Sunday, July 29, 2012

William Smith

How many Bill Smiths have there been in the world?  That's like counting how many jelly beans in the jar.  This William Smith (1769-1839) is the most important Bill Smith I never heard of until I began reading Simon Winchester's book, The Map that Changed the World. This William Smith was an ordinary English man who became interested in fossils and then in the strata of the earth -- he did an early stint in a coal mine.  His curiosity and observation made him not just one of the many fossil collectors of the late 1700s when they were just interesting stones and no one knew they would turn the information in the most commonly used Bible in England upside down. That Bible, I learned, had a precise date and time when the earth had been formed and annotated all the events in the Bible (in the margins) with their "exact" dates.

A practical man, Smith became a canal builder and had more opportunity to look at the stones under the "emerald isle."  Eventually he realized that different fossils were found in different strata, thus certain kinds of rock was older than others. He dated the strata by the fossils found therein.  He became known as a person who could find coal or water on other people's land and was hired to do so.  He began working and wandering all over England and decided to make a map showing how the various stones lay under the earth -- in short, he invented geology. And he created a map of all of England showing what lay beneath each part of it. 

At that point things started getting rough for Bill Smith. He was doing fairly well, was acquainted with some of the intellectual lights of the day some of whom began to think of geology as an area of study.  But Bill Smith was very much a commoner although as he did well financially he bought nice houses.  A group of titled, educate, an elitist men began a geological society but Smith wasn't invited.  In fact, his writings and his maps were plagiarized quite openly.  He was not only marginalized but had been over enthusiastic about his income and wound up in debtors prison for some months. Then he left London in despair, managed to get along somehow but was, happily,  "discovered" in his 60s, honored for his discoveries, his map and writings and even made an honorary doctor.

This whole story, with much, much more is told by Winchester in solid, although not,  fascinating prose and is finally heart warming.  It's wonderful to read a life story of someone with real achievements, unrecognized or marginalized, who is finally recognized.  I love finding books like this and discovering something I didn't know.  A year or so ago I read about a contemporary of Smith, William Hershel, who not only discovered the planet Uranus but wrote music which is still played. Best of all, from my point of view, he had a brilliant sister who discovered more comets and other heavenly bodies than did Hershel himself.

This is not what's usually considered "summer reading," but then I don't read what's considered summer reading anyway.  Why titillate myself with mysteries or romances when I can read true stories and learn about things like geology or astrology at the same time?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

No Empty Chairs

What a change!  What a pleasure!  At another Senior Center today all the chairs were filled and more had to be added. We had an appreciative audience of lively, curious people.  We told them about the Academy for Lifelong Learning, and about the new courses being offered for fall.  Many wanted the course catalogs.  What good salesmen we were!  Because, indeed we are all enthusiastic about the organization.  I received the catalog yesterday and had to immediately take myself in hand and say, "no, no, no"  I cannot spend large parts of every week day taking classes.  So many interested me, I am still shifting, sifting, adjusting my thought  process.  Yes, I know I'll take Chaucer read in Old English ... and I'll feel 19 again as I was when I had such a course in college.  And loved it and, of course, have forgetten how to read old English except the first two lines of the Canterbury Tales. But there are at least ten other courses I want to take and I must narrow it down to no more than four, not counting the writing one I will teach. Oh and there's the open to the whole campus free foreign films every Tuesday afternoon that I have enjoyed so much the last couple of years.

Some older people seem to have no curiosity, they quietly become couch potatoes and live a limited life, learning little that's new, worrying about their health and the lives of their families.  In fact after one's 60s health and families loom especially large for nearly all of us.  But those of us taking continuing education courses -- including all the ones our group offers, for no credit, with no tests, no grades, just intellectual pleasure, good in class conversations, and some new information, and often some new friends -- one woman spoke of learning to love oysters at the grand age of 67 -- are alive in an exciting way that we wish we could share with everyone.

So today's reading event was an opportunity to do just that.  I think our enthusiasm sparkled enough to entice a few others to join us in the fall.  When the word "share" became a buzz word I hated its indiscriminate use.  But the impulse to share pleasure and excitement, to share something that keeps our minds active and makes our lives interesting is the best kind of sharing.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Empty Chairs

The wonderful, Nobel prize poet from Poland, Wislawa Szymborska, wrote a poem which, if I remember right, is called "Oh, Muse".  She writes of a reading she did when fewer than a dozen people appeared, some were relatives and a few were street people looking for a place to sit for a while.

I thought of this poem this afternoon when my committee for, Reflections, the publication of the Academy of Lifelong Learning went to a senior center to do a reading.  The event was listed on the very front of their current newsletter.  One woman came and a man who had come to the center to play chess found himself with an absentee partner.  So we had an audience of two.  We carried on.  We read and talked about ALL and seem to have convinced the woman to come and take classes. We were disappointed -- the manager had been very enthusiastic but obviously did nothing but advertise it in the newsletter.  It WAS a beautiful summer day when being inside would not be most people's choice.  We were good troopers.  We have another such event planned for Thursday. We will call ahead and ask if there has been any enthusiasm and if they had a sign up list. 

