Barking Backward

A Blog by Jameson Parker

The Span of Life

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.

- Robert Frost

Bald Eagle

February 1st, 2016 15 Comments

Bald eagle

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

I have seen two bald eagles (or, more likely, one bald eagle twice) in the last three days.

The first time, the poor thing was being harassed by two ravens who followed him, like jackals trailing a lion, for a remarkably long distance. The second time, he was by himself, flying quite low, but flying like an eagle on a mission, an eagle with things to do, places to go, and other eagles to meet. And both times it made my heart leap.

I’m an unabashed patriot. I love America and believe strongly it is the greatest country the world has ever known. It gives me a thrill every time I see our flag flying; I get emotional when I hear the national anthem; I feel a burst of pride whenever I see young men or women in uniform, especially young soldiers in their dress uniforms on state occasions; I even feel proud when I see a photograph of the Capitol Building, though I’d like to wade in there with a bullwhip and a branding iron. But bald eagles especially get to me. In part, this is because they are incomparably, dramatically beautiful birds; in part it is because they are our nation’s symbol; in part it’s because they are relatively uncommon in this part of the world (in twenty-five years I’ve only seen one here on two other occasions, though I’ve been to those places in Alaska where you can see hundreds on a daily basis); and in part it’s because the first one I ever saw was with my father, so I associate them with him.

I was home from college, and I had only recently reached the stage Mark Twain (apocryphally) made famous by discussing how much his old man had grown up in seven years. My father was by then director of Gunston Hall, the museum once home to George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration Rights, and on pleasant evenings that summer after the tourists had left, my father and I would take our drinks and walk around the magnificent gardens, the towering allées of boxwood and lilac, the acres of roses and jasmine and nicotiana, the air heavy with scent and the heat of a Virginia tidewater summer. At the end of the gardens, where the land dropped down steeply to the woods and the distant Potomac, there were two gazebos, and we sitting in one of those one evening when a bald eagle sailed by, skimming over the tops of the trees, below us, so that we looked down on his back and the incredible, brilliant white of his head and tail.

It’s a rare thing ever to be in a situation or place where you can look down on the back of a raptor, and to be able to look down on the back of a bald eagle, our national symbol, while talking to my father just as I was beginning to appreciate what an extraordinary, completely unique man he was and how lucky I was to have him in my life, made it one of those moments that will warm me on my deathbed.

And later, before his untimely and much too early death, my father was able to use that sighting and the fact that there was a nesting pair in the woods at the end of Mason’s neck, to get the federal government and the state of Virginia to join forces and protect much of that land from development. If we hadn’t been sitting there that evening and hadn’t seen that eagle, he might not have been able to do it, and Mason’s neck would now look like all the rest of northern Virginia, a sprawling mishmash of subdivisions and shopping malls, all the unimaginative cookie-cutter development that passes for progress in America these days.

But we were, and he did.

 

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A 1911 for an Oligarch

January 27th, 2016 9 Comments

Cabot 1911 engraved

 

For those of you who might have missed it:

Cabot Guns is a company in Pennsylvania that makes very high-end custom M1911 handguns, sort of the Aston Martin of 1911s. So far, there’s nothing extraordinary about that; shops specializing in customized M1911s have sprung up all over the country, and it’s possible today to purchase one with a degree of refinement never dreamed of by the doughboys who carried the rough and ready original version of John Browning’s masterpiece. Some of these companies specialize in guns that are customized specifically for use by men and women who do the hard and dirty things that keep the rest of us safe: think of the various special operations units of the different branches of the military, as well as certain high-risk law enforcement agencies. Other companies specialize in competition guns for professional athletes, men and women who compete in IPSC, USPSA, IDPA, and other competitive shooting venues. And some companies specialize in highly refined guns that look as though they should be carried under a bespoke tuxedo at a debutante cotillion, sort of the M1911 version of a Purdey or Holland & Holland or David McKay Brown. That’s Cabot Guns: refined and elegant individual handguns of superb craftsmanship that are pretty much unaffordable for most of us, as well as cased and engraved sets that are unquestionably unaffordable, selling for the price of a new pickup truck.

