Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Big Questions

Most of us already know that Memorial Day is a holiday originally meant to commemorate US soldiers who died while serving their country. It began with that idea, but in modern times the last Monday in May has become an occasion for remembering ordinary people as well, with many visiting the graves of deceased relatives whether they served in the military or not. More recently Memorial Day has become a long three-day weekend for family gatherings, trips to the beach, hot dogs and fireworks and of course, the Indianapolis 500 car race. But somewhere there at the bottom is still the thought that it is a time to pause and remember those whose deaths in one way or another meant and continue to mean something to us.

Purely coincidental that on this past Memorial Day the book in my hand was one written by a man who has spent much of his life intimately involved with death and the dead. No, neither ghoul, policeman nor murderer, but an undertaker who also happens to be a poet and something of a philosopher on the milestones of Life and Death. Some may remember seeing here last Saturday a post focusing on Thomas Lynch and his book of essays, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. In fact, the focus was more on a poem that appears in one chapter of that book, only one highlight among a book filled with thought provoking pages. Hard to remember when I last read something that had me grabbing so often for a pencil and notebook, and later returning to review and contemplate one of the writer’s observations on what he calls the Big Questions.

On one page after another Lynch gives the reader solid reasoning for questioning the technology and rationalism that have entangled our thoughts and morality with notions of my this, my that, getting in touch with my feelings and what it’s going to do for me and what about my self-esteem.

In a short passage from The Undertaking, Lynch wonders if ultimately we are going to leave all the answers to “experts.”

‘…the great divisions of the last half century and the next half century seem based on the contemplations of Life and Death: when one becomes the other and under whose agency. The advance of our technology is coincidental with the loss of our appetite for ethical questions that ought to attend the implications of these new powers. We have blurred the borders between being and ceasing to be by a technology that can tell us How It Works but not What It Means. Nor do we trust our instincts anymore. If we sense something is Wrong, we are embarrassed to say so, just as we are when we sense it is Right. In the name of diversity, any idea is regarded as worthy as any other; any nonsense is entitled to a forum, a full hearing, and equal time. Reality is customized to fit the person or the situation. There is your reality and my reality, the truth as they see it, but what is real and true for us all eludes us. We frame our personal questions in terms of the legal and the illegal, politically correct or incorrect, function or dysfunction, how it impacts our self-esteem, or puts us in touch with our feelings, or bodes for the next election or millage vote or how the markets will respond. And while business of all sorts can be conducted this way to the relative advantage of all concerned, on the Big Questions, the Existential Concerns, the Life and Death Matters of who is and who isn’t to be, what is called for are our best instincts, our finest intuitions, our clearest intellections and an honesty inspired by our participation, not in a party or a gender or a religion or a special interest or ethnicity, but by our participation in the human race.’

‘And here, the dialogue seems oddly hushed. Is it possible we are just too busy, just don’t care? Are we willing to leave it to the experts?’

Put The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade on your reading list.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Colors of Youth

Without warning and totally unexpected a soul rocking-blast from the past-package turned up in the mailbox this past Thursday. The ordinary 8 X 11 envelope contained a manuscript—a copy of the 1966 Master’s thesis written by a good friend in my youth, a friend dead from diabetic shock not a great many years later. I was unaware even of the existence of this friend’s thesis, and to find that he had written on a topic so very close to our youth, of our years between junior high and college…it was a profound surprise.

In the last year of junior high a gang of us got involved with a civic organization devoted to the enrichment of theatre arts among teenagers in our city of just over 200,000 people. The program had been carefully planned and included the construction of a building and facilities especially geared to the enhancement of youth activities and city parks. By the time we joined the fun, the building and program were three years old and by most measures a thriving, if not economically, then at least culturally vibrant operation. The goal of the program was certainly nothing new or innovative, but simply the hope that young people would learn, through the guidance and assistance of a professional leader how to put on theatrical productions, doing all the work themselves apart from direction and financing.

Phillip was one classmate involved in the program, and with everyone else worked long hours after school and during the summer to put on full scale productions of such plays as Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, Oklahoma, Thieves Carnival, Tom Sawyer, and Bye Bye Birdie among a list of others. For all of us those were golden days of fun, committed purpose, learning and wide-eyed discovery of live theatre. As noted in the conclusion of Phillip’s thesis, ‘a number of the youngsters moved on to work in little theatre organizations, fifteen or more pursuing professional careers in theatre and related fields, and others becoming teachers of speech and drama in schools and universities.’

