Archive for April, 2010

Papers, Please

April 29, 2010

It’s a shock to go out of this country and then come back in to feel the right-wing frenzy that is Amerika today.  The spirit (I haven’t read the letter) of the new Arizona anti-immigration law is so reminiscent of Nazi Germany (see The Great Escape or any WWII film) or behind the Iron Curtain (see The Lives of Others).  The right of cops to ask for papers is so ubiquitous there as to get its own hand signal – rubbing thumb and finger together means ‘produce your papers’ – is this what we want to become?

I understand that many illegal immigrants in Arizona are Mexican.  I understand their frustration with the Federal government.  I understand that many of the bombers are Muslim men between 20-30, and that I am inconvenienced by extra security measures while I am no threat.  But there’s this little thing called the Constitution that guarantees equal protection under the law in this republic.  So I must put up with extra inconvenience to maintain that equal protection clause under which America has thrived and been a beacon to the world (until Guantanamo and now this).

The argument for profiling – for adding extra inconvenience to a few to avoid inconveniencing the many – is exactly the kind of excuse that leads down the road – and not very far either – to Hitler and Stalin.

So I am commencing and recommending a protest:

Normally when I return to the States, I put my passport away, as part of our freedom is freedom of movement within the country.  But now I am keeping it on my person, and every time I see a cop – state, local, or county – I am going to hail that cop, stop his or her car if necessary, and demonstrably show that officer that I am a legal resident citizen of the United States.

We can call it ‘cop profiling’.  If they are going to be so evident with their cars and uniforms, they will be subject to this ‘harassment’ until Americans’ rights are restored.


Punting to the Pub

April 22, 2010

Outside our little log cabin (a bit of Canada in Oxfordshire) is the River Cherwell.  Barry, our kindly landlord, brought out a couple of paddles and a life ring to add a little safety to the traditional pole on his traditional punt.  Barry is an animal lover, with mallards and geese favoring this stretch of river, doubtless fed.  Barry and his wife ‘have been adopted’ by a family of albino Muscovy ducks, the white feathers showing off their strange red beaks quite handsomely.  Smutty Nose, a homely but super-friendly cat, curls around my ankles, allowing my hands to touch one of the four textures they’ve been missing.

Long as a canoe and flat-bottomed as a hockey puck, I must say that poling a punt is not a skill learned in a trice.  Being the most familiar with boats, I was elected punter, and the other four sat or used the paddles to fend as we bounced from bank to bank, making our way slowly downstream to the Victoria Arms.  With my sport jacket and scarf (it’s a bit nippy out), all I needed was me straw boater to complete the picture.

Barry gave me two bits of good advice: twist the pole as you disengage from the muddy bottom to break the seal, or you may find that either a) you end up clinging to the pole as the punt takes off, or b) you and the punt leave the pole behind.  So a little twist like feathering an oar works a treat to keep all three – punt, pole and me – in the same vicinity.

We pass in the late day sun from Barry’s little riverside cottage through the hollow tunnel under the motorway, and on downstream through Wind in the Willows country – green and gentle pasture skirting Oxford.  The occasional house, horse, or bankside rambler hears our laughter as I try in vain find the balance point between the pole’s fulcrum, my feet, and the boat’s center of gravity.  I am standing in the back like a gondolier, the long aluminium pole wetting my sleeves to the elbow every time I pull it in.  But it is just too easy to slew to port or starboard, and to the raucous delight of my passengers we bump constantly into bushes or get the upper part of the pole caught in branches on either side of the bank.

At length the pub looms into view, and we disembark, tie off (giving my hands a feel of the second texture they’ve been missing all winter – the reassuring feel of rope), and join a half a dozen students for fish and chips and a typically few too many pints. One of the students brings along her husband’s tiny traveling guitar, giving my grateful hands a feel of the third texture they’ve been missing – the wound plucked strings that set the air to music.

