Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lord of the Flies

Fred and I worked with a Boy Scout troop for close to 15 years, and he used to pull out his copy of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies by way of explaining to the dads of the 11-year-olds what they could expect from a pack of teenage boys.

Standout theater director Peter Brooks filmed the book in 1963 - in black and white, with a group of English schoolboys. Updated from the original shipwreck, the boys are marooned by a plane crash. Nevertheless, the story is the same: how easily the veneer of civilization rubs away to reveal the savage.

At the start, Ralph and the boy we'll only know as Piggy promote rules and fairness, but already we recognize a boy, Jack, who itches to be in control and soon finds ways to attract a following. Ralph, with his insistence on allowing anyone to speak while holding the conch shell, and emphasizing the importance of using a fire to signal rescuers, represents civilization itself. Piggy, nearsighted, asthmatic and chubby, represents physical weakness - but his limitations make him kind to the younger boys - he looks after them, tells them stories, comforts them. Jack represents savage remorselessness, favoring those boys who accept his authority and using fear to control the rest.

There is also a Beast. When the camera finally gives us a clear look at a dead paratrooper, we understand it doesn't matter that this apparition is human and dead - the boys are afraid of an external threat. Guarding against the Beast gives them purpose and community, but it also drives them to extremity. And they forget what Ralph tries again and again to remind them: their first duty is to signal for help - that is, to remember the civilization they have left, to maintain loyalty to it, to keep themselves in a state such that they can return to it.

Fire, killing the pigs, blood, discarding their clothes in favor of body paint and masks - these elements mark the group's descent. Ralph's signal fire is a cry for help, but the bonfires that incite the others to bloodlust are its opposite. To someone who worked with boys for many years, this was all so familiar: pyromania, struggles for dominance, scapegoating, the animal just beneath the surface - but always there were boys willing to help the younger and weaker in their midst, to tolerate difference, to uphold (at least some of) the aims of civilization. The savage cannot be removed from within us - the best we can do is to give that wildness forms of expression that allow our humanity to flourish.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Locke - a Film Review

Spoiler Alert! If you're planning to see Stephen Knight's Locke, stop reading now - I'm going to discuss the entire movie.

It's tricky to make a film succeed when only one character is on-screen, even more so in the limited space of a car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is project manager for a high-level concrete company, and on the eve of a pour of historic proportions, he is interrupted: a woman with whom he had a single sexual encounter is pregnant, and her baby is coming early - coming now. As we learn, his own father abandoned him, only showing up when Locke was an adult. Indeed, our protagonist's success in life - his attention to detail, his reliability, his calm and professional way of handling problems - may all be attributable to rejection of everything his father was: selfish, drunk, ineffectual, weak.

He makes a choice, at the beginning of the film, to be with Bethan, a woman he hardly knows (and as he assures her, feels no affection for), as she gives birth. She is 43, alone, and this baby is her last chance at joy. And Locke, whatever it costs him, claims the child as his own, and will be there with its fearful distraught lonely mother. In addition to being the eve of the Big Pour, this is also the night of a big soccer match. His sons are excited, his wife is even wearing the team jersey. And he is driving away from them all: from the job for which he has primary responsibility, from the family life he would rather be part of.

On the one hand, the simultaneity of these events is a contrivance. On the other hand, life is exactly like this, challenging our priorities and our humanity. When we first learn of his errand, we think he is leaving his wife for "the other woman" - but very quickly we realize the two women are poles apart in his thinking. He tells Bethan they hardly know each other, he is only coming because he is set on doing the right thing. His wife Katrina's reaction is not surprising, given that he is in a car and not face-to-face with her: by their third conversation, she informs him that the difference between one night of infidelity and none, is a world of difference, an intolerable breach. His explanation: a rainy night, two bottles of wine, the flush of success from completing a difficult job (Bethan was his assistant on-site for several months), and a profoundly lonely person. He says he felt sorry for her. Katrina isn't buying that. And the fact that he is choosing an out-of-wedlock child over the rest of his life, only strengthens her conviction that there's more to this liaison than he is letting on.

Locke has abandoned his job at a critical juncture: the night before the early morning start of pouring 300-plus trucks' worth of concrete for the foundation of a skyscraper. If any of the concrete is inferior, or the rebar set incorrectly, the whole structure is vulnerable - and he is clearly a man who takes pride in his work, this project the capstone to his career. He knows his boss will fire him, which indeed he does. Yet he calls his foreman Donal to walk him through the procedures of the night, which are numerous and nerve-wracking, so that the project will succeed despite his absence. His loyalty to his work is both admirable and exasperating - if it's so important to him, why is he not at that construction office instead of hectoring Donal over the details? But he has chosen a human over a building, a life over a job. At the same time, he has devastated the lives of those closest to him: his wife, his sons, his boss, his foreman. Is it fair for this birth to trump everyone else in his life? Is he really doing "the right thing"? We understand why he makes his choice - but do we concur?

