Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Poem for the New Year (1700) also 2014

Reading Harold Bloom's anthology, Till I End My Song, a Gathering of Last Poems, I found this poem by John Dryden last night -- so timely!  Bloom suggests it be read, sung, shouted at every New Year celebration. It has the right ring and a surprisingly modern mood despite being written in 1700.
Sometimes the serendipity of my reading seems remarkable.

All, all, of a piece throughout;
Thy Chase had a Beast in View;
Thy Wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue,
'Tis well an Old Age is out,
And time to begin a New.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The year that this was

Every year the NYTimes has a spread of photos about the year that was.  Sunday's was four double pages. Of the photos only perhaps 5 or 6 were not of violence, war, dead bodies, horrible events. The only positive picture that stays in my mind is a wonderful one of Serena Williams winning the open. 

When I began taking a poetry class one of the first poems I wrote described reading the morning paper and seeing one violent story after another from wars to causal shootings, and then saying that the world I live in is full of terrible things. After I read the poem in class I receive very few comments (which is not unusual), The one comment that stays with me was from a man who said, "You should stick to reading the sports section."  Sports is one section I never read unless it is about tennis tournaments. 

I think of that man's comment often.  I live largely in a community of retired people.  I spent a lot of time with a people who are taking classes in a very fine adult education organization. Some classes are on current events.  A very popular one that even meets in the summer when there are no official classes is a sports class.  Most classes are on  academic, or semi-academic subjects: various aspects of history, French, Latin, great books, short stories, Shakespeare's plays -- really a huge range. But, in fact, very few people read newspapers closely or watch much international news. I do not believe I've heard comments about suicide bombings, very little about the battles of the Arab Spring, etc.  We retired older people chose to live in a world apart just as out physical homes are a bit apart (on an island, in fact).  Yet, even the sports page readers were shocked and horrified by the bombing at the Boston marathon. But it was not a widely discussed topic, even at the time.  We seem to be in a  different world, one with protective walls around us.

I suppose all retired people have usually chosen to live like this if they are financially able to do so. We've done our battles with the wider world -- or not, for many as Eliot observed, measure their lives with coffee spoons. We talk about ecological problems in the documentary film class and other larger subjects.  Yet I open The Year That Was in the Times and wonder if anyone else knows these things happened and do they feel pain at the endless violence in our world.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Our taken for granted neighbors

Why spring plants just as winter starts?  Why not?  Actually this is because the current (Dec. 23rd issue) of The New Yorker has a long article by Michael Pollan titled "The Intelligent Plant". He writes about the on-the-cutting-edge of ideas among botanists dealing with this complex, intelligent world. Plants surrounds us; we take them for granted and do not usually consider them intelligent. Plants from slime mold to the grandest Sequoia, the grasses in our lawns, the forests and all the other plants.  They grow so slowly and are such a omnipresent part of the world for most of us that we barely give them a second thought.

For some time fringe-y thinkers have been telling us about the  plant's electromagnetic auras, that they respond to our prayers as well as our watering, that they prefer Mozart to Shastakovitch (as do babies) and that they communicate with one another, albetit that communication is mostly underground.  Pollen writes both about how plants "think" with their roots, searching for water and nutrition, commnuicating with others about insect attacks, putting forth protective chemicals in their leaves to sicken the attackers -- acacia trees in Africa, if being badly eaten by antelope can produce a toxin deadly enough to actually kill the antelope that persist in eating their leaves despite an increasingly bitter taste. Many such examples are given.

Pollan also, of course, writes about academia where some scientists go so far as to speak of neurobiology of plants and others turn their backs in horror at any anthropomorphizing of plants. It's a long runing argument going back to, and a little before, Darwin. It's horror enough for some people to have to admit that animals share feelings and thoughts with humans, that fish and reptiles too have thoughts and feelings. Many will not accept that the complex chemical and electrical impulses of plants are at all human-like our could be called intelligence.

Years ago I read that the Sherpas believe that picking flowers is a horrible thing to do.  Many ancient animists believed the entire world is alive and interconnected.  The more "civilized" people became the more human-centric they became, believing, as the Bible says, that man is meant to 'have dominion" over the rest of the earth.  That idea has so flourished that we now have open pit mining, fracking, destruction of primal forests and jungles and pollution of most of our water sources, from oceans to ancient aquifers. This paragraph offers my thoughts about the how the article fits into the world I live in.  Pollen stuck to his subject and did not go into the interrelations of plants and the rest of the world.  Probably there are books that do that already and more to come.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Two events to note, and  to celebrate.  Ludwig van Beethoven's birthday was earlier this week. Last weekend WFCC, the classic music FM radio station here on Cape Co, honored him all day Saturday, playing many of his best loved works -- although I always regret that this station seems to have a "do not touch" label for string quartets. The genius of Beethoven and his magnificent music has given me more hours of happiness than any other musician's work.  I regret that last Saturday night when the station played the entire 9th Symphony I decided to lie in bed and just listen.  A mistake because I was tireder than I realized and fell asleep before the wonderful, beloved choral movement began.  Of course, I have a recording, but I had planned to hear it and THEN fall asleep.  Ah, well.