But now Cabot Guns has taken conspicuous consumption to the maximum level. It’s a matched, mirror-image (meaning one for the right hand, the other for the left) pair, tentatively dubbed the Big Bang Set, made out of a thirty-five kilogram chunk of meteorite. The set is scheduled to be publically displayed for the first time at the NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in May, and will probably be auctioned off there for an estimated $500,000 to $1,000,000. I hope at least some of the profit will be donated to the NRA, so when some of you rush off to Louisville this spring to bid on it as a stocking-stuffer for me, you’ll know your money was well spent. And if the bidding should take you up over $1,000,000, don’t worry about it. After all, the sky’s the limit for a set made out of meteorite.

You can check out Cabot Guns here  http://cabotgun.com and the Big Bang set here http://cabotgun.com/2015/12/cabot-meteorite-pistol-set/ just in case you want to see what you’re buying me.

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At the Movies: Carol, Bridge of Spies

January 20th, 2016 20 Comments

Cate Blanchett

Tom Hanks

 

In a spirit of wild self-indulgence, Darleen and I watched two movies recently, two movies that both take place in the 1950s, both featuring some of the greatest talent alive today, both with breathtakingly beautiful and moody photography, and both ballyhooed as potential Oscar material. There the resemblance ends.

I normally make it a rule not to review any book or movie I don’t like. Why bother? It’s so very difficult to create anything, and after you’re done, it’s so very easy for any mean spirited fool with a wicked wit to tear down what you’ve created, and I don’t wish to be lumped into that smug, acid-tongued category. To quote the great Elizabeth Ashley (defending Tennessee Williams): “Sir, is it not the way of curs and mongrels always to chew on the tails of champions?” There are never enough champions, and always far too many curs and mongrels and I have no desire to swell their ranks.

But there are parallels here that bear scrutiny and the very thing that makes one of these movies so forgettable is the thing that makes the other so very unforgettable.

Carol is a lesbian love story starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. I was aware of who Miss Mara is, but I had never seen any of her work. As for Cate Blanchett, I have only seen a little of her work (Elizabeth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Bandits, Blue Jasmine) but enough to think Australia ought to declare her a national treasure, or that the American government should kidnap her and claim her as our national treasure. It doesn’t hurt that she has one of the most extraordinary faces ever to grace the screen, with eyes that hint at secrets you’ll never know, and that wonderful, mobile, tragic mouth.

So all in all, I was looking forward to Carol.

I was also looking forward very much to Bridge of Spies. It too stars national treasures: ours (Tom Hanks) and England’s (Mark Rylance) along with Amy Ryan and Alan Alda, neither of whom are exactly slouches in the talent department, and it was directed by Steven Spielberg who, it is generally conceded, has some talent himself in the directing department, to the tune of three Academy Awards. But primarily, I was looking forward to it because it deals with the famous Cold War incident where Francis Gary Powers and his U2 were shot down by the Soviets, and how Powers was eventually released in exchange for three Russian spies.

At least, that’s the story I grew up with, because my father helped catch one of those spies in a convoluted Cold War caper that penetrated even some of my five- or six-year old consciousness. (Men—FBI agents—sitting in front of old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorders set up in our basement; occasional odd incidents involving a Russian gentleman who came to our house, usually late at night, but who once made the mistake of letting himself in somehow during the day while we were out and who got pinned against the wall by our one-eyed Boxer for his pains, the Boxer who is in the photograph with me on my bio page; my father leaving alone at odd hours when normally he would play with us.) Alas, none of that is in the movie, and who knows now what the truth was then? Certainly not I.

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, as Kipling reminds us, and even more ways of telling stories on page or on screen, but the one inviolable rule is that while you may tease and tantalize your audience with mysteries of many kinds at the outset, you must, must, ultimately provide resolution. It’s Chekhov’s gun: if you mention (or show) a gun, you must then use it at some point, otherwise, why bother showing the damn thing in the first place?