No question that many, many others also participated in similar youth programs during junior and senior high school, but the impact of having those times, those experiences suddenly brought back on detailed pages written in colors, places and names almost tactile—to use an old hippy expression, it’s a trip!

After the first semester of college friend Phillip and I went in different directions, and though I got occasional news of him from my distant hometown, the details were skimpy. He married so and so and they were living in one place or another, both doing well. And then one day a letter said he was dead from either insulin too late or too much, details unclear. I was left with vivid memories of Phillip, ones that year by year receded into a dim recess. Until last Thursday and the mysterious receipt of his Master’s thesis on our days at Teen Town Theatre.

I read his thesis from cover to cover in one mesmerized sitting, once more awash in the memory of Harriet Tomlin belting out “I Cain’t Say No,” of Dianne assuring everyone that “Dogs are sticking to the sidewalks and the whole world is at sixes and sevens,” and Ruthie saying ‘goodbye to Mama’s butternut tree.’ Here was a document I didn’t even know existed an hour earlier reminding me of a dozen forgotten names and all the youthful exuberance of knocking stage sets together and putting on plays and musicals.

Phillip’s old thesis came to me from a close friend of those days, one of several copies he received from an old Teen Town acquaintance with access to graduate school files at the University of Southern Mississippi. I called right away to thank him for what I consider a crown jewel in the record of our youth.

The second photo above is one I have no memory of. The boy on the left is a forgotten name and face, but the one in the barrel is me wearing a Huck Finn straw hat. The bottom picture is of the program for our summer musical, Seventeen.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nature of a Dune

With each morning’s ramble down the beach, views to the left and right are forever a lesson, a shifting example of the divergent worlds of land and water. For the first half hour the ocean pounds on my left, while on the landward side eddies of wind stir the sand, at times rustling sea oats and beach grass on the dunes. Turning back toward home the contrasting sides shift and both land and the ocean opposite are affected by a different angle of the sun. The change in perspective is immediately noticeable in light and shadow, particularly toward the dunes. For the past months my main focus has been on the ocean with its shifting currents of blue, blue-gray, green and blue-green, on the cresting surf and the wet sand with its scatter of shells and birds. A return of the sea turtles has turned my eye toward the dunes.

Dunes are the result of wind blowing across plants on the beach. Sand particles are carried on the wind and as the wind passes across plants the windspeed slows and sand grains fall to the ground. At most times wind is a constant on the beach and little by little the windblown sand piles up and a dune grows. A variety of grasses and wild flowers colonize the dune as it grows taller. Dunes create a protected environment on their landward side allowing for various kinds of plants, which in turn support birds and animals. At different times the appearance of beach mice, doves and tortoises is not surprising. The lowest dunes provide a habitat for sea turtle eggs, sand crabs and other marine creatures. They also provide a barrier to salt intrusion from high tides and storm surges, in addition to protecting the land behind from erosion. Without the sea oats and other plant life dunes would have no anchor and blow away, changing the ecosystem drastically.

The turtle nesting season along Florida coasts is from mid-May until late October, a period of months when early morning patrols by marine biologists pinpoint the spots where large sea turtles have left egg deposits. Barriers are erected around the nesting sites, with the laying and approximate hatching dates marked on the barrier posts. The sites are monitored daily until the eggs hatch and the baby turtles make their dash to the water.

The past week four turtles have made their way to the stretch of beach along my walking path. Though it is my second time to be here for the season, there was still some excitement a few days back when I came upon a newly laid nest and the barricade put up by the biologists.

At a nesting site a mile south I got a good look at the surrounding dunes and was taken by the burst of spring growth in and around the dunes. Along with the biological renewal seen in the laying of turtle eggs, there is also a visible regeneration, a regrowth of plants and wildflowers. Interspersed with the brownish green of sea oats is a burst of red, yellow and orange from a bloom of dune sunflowers, firewheel and most surprising a fat pumpkin. In the midst of all this color I looked back over a shoulder to see the flat swath of blue water, the morning sunlight a scattering of jewels on its surface.