Only four of us try to wend our way back, probably the better part of valour, because it is pitch black – well, not quite, it’s a cloudy half moon – and we are going upstream (and we’re remembering all the  many overhanging and submerged hazards we avoided on the way down).  The torch loses its batteries after the first turn.

I try polling us along, but we are spinning in the oncoming current, so finally the two paddles are employed over each side, and I take Barry’s second bit of advice: leave the pole out astern for steering.  It’s not as easy to paddle as a canoe, so with much discussion as to method (a new alternative proposed every minute or so), exhortation (to avoid collision with yet another looming bank), and indignant exclamation (as overhanging branches surprise an ear or an eye), we aim upstream and surprisingly the trip home seems far shorter than the trip down.  One of the benefits of alcohol?  Disembarking on a bank’s a slippery affair, and it’s a muddy, twiggy crew that stumbles into bed, to dream of that fourth texture my hands have been missing, the texture that can only be felt if this plane snafu unsnarls and lets me home to the skin of my one true love.


April 21, 2010

Living in Maine, which I love, has but one disadvantage: everyone around you is of the same culture, and nearly the same American televised voice.  It is fun to be in this UK KMI class, which has drawn students from all over.  Everyone speaks English, but oddly this class has a pair of native speakers in several languages, so the murmur when folks are practicing is polyglossal.  There are two Poles trading sibilants, two Italians casting colorful vowels to the air, two Spanish speakers rolling easily over the syllables, two Israelis scraping the air through an ancient passage, two Danes lilting through diphthongs, two Scots turning plain old English into a heathery arpeggio, and finally two Irishmen threading the needle between poetry and complaint.  What a feast for the ears!


April 21, 2010

It was less than a New York minute – defined as the interval between the light going green and the guy behind you honking – from the time the airplane ban from the Icelandic volcano plume was deemed to be over – though no planes had even flown yet – that all the other parties blamed it all on the Labor Party.  You see, they are having an election over here – a six-week circus that happens every 5 years or so.

Living in our teetering American empire, still nominally a democracy, where electioneering is going on year-round at a highly sophisticated media level (which I despise, but participate in with glee), I look on with bemusement as the undemonstrative Brits are dragged kicking and screaming into American style politicking.

For instance, they just had their first American-style television debate ever, where the third party candidate ‘won’ the media spin on the debate, propelling the Lib-Dems into parity with the Tories and Labor, and throwing the election into confusion.  The Brits despise the whole charade, but participate in it with glee.

Gordon Brown, first the hero and then the victim of the banking crisis, is struggling for his political life, and the fact that the airlines ran their own planes with their own chief executives in them up into the skies over England to prove that it was safe, while his CAA was saying it wasn’t is not going to help him.  With a 6-week election period, it takes only one gaffe to put you over the edge. (One unfortunate was walking with his family on Brighton Beach when he was tripped up by a rogue wave.  A camera caught the end of it where he was upended, and much like Howard Dean’s scream, it played endlessly on TV and a moment of appearing uncoordinated lost poor Neil Kinnock the election.)

It’s not that airlines lost so much money (though they did) but that Britons abroad were not able to come home.  No one gives a toss for foreigners like me who wish to leave, but an Englishman has a God-given right to come home any time he wants to from an uncivilised country (defined: anywhere other than England, even Wales).  Passengers stranded in Madrid got more airtime than anything – only a threat to pets would have received more press.

With many years of the quick-stepping and flash Tony Blair and then a few of the plodding and dour Brown, the public is ready for something new, but the Conservatives, a bit like the Republicans, have few ideas besides ‘No!’, and while people like Liberal-Democrat Nick Clegg, they will not, I predict, pull the lever for him in the voting booth, as they distrust the untried, however true.