Carol violates this rule, both figuratively and literally.

Figuratively, we are presented with two women, each in her different way trapped within a life she longs to escape, whose paths cross. And after that everything begins to fall apart. Why are these women trapped? Each of them is a stereotype of stifled, mid-fifties discontent; each longs for more than what life in that era is willing to allow them, but we are never given any backstory for their respective discontent. Rooney Mara longs to be a photographer, but what’s stopping her? Is it her own lack of any kind of color, any spark of divine fire? Is it her lesbian tendencies? Is it some other quantity or quality lacking within her? It sure as hell can’t be the American fifties themselves, as the film implies, because the arts were one of the few paths open to women back then. And while we are shown the problem, we are never shown the reason why she feels so trapped by her job and her boisterous boyfriend, or even given a clue why she can’t satisfy her artistic longings. Are they meant to be a symbol of her sexual longings?

Cate Blanchett is even more of a stereotype, albeit a colorful one: the woman trapped in a loveless marriage of wealthy convenience, who is torn between her love for her daughter and her longing for some kind of real love, which in this case means lesbian love. But what is behind that stereotype? What are the causes? What, other than lesbianism, sets her aside from ten thousand other women in that day and age? We are never given a clue or even anything specific enough about her to make her a unique individual.

Unfortunately, everything else in the movie contributes to the same sense of being shown stereotypes instead of real people. Cate Blanchett’s husband has appeared (more interestingly) in every John O’Hara, John Cheever, or John Updike short story. The daughter she adores is a generic child with no more individuality than a wooden clothing mannequin in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue. New York City, specifically Manhattan, the most majestic, most iconic, most metropolitan place on earth, is reduced to Anytown, USA. The wealthy suburb where Cate Blanchett and Kyle Chandler uneasily and alcoholically share a mansion becomes Anysuburb, USA. Even the beautiful, rich, productive land that lies between the Atlantic and central Iowa is wasted; we see little unsatisfying glimpses of it during long, silent driving sequences which could be filled with the beauty of the land outside and with information about the protagonists inside, information that would make both of these women come to life with individuality.

It’s not the performances; it’s Phyllis Nagy’s writing that is lacking in this film. She shows us two women who are intriguing and then fails to deliver on her promises, reducing them to stock symbols of societal repression devoid of individuality. Even when a chrome-plated Smith & Wesson with mother-of-pearl grips is carefully shown in Cate Blanchett’s suitcase, implying that at least now we will see something out of the ordinary, if not unique, there is no satisfying conclusive use of that revolver. It proves, like the film itself, to be empty, empty and lugubrious.

And the opposite is precisely what makes Bridge of Spies not merely a brilliant portrait of the exact same era, but one of those films where you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. The Cohen brothers, Ethan and Joel, together with a young man (his photograph makes him look all of fourteen) named Matt Charman don’t waste an instant or a word: everything either drives the plot forward or establishes character.

A perfect example is a little scene where Tom Hanks is lost in the still war-torn streets of East Berlin and is suddenly surrounded by five or six young thugs who steal his overcoat. Hanks plays the real-life lawyer, James Donovan, who was recruited (bullied into?) defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and then recruited (bullied into?) negotiating the trade of that spy for Francis Gary Powers. Hanks plays the scene as impeccably as he plays everything he has ever done, a courageous man in a bad situation, trying to stay alive, but instead of just handing them the overcoat, he negotiates, finally trading the coat for directions to the office building he has been looking for. That little scene, all by itself tells you all you need to know about James Donovan. Let’s put it this way: because of that scene, when I looked up James Donovan and found he had been later recruited (bullied into?) into negotiating the release of 1,113 prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn he came back with 9,703 men and women. I have a mental image of Fidel Castro throwing his hands in the air and saying, “Oh, for God’s sake! Give this guy whatever the hell he wants and get him out of here before he talks me into making Cuba another American state!”