Something perfect about the scene a short distance above the turtle nest. Sun-worn stairs down to the beach crowded by sea oats, the white chair off to the side of a spreading firewheel plant.

A happy Halloween growing amidst the dried branches of palmetto and beach grass. Most curious of all is the Spanish moss to the left of the pumpkin’s vine and leaves. More common to the southern live oak, where it droops from branches, this plant (Angiosperm) is not common in sand dunes.

A spread of dune sunflowers, a sprinkle of firewheel in back, this is good example of the anchor plants provide to halt erosion and protect the land behind.

Couldn’t resist the splendor of this beach bouquet—a beautiful spray of firewheel flowers.

Each turtle nest is marked with this sign warning the curious to keep outside the set up barriers, to in no way interfere with the natural hatching of these endangered creatures.

For more detail on the laying of turtle eggs and their hatching, look back at Dreaming of the Sargasso Sea.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

She Dreams, He Snores…

Finally made my way to reading another of those gift books, one shuttled off to the side and forgotten for a long while, and as happens was once more surprised by a writer previously unfamiliar. Kind of a 'late to the party’ feeling about it, but fortunately there is nothing at all dated about the writing of Thomas Lynch. His themes are as relevant today as they will be a hundred years from now. The book here before me is a book of essays from 1997, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Wonderful title and one with a direct reference to the day to day work of Lynch, which is that of undertaker in a small Michigan town. Notwithstanding, he is a writer-poet of international fame and author of four collections of poetry, two books of essays, a memoir and one collection of fiction. I have the poetry collections to look forward to, but in the meantime read, reread and relish every line and paragraph of The Undertaking. The poem below is collected in Lynch’s 1999 Still Life in Milford: Poems, but first appeared in an essay titled, “Mary & Wilbur” one that is a part of The Undertaking. The poem was written to commemorate the re-opening of an old bridge in Milford that was at one time slated for demolition.


Before this bridge we took the long way around

up First Street to Commerce, then left at Main,

taking our black processions down through town

among storefronts declaring Dollar Days!

Going Out of Business! Final Mark Downs!

Then pausing for the light at Liberty,

we’d make for the Southside by the Main Street bridge

past used car sales and party stores as if

the dead required one last shopping spree

to finish their unfinished business.

Then eastbound on Oakland by the jelly-works,

the landfill site and unmarked railroad tracks—

by bump and grinding motorcade we’d come

to bury our dead by the river at Oak Grove.

And it is not so much that shoppers gawked

or merchants carried on irreverently.

As many bowed their heads or paused or crossed

themselves against their own mortalities.

It’s that bereavement is a cottage industry,

a private enterprise that takes in trade

long years of loving for long years of grief.

The heart cuts bargains in a marketplace

that opens after-hours when the stores are dark

and Christmases and Sundays when the hard

currencies of void and absences

nickel and dime us into nights awake

with soured appetites and shaken faith

and a numb hush fallen on the premises.

Such stillness leaves us moving room by room

rummaging through cupboards and the closetspace

for any remembrance of our dead lovers,

numbering our losses by the noise they made

at home—in basements tinkering with tools

or in steamy bathrooms where they sang in the shower,

in bedrooms where they made their tender moves;

whenever we miss that division of labor

whereby he washed, she dried; she dreams, he snores;

he does the storm window, she does floors;

she nods in the rocker, he dozes on the couch;

he hammers a thumbnail, she says Ouch!

The bridge allows a residential route.

So now we take our dead by tidy homes

with fresh bedlinens hung in the backyards

and lanky boys in driveways shooting hoops

and gardens to turn and lawns for mowing

and young girls sunning in their bright new bodies.

First to Atlantic and down Mont-Eagle

to the marshy north bank of the Huron

where blue heron nest, rock bass and bluegill

bed in the shallows and life goes on.

And on the other side, the granite rows

of Johnsons, Jacksons, Ruggles, Wilsons, Smiths—

the common names we have in common with

this place, this river and these winteroaks.

And have, likewise in common, our own ends

that bristle in us when we cross this bridge—

the cancer or the cardiac arrest

or lapse of caution that will do us in.

Among these stones we find the binding thread:

old wars, old families, whole families killed by flues,

a century and then some of our dead

this bridge restores our easy access to.

A river is a decent distance kept.

A graveyard is an old agreement made

between the living and the living who have died

that says we keep their names and dates alive.