You cannot lie, lie, lie over here and get away with it (the best you can do is waffle, waffle, waffle) – the reporters are tougher, the public is both more knowledgeable and more cynical, and finally, since this is a parliamentary democracy with a Prime Minister, not a president, he is weekly (and raucously) answerable to the other M.P.’s  -“Will the right honorable gentleman assure this house that there will be no… (fill in the blank)”  Gordon Brown, though he had nothing to do with it and was acting on what information he had, will be called to account for leaving honest English citizens to languish for days – days! – in the wilds of Spain or the far off coast of France.  (There was even a Dunkirk-like attempt to ‘rescue’ stranded Brits in Zodians and bring them back to Dover, foiled by pursed-lipped Frog customs officials.)

The Tea Party folks seem to think our democracy is the only way to run things, but I am impressed by the European socialism which has been much decried over in the States during the recent health care debate.  Not even the Conservatives over here would dare question the National Health Service or the basic social network, which works very well.  There’s the same grumbling about misspent money, corrupt and bungling politicians, and stupid red tape as we have at home, but everyone quite sensibly figures that we are rich enough in the industrial west for children to deserve health care, for old people not to have to decide between food and medicine, and for education to be of such general benefit that everyone should have some for free.  You can pay for extra if you want to and can afford it, but the single-payer system works to the benefit of nearly everyone – keeping administrative costs down, working toward preventive solutions, and providing a cheerful reassurance that keeps everyone beavering away happily.

With all good wishes to America, and with a tremendous respect for our Constitution, a magnificent document to run with, ours is no longer the most representative democracy in the world (Obama’s election giving me pause to consider that it might be), and certainly not even close to the world’s best medical system.  We’ve gone in for so much privatisation – even outsourcing our armed forces; how’s that workin’ out for ya? – that anything that the public wants or does in concert seems like ‘socialism’.  We could do with a little shared purpose.

PItt Rivers

April 18, 2010

The cloud of lava ash belching out of Iceland has grounded all the jets in England and most of Europe.  This may extend my stay here perforce if it keeps up – no planes will leave because the ash chews up the engines.  Is Gaia angry?  Or just dyspeptic?

But today it is just casting a soft gauzy glow over Oxfordshire.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many daffodils in a day, in Christchurch Meadow and under the Folly Bridge along the River Thames.  Yes, really people punting, and it must be the beginning of crew season, because lots of badly coordinated teams were out on the river.  It’s Sunday, and most of Oxford is closed, so no shopping for books, but it is a day for a visit to the Pitt Rivers.

Along by New College (new because it was started in 1500-something), tucked behind the Natural History Museum – I usually can’t make it out of this huge hall, with its huge dinosaur and whale skeletons, comparative anatomy exhibits, and odes to Darwin.  Pitt Rivers is the pinnacle of the English passion for collecting.  It was closed the last time I was here, so I tuck in for a quick squizz (I get ‘museum feet’ after about an hour, so I take museums in small doses – besides it was sunny, even if there is occasionally a Mephistophelean whiff of sulfur to the air, so I want to walk.)

But step through the archway into the large hall – reminiscent of a train station – and see the endless glass cases crowding up from the floor, with drawers underneath you can open to see more stuff, exhibits going up the walls…

All presided over by a huge and genuine totem pole.  (I have good friend going into wood carving, in this northwestern tradition – very powerful, very stark images: a bear eating a frog, while holding a human between its knees, standing on the head of a raven – very ancient and rad at the same time.  I have looked at his raw wood; and now I see these images.  It’s a long way from raw to here, with deep cuts in this huge and single cedar – you can imagine snow falling on it.)

Anyway, down to the cases: General Pitt Rivers started the collection, but then so much has been added – what isn’t in here?  There’s: hand painted playing cards, a bronze cat from Egypt, opium pipes, snuff boxes, fiddles, horns, ropes, shrunken heads, ivory objets, stocks (the last ones built in England for some miscreant), pots, baskets, clothes, everything anyone needs to fight, circumcise, make music (lamellaphones? Thumb harps, as it turns out), decorative arts, ship models, a mummy with both coffins and an X-ray, fiber arts, lamps, Asian statuary, baby carriers, skates, tools of all kinds, funerary art, skulls galore, bone apple corers, watches, a Maori sailing chart made of sticks and shells, brass neck rings and anklets and shoes for women with bound feet, masks, silver urns, all in a hotch-potch, some with labels, but many without, just the great Victorian idea of more, more, more!  And I’ve forgotten half of what I saw, pushed out by the succession of the next and the next, on and on it goes.