It’s that kind of glimpse into a man’s personality that I would have loved to have seen in Carol. Even the photography, rich and moody in both films, becomes specific in Bridge of Spies. I was in Berlin back in those days. I’ve seen Checkpoint Charlie and I’ve seen if not those specific streets, certainly others just like them, and that’s what it was like back in the late fifties. The opening scenes in Brooklyn are precisely that: Brooklyn, and nowhere else on earth. Tom Hank’s James Donovan is unique and singular in all the world. Mark Rylance’s spy is so uniquely drab and colorless he becomes colorfully fascinating. James Donovan’s three children are specific and singular. And Amy Ryan has a moment at the end where she has just heard the news about what her husband has done, what he has accomplished for his country, and she stands in their bedroom looking at his exhausted sleeping figure on the bed, looking at the man who holds no more mystery for her than any man has ever held for his wife, and you can see the wonder, the pride, the love. That’s specificity. That’s what Carol lacks.

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Washington, In Brief

January 13th, 2016 16 Comments

Fred Thompson

 

I watched the State of the Union Address last night, and it (I mean the whole thing, not just President Obama’s speech) reminded me of a quote from the late Fred Thompson, US Senator, actor, and attorney: “After two years in Washington, I often long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood.”

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Getting Emotional

January 7th, 2016 47 Comments

Barack Obama

 

On a blog I read semi-regularly, I ran across an assessment of Barack Obama’s performance the other night when he announced his newest and latest gun control agenda. The blog is called “The Bookworm Room,” and I was attracted to it originally because I thought it was a literary site. It isn’t, but it is intelligent enough and sometimes funny enough that I keep going back; its motto—or subtitle, if you will—is: “Conservatives deal with facts and reach conclusions; liberals have conclusions and sell them as facts,” so you can see why it might appeal to me. In her comments about Obama’s announcement, the lady who writes the blog included a reference to an emotionally charged anti-gun video and her friend’s reaction to it:

“I had no intention of watching yet another HBO propaganda piece but that changed a few days ago when a Progressive, anti-gun friend of mine challenged me to watch the video. She said she sobbed her way through it and concluded that anyone who watches it should understand that the only way to save lives is to ban guns. The Second Amendment is a relic, she argued, and shouldn’t be allowed to stop this type of necessary reform. In other words, before Obama even got warmed up, I got the full Barack Obama treatment from her.”

That paragraph really got to me. “She said she sobbed her way through it and concluded that anyone who watches it should understand that the only way to save lives is to ban guns. The Second Amendment is a relic, she argued, and shouldn’t be allowed to stop this type of necessary reform.” Wow. All that doubtless heartfelt emotional reaction to a manipulative video. Who among us would not be moved by the sight of a dead young man (the vast majority of murder victims are young men between nineteen and twenty-nine) and of a grieving parent or family member. It is so easy to pluck at heart strings, and then go on to demonize the inanimate object used to cause all that grief. From there, you go on to demonize the owners of such inanimate objects and then the organizations that support those owners. Evil guns! Evil gun owners! Evil NRA! And from there, just to take the full journey into the ridiculous “safe-place” world of pampered little collegiate cupcakes who believe the first amendment begins and ends with their own personal opinion, it becomes Evil Anyone Who Disagrees With Me!

The primary tactic of those who are intelligent enough not to get hysterical (that excludes those delicate college students) is to keep the emotional tide flowing and never allow anything in the way of rational conversation or real debate.

I started thinking about that unknown woman’s reaction and about Obama’s tears, and I began to realize that even if his tears were faked, millions of the two-thirds of the American people who do not own guns may well believe they were real and will be empathetically moved by them and will in consequence be swayed to march with him.

But who talks about the raw emotion on the other side? Think of the terrified mother in Georgia, hiding in a closet with her twin children, whispering on the cell phone to her husband and praying for the police. Are her life and her children’s lives less valid than the life of the career criminal who broke into her home? She shot that man and saved three lives, but I wonder what her emotions were.