If a world renown poet is lead to bemoan the turn out for a reading of hers in her home town, I think we are in good company.  And really, it's a shame more weren't there because it was a good program.  At this age the five of us who were there have been through a variety of small knocks of this kind. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Movie Night

Beasts of the Southern Wild was much touted at a Sundance Festival and will be talked about quite a bit. The film makers are imaginative and brave in telling a story about independent people living on a small island doomed by hurricane Katrina. The focal character is a small girl called Hush Puppy who lives with her father in squalor - which is the state of life on the island called Bathtub. Adults all drink a lot, a school  teacher tries to give the children (in this case all girls) some education about the world beyond their island, including that climate change is inevitable.  Hush Puppy has thoughts about life and death possibly beyond her age and she sees giant beasts, not the aurochs that teacher has shown from cave paintings but enormous wild boars.

Many people leave the island when the storm is about it hit but several stay and managed to survive with their cobbled together boats although they are eventually forcefully taken off the island by federal officials with helicopters.  Reality and fantasy intertwine often throughout the movie and especially toward the end.  I have a deep prejudice against the easy sentiment of using children as the main characters.  I feel manipulated when a child endures too much and survives. The filmmakers made bold choices when they introduced the fantasy beasts -- the beasts both relieved the awfulness of human life while being too obvious symbols of the basic survival instinct.  One of the goals of film making is to leave indelible imagines in the viewer's memory.  That was accomplished. The little girl with an unspellable and unpronounceable name was a wonderful child actor and her father was brilliant as the fiercely independent, never warm but deeply but ignorantly responsible father

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Volunteers in Haiti

My daughter, Rachel just returned from a week of volunteering in Haiti. A church group includes several Haitian families who have moved to the Boston area; the church sends several volunteers, including some of the Haitian natives to the island every summer to do what they can in such a short time. They took as much clothing, medical supplies and  packages of dried foods (like lintels and rice) as they could fit into suitcases.

  They worked on a church that is still unfinished since the earthquake two years ago, they helped with youth athletic programs and they fed children who came to the program.  Rachel was appalled that the children had no food at home but most -- over about 12 -- had cell phones.  Where did that money come from?   She had pictures of the devastated building and, like the top photo, of the open sewers which are often filled with plastic trash.  The water is not safe for anyone to drink so it is delivered in tank trucks every day which, of course, means people get only small amounts each day. The children always drank up their allotment early and then had no water the rest of the day.

She heard many heart breaking stories, especially of small children who are orphans, some had been buried in rubble and were rescued.  The little girl in the top picture is such a child. The couple holding her are from Boston and have been trying to adopt her for two years but haven't been able to get through the red tape of adoption, meanwhile she is being cared for by a woman who has no income -- except what the family can send so she and the child can survive.  Rachel (the obvious person in the bottom photo) enjoys being with people and helping as much as she can.  But it was a rough experience, she arrived home with insect bites almost all over her body.  She was given a cot which was in a corridor that had cross ventilation so she had a breeze but the house -- like all buildings -- had no screens on windows or doors.

The miracle of smiles, of being able to live from moment to moment in the desperate condition that still exists all over Haiti, is apparent in the bottom picture. They are not "smiling for the camera". There were many other photos with sincere smiles.  In the moment there was pleasure.  Human resilience is amazing -- but those of us in much more privileged circumstances should try to keep in mind that Haiti, and like many other places, is painfully needy, even for the most basic sustenance.

Friday, July 13, 2012

What a week for music!

This near-sighted guy with the messy, curly hair and the dimple in his chubby chin, lived to be only 31 years old.  He must have spent nearly all that time in writing music -- and most of it glorious, most of it happy, all of it a great gift to the world.  I feel so  full of wonderful music this week thanks to the opera a couple of days ago and a chamber music concert last night. I went specifically to hear  Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rocks" although I heard much more.  The concert began with five Schubert lieder the last of which was the joyous "Die Forelle" -- The Trout which later was folded into the beloved quintet.
Then "Widmung" by another tragic composer, Schumann, first sung and then the Liszt transcription which gave the pianist her opportunity to wow the audience. After I'd waited with these incredible hor d'ouevres, I heard "The Shepherd on the Rocks" as I hadn't heard it before, with  soprano, piano and clarinet.  Wonderful!
There was Rachmannoff and Brahms too which was lovely but it is Schubert who astonishes me because of the great beautiful of his lyrical writing.  Genius is a mystery that awes me. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Hurray for Met Simulcasts

As a purist I want to believe that live performances, musical or dramatic, are best live. I'm not sure I believe that now. I've just seen a reshowing of the Metropolitan Opera's simulcast of The Tales of Hoffman which I didn't go to last winter because I was tired of new pretentious productions.  But I went today to the reshowing and I'm very happy I did; just as I'm happy I saw their new Don Giovanni a couple weeks ago.