This is one of those movies that can spark profound reflection on morals, ethics, and how the ripples from a seemingly insignificant action can change everything.

Quibbles: we're familiar with product placement in movies; this is a veritable infomercial for BMW. The contrast between the concrete-encrusted boots he removes before getting in, and the sleek new car, shows that this man, successful enough in his work to afford a luxury car, is still a get-your-hands-dirty kind of manager. But I confess I gagged a bit.
My major complaint is that Locke is a poster-child for distracted driving, yet there are no consequences. He has a flow of wrenching conversations, he initiates calls, he leafs through and reads from a folder, and gazing in the rear-view mirror he addresses his dead father, all while tooling down the motorway. Emergency vehicles scream past from time to time, he is passed by tractor-trailers - and the fact that his mind is all over the place apparently has no effect on his driving. Only at the beginning does he sit at a green light while a truck behind him honks repeatedly - for the rest of the movie he drives competently. Not likely!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The "Other" WNBA

I'm in Detroit at the National Meeting of Women's National Book Association - the most fun, energetic, accomplished group I've ever come across. Our mission: members are women and men dedicated to promoting reading and to supporting the role of women in the community of the book.

Unlike many book-oriented organizations, WNBA is full-spectrum. Writer? You belong. Reader? Certainly. Librarian? Literacy advocate, publisher, editor, literary agent, poet, children's book illustrator, blogger, graphic novel creator, journalist, memoirist, crossword-puzzle creator...? YES! All of these and more.  As we approach our 100th Anniversary in 2017, we can look at many proud accomplishments:

Since 1940, we have presented the WNBA Award to “a living American woman who derives part or all of her income from books and allied arts, and who has done meritorious work in the world of books beyond the duties or responsibilities of her profession or occupation.” (WNBA website)
Some recent recipients: Ann Patchett, who not only writes prize-winning novels but founded Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, in defiance of the trend of bricks-and-mortar stores shuttering; Masha Hamilton, noted international journalist and women's advocate; the late Kathi Kamen Goldmark, author and co-founder of Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock group composed of well-known writers (Dave Barry, Amy Tan and Stephen King) who raise funds for literacy programs.
 
Since 1959 we have held a non-voting seat as Non-Governmental Organization in the United Nations. Of particular interest to WNBA are, among the UN's Millennium Development Goals: Achieving universal primary education; Promoting gender equality and empowering women; Reducing child mortality rates; and Country Focus: United States and Afghanistan. We partner with Afghan Women Writers Project (AWWP) which encourages expression through writing among Afghani women and girls. (WNBA website)


Since 1983 we have given the Pannell Award to a pair of bookstores, one children's specialty and one general, to "recognize bookstores that enhance their communities by bringing exceptional creativity to foster a love of reading in their young patrons. The winning stores receive a check for $1,000 and a piece of original art from a children’s book illustrator." (WNBA website) The awards are presented at BookExpo America's Children's Book and Author Breakfast in New York.

In 2007, WNBA initiated National Reading Group Month (October) which celebrates the joy of shared reading. In a time when people feel increasingly isolated, reading groups foster community, promote love of literature, and highlight literacy. (NRGM)

But all that is secondary - I love this organization because these people (most but not all, women) love books and are lively, engaging, dedicated, and very good at the wide range of skills WNBA represents.

Sound appealing? Check us out! www.wnba-books.org




Monday, May 5, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt's lovely fluid prose in her 770-page Pulitzer-prize-winning novel The Goldfinch carried me through the convenient events and deus ex machina ending that would have dammed up a lesser book. I read it in a week because I had to know what happened next, whether our young narrator was learning from his mistakes or merely being more clever about concealing them. And I had to know what would happen to the exquisite small painting, The Goldfinch of the title.

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his art-history-passionate mother are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when a bomb goes off. Separated from his mother in the chaos, Theo assists a fatally-wounded man who gives him his signet ring, tells him to seek out his partner, and also urges him to take the painting The Goldfinch, otherwise likely to be damaged in the collapsing gallery. Slipping past the firemen, Theo flees the museum with the ring in his pocket and the painting in a bag. Soon he learns his mother was killed in the blast. The ring connects him to an antiques restorer on the Lower East Side, and in the company of this kindly man, the appreciation for beauty Theo's mother planted in him takes root.