What about the eighteen-year old Oklahoma girl, recently widowed and left with a three-month old son, who was on the phone to the police when she had to shoot one of two men who broke through her barricaded door? Were her life and her baby’s life less valid than the knife-wielding criminal who kicked in her door? I wonder what emotions went through her as she held her child.

Those two stories made national headlines, in part because of the dramatic nature of the events, but most, in fact nearly all, such stories never even make the news, although, according to the most conservative estimate (by the Center for Disease Control) such legal, life-saving uses of a firearm occur over three times as frequently as deadly criminal uses. According to the Bureau of Justice, such defensive gun uses occur between 60,000 and 100,000 times a year, or over seven to twelve times as frequently. Other studies show a defensive use rate thirty times greater than that. Contrast those lives saved to the 8,124 people killed by firearms in 2014. How do we weigh the emotional value of the surviving against that of the dead?

Thirty-four years ago, a young man with his pregnant wife, and with his three-year old son in a stroller, were walking down a dark residential street at night in Los Angeles, when a van with two men in it slowed to scope the young couple out. The van circled the block, and then stopped. The two men jumped out and charged the family. The young man shoved the stroller toward his wife, who with great presence of mind instantly took it and moved away from him. He then reached under his coat where he had a holstered illegal handgun. But as soon as he put his hand under his coat, before he could even draw the gun, the two attackers stopped, did an about-face, and drove away.

That defensive use of a firearm was never reported, but I know it occurred because I was the young man, and I can tell you what emotions went rocketing through me as the event unfolded. The first was stark terror which somehow translated itself into resolve, and the second was giddy, almost hysterical relief.

Would I have died on that street that night if I hadn’t had a firearm? Maybe. Maybe not. The fact that I am still alive may not make you sob, but somehow I can’t help feeling my life was worth saving.

 

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Why Tumbleweed?

January 5th, 2016 14 Comments

Tumbleweed

Photo courtesy of Bing.

 

Not far from my home are a series of windfarms; there are also several houses in our valley that have their own little windmills. Needless to say, you don’t have windmills, let alone windfarms, in places where there is no expectation of a fairly consistent level of wind, all of which is a way of making the point that we are used to wind here. In fact, if you look at a wind map of the United States, where the darker the red the higher the average wind level, our little community is a tiny pinprick of the darkest red the map employs.

So we’re used to wind in this neck of the woods. But we just had three days of the sort of high, unrelenting wind that made me understand for the first time why suicide rates in southern France are purported to rise dramatically when the Mistral blows. It’s one thing to have high, gusty winds; or steady winds that blow all day long and only subside with the sunset; or even the sudden concentrated gusts we call dust devils that are a kind of miniature, localized tornado. (A builder friend of ours was taking his lunch break, seated in the sun with his coat off on a stack of three-quarter inch four-by-eight sheets of plywood when he realized he was about to be hit by a dust devil. He dove for cover and spent much of the afternoon recovering sheets of plywood from a pasture fifty yards away. I just happened to stumble across his coat while I was out quail hunting a few days later about half a mile from the building site.)

But it is another thing entirely to have sustained, unrelenting, forty to fifty mile per hour winds that blow undiminished, day and night, dry and cold, out of the Mojave Desert, piling up every tumbleweed in entire southwestern United States on my property.

The wind has finally subsided down to a strong cold wind out of the desert, but at least down enough that for the first time in three days I have been able to go out and assess the damage. Nothing permanent or too severe, thank God, but it’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about when I say I had to use the tractor this morning for over two hours just to clear a one hundred yard path along my driveway to our front gate. I haven’t gotten rid of the damned stuff—that’ll take weeks—but at least we can drive out to get some groceries.

I have a list of things I intend to discuss with God when I see Him. I want to know what the hell He had in mind when He created ticks. I want to know what distracted Him so much that He did such a second-rate job of designing a man’s knee and a horse’s digestive tract. And now I want to know if He was sober when He came up with tumbleweed.