The museum closes, thankfully, and I stumble out into the hazy late afternoon light for another walk among the daffs on Port Meadow, amid the cows and then along the canal with those snouty barges tied up beside the plane trees.  Along the Rover Cherwell and home to our bit of Canada – log cabins seem so out of place here, but their nice inside, where I pause and give a little prayer that the social whirl of 21st century industry I love to hate gets going again.  I love it here, but I don’t want to be here for three months.

Shell Game

April 7, 2010

Father to daughter: You’re about to graduate from college – the woild is your oyster!

Daughter (surveying the job scene): Right now, it looks more like a lobster.


April 4, 2010

I’m a lark, not an owl, so even though I was still ringing from District 19 (interesting verité sci-fi rumination on prejudice, set in South Africa) at midnight, I was up at 5:15 to make it, as usual, to the Easter sunrise service on Pemaquid Point.  I think 1955 or ’56 was my first year to go to this service – I remember being bundled by my father in the dark into a WWII army blanket in the back of the two-tone Chevy wagon – so it’s been over 30 years that I have been going.  Of course not the years out west and in Europe, but since returning here I go every year I’m not away teaching.  A tradition is a worthwhile hook to hang onto, in the name of the Father if not his son.

The setting is magnificent, 30 meters above the open sea, with an outlook to the east.  To its gentle susurrations (this year, at least – Pemaquid can be pretty Wagnerian after a storm), the sun rises as a red ball during the service over the whale-black lumps of Allen and Monhegan. By now I know almost no one there, except another early-rising, dubiously Christian friend.  But it’s a reassuring rural crowd half attending to a predictable homily, singing hesitantly off key – who has a voice at that time of day? – to the tinny toy organ sat on a ledge with a long extension cord into the lighthouse.  Did you know that alleluia of that ubiquitous Easter hymn is taken from the Islamic alhamdulillah – ‘all praise to Allah’?

This morning was the warmest service I remember – often it is an endurance test that makes brevity the soul of wit, but this morning people lingered to catch up on the news and enjoy the streaking light across the sky before repairing to New Harbor for a bad breakfast with good company.  Having not eaten last night, I’m hungry by then.

It reminds me of the year I lived in Greece, 1984.  Easter is the biggest holiday there, much bigger than Christmas.  Christ dies on Friday and the Greek Orthodox must fast until Christ rises, so with a very favorable interpretation of ‘three days’: they fast from late Friday night until the Sunday service – which takes place at midnight Saturday night, the very first hour possible, and most Greeks go home from there for a big meal at about 2am, and no one is seen abroad on Easter morning until well into the afternoon.

The church in our little village was so crowded that by the time we (band of English hippies going ‘back to the land’ in the Peloponnese) arrive, we are pushed to the very side up front, where we can see through the arches from the outer altar to the inner sanctum (forgotten these proper names in Greek).  On the outer ‘stage’ (sorry) the priests are intoning prayers and waving censors of frankincense around, behind the scenes they were literally – still in their robes and stovepipe hats – counting the money during the service.  This kind of avarice – evident in other areas of ecclesiastical interaction with the plebs as well – did not endear the Greek Orthodox Church to me, but in their favor, the collection from the Easter service was probably the bulk of their yearly income – the equivalent of the Friday after Thanksgiving for retailers, so one can understand their eagerness.