This bridge connects our daily lives to them

and makes them, once our neighbors, neighbors once again.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Faraway

“Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway.’ It is a place I have painted before…even now I must do it again.” — Georgia O’Keeffe, speaking of her fondness for Ghost Ranch and Northern New Mexico

Some years back, on a trip to Santa Fe I spent a couple of hours in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I had previously seen her work in other museums, as well as in art books, so the experience in Santa Fe wasn’t my first exposure, but it definitely was an eye-opener. There was something more compelling about seeing her paintings hung on walls only a few dozen miles from where they were painted, and with the same scenery visible from the museum’s windows. We made a trip to Taos to look around, but missed the chance to visit O’Keeffe’s home there, though landscape often prominent in O’Keeffe paintings was everywhere overpowering.

A few nights ago I watched the 2009 made for television movie, Georgia O’Keeffe with Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and the always excellent Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz. Not a bad picture at all, if a little free with the facts of the artist’s life and relationship with Stieglitz. But anyone will agree that it isn’t easy to telescope a life of ninety-eight years, a relationship of twenty-eight into a compact movie of ninety minutes. For whatever faults it might have, it did receive nine Emmy Award and three Golden Globe nominations. The best of all possible outcomes is that it might spur viewers to pursue the work of O’Keeffe in more detail.

Artist Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, the child of dairy farmers. Interested in art from an early age, her road to full time painting was long. It wasn’t until 1918, at the age of thirty-one that she devoted herself to painting full time. Between 1916 and 1918 O’Keeffe lived and worked in Texas, and while there mailed a batch of her drawings—charcoal on white paper—to a friend in New York who showed the drawings to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at the time one of American’s leading proponents of modern art. Shortly after receiving O’Keeffe’s drawings, Stieglitz included ten of them in a group show at his well-known gallery. O’Keeffe moved to New York in June 1918 at the invitation of Stieglitz, and they were married in 1924. From mid-1918 until the summer of 1929, the two were inseparable, living and working together during winter and spring in Manhattan, spending summer and fall at the Stieglitz family estate in upstate New York.

O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico briefly in 1917 on vacation and from the first moment felt a special affinity for the landscape. She returned there twelve years later for the first of many summers, and after the death of Stieglitz in 1946 she moved there permanently. The stark, but brightly colored hills and cliffs, the black hills of the Navajo country, the cedar trees of the Ghost Ranch area and the bleached desert bones she collected as she roamed the desert were all inspiration and frequent subjects in her work through the 1940s. O’Keeffe was known as a loner and often went off by herself in the car she purchased to explore the land that infatuated her.

She bought a house at Ghost Ranch in 1940 and another in the village of Abiquiu in 1945. After 1949 she lived summer and fall at Ghost Ranch and winter and spring in Abiquiu. The simple architectural forms of these houses as well as their surrounding landscape are both reflected in her work from the 1940s to the early 1960s.

From her years with Stieglitz and her interest (through Stieglitz) in modernist photography O’Keeffe began doing large–scale painting of flowers, leaves, and trees, close-up views of natural forms, paintings imitative of a camera’s close-up lens. The impression is of the eye or lens piercing the depth of the subject. This style is evident in the 1931 painting Horse’s Skull with White Rose and the 1939 work Pineapple Bud. The pineapple painting was a request of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (Dole) wanting two paintings for use in advertising. Though O’Keeffe spent nine weeks in Hawaii painting the local scenery, it was not until later that she painted the requested pineapple, after the company sent a plant to her New York studio.

A young potter named Juan Hamilton turned up at O’Keeffe’s ranch house in 1973 asking for work. In her mid-eighties at the time and growing frail, she hired the young man to do a few odd jobs, but it soon became full time work. Over the years until her death, Hamilton became her closest companion and confidante, as well as business manager. He taught O’Keeffe to work with clay, and with his assistance she produced clay pots and a series of watercolors.

Increasingly frail in her late 90s, O’Keeffe moved to Santa Fe in 1984. She died there in 1986, at the age of ninety-eight. She was cremated, her ashes scattered in the wind at the top of her beloved Cerro Pedernal near Abiquiu.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tooth & Nail

Turning on the news or opening the morning newspaper is too often a deluge of reported misery. Shock value stories range across landscapes of war, murder, tornadoes and white collar larceny, with frequent stops along scenes of moral degeneracy. It’s no wonder that mental health specialists often recommend that patients refrain from watching or reading news stories. Most times a few pages of the newspaper with morning coffee are enough to remove the smile from anyone’s day.