I look at this picture which is in many ways different from more often seen paintings of him. The vast forehead and somewhat unruly hair is the same, but the pained set of the mouth, the sulking eyes capture the biographical information I've heard so often. Yet I cannot see, even this picture, without thinking of the many melodies of such ethereal beauty (especially in adagio movements) and think that no picture can reveal the complexity of an individual. He looks like a man who can demand the relentless heartbeat I feel in most of his symphonies, an irresistible life force -- sometimes it feels like the pulse of a man determined to make others pay attention to the magnificence of being alive.

The second celebration is today -- the winter solstice.  The shortest day, the longest night, the turning point albeit we won't sense it for a few weeks. The bitterness of winter hasn't begun where I am although it has in other parts of the continent. The night when people have lit bonfires, have trembled in fear that the sun will not return.  But it will!  I won't light a candle but I will light some incense and watch the smoke curl and sniff  the scent as I curl up and read my book. If I'm lucky WFCC will play some Beethoven, and if they play music I feel only so-so about, I will put on a CD, perhaps the 9th, or perhaps the Wallenstein sonata which I love.  Or the violin concerto which always stops my heart as I remember my very good sense to take it along on a trek in Nepal so I could listen to it while falling asleep alone in a tent with Everest guarding the horizon and Thengboche monastery at my back.  Life is full of good moments past and present, I've made many of them happen because I know how to  feed the my own soul.  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Big Brother is virtual but alive and well

In Orwell's 1984 people knew Big Brother existed. In present day 2013 most of us don't know the degree to which we are being manipulated.  Oh, not by a specific malovalent organization but by a supposedly benign commercial world telling us what we want to know and NOT telling us things we don't want to know.  Information bubbles have been a part of the internet world since 2006, I have just read in an excerpt from Eli Paviser's book, The Flilter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think.

To tell the truth I am grateful for the program at Amazon that periodically tells me "You may also enjoy ..." Because I find books that I didn't know existed and, yes, I often want, and purchase, them. We can't open our email without seeing that many companies are trying to sell us things, We get email, banners and various cutsey attentions grabbers. Some are very irritation (I DON'T want to know about elegible men in my neighborhood!)  But the bubble is not just irritating and sometimes seemingly irrational.  Originally Google's algorithm just complied the most popular and frequented sites.  This is no longer what happens.  Two people can search the same thing and get greatly different lists.  The example I read was two people who searched BP at about the time of the Gulf oil spill.  One person got news about the spill the other person got BP's investment reports and information about what a strong company they are without any news at all about the oil spill. This kind of example is very scary. That 1% out there is not getting the same information the 99% are getting -- to exaggerate a little bit, but apparently not much. 

This is not a Big Brother you can hide from.  You can only, if you care enough, seek your own information. Being a concerned individual is a bigger burden and comes with far more individual responsibility than ever before.  I go back to the previous post about the movie and the response of the film maker who told the concerned woman that the 1% have 99% of the  public media.  And yes, they have the mechanisms of the filter bubble too. They ONLY want to sell us things ... or so it seems. I don't think there is a conspiracy.  No, I'm not saying that. I think think we've become a corporate-ocacy, like it or lump it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

99%: the Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Movie

(Photo from Time)

Audrey Ewell was watching a live stream from a marcher on the Brooklyn Bridge; the picture went black. At that  moment she realized the Occupy Wall Street movement needed a film maker (or makers). The incident on the bridge was not covered in the local news. The police barricaded the bridge, setting a trap for the marchers who were not breaking any law. 735 arrests were made--the largest mass arrest of peaceful citizens in American history.

Ewell and her partner, Aaron Ailes saw the movement was too big for a typical documentary, plus it was already well organized. They advertised for film makers from all of the US, thus the "collaborative" in the title. Although this method made a somewhat choppy film it brought in individuals and stories that illustrate how broadly the country as been divided between the 1% affluent (no, VERY, VERY rich) and the 99% how are struggling to pay their bills, keep their homes, pay off student loans. (As much a banking scam as the subprime mortgage madness that lead to the most recent financial collapse. The students will never be able to pay all those loans. Banking is headed for another collapse.)

Many scenes show us the peaceful and intelligent organization of the movement but that is less memorable than the gratuitous police brutality. I will never forget a scene of somea 25 arrested people sitting on the sidewalk, hands bound, heads down, as a cop walks along with a big can of pepper spray, spraying the entirely helpless arrestees like you might spray Raid on a line of ants marching into you kitchen.  He shook up the can and walked along the line spraying not once but three times.

Various talking heads give us perspective about the disregard of the First Amendment.  But the individuals whose stories are told is always the most moving: the vet who feels this is THE fight and who mourns that more soldiers have come home and committed suicide (18 every week) than have died in the Middle East, Monique in Minneapolis who fights when the bank tries to repossess her house (and wins), the retired police captain appalled by police action who puts on his decorated uniform and joins the protesters.

