divisiveness, embodied in the phrase "OK, Boomer." That's my generation, and I'm proud of it. Not of everything, for sure; but I know the history I've lived through and the changes I've been part of.

I grew up on black and white TV (and very little of it.) I was bullied as a gay kid in the 60's, and have been called every sort of name. I joined the hordes of runaway kids and roadside hitchhikers in the 70's, sang the "Feel-like-I'm-fixin'-to-die" rag in street protests against the Vietnam war, watched with glee as Nixon resigned. I've marched for Pride, for women's rights, for gun control. I've lost friends to AIDS and suicide, lost two siblings to drugs and cancer, lost my parents to age and the march of time.  I've seen a lot, learned a lot, grown a lot. My life matters.

Millennials -- or whoever you are turning "OK, boomer" into a buzzword and put-down -- this is not okay. Get your fucking priorities straight. My generation is not your enemy; we are your vanguard. We beat the path on which you now walk with youthful energy and all the power of global networking and technology at your fingertips. "Okay, Boomer" is your response? I don't know where this meme originated (and I am suspicious of it) but whoever has used it, let me tell you this: my generation isn't standing in your way; we laid the way. Speaking for myself: I'm as young as I ever was; I've just been here longer. And you know what? I have some wisdom about life.

Let me start with an image -- I like pictures. Below is the inside bookleaf of a series of sci-fi books I discovered when I was 10 or so. Whenever I came across a book on the shelf with this electrifying picture inside, I knew it would be a good read. It seemed to depict a world impossibly far-off in time: horrifying, apocalyptic, and impossible.

Illustration by Alex Schomburg, 1953

The image has all the elements of dystopian horror: cities under attack, populations fleeing; weapons advanced beyond understanding; ruthless, perhaps deranged overlords; strange technologies controlled by non-human intelligence; rockets blasting skyward as the world submerges in chaos and rising seas.

Huh. Pretty far-fetched stuff for a boy in 1964. For the same boy in 2019, with a body and spirit well-aged like a good whiskey, it's all true. This is our world. It's been a long road to dystopia, yet here we are. And the road from here on, for you younger folks of whatever branding you prefer for your generation, is long as well, and may not lead where you expect. There is no guarantee that the era we live in is not the last gasp of liberal western civilization, a fling before a crackdown, or the crackup of life as we know it.

The future doesn't look pretty. It will be even uglier if, on top of the authoritarian backlash already underway and an eco-tastrophe more imminent by the hour, the "generation gap" becomes a generation war. Pitting one generation against another fits right into the playbook of the long-planned right-wing conspiracy to own America: divide and conquer is the #1 rule of the game we are losing. If you are laughing at "OK, Boomer" remarks, you are betraying your allies: the tried and true lefties some of you now mock are your partners in demanding a world of justice, sustainability, freedom and diversity; a world that we Boomers, many of us, have been battling for all our lives.

Ageism is no less ignorant and unconscious than racism, sexism, anti-semitism or islamophobia. Before you laugh, think about what it means to reduce the human worth of any individual. Consider how swiftly and uncontrollably a meme can morph into violence against groups and individuals purely for their perceived membership in that group. "Ok, Boomer" fans a dangerous fire.


Lastly, it never hurts to remind yourself that unlike some demographics, elders are a group that you will one day join, should you be so lucky. I admit, looking down on the old was a youthful folly of mine as well; I grew out of it eventually. So will you; so you must. Yes, we Boomers will gradually leave the world stage, and you will take our place. And I'm okay with that. But I don't accept being bullied for who I am. Nor should anyone. It's just not okay.

In the perilous future we live in and will live into, we need all the help we can give and get: all colors and persuasions, all ages and genders, all people everywhere who want to lead their lives in peace, dignity, comfort, and security, should listen and learn from one another. Okay, Millennials?



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.


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