Saturday, December 13, 2008

The gifts that keep on giving

With the world economy imploding, newspapers would normally have nothing to distract worried readers except post-Dickensian seasonal miracles - the soup kitchen run by a reformed meth addict and soccer mom, the lost dog who hitched a ride home on a corporate jet. There appears to be an endless supply of such stories at this time of year, and an endless temptation for editors to run them.

But the recent news cycle has provided a better brand of consolation, one more suited to the exceptional times we're living through. Just five days ago the Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich was arrested by the FBI for blatant acts of political corruption only matched by the blatancy of his recorded phone conversations. (His wife's were no church picnic either.) Then yesterday came the news of former Nasdaq chairman Bernard Maddoff's unprecedented $50 billion Ponzi scheme, embroiling some of the country's and indeed the world's most prestigious investors, hedge funds and philanthropies. Whereas Blagojevich had been under investigation for years, Maddoff appears to have flown essentially under the official radar until the recent financial crisis made his historic fraud too hard to hide.

Homecoming puppies are adorable but when we're all hurting and confused nothing succeeds like schadenfreude. The stories of these two men provide precious journalistic theater in a time of troubles, holding a mirror up to our current economic and political disasters but reflecting them in a form everyone can enjoy (at least if you weren't investing with Maddoff). Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus - just don't ask how he funds his operations.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Casey chases a ball

The madcap trees
in Crocker Park
shake their tops
like Shirley
Maclaine -
redhaired, testy
indefatigable,
declaming
rebirth and
the cycle of life
against all falls

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Head of the year

Like the U.S. Congress, I'm on a break today for the Jewish holidays. A damp, overcast but still warmish morning with the scent of fall in the air. I am skipping all religious obligations except for tashlik, tossing stale bread to the gulls off the Marblehead end of Boston Harbor, followed by a celebratory buffet at a friend's house. Gluttony is obviously not a sin I plan to cast away today. Or sloth. Or lust for that matter. But pride, envy, anger and greed are good to go -- the last not something I'm prone to myself, but I'll throw it off vicariously on behalf of all the recently humbled derivative traders out there. (The traditional Catholic Seven Deadlies make a convenient shopping list for sinners, even if they don't map precisely to the more comprehensive, once a year Yom Kippur line up.)

Actually I will spare some anger for everyone, Democrat or Republican, who contributed to not passing the bailout package in the House of Representatives yesterday. And for the ugliness and arrogance and stupidity of John McCain's recent carping against Barack Obama on this subject. Though maybe I should take the longer view. One small bright side of the recent crisis amidst so many dark ones is that Democratic presidential candidates always do better in bad economic times. And McCain's posturing and erratic judgement appears to be eroding his support yet further, to judge by polls in the last few days. The more McCain inflates his own role in the Congressional deliberations, the more he blames the Democrats even while touting bipartisanship, the more he's likely to suffer as partisanship by both sides drags out the process and the pain. Happy thoughts!

I don't know if it's the mental image of being on a beach, reminding me of the opening scenes of the movie "Chariots of Fire," but this song from Blake's Milton--which has become a popular Anglican hymn--has been playing in my head for the last few minutes. So let's pause the Rosh Hashanah retrospection and move ahead to post visions of Yom Kippur (as expressed in Blake's crypto-gnostic, post-Christian imagery) of the year to come:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
That is to say, I will not cease starting tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The first thing I do when starting to write about Jean-Dominique Bauby's magnificent jewel of a book is to look up the French title (which didn't occur to me while reading it): Le scaphandre et le papillon. The translator's English is close enough, it seems, even capturing in its own way the rhythmic assonance of the original. But then, maybe not so much: my old Langenscheidt pocket French dictionary gives scaphandre as "diving suit" rather than diving bell, and scaphandrier as "deep-sea diver". A different image, of enclosure yes but also of a kind of monstrous mannikin, ringed with masks and tanks and tubes, deprived of normal sensation, like Bauby in his hospital bed in Berck-sur-Mer. Possibly more a sense of exploring the depths too, whatever the dangers and restrictions. I'll have to bug one of my native speaker friends for clarification.