Now and again we are rewarded with an over the top story that’s wacky and laughable, an incident ultimately trivial and minor in terms of injury. You know, the spatting Virgin Atlantic passengers who ripped each other’s clothes half off, pulled out hair and did $40,000 worth of damage to the plane, or the New Jersey ordinance that regulates when chickens and roosters can hook up. One or two of these crazy news spots pop up every couple of days. Well, yesterday was something of a strange day for Deltona, Florida when a local dentist had an odd tussle and across town a woman in a nail salon didn’t like her manicure.


The drama started when Dr Michael Hammond began adjusting the lower partial dentures of his elderly patient, Virginia Graham. Midway through the adjustment Graham began screaming in pain, snatched the dentures out of her mouth and threw them at her dentist. He managed to catch the dentures but when he refused a refund Graham grabbed the dentures and began tugging to get them away from the dentist. The two of them wrestled and tugged, stumbling down a hallway until the sharp dentures cut into Graham’s finger. At that point she bit (or gummed) the dentist’s hand until he released the dentures, then hightailed it for the door. Dr Hammond blocked her path and grabbed her arms. Finally, the distraught patient, blood on her arms, shirt and hand from the vicious tug of war climbed onto the receptionist’s desk and tried to make her getaway through a window. During the altercation an employee called 911.

The dentist was charged with false imprisonment, grand theft, battery on a person over 65 years old and assault on a person over 65 years old and transported to the county jail.

Meanwhile, in a Deltona nail salon a few streets away Cynthia Colson was getting a manicure. After the manicurist finished Colson complained that she was not satisfied, that her nails were too short and she was being overcharged. And without missing a beat she whipped out her cell and called 911. A few minutes later she made a second 911 call, complaining that the nail technician had “manhandled her” and threatened to cut her lip with the nail clippers. She made a THIRD call asking why the deputy had still not arrived. When the deputy arrived he told Colson she would have to pay for her manicure and leave, that she could not press charges and there was nothing left to do. This did not go over well with Colson and she then called 911 a fourth time to say she was not happy with the police officer because he was not helping her. She ended up in jail for misuse of the emergency system. According to Colson, she is shocked and doesn’t know what she did wrong.

Sometimes the foibles of life are too much for color television.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not Italian Gelato

Among the thirty plus boxes of stuff I shipped from Japan to Florida last year was an obsolete gadget that intrigued me for a while in the early 1990s, but is today all but useless. To the technically-minded it might have value of another sort, but in my eyes it has devolved into nothing more than a curiosity. I was looking at iPads in the Apple Store yesterday, the store rep saying something about the development of this or that feature and I suddenly recalled the Apple Newton MessagePad 120 that sits in pristine hibernation in a bottom drawer of my desk.

Apple’s Newton was an early version of what eventually came to be called the personal digital assistant, and the company’s first foray into the tablet platform. For better or worse, it was one of those ‘great ideas’ from Apple that didn’t pan out—at least not initially in the earliest form. Ask around today and you won’t find many who know what an Apple Newton is. Development started in 1987 and by 1998 Apple had ended the project. In the Apple Store yesterday I asked the store rep if he knew much about the Newton and his answer was basically, “The what?” Young guy, early twenties who understandably doesn’t remember much about electronics in his diaper days. But then few are unfamiliar with the developments that came out of the Newton—the iPhone, iPod Touch and most recently the iPad—all children of the first tablet platform, the Newton.

The MessagePad was a PDA developed by Apple for the Newton platform in 1993. Electronic engineering and manufacture of the devices was done in Japan by Sharp. It ran the Newton OS, which included handwriting recognition software. I recall this feature and stumbled about with it for a long time while the software learned my handwriting. It was clunky but fun at the time. Lots of double taps to choose a word from the correction popup. The device measures eight inches in height, four wide, with a one inch thickness. Weight is one pound. Trust Apple to come up with a catchy codename; it was ‘Gelato’ for the MessagePad 120.