Our documentary class was privileged. The film has been purchased by a major distributor and can only be shown in theatres under their aegis but it can be shown  in educational settings. Aaron's mother is a co-coordinator of our documentary class, so nd Aaron and Audrey were there to talk with us and answer questions.  We always have very lively discussions with both positive and negative reactions. One thoughtful woman who always seeks balance and fairness said she wished the 1% had had a chance to speak for themselves.  Audrey answered, very forcefully, that the movie is for the 99% to have their say.  Furthermore the 1% have hours and hours and hours of national TV, and the major newspapers speaking for them.  Hurray, Audrey!  And thanks to Aaron and Audrey for producing this film.  For a review of the film click here.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Three hour snow storm

Maybe our short intense snow storm yesterday, from about 11:00 to 2:00, is probably called a "snow squawl". It arrive suddenly, was almost  a white-out for a while and then stopped, leaving pretty piles on the shrubs, outlining branches  and covering the lawn like a strangely quilted blanket with no pattern, just the bumpiness of the uneven grass underneath. The roads were never icy or dangerous. The sun is shining on the snow this morning, sparking on individual flakes so the low shrub beyond my window seems lightly sequinned.

The midday timing  somewhat messed up my plans -- I skipped going to the tai chi class, which I regret because there will be hiatus and not another class until the first of February. Fortunately, I've finally learned the sequence of  this trademarked form called Tai Chi Easy so I can do it on my own. I am trying hard to make that a habitual part of my evening routine coming between reading (when I'm home, which is usually) and then getting washed and toothbrushed before bed. It's very relaxing, the rhythm of breahing with the movement now flows because I don't have to stop and think "What next?" I can close my eyes and concentrate on the body's movement including the breath and mostly put aside random thoughts. 

I try to practice Pema Chodrun's direction for meditation.  When the mind wanders away from the breath, I tell myself, "thinking" and focus on the breath again. Strangely enough this does not make me immediately sleepy went I settle into bed. I'm usually good for a hour of reading my bedside book (usually nonfiction, sometimes poetry) until my eyes feel tired.  I think it's also contributing to nights without wakefulness in the middle although I may wake about 5:00. I don't consider that a bad thing.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

People Divorced from Nature

My contemporaries and I are living in one of the most astonishing periods of human history. When I, a school child living on a farm in the American mid-west, first learned the world had at that time three cities with more than a million people (New York, London, Mexico City), I was so staggered by the information I suddenly recognized the inadequacy of my imagination.  Just to count out loud to a million would take a long time.

I have just read a bit about a book called The World in 2050 by Laurence C. Smith with this mind-blowing information: "The world is now more urban than rural, and the century of the megacity has begun. In 1950, there were two cities with a population of more than ten million. By 1975, there were three. As of 2007, there were nineteen, and by 2025, the United Nations estimates that there will be twenty-seven. There are ninety cities in China alone that have a population of greater than one million."

The picture above is Tokyo, the world's largest megacity -- as of this writing. These vast cities will continue to grow. Nearly all of them are in the northern hemisphere. The people who were born in these cities -- and will be born into them in the future, cannot produce their own food or water or clothe themselves without involvement with the world of technology and manufacturing. They will be affected by natural phenomena: heat, cold, storms  (which are already killing more and more hundreds when they hit). These new generations have more in common with worker ants than they do with farmers like my father and mother who grew a large percentage of their food, who had artesian wells and cisterns for water, who sheltered in a house constructed by my father and his cousins.

As a reader of novels and poetry I think how meaningless will be "I wandered lonely as a cloud," or "I will arise now and go to the Isle of Inisfree," or the road in the woods that diverged and I chose the lesser used one.  Psychologically, referentially, people will be divorced from nature.  The political implications are enormous, in fact, staggering.  And the economics of feeding all these people ... Oh, my ... and I thought my imagination was inadequate 60 years ago!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Philomena, the movie

I was very surprised at the popularity of the film, Philomena, when I went yesterday  for a 2:15 matinee.  I stood in line in the very chilly shade while the large audience at the 12:15 showing left the theatre (I was at our wonderful, old fashioned art film house, Cape Cod Cinema in Dennis).  It was Saturday afternoon and I suppose many people were avoiding the shopping madness and the impossible parking at the mall. From the mumblings around me, everyone was as surprised as I at being in such a crowd.

The movie with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, about a search for the child Philomena had as a teenaged orphan living in a Catholic orphanage, is an unlikely sort of buddy picture with Coogan as an out of work reporter who gets caught up in writing a human interest book instead of something about Russia (his area of expertise). Philomena is about 65, Dench is 78 (but a lovely and lively 78). The movie seemed heavy-handed and slow most of the way through until we got to several surprises in the last third of it.  I won't share any spoilers. I was less enthusiastic than I think most viewers will be; I thought the screen writing was work-a-day and uninspired. It seems the true story on which the film is based was too heavy for the writers to make either Philomena or the reporter people of depth. Plus I felt a certain amount of agism in the portrayal of Philomena.