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Book Review: Brushstrokes and Balladeers

December 30th, 2015 20 Comments

PickinUpANewPairOfHeals37x37

 

Brushstrokes and Balladeers is the first volume of a two-volume set compiled by C.J. Hadley and published by the Range Conservation Foundation and Range magazine. The second volume is Reflections of the West and both books cover the same territory, a compilation of poets and painters associated with the American West. And that covers a lot of ground, you should pardon the expression, in every way you can think of. I will write about both volumes as the single set they are.

december-sundown

 

The artists C.J. Hadley has selected range from familiar old masters of the American West, such as Remington, Russell, and Dixon to modern masters most of whom, thank God, are still very much with us today: think Tom Quinn, William Matthews, Karen Myers, Tom Browning, Jason Rich, Nancy Boren, the recently deceased Bill Owen, Don Weller, S.C Mummert… I’m tempted to go on, because there are so many fine artists represented here, but instead I will just say that Hadley’s choices wisely cover all aspects of that vast and varied area that runs from the high central plains to the Pacific, and from Mexico to Canada, the area that is home to a lifestyle that is the best part of America. Most of the paintings show glimpses of cowboy and ranching life, from the iconic (gathering cattle in all kinds of terrain and all kinds of weather; a tired cowboy and his horse both drinking from a stock tank; mending fence) to smaller and more intimate moments of the same lifestyle (a cowboy whose eyes and mind may be focused elsewhere, but whose hand is absently stroking the ears of the dog who makes his job possible; a group of ranchers sharing memories and gossip over coffee at the counter of their local breakfast joint) but there are also portraits of men and women, cattle and horses, as well as the exquisite portraits of wildlife captured by Tom Quinn’s extraordinary brush. And through it all, dominating it all, is the magnificent, breathtaking, unforgiving landscape of that part of America many of us are so proud and happy to call home.

black-white-and-cold

 

And while these volumes are intended as a celebration of the American West, Hadley has wisely expanded her choice of poets to include some who captured part of what our West means even as they lived in other places and other times. The great Persian poet, Omar Khayyám never even dreamed of America a thousand years ago, but he managed to express some of what we find here today. Andrew “Banjo” Patterson never set foot in America, as far as I know, yet some of his famous poems sing of the cowboy experience as evocatively as if he had been born and bred pushing cattle out of arroyos filled with prickly pear.

There are some famous names here, men and women who are well known as cowboy poets (Red Steagall, Baxter Black, Wally McRae, Waddie Mitchell) and there are also some names that might surprise you (Wendell Berry, Robert Frost, Pulitzer Prize winner and United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser), but it is the new poets—new at least to me—that really caught me by surprise. I had never heard of Bill Jones, but his Five Days Home affected me like a punch in the stomach. I had never heard of Joel Nelson, even though he lives in my favorite part of Texas and has been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, but his The Breaker in the Pen is the only cowboy recording ever to be nominated for a Grammy. I had never heard of Wyoming Poet Laureate Patricia Frolander, but her Married Into It captures two entire lifetimes in forty-eight lines. I had never heard of a dozen others, award winners, Hall of Fame inductees, poets laureate past and present, men and women hailed by the Smithsonian, NPR, PBS, and—more importantly—by a public better educated than I.

And that’s the point of buying anthologies like these: these paintings and poems will give you insight into a world most people only think they know from movies, and they will give you infinite pleasure, reading or looking.

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Will the Yellow Star Be Worn Again?

December 28th, 2015 16 Comments

Yellow star

 

History is, or should be, a sort of cicatrix on the psyche of each of us, a pattern of raised scar tissue to remind us of the mistakes and cruelties—and the triumphs and selflessness—of earlier generations. Obviously, the farther back in time we go, the fainter and less meaningful those cicatrices will be: the lessons to be learned from the power struggles (thinly disguised as religious struggles) of the Thirty Years War, for example, (which actually lasted more like fifty years) will not resonate as much today as those events of only thirty years past. But if you are one of those pompous, prancing, prating politicians who pretend to lead us, you shouldn’t be allowed to even run for office without first taking a comprehensive, week-long world history test with varied parts (true or false, multiple choice, long-form essay, and verbal, with the verbal segment to be aired on prime-time television so you can maximize your foolishness and incompetence if you pretend to know more than you really do).