I suppose we could sit around and imagine Apple scrapping the whole idea when they discontinued the Newton, but somebody would have picked it up, and probably somebody with less pizazz and daring than Apple. Sitting here now and holding the Newton in my hand I try to trace the line from heavy clunkiness to elegant magic that describes the iPad 2. Though basically ignorant of the work that goes into computer development, it impresses me that Apple went from Newton to iPad 2 in just thirteen years. But as the iPad commercial says, “It’s only the beginning.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Capricorn the Goat

The only thing that surprises me about the heightened interest in sepia and other brown inks that has flared over the past year is its lateness in coming. There was a time centuries ago when sepia ink was the norm, as common as royal blue ink is today. But then fads change and eventually traditionals are replaced with something deemed more right for the time. There is probably a good chance that royal blue ink will fall out of favor, to be replaced with another sober and conservative color of ink suitable for business documents and important signings. It might even turn out to be a return to sepia-like browns.

I’ve had a thing for brown inks for some time, and back when there were few to choose from among available stocks I had them mixed by Osamu Ishimaru, premier ink blender at Sailor. The opportunity to have custom inks mixed on the spot is something I lament about no longer living in Tokyo. In a city the size of Tokyo, where fountain pen and ink hobbyists are well served by pen clinics and festivals occurring several times a year, and where pen shops are numerous, the events and opportunities provide a near paradise for pen and ink enthusiasts. Sadly, where I live now it’s an Internet fueled hobby for the most part. Can’t say that has cured me of a mania for ink. A new ink, manufacturer or shade still has the power to set heartstrings humming.

The other day I pulled from an out of sight corner in my stacks of ink a shade of brown mixed for me by Sailor’s Mr Ishimaru maybe fours years ago at a pen clinic sponsored by Maruzen Department Store in Tokyo. At this remove it’s hard to recall my description of the brown I was looking for at the time, but surely it was something ‘woody, darkish and robust with a hearty splash of black.’ Whatever the description at the time, Mr Ishimaru as always was game for a mix and match, dip and dab search for the desired shade. The result was an ink that he suggested we call Capricorn. No idea where he came up with that name but it suited me fine. I still have a bottle half full of that woody, robust and blackish brown Capricorn.

Not a lot of critical commentary this time, but more a sampling of what the color looks like. Sailor Jentle Ink is well represented among the bottles on my shelves and I honestly cannot recall even one among them disappointing in terms of saturation, shading, purity and smoothness. If you look at the 1-3-5-7-9-10 drying time samples in the top photo, it’s clear that this Sailor ink at least is not especially quick drying. Even after nine seconds some wetness remains, though ten seconds are enough for non-smear dryness.

But look at that chocolate pudding richness in the swab in the top photo. It looks quite different from the Capricorn in the comparative brown swabs in the second picture. Fact is, the ink looks much, much better in lines of script on a page than in any quick and doubly saturated Q-tip swab. A page full of writing in Sailor Capricorn ink is a beautiful sight.

For us here in the US, the ability to acquire this ink is not so easy, since Sailor doesn’t send its ink blenders on tour to America. But for those living in Japan the difficulty evaporates when you have the ink’s mix code and the chance to attend one of the many pen clinics in most large Japanese cities. The mix code for Sailor Capricorn is: 070313031. Give this number to any Sailor ink blender and he should be able to mix up a bottle of Capricorn in about ten minutes.

The writing in the top photograph was done with a Pelikan Souverän M1000 with a broad nib.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Scent of a Lion

As is often the case, film versions of books, well-made or otherwise serve to cast a shadow upon those books to which they owe their inspiration. In some cases the author of the book is no doubt grateful to the film for popularizing his or her story, but there is a residue of disappointment that the book was unable to reach the number of people a film version reached. But C.S. Lewis can rest easy that his series of books known as The Chronicles of Narnia has sold 100 million copies in forty-seven languages, and did it before anyone got a notion to make a series of Narnia films.

I am happy that some beckoning tendril or flash of something led me to The Chronicles of Narnia at a time long before Hollywood got the gleam in its eye. Written for young children during the years 1949-1954, the books quickly captured an audience well beyond the children’s market, and anyone familiar with the seven books who tells you that they weren’t captivated by these books just might be be shading the truth.