Whatever the sense of the title, there's less of the cold, dark depths than you might imagine in this book, and much more of the butterfly, fluttering half deliberately half impulsively from memory to fancy to sharp, funny and moving observances of himself and the people and things around him. I think only a French writer could create a book like this from a condition, a history like this. Flipping through the narrow volume of short, evocatively or evasively titled chapters, it strikes me that that protean French prose genre the essai has itself come to the diver's rescue. Or rather it becomes the vehicle (submarine? helicopter?) by which he rescues himself, even while his efforts give a whole new meaning to the form.

I page though the book to find the exact wording of one image that had stuck in my mind, celebrating the letters Bauby receives in the hospital from friends, family and colleagues: "I hoard these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship." I remembered these being the last words in the chapter, which they were, except for this one line closing paragraph: "It will keep the vultures at bay". Interesting that I'd remembered the hopeful fancy not the black humor. There's an ever present, ever shifting mix of both moods in the communications Bauby crafted, as he describes, so carefully in his head before conveying them the world through a carefully orchestrated system of winks -- no stranger a mechanism when you come right down to it than tapping on laptop keys or incising wedge-shaped marks on wet clay.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Kayaking on the North Shore

A weekend itch, a hum, an expectation, when the weather obliges, and many weathers oblige. Though a schlep to start out of course. Haul the boat from the backyard, hose off the dirt thrown up the the rain, flip it onto the SUV rack, strap it down -- a 14 foot Walden Expedition, lobster red. Carry yourself and the kayak down to the sea. With an appetizing crunch push off from the sand. Then, miraculous reversal, the sea and the kayak are carrying you -- out past the splashing families, the boatyards, the bobbing floats beneath which real lobsters scuttle, shrewdly untempted (in my mind) by the locals' traps. Along the islets and shores of this rocky bay, dotted with seaside mansions old and new. I alternately dart and drift, the dripping double-bladed oar in its steady rotation, half push half pull, always reminding me of a dragonfly's wings, or resting comfortably athwart the cockpit, as the boat slides along under its own momentum or simply bobbed by the waves. A little outside the mouth of the bay the wind and the swells pick up and I paddle harder, with more consciousness of having to choose a direction -- northwest round the point to Salem, southeast across the harbor with its forest of masts, and the lighthouse in front of me. Further out, Great Misery island, where more intrepid paddlers in wetsuits habitually venture but I haven't attempted yet, probably never will. An hour and a half floating on the waves with my feet up and a modest, half imagined weekender's sense of the power and pull of the sea is quite enough adventure, right now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lehmannaide

I can't ignore the fall of Lehmann Brothers but can't quite grasp it either, or don't want to, so my mind skitters defensively to the company's human namesakes. Nicholas Lehmann, Julie's old Harvard classmate, now dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. Pronounced like 'lemon', not 'lee-mun'. He must be experiencing some onomastic angst of his own. And David Lehman - clever, glum American poet and prolific poetry editor. Glad today to be short one 'n' in his last name.

What's in a name? Or what's in a word, like 'reformer' or 'deregulation'? The presidential candidates are each trying to cash in on Wall Street's woes -- "John McCain casting himself as an outspoken populist outraged at corporate greed and Barack Obama hammering what he called a Republican-led climate of deregulation that McCain championed" (Boston Globe, 9/17). Personally, I worry that more people will embrace the faux-maverick "populist" who channels their visceral fear and resentment than the earnest liberal who asks his audience to pay mind to legislative and economic history.

Conclusion: did Nicholas Lehmann's immigrant ancestors think "lemon" was less Jewish sounding than the alternative?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Frost at Midday

Massachusetts got as the locals like to say 'pounded' with snow Friday, starting after 6 a.m. and continuing through early morning Saturday. I worked from home in the third floor guest bedroom, converted into an impromptu office thanks to Comcast broadband and a wireless router. Through a narrow window I could watch the flakes swirling down and around the historic Marblehead rooftops - like a Longfellow poem, updated with telephone wires. Probably something like 10 inches, but cold light flakes and sunny weather made for a relatively painless cleanup Saturday. Today, Sunday, I have a different but equally New Englandy view from my desk in the downstairs family room. Looking out at the backyard, I see the odd succession of elongated holes - like a careful giant's footprints - that Casey made as she galumphed across the deep layer of white. Periodically the wind sends a clumpy dust of snow down from the big pine tree at the end of the yard, bringing to mind Robert Frost's jauntily glum ditty -

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And changed some part
Of a day I rued.