I forget now whether I was ten or eleven when we moved to Germany, but it was the beginning of one of the most enriching and culturally significant periods in my life.

My parents were both eager to expose their children to as much literature, art, music, history, architecture, food, and culture (in a general, contemporary sense) as possible, regardless of where we lived, but being in Germany, my parents did their best to take advantage of the millennium or more of German history and civilization.

My sister and I were sent to a German public school; we went to local German shops; when we went out to eat, it was to German restaurants; and we were not pampered or sheltered when it came to exposing us to both the good and the bad of our new, temporary homeland.

When we first visited the cathedral in Köln, it was in a part of the city where many of the buildings had been reduced to piles of rubble; the piles had been tidied up and the rubble moved out of the streets, but it was still a stark reminder of the effects of war and our parents explained why it was rubble and why it had been necessary.

Nor did our parents make any effort to shield us from the realities and causes of that war. Many, if not most, of our friends there were Germans, good and wonderful people all, many of whom I would dearly love to see again, but we were also told about the Nazis, and the horror of the atrocities they had committed. We were taken to see cathedrals and museums and architectural splendors that had survived the bombing, but we were also taken to two of the concentration camps that were in what was soon, after the building of the Berlin Wall, to be the only part of Germany accessible to us, West Germany.

I forget now which two concentration camps we saw. Isn’t that an odd thing to forget? I’m quite sure one was Dachau, but I wouldn’t swear to anything, other than I remember clearly and vividly the hair-raising, nauseous, repulsion I experienced walking in there, as if the voices of the dead were calling out from the walls. The sensation remains, but the memory, the visual and intellectual memory has been blocked.

One of the books my parents had in our library in Germany was a photographic history of World War Two and one of the photographs in that book that resonated with me was a picture of a middle-aged man and woman hurrying along a street with yellow stars pinned to their heavy woolen overcoats, as other people, some in Nazi uniforms, some in mufti, pointed and laughed. The shame and fear on the faces of the man and woman were indelible.

I think it resonated with me in part because of what it was and in part because I was reaching that age where conformity is a critical form of protective camouflage, the latter coupled with the fact that I was one of only two or three American students in the entire Nicolaus-Cusanus school. In any event, I asked my parents about the significance of the photograph and they explained what that yellow star meant.

So now, more than half a century later, I found myself filling with rage, a palpable sensation, like filling with indigestion or heartburn, when I stumbled across an item in a blog that I follow, discussing the fact that the European Union has re-implemented a modified version of the yellow star. I did some research. To quote the lead paragraph of the United Kingdom’s The Telegraph, back in 2013 when the decision was first made, “The EU will star (sic) labeling products made on Israeli settlements in the West Bank to distinguish them from goods from Israel proper by the end of the year.”

I’m sure the dropping of the “t” to change “start” to “star” was an inadvertent typo, but it had an effect on this reader.

When the Nazis came to power, in part by demonizing an entire people, they first encouraged, later intimidated, ordinary Germans into boycotting Jewish products, Jewish businesses, Jewish stores, Jewish services. After Kristallnacht there was, essentially, nothing left to boycott, so the next step in the process of isolating Jews was to mark them visually with a yellow star. And now, three-quarters of a century later, the lessons of World War Two so conveniently and easily forgotten, the European Union has resurrected an economic version of that labelling system. Baroness Catherine Margaret Ashton (a life peer), the EU foreign affairs representative, was quoted as writing to the EU members, “I hereby call for your commitment toward ensuring the effective implementation of existing EU legislation relevant for the correct labelling of settlement products by adopting EU guidelines and other implementing acts where necessary.”

