Saturday, April 30, 2016

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald braids three narrative strands: memoir, triggered by the abrupt death of her father; a treatise on falconry and hawks, particularly goshawks, the largest and most unruly of the hawks; and a biography of T.H. White, best known as author of The Once and Future King but also a man tormented in a distinctly English way, a failure as a schoolteacher and an even less competent falconer, whose struggles with his submerged homosexuality taint everything he attempts.

Macdonald’s prose is a blade slicing along the differences between the English language and the American – you may read Jane Austen or D.H. Lawrence without feeling alien, but Macdonald’s word choice and phraseology are purely English, highlighting its separateness from the way we speak and write on this side of the Atlantic. Her vocabulary is well-suited to her subjects. Here’s her first sight of her hawk:
“Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick.  A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.”

In reading her father’s plane-spotting journals she understands how he developed his patience and powers of observation, which enabled his success as a professional photographer. She recounts a captured moment:
“…a black-and-white photograph my father had taken many years ago of an elderly street-cleaner with a white goatee beard, wrinkled socks and down-at-heel shoes. Crumpled work trousers, work gloves, a woollen beret. The camera is low, on the pavement: Dad must have crouched in the road to take it. The man is bending down, his besom of birch twigs propped against his side. He has taken off one of his gloves, and between the thumb and first finger of his bare right hand he is offering a crumb of bread to a sparrow on the kerbstone. The sparrow is caught mid-hop at exactly at the moment it takes the crumb from his fingers. And the expression on the man’s face is suffused with joy. He is wearing the face of an angel.”

Her father’s death more catalyst than cause, she goes deep into her own wildness, withdrawing from human company. Training the solitary goshawk consumes her, and she intersperses her own experiences with T.H. White’s ragged efforts. She knows more about falconry than he did at the time he wrote The Goshawk, but doubts herself at every turn.

She writes also about threats to wildlife – from climate change, from pesticide and herbicide use that kill off first the insects, then the animals and birds that fed on them, till very few creatures remain. After a visit to a California condor captive breeding center, she writes: “I think of what wild animals are in our imagination. And how they are disappearing – not just from the wild but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind.”

Macdonald is balefully honest – about her grief, doubts, fury, the kinship she develops with her goshawk, mastery of which is analogous to mastery of herself – a self which has become feral, implacable, merciless, and terrified. Together, she and this bird learn to navigate the world, one leading then the other in their quest for equilibrium, trust and certainty. Observing the goshawk’s instincts, she identifies some of her own. There are things the bird must be trained to do, but other things she already knows, primal and incorruptible. Macdonald seeks this ground within herself, even as she recognizes it in her young charge.


This beautifully-written book skewers slipshod reasoning and dangerous metaphors. She has to become nearly a hawk to finally understand what being human is, and to value the distinction. The hawk’s blood-lust is part of who she is, but the hardening that lets the author kill a rabbit with her bare hands is borrowed from her predatory partner. She observes how easily we devolve into killers who don’t question the cost of shrugging off our humanity, and shows that we may admire the grace and strength of a bird of prey without aspiring to be one.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande's compact book about aging in our modern world, is compassionate and practical. He challenges us to re-examine the ways we end our lives - the ways we force those we love to end their lives - and posits some alternatives to constraints none of us want for ourselves but prove all-too-willing to foist on our elders.

My mom says AGE is an acronym for Aggravating Geriatric Experience. She would know. She doesn't want to be babysat, monitored, checked on, "helped" in her home, forced to eat or drink "the right things" or prevented from sitting alone in her apartment. But the combination of being sedentary and stubborn is untenable. She falls. She gets dehydrated. She forgets. And she's not suffering alone - her refusals impact those who love her, who must rescue her from her choices.

But when we can't take care of ourselves, Here Comes Medicine to keep us alive. We can't see far enough into the future to recognize when to stop. The medical model of dying is a juggernaut of procedures and drugs, and only in hindsight do we know when we should have said, Enough!

Gawande's solution is to ask his patients what activities they love, and the ability to do these things becomes his yardstick for the value of treatment. A man whose joy derives from watching football on TV and eating chocolate ice cream, can weather paralysis of his legs. But if being able to walk is what keeps him ticking, paralysis is unacceptable. That's where I draw the line.

Or so we might say, when we're able-bodied, at a remove from death. As we draw nearer, it's common to discover that being alive, hearing the voices of loved ones, touching them, seeing the sunrise, make that earlier line easy to cross. Well, I can't walk, but I can still -- And so we trap ourselves. Medical advances allow us to pass one limit after another, until we lack the awareness to say I've gone too far. 