His estranged father shows up, girlfriend in tow, and they bring him to her house in a nearly deserted exurb of Las Vegas, where he is left to his own devices. In the local school he meets Boris, a Ukrainian youth whose father is an engineer, in the field weeks at a time. With virtually no supervision, this pair do what you might expect from teenage boys: they drink, they use whatever drugs come their way, they steal from the local market, they fight and remain friends. Boris is fearless, whether in accepting beatings from his drunken father or in shoplifting groceries so he and Theo won't starve, and he persuades his less-worldly friend that his own father is a kinder man and better parent than he gives him credit for.

Avoiding spoilers, I'll stop there with the plot, except to say that there's a hiatus of some years in which Theo grows up and finds his niche in the world - and remains in thrall to this non-negotiable treasure, the painting.

Tartt makes some fine observations about the transitory nature of human life and the longer span of art:  
"I was different, but it wasn't. And as the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past."
"It's there in the light-rinsed atmosphere, the brush strokes he permits us to see, up close, for exactly what they are - hand worked flashes of pigment, the very passage of the bristles visible - and then, at a distance, the miracle... the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone."

And with a painting as inspiration, Tartt has made her own work of art.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

In The Blue Flower, winner of the Booker Prize for 1995, Penelope Fitzgerald starts with the known fragments of a 17th Century German poet's life, and from them creates a full picture of a passionate young man, equal parts dreamer, philosopher and man of the world. Fritz von Hardenberg (eventually known as Novalis) "in a quarter hour" falls in love with a vapid twelve-year-old girl, baffling his friends and family, breaking the heart of the woman in whom he confides, who is his mind's twin.
We meet von Hardenberg's strict religious family, among them his world-renouncing father, self-effacing mother, clever and perceptive sister, wild danger-loving little brother. His fiance's family, the von Kuhns, are coarse but joyous, unconstrained, generous. Fritz's beloved Sophie, simple-minded and flighty, grows on the reader as tuberculosis erodes her health but not her urge to laugh, to dance. Her older sister, the canny and practical Frau Leutnant Mandelsloh, managing the huge von Kuhn household while her husband is away in the military, tempers instinctive kindness with unrestrained honesty.

The book's structure makes for easy entry: most chapters are only a few pages, providing vignettes which like pointillism create a complete picture. And these moments range from a discourse on the annual wash-day, to the poet's telling of the story he has begun: a young man longs for a blue flower. "It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else... It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world. For in the world I used to live in, who would have troubled himself about flowers?" When his listeners wonder how the story concludes, he asks them to tell him. He cannot imagine the end - indeed, our poet never completed the story - but Fitzgerald tantalizes us with her sympathetic rendering. Sophie is like the flower: captivating, fragile, unique, the light she gives off piercing directly to the heart.

The men and women we meet in this slim book offer many examples of relationships: Herr von Hardenberg and his subservient wife; the boisterous Herr von Kuhn and his relaxed and cheerful wife; young Sophie who comes to accept Fritz's attentions without ever really understanding him; Fritz's friend Karoline who understands him quite well but can say nothing when he declares that Sophie is "my heart's heart" and tells Karoline, "I see there is one thing, the most important of all, unfortunately, that you don't grasp, the nature of desire between a man and a woman." The irony of this line stings the reader: Karoline grasps far better than Fritz, the nature of desire. He imagines Sophie reciprocates his passion, though despite agreeing to marry him she never feels it. Karoline, on the other hand, so loves Fritz that she endures his oblivious rejection, remaining his friend and confidante, even going along with his pretense that she has a man waiting for her, and the four of them will be happy together.

Near the end the poet speculates: "As things are, we are enemies of the world, and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of estrangement. Through estrangement itself I earn my living from day to day. I say, this is animate, but that is inanimate. I am a Salt Inspector, that is rock salt. I go further than this, much further, and say this is waking, that is a dream, this belongs to the body, that to the spirit, this belongs to space and distance, that to time and duration. But space spills over into time, as the body into the soul, so that one cannot be measured without the other. I want to exert myself to find a different kind of measurement."

In telling this story from so deep inside its characters, Fitzgerald gives the poet's philosophy vitality and urgency, creating within the reader a place in which the truth of these observations will resonate long after we have closed the book.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

GAIA

It's time we freed Gaia from the New Age cell where she's been imprisoned since the Seventies. 