Such as yellow stars, possibly?

Germany, Hungary, and Greece have apparently refused to fall into goose step with the rest of the EU, and deserve credit for remembering their history, but one does wonder how much history the rest of the EU leaders remember, or if their fear of radical Islamic backlash is greater than their fear of repeating some of the most appalling mistakes in all history.

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A Christmas Present

December 24th, 2015 20 Comments

cat and elk 003 (Small)

May you all have such a perfect present under your tree. Merry Christmas!

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The Past Is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past.

December 22nd, 2015 13 Comments

Gold pocket watch

 

I received an email from a reader in Germany expressing regret that I didn’t have fond memories of living there. That reader couldn’t be more wrong: I loved Germany and have many wonderful memories of my years there and the only regret I have is that I somehow gave the wrong impression. But as I dashed off a quick reply, listing just a few of the things that made that time so special, I started thinking about memory, about its tenuousness, and about the importance of keeping it alive, not just because it links us to our own past, but also to a continuum of the lives to which we in turn are linked.

In my preface to the anthology, To Absent Friends (Willow Creek Press), I wrote: “There have been dogs in my life since long before I was in it. My father loved dogs, and the dogs of his childhood and young manhood are as real to me as if the memories were my own, ghosts of ghosts I can call by name and summon to my side.” And it’s true; the stories my father told me about his own childhood, about dogs and horses and people, about the incidents, triumphs and disasters both, many made humorous only by time and space and my father’s wonderful sense of the absurd, those things still live within me, keeping a past I never knew as alive as my own. Were the things he told me carefully selected and edited to suit the circumstances of my varying ages? Of course, they were, but that makes them no less valid, no less worthy of remembrance.

My mother turned to past the like a sunflower to the sun, drawing throughout all her life strength and sustenance, meaning and perspective from people and events both long gone and almost certainly forgotten by others. Whether this was a reflection of her southern upbringing or her Irish blood (both groups being noted for their tenacious grip on that most insubstantial of all realities) or whether it was simply a facet of her own personality I couldn’t say, but there too, courtesy of her, are long dead people I can still raise from their rest to watch go about their business hundreds of years ago in disparate places: County Cork; Mauritius; Loch Lomond; Georgia; Virginia; a specific, tall old townhouse in Baltimore.

Looking into the past at those people I know and never knew, I can see the tattered remnants of a defeated clan, the beaten survivors who were not buried in one of the mass graves determined by tartan, make their escape from Scotland to Ireland to America. I can see a handsome, pale-eyed young peasant with a bootlegged education, standing on the raised base of a statue in the small village square of Kanturk and reading aloud the account of the new Queen Victoria’s coronation for the rest of villagers, none of whom could read. I can see a brilliant, volatile college professor standing in a clearing, in his hand a dueling pistol that must have been old-fashioned even for that long ago time, and see the changing arrays of emotions that passed over his face following that irrevocable, terrible, minute movement of a finger. I can see an elderly man with a short white beard walking hand in hand with my five-year old father, the old man pointing out to the little boy he adored favorite landmarks around the Baltimore harbor, and when I hold now in my hand the gold watch my father carried in his coat pocket every day of his life, I hold too that same hand of a man I never knew.

So many others, more real to me in some ways than the people I see on my infrequent and irregular sorties into town; that’s the past we all carry, the past that never died or even passed.

And knowing these people I never knew helps keep my own parents alive, bracketed as it were, between oblivion and the unknown. Memories are as important a part of us as our DNA; indeed, who can accurately say which is which? Perhaps John Updike said it best. It’s a poem I may have posted before, but I don’t care; it’s worth posting again.

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death

is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,

which took a whole life to develop and market—

the quips, the witticisms, the slant

adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest

the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched

in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,

their tears confused with their diamond earrings,

their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,

their response and your performance twinned.

The jokes over the phone. The memories packed

in the rapid-access file. The whole act.

Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;

imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

 

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