If I were still a literature teacher I would set my students to pondering the fine blend of the playful and the stately in these short rhymed lines, particularly the concussion of 'mood' and 'rued'. Poor Frost - he couldn't even talk about being happy without thinking about regret. As a genuine countryman, however, he was more careful about projecting his moods onto the natural landscape than Coleridge, in 'Frost at Midnight':

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud--and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
’Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

Sitting inside by fire is obviously more conducive to pathetic fallacy than tromping around in the woods. But Coleridge too discovers a change of mood in his own internalized landscape, blessing the sleeping manchild next to him - as only a citified English Romantic poet can do - with the promise of a daily heaven on earth:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

What a turn of phrase - 'the secret ministry of frost'. Enough to give you chills, sitting warmly indoors on a sunny weekend morning. I love Robert Frost but I'm more temperamentally aligned with Coleridge, leaving aside his addictive penchant. Still I'll have to face crusty New England nature a little more directly when I start jogging next week. Nothing secret about the ministry of frost on the roads of the North Shore in February.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

iPlod

It's the lead up to Valentine's Day, which means both my usual drivetime companions, WGBH and WBUR, are in the middle of romantically themed pledge drives, offering flowers and chocolate in exchange for a year of guilt-free listening. (You can tell in an instant, and with a sinking heart, it's not Morning Edition.) So I was doubly happy I had downloaded a new audiobook this morning, for what turned into an hour and a half commute. Chekhov short stories, narrated by Kenneth Branagh. Couldn't even remember putting it in my Audible.com wish list, but there it was, five minutes before hitting the road - I needed only three to download the file and sync it with my iPod. Reading and writing in the digital commuter age: the subject of another blog.

If Chekhov had written the tale of my commute, my whimsical self- satisfaction would have been quickly and not so whimsically cut short: I would've forgot myself and rammed a surly marine mechanic in his pickup. Or I would have had to stop to watch someone's aging mother inch her way across the street to 'Our Lady of the Sea' church - putting me in mind of my own mother or my own age. Or I would have simply ignored a sky painted the color of hope as I passed Swampscott harbor. But modern life is not so well-constructed or so true - the sky and the people kept to themselves, and I was able to lose myself in Chekhov's sly, tender and rollicking Russian panoply all the way to Cambridge. The one unexpected twist in the trip, a utility truck fixing a street light near the airport, which backed up traffic to Wonderland, only prolonged the enjoyment. God bless your pointy little beard, Anton Pavlovich!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Return of the non-native

What better time to come back to the blogosphere than in the wake of Super Tuesday and Mitt Romney's withdrawal from the Republican runoff. A time of hope - or at least relief that Mitt's plastic smile will be off the networks and front pages for a while, except perhaps briefly at the grand old party's convention. A soul-searching op-ed piece in the Boston Globe today explored the ambivalence many successful Mormons apparently feel to exposing their religion in public. Romney's experience will probably not help his coreligionists resolve their doubts anytime soon.

Our dog Casey lying in the sun reminds me of John McCain. She is a nine year old Glen of Imaal terrier - in dog years the presumed nominee's junior by almost a decade. But they share the same shaggy eyebrows and truculent, mercurial temperament. Inside the house she is mostly interested in trolling for table scraps, rolling over for belly rubs and digging for badgers under the couch. Outside, when not chasing tennis balls, she sits on the steps barking furiously at any alien dog that passes our gate, or sometimes - to all appearances - at nothing at all. It's her job to patrol the borders and keep the homeland and her family safe. She would definitely stay in Iraq for 100 years, if necessary.

On Super Tuesday Julie and I were riveted to the widescreen TV in the family room, expertly critiquing the talking heads and the production values on CNN, MSNBC and PBS. Today's events in Washington State, Nebraska and Louisiana flew somewhat below my radar. I was more absorbed with with the struggle to choose a new car (Prius..? Matrix..? Jeez, I don't even need a Democratic party bumper sticker...) and another moody Keira Knightly performance at the Danvers Hollywood Hits, this time in the sad, dark, slightly over wrought "Atonement". But at 9 pm I caught up with my Google homepage, which trumpeted the news that Obama won with a margin of nearly 70% in both western states - Louisiana had not yet been called.

This earned approval from the three teenagers in the house, one of whom voted for the first time in Tuesday's primary. They like pretty much all their friends are Obama supporters. Although they may not know much about his platforms he is "the man" - so transparently cool and connected that he might as well be the only candidate in the race.