I didn't get a cast list; the only already blazingly famous singer was Anna  Netrebko but everyone else was brilliant and the music was incredibly lush, thanks to Offenbach, the wonderful Met chorus and James Levine on the podium before he had to retire.  All this musical delight was wonderful but it's not what made me change my mind about  the value of a videoed performance.  I still have problems with many new productions (also of productions I've seen in the past couple of years from the National Theatre of London) when the stage director has chosen to be "atmospheric" and keep much of the stage in shadow much of the time.  Yes, Hoffman's stories are mysterious and dark but Bart Sherr's use of lighting insults the audience. I been a part of too many live audiences (admittedly often in the more distant seats) when I really couldn't see much of what was happening on stage. And I hate not being able to see what I paid good money to go see.

Often in these video casts the very professional videographers choose their angles brilliantly so we see the characters with a clarity that people even in the best seats don't get.  So the video audience sees the opera more like a movie, with the now well coached singers acting often brilliantly, not just singing. (The old fashioned "park and bark" opera staging is long gone and good riddance!) Plus the subtitles are well written, not clunky translations that were used when subtitle were first installed.

Because of these  improvements, I came home thinking that I truly followed the often odd story line of "Hoffman" for the first time and I also had understood all of Don Giovanni's escapades as never before.  So I have the beautiful music, the brilliant voices, good acting and helpful words for a full enjoyment of the opera.

Two very brief asides: I found the dancing and barely clad women (with fantastic figures but not part of the chorus) almost beyond bad taste, nearly pornograhic. And I hated the La Traviata I saw in April because almost everything about that self-conscious new production was awful and ruined my favorite opera sadly.  Win some, lose some, I guess.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pardon Me While I Gloat

I read the paper, I see the pictures, I know the country is sweltering, wild fires are raging, droughts are stunting crops and, sadly, people are literally dying from the heat.  It's hot enough here on Cape  Cod to complain a bit about, but it's not THAT hot, high 80s. Which probably sounds fantastically cool to those in the Midwest. I am cooled by a  couple of simple 15 inch fans. That's enough and an afternoon breeze cools me on my patio as I open a new book that sent me in ten minutes of grinning and chuckling almost immediately.  I don't need a fan for sleeping, the open window suffices to cool me.

As in the photo, the beach roses are out,the sailboat are out, the water is even getting warm enough for a wimp like me and my early morning walks on the beach before the crowds appear are peaceful. The tourists crowd the narrow roadways, but who can blame them?  Besides, much of the local economy depends on them.  What are a few moments of individual road rants because no one is polite enough to stop and let me make a left turn ... but then, yes, somebody does!!  Life is good.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Dalai Lama's Birthday

Today is the Dalai Lama's 77th birthday.  He has lived in exile in India since 1959--that is 58 years without seeing his home. He knows that his culture has been under constant attack.  The Chinese government believes -- and their propaganda has convinced millions of Chinese people, that he is a "splitist" -- meaning he would like to free Tibet from Chinese rule.  He has said again and again that he will work with the Chinese and asks only for autonomy for native Tibetans.

In Nepal exiled Tibetans are not allowed to gather in birthday celebrations for fear these will lead to anti-Chinese demonstrations.  Nepal, sharing a border with China, is trying to balance its position. Nepal's government is Maoist, the people in the southern parts of the country which abuts India are mostly Hindu; the people in the northern parts, which is Himalayan, are mostly Buddhist. Kathmandu, the capital is approximately in the middle.

Beyond the politics, fraught, painful, sad as they are, he has never ceased to be a model religious leader, worshiped by some, admired by nearly all. He has traveled widely, received a Nobel Peace Prize, continues to call himself "a humble monk", but has been a bulwark of peaceful nonviolence toward the Chinese (they cannot comprehend this!). A younger generation is deeply restless and, within Tibet, dispair has lead to many self-immolations in the past several months.

Just one quote: This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.

The Dalai Lama is believed by his followers to be the incarnation of Chenresig, the Tibetan name for the Buddha of Compassion.  He has lived as if that is true. If I were able to meet any one person on earth, it would be His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Not Only Tomatoes

  I came across some poems I wrote a few years ago.  I've retitled this one from "Artificial Flowers," to "Loss" which seems more appropriate.  I rearranged words and lines but it's essentially the same -- this is not a new problem I have been dealing with.


Artificial flowers are tacky.
Real flowers are available
In the nearby grocery store.
They are not expensive…but
Their vague scent disappoints the nose.
They will soon droop from jet lag
For they have flown from Peru or Chile
Mexico, Florida or Israel, refrigerated.
They have been bred to near artificiality
Like the tomatoes and strawberries—
So pretty, so tasteless, so disappointing
To the tongue’s eager taste buds,
Filling the mouth with the texture
And blandness of cardboard.

I no longer buy so-called fresh flowers
And rarely am tempted by visual
Perfection: the round, red beauty
Of flavorless apples, or the hard as rocks,
So tempting, juiceless, unripe peaches.
I have stopped picking wild flowers.
They are living things,
As yet untainted by commerce.
They deserve to die a natural death
In the fields of their birth.

I crave old fashioned fruits and flowers.
I miss them and, yes, I know
My artificial roses and cyclemen
 Are truly tacky—
At least they are not molded plastic.
They are real silk.
Well…maybe they are…