The story is set in the fictional realm of Narnia, where four English children explore their rabbit hole, where animals talk, good battles evil, and magic is the coin of the realm. The children are a central part of the chronicle and through their eyes we see the unfolding history of the Narnian world. Lewis’s creation of this fantastical world inspired and shaped fantasy literature profoundly in the years after World War II. It is a world inspired by Roman, Greek and Turkish mythology, spiced by the imagination of English and Irish fairy tales and salted with a dash of Christian theology. Narnia is a magnificent creation, but how did the writer come to it? C.W. Lewis said it this way: “At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don't know where the Lion came from or why he came. But once he was there, he pulled the whole story together, and soon he pulled the six other Narnian stories in after him.”

I first read the series in cheap issue paperbacks, pretty much devouring the seven in weekly installments. From beginning to end the unravelling of the story is an almost-Eden of allusion, parable, metaphor and symbolism, an architecture that Christian-minded readers make much of. There’s little doubt that the lion Aslan is a Christ figure throughout the story and that other metaphors align with Christian thought, but the writer had these remarks on that idea: “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”

But I am not here to argue theology in The Chronicles of Narnia. The books stand as undoubted classics in whatever context you choose to read them. Only do read them if you have not yet had the pleasure. These are not books that story lovers pass up.

I finally passed on my cheap paperbacks and bought a large edition with all seven books included. It is the one pictured here, a Harper Collins 2000 edition, with the original illustrations by Pauline Baynes. For those interested first-time Narnia explorers much cheaper editions are available here.

There aren’t many—young or old—who put down the last of the chronicles without a feeling of deep satisfaction.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bombs Away

They are now selling more cars than the US. They have around 420 million Internet users, a number higher than the US population. They are the world’s biggest exporter, the largest energy consumer, and the largest producer of solar cells. As the top beer drinkers in the world they drink almost one-fourth of world production, while 320 million of them smoke—representing one-third of the planet’s smokers. Astounding statistics, and for the most part something of a grand achievement.

But the Chinese are having trouble with their watermelons.

In a small town of China’s Jiangsu Province, a watermelon recently exploded in the face of an elderly woman as she was cutting it open. Outside of town the watermelon fields of this eastern province have become minefields of detonating fruit, with farmers dodging salvos of melon-mush and flying seeds. Jiangsu’s chemically treated melons are going boom in a shocking loss for farmers. One of these farmers found eighty exploded melons one recent morning, but by noon the number had increased to 100. Two days later he stopped counting.

The culprit in these odd explosions is the chemical forchlorfenuron, one that when used correctly on some (but not all) crops can bring a harvest forward by two weeks, increasing both size and market price more than twenty percent. Agricultural experts say the chemical has been widely used in China since the 1980s, adding that even though it is unsuitable for watermelons it probably has little health risk. Forchlorfenuron is a legal fertilizer in China, sometimes used to stimulate cell separation. Used on watermelons, it often produces misshapen melons with white seeds and a tendency to blow up in your face.

Exploding watermelons are just another of China’s food scares, one in a list that includes problems of heavy metal cadmium in rice, toxic melamine in milk, arsenic in soy sauce, bleach in mushrooms, and borax added to pork to make it resemble beef.

Farmers in China often depend on fertilizers because they hire out as migrant workers, leaving less time for their own crops. Many of them confess to growing their own food separately from the chemically-raised crops they sell. One farmer lamented, “Nothing is safe to eat now because people are in too much of a hurry to make money.”

Concerns about food safety in China are growing larger. After six babies died and thousands more became ill from melamine-tainted milk in 2008 the government promised to deal with the problem, but then quickly arrested and jailed one parent who had set up a website to expose the problem and appeal for justice. More recently officials have begun encouraging coverage of food safety issues. In April they announced a crackdown on toxic additives when 300 people became ill after eating ractopamine-fed pork.

The country’s People’s Daily website has run stories of human birth control chemicals being used on cucumber plants in one area, while the China Daily reported that Sichuan peppers release red dye in water. The Sina news service revealed that in one region barite powder has been injected into chickens to increase their weight. A research study at Nanjing Agricultural University estimated a tenth of China’s rice may be tainted with cadmium which has adverse affects on the human nervous system.

Wary consumers in China choose to buy foreign products, which they view as safer, but mislabeling is another problem. The Fruit Industry Association of Guangdong province told reporters this week that most of the country’s ‘imported’ fruit is actually grown in China.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America