This book, powerful as it is, addresses physical not mental debility. In my grandma's final year she was senile, though physically intact. We were close, and all my life I'd known she never wanted to be without her mind. I had a very strong urge to put a pillow over her face and hold it there until her body quit. She would have thanked me. I knew I must not do that, so I didn't, but I still think I should have.  And I hope someone will help me check out, before I'm at the mercy of too much treatment.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Fools Rule!

Today being the Fred and Marigold Anniversary, a poem:

Fools Rule!

When people are awful and life seems grim,
That’s when we need sillies the most.
Laughter’s not “extra”, child of a whim,
It’s that step bread must take to be toast.
The fool trapped inside you longs for release
To joke and provoke you to smile.
Indulging your jester puts blues to the rest or
At least cuts you slack for a while.

Roll in the grass, bark like a dog, throw handfuls of leaves in the air,
Lie on the earth and feel your pulse pounding.
Rejoice to be human, do what you dare
Down ‘mongst the animals, safe from the cannibals
“Because we taste funny” resounding
Laughter’s our motto, everyone ought to

Acknowledge that life is astounding.

NC Weil 
April Fools Day 2016

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Babushkas of Chernobyl - Film Review


On April 26, 1986, one of the reactors in the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded and caught fire. At the time, it was the world's worst nuclear accident (though in March of 2011 it was superceded by the earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima reactor, a slow-motion catastrophe still in the making).  The area around the reactor was evacuated and closed, declared an Exclusion Zone. Within a 10 km radius, radiation levels are extremely high. Within the 30 km zone, levels are still toxic, but that zone is not depopulated.

The documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl, directed by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris and released in 2015, explores that world.

Three groups of people spend time in the Exclusion Zone:
1. Scientists tracking radiation hot-spots and effects (new hot-spots keep showing up, since the radiation doesn't stay in one place), sampling soil, water, plants and animals. They are rotated out of the zone every 15 days to forestall toxic buildup of radiation in their tissues.
2. A group of enthusiasts of a post-apocalyptic video game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R., whose mecca is the 10 km zone. They seek the abandoned city Pripyat, quite near the reactor, to get there climbing barbed-wire fences and sneaking through the forest, their dream being to tramp through the deserted buildings of a once-thriving city - essentially playing high-risk hide-and-seek. On camera we watch young men fill bottles from the river and drink it, though the water doesn't look potable even if it weren't radioactive. They don't stay long. Police patrols arrest and remove them - when they can catch them.
3. The babushkas. In Russian, the word (pronounced BOB-ush-kuh; the pronunciation buh-BOOSH-kuh refers to a style of colorful kerchief worn by these women) babushka means grandmother, but more than that, it refers to the tough peasant women of a generation not much longer for this world, survivors of what they call the "famine of Stalin" and World War II.  In the aftermath of the explosion they were evacuated, but they longed to return to their motherland, the villages where they spent their lives. And because they were old (ages range from 70s to 90s and even older), there seemed no harm in letting them come back - the ailments of age would likely kill them before radiation did.

They live mostly alone, with chickens and pigs, planting, harvesting, distilling their own moonshine, and foraging for sustenance. In the Exclusion Zone there are no stores (no nightclubs, as one babushka laughs), only the labs. They're on their own. But the forest is beautiful, wild and lush, abundant with game and plant-life.  There are about 130 of these old women. They cheerfully share their raspberry jam, their potatoes and mushroom soup with visitors - it would be rude not to partake. Our young tour guide says she eats as little as possible then gets out of there. We watch one babushka lovingly add new soil to the planter box over the grave of her grandson, then plant flowers in it. Who will tend her grave?

When conditions are dry and the wind picks up, radioactive dust blows around - this is the most dangerous time to be in the zone. After rains, when the air is humid, it's a little safer. Groups of scientists visit the babushki, taking samples of their garden soil, their water, the buckets of mushrooms they've harvested for soup, eggs from their chickens, berries and tomatoes. The Geiger counters are clicking away, the levels far above anything considered safe. The babushki are, however, thriving: cheerful, independent, hard-working. They laugh about the crows that will maraud for eggs if they leave the coop open, or the wild boars that root in the garden eating potatoes. An almost toothless babushka demonstrates how banging on a pail eventually scares the wild boar away - after he's eaten his fill. But clearly she doesn't mind sharing her harvest. Another remarks that if she had stayed in Kiev, where she was evacuated, she'd be dead by now, what with the polluted air and the traffic and noise. The forest is her home. She impales mushroom caps on a tree at different levels: near the ground for the hedgehogs, at thigh level for the wild boars, and at eye level for the moose. She uses the diminutive form for each of these animals - they might as well be her children, the way she looks after them.