As James Lovelock said, Gaia is Earth seen as a single physiological system, an entity that is alive at least to the extent that, like other living organisms, its chemistry and temperature are self-regulated at a state favorable to life. It is a whole system, not arbitrarily divided into biosphere, atmosphere etc.  

Lovelock was not a mystic, he was a British chemist, hired in 1963 by NASA to investigate through spectrographic analysis of the atmosphere of Mars, whether that planet would support life. To provide data points for comparison, Lovelock analyzed the atmospheres of Venus and Earth as well. Abiological Earth is what one would interpolate, on the continuum of planetary proximity to our sun. He was not looking for Gaia, but there she was, irrefutably present in his data.

Here's what he found:
Component             Mars      Abiological Earth      Earth         Venus     
CO2                         95%                  98%                .00033           98%
Nitrogen                  2.7%                 3%                    77%            3-4%
Oxygen                  trace                trace                    21%           trace
Surface temp         -53 C               290 C                  13-15 C       477 C
Barometric Pres.    .064 bars         60 bars                1 bar            90 bars            
(Source: J. E. Lovelock (1979). Gaia: A new Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K.)  Read more at http://www.jameslovelock.org/page19.html


That's the chemical part. Lynn Margulis, a microbiologist, provided the Life part of the equation. She posited that bacteria were the first, simplest organisms to evolve. Cyanobacteria developed the ability to photosynthesize (to make food from sunlight). Through a process she called endosymbiosis, micro-organisms, instead of ingesting other micro-organisms, began to combine, forming larger more complex organisms. A cell is a community of micro-organisms. Read more at http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/history_24

Gaia is described as symbiosis as seen from space  - the same process occurring within organisms is also taking place on a planetary scale.

Neither Lovelock nor Margulis approached the question of consciousness, either in regard to our own species, nor to any other. But as research continues to find awareness of pain and pleasure, a sense of time, tool use, and planning among species besides our own, I can't help thinking that, as some religious and mystical traditions have long asserted, life has consciousness. And Earth is alive.

Caveat: In summarizing much larger amounts of information, I may have introduced inaccuracies. Please visit the cited sources to learn in depth about ideas I have touched on here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

60

Anna Quindlen's memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake comes at an opportune moment in my life. Her reflections coincide with the author turning 60, which is about to happen to me. Like Quindlen, I have numerous friends so far past this big round number that I dare not whine to them about the prospect. Her thoughts are helpful in putting time into perspective.

Along the way she makes some worthwhile observations, among them Henry James's statement, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind." To those polarized by mean-spirited public figures and contradictory interpretations of reality, being kind may seem foolish, wrongheaded, naive. "How can you say "be kind" to people who are f***ing up the world?!" they may explode. And yet, as we log more years in our skins, we find that nastiness and delight in the misery of others weigh us down. With the passing of Fred Phelps, Sr., the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, I was pleased to see how many of my social-media-friends declined to exult. Instead, we've hoped that the hate he devoted his life to has died with him, and his spirit is now at peace. And maybe without his vitriol, his followers will find better ways to spend their time. That's a lesson time teaches us: that resentment and ill-will take a greater toll on the person expressing them, than they ever can on the objects of that hostility.

I've come to see "Don't feed the bear" as a wise proscriptive rule for life - when someone is spewing invective, particularly from the remove of the internet, I strive to be calm, courteous, and to modulate my responses. I shake my head at how teenagers (and pre-teens) bully the weak, shy, different kids in their midst. Amplifying the tensions of adolescence just makes them harder to leave behind. Don't feed that bear.

Quindlen also observes, "...[W]e understand that being a parent is not transactional, that we do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor..." Indeed, life is not really transactional. While pregnant with my firstborn, I attended a no-cost meditation retreat, and on the last morning the teacher gave a talk on payment. He said some of us would "calculate our hotel bill" and pay what we thought our presence cost: meals, lodging, his time. But he cautioned us against that mindset. "This retreat has already been paid for. What you give today will enable others to participate. And for some of you, the most liberating thing will be to pay nothing, to free yourself from the conviction that you can pay your own way and break even with the world."

Timely advice. I'd thought the Hamlet character Polonius (father of Laertes and Ophelia) was wise when he said, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend." That was me: I was never going to be in debt, nor have anyone indebted to me. I was going to sail through life unencumbered. Solitary. Free. Ha!

Life is about interaction. Give, accept, don't count the change. Withholding - our money, our time, our affection - ultimately walls us off. When you want to talk to someone who agrees with you 100%, pull up a mirror. Cut everyone else some slack. Listen, reflect before responding, and don't feed the bear.

And I still live by the blessing I offered a friend at his wedding: "May you have sufficient silliness."