Xristos anesti! Xristos anesti pragmati! (Christ is risen indeed)


April 3, 2010

Here in Maine every spring has a breakout day, and yesterday was it.  The long winter loosens its hold and the promise of spring, like health care reform, has finally stopped being a contentious dream and has passed muster with the necessary votes.  Like the health care bill, spring is not a finished product, but like Obama, we will not let the perfect be the enemy of the, well, mediocre.  If the trees are still unleafed and the afternoon wind still chill, it really doesn’t matter because the basic melting is already in place and cannot be repealed.  God will tinker with spring as politicians will tinker with health care, but the direction is inexorable as is the tilting of the earth: green will be pushed forth, poor children will be cared for, lawn mowers will be primed and fired up, and coverage by the sun will not be denied just because winter is a pre-existing condition.

Still unpacking from German time, I threw on my Euro-style jacket and rubber boots to join Quan for a walk around the neighborhood. Before we leave the yard, the seven cats – Gandhi, Simon, Ozzie, Papa-san, Starman, Melio and Pookinello – are playing with the few rabbits – Pretty Girl and Beatrix, in this case – who choose to escape the rabbitat to enjoy the brief time of freedom between the end of the snow and the arising of the garden, at which point the holes will need to be plugged again.  It’s amazing how Quan has trained the cats to protect, not harass, the rabbits. (But she has not trained the rabbits to stay out of the garden – there are limits.)  Occasionally a forward bunny gets a tunk on the head with a paw if they sniff too close, but generally it’s the Peaceable Kingdom here, where the lions lay down with the lambs.

Apparently, PETA principles do not extend to turkeys. The tanagers have returned to the feeder, because Quan has chased the turkeys off, who were themselves chasing the little birds away.  All winter she has been feeding these, yup, wild turkeys, until the whole Gang of Nine was insistently gobbling away, milling around below her window from 5am on – not Quan’s get-up time.  Do not wake Quan untimely: she found her 22 pistol, slipped in the ammo cartridge and fired twice over the heads of the turkeys – and then couldn’t get back to sleep because of the ringing in her ears. The turkeys got the message loud and clear, and ran away.  They returned the next morning, and this time Quan went out and talked to them reasonably, and they haven’t been seen in the neighborhood since, after being here every day for the last three months.  The girl has a way with animals.

More rabbits snuggle in the sunny corner of the pen by the opened barn doors, mallards fluff new air through their wings as they cruise the brimming pond, and on the slope above the uniformed Canada geese are prancing and feinting in the mating dance.

On our walk, the human animal is much in evidence – we see neighbors we haven’t seen all the close-hauled winter: Wendy is brushing out her horse for an afternoon ride in the sun; Christa is on her determined walk around the block, sweater swinging from her waist; Timmy pulls up in sunglasses, sweats, and boots to deliver some lobsters for our dinner; Emma is out on her pink bicycle in only a T-shirt; Sally’s walking slow and little bent – still recovering from a serious rib-cracking kick by a horse – beside the ever effervescent Linda.

Down by the shore, little pollywogs or something like them dart around the vernal pools, the nuthatches chirp on the branches, and the wind ruffles the hair of the river playfully.  And back in the farm pond, as the sun sets, the wonderfully syncopated sound of the hundreds of peepers builds into a litany, punctuated by the bass tones of the few bullfrogs.

Soon, when the force of spring is full, it will turn to summer, and this small village will double in size as the tourists and summer people come.  We have a saying around here, more in wist than in earnest, that “If you can’t stand the winters, you don’t deserve the summers” – which does nothing to stop a number of people wintering in wherever and summering here, when it is heaven on earth.

If we take merit out of it, they do miss this liberating feeling of being finally uncovered, of seeing that which is dead take life and draw the first long cool, lung-unfolding breath of spring.  I am away so much that I almost qualify as a summer visitor myself, but I am glad to be here for this Easter – the holiday to the fertility goddess Astarte, Ashura for Muslims, Beltane for the wiccans – whatever you call it, it is the promise of the Resurrection – to feel for myself the sheer unstoppable force of life when finally powered by the advancing sun – our little remnant of the Big Bang that is the surest God of Biology.