Our tour guide brings us near the damaged reactor, pointing out the porosity of the concrete sarcophagus originally built to entomb it. She shows us the new cover under construction, a giant arch of concrete which will be rolled into place, to seal in the radiation - for a hundred years. She seems very pleased with this new structure. It's worth remembering that the half-life of uranium-238 is something like 4,468,300,000 years (source: Wikipedia: Isotopes of Uranium).  We can't even imagine how long that is.

Those who tout nuclear power as "clean energy" conveniently ignore not only this timeline but the accidents which have already occurred.  It's time to admit humans have not even begun to grasp the task of coping with toxins so long-lasting, and that we have no way of either cleaning up, storing, nor containing such material until geologic-scale time finally renders it harmless.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Too Far Afield, by Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass's 1995 novel Too Far Afield is set in East Berlin during the time leading up to, during, and immediately following the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.  His primary character, Theo Wuttke, known as Fonty, is an aging scholar/ file courier in the Reich Aviation Ministries building, whose labors under the East German government have earned him a permanent shadow, a man named Hoftaller.  Unlike the spies familiar to us from stories and movies, Fonty and Hoftaller have many conversations, spend a lot of time together, and work together - except when Hoftaller plays his government-agent card to prevent Fonty from going "too far afield" - speaking bluntly about political affairs, pursuing his friendship with a Jewish professor, leaving Germany, and so on.

Fonty's life study is of the writer Theodor Fontane, a man born exactly a century before him, and whose life events he parallels, consciously and unconsciously, throughout his own.  Fontane, referred to as The Immortal, becomes, through Fonty's scholarship and life-mimicry, indeed a timeless figure.  Working under censorship constraints, Fonty uses lectures about The Immortal to cast light on current events, a secret language well understood by his audience.

The novel has two central metaphors. First is the paternoster, a continually moving loop elevator whose open-front compartments one simply steps into to board, and out of to leave, on any floor.  No doors, no buttons, no pausing to move cumbersome objects on or off.  And no record, visible from other floors or by any engine-room observer, of one's travels.  Thus, a person who has occasion to visit many parts of a building, such as file courier Fonty, can choose his compartment companion, or avoid one, and make his journeys, observing activity on every floor he passes, all unobtrusively.  He and Hoftaller take many long rides together, and when tasked with writing a history of the building, he describes the appearance, feet first or hat first, of various high-level officials as they ride the conveyance.  Having worked in the Ministries Building under first the Reich, then the Workers and Peasants State, and finally in its incarnation as the Handover Trust, Fonty is as much a piece of its history as the paternoster itself.  Grass uses the elevator's circularity as one more confirmation of the cyclical nature of life - especially Fonty's.

His other metaphor is the diving duck. Fonty loves to spend time in the Tiergarten, watching the ducks paddle along, vanish suddenly beneath the surface, then pop up - where?  He envies them, because he would disappear if he could - indeed, he tries.  But he is also a diving duck, veiling his own views in his talks and articles about The Immortal, as though the present time were some lake surface he can dive beneath, traveling in concealment till he emerges to make his point.  And thus, though the government distrusts him, he is able to express himself with comparative freedom.

The plot, modest as it is, does not distract from the central observations of unification's impact particularly on East Germans: having grown poorer than their Western counterparts, they are underdogs when the private property confiscated by the East German state comes up for sale, and is promptly snatched up by West Germans with money.  The richly ironic title of the Handover Trust perfectly encapsulates this imbalance - the handover is essentially a handout to West German businesspeople, and trust is nonexistent.

Grass beautifully weaves the centuries together, showing that experience is recurrence, and that knowing the past is not only instructive but essential to knowing who we are as individuals, as nations, as humans.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Triplets of Belleville

What a visual tour-de-force is The Triplets of Belleville! This animated film by Sylvain Chomet
about the triumph of the downtrodden is musical, thriller, and whimsy all in one. It was nominated for the 2003 Academy Award for Animated Feature, but since then I hadn't seen it around. Browsing on the library's video shelves - our preferred source for at-home movies - I spotted this, remembered, and checked it out.

The primary characters are a small old woman; her bicyclist son (grandson?) - leg-muscle-bound, but gaunt elsewhere on his frame; their dog Bruno, a large weary belly-dragging pooch; and the Triplets. We first see them as young women in the Twenties, playing theaters, singing and swaying to jazz-inflected melody. Next time we see them they're entertaining on a small-venue stage with a couple of short stools and a refrigerator for accompaniment. They sing around a small fire in the evening, joined by other penniless folk washed up on the tide. Still shaking their hips and tossing out harmonies - the spirit that makes them dance shows no ill-effects per their reduced circumstances. Finally they are crones, as Macbeth's Weird Sisters were triplets. And song is still their power.

This film is set in Steampunk times - the source of the electricity in this film is muscle-power. The bicyclist is kidnapped by the Mafia while on one of his long-distance races. The domino-shaped goons need someone to pedal their boss's operation - our hero and 2 other exhausted cyclists provide the legwork.

Mom and Bruno and the Triplets are off to the rescue. The Mafia have cars and weapons, our gang have ingenuity.

The animation uses some live-action footage, along with drawn and tinted cityscapes, frequently viewed from above. Much of the film looks like watercolors from another time. There are touches of Art Deco - the ocean-liner leaving port, impossibly tall, majestic and un-boardable, with neither need nor inclination to see what's at water-level. And in its wake, laboring along in a row-boat, is Mom. She's not fast, but she doesn't give up. She was the bicyclist's trainer, before he was snatched - when he pulled her on his training rides, the whistle was parked in her mouth, setting a cadence with every breath. At night she tuned his wheels, on a spindle that easily became a zoetrope.

This film is tagged as a comedy, but while it does have funny moments, it is really more of an eccentric view of life. Though you may laugh at such characters, you may also feel just as they do, nudged around by fates and forces, but with the tools of joie de vivre well in hand.

As I've said since high school, "I'd rather live till I die than die till I'm dead!"

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Moor's Account, by Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami fills in the historical record of Spanish conquest in Florida and Mexico with The Moor's Account, building her novel from a brief mention in Cabeza de Vaca's story of his explorations: "el cuarto [sobreviviente] se llama Estevanico, es negro olarabe, natural de Azamor" which translates: The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor."

In Lalami's hands, Estevanico becomes our narrator during an eight-year struggle for survival among the tribes of the southeast portion of the North American continent. He begins the expedition as a slave, but his skills at learning languages, adapting to primitive conditions, and his storytelling ability help him not only to survive but eventually to thrive while the majority of the Spaniards perish from disease, starvation, accidents, or murder.

A Moor from Spain, he is Muslim, and his given name, Mustafa ibn Muhammad, is the first thing taken from him when he sells himself into bondage to provide money for his family's survival. From a slave's vantage as Estebanico, he sees the underbelly of the wealth and power of sixteenth century Castilia: the many nameless whose labor supports them.  The life of a slave turns on caprice: one day his master, whose fortunes are rising thanks in part to Mustafa's skills as a merchant, brings home a slave for his wife. Ramatullai becomes Mustafa's ally, friend, and love, but one day the master's gambling debts cannot be ignored, and Mustafa is sold to cancel them - to a nobleman enticed by rumors of the riches of New Spain across the ocean.

Through a combination of greed, ignorance, and fatal arrogance, the leaders of the expedition seeking the wealth of legendary Apalache squander their military advantage over the natives, make enemies of those who could assist them, and fall prey to the terrain, weather, and lack of food they had never imagined might be obstacles to success.  Their weapons and tools dwindle, their clothing is used to make sails for rafts, they must slaughter and eat their beloved horses, and in the end, it is every man for himself.

They engage with many tribes, first as conquerors, then one leader to another, and finally as supplicants so desperate for a meal and protection from the cold that they become slaves themselves, scorned and beaten by the Indians who despise their incompetence and mistrust them. When they come to villages previously marauded by Spaniards - slave-takers and spreaders of disease - they find themselves less objects of curiosity than harbingers of trouble.

Mustafa and his master, Dorantes, remain together, becoming equals as they survive the challenges - until they come across another Spanish expedition. Reunited with Dorantes' fellow Castilians, their relationship reverts to master and man - only in the jungle could they be peers. Dorantes is all too willing to leave his life as an Indian behind, including forsaking his native wife and daughter, but Mustafa makes the most of his opportunities, and when at last he finds love with a native woman, he enlarges his dreams of home to include her.