Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Shot in the Dark

Hi, there,

"It was on just such a blustery day as this," began Owl's story to Piglet. As you may recall, Owl has been added to my many nicknames, and it certainly is blustery today. You do not seem much like Piglet, either as an individual or in relation to me, but all is not always as it seems. My Dad, who, as an adult identifies with Eeyore, just as you tend to, told me once that he used to identify with Piglet when he himself was small. So, maybe you have an Inner Piglet, too, a hidden self that is small and loyal and brave and easily embarrassed. If so, you can sit down and I will tell you a story about blustery weather...but I dare not take this comparison too seriously, since at the end of the Pooh story I'm referring to, Owl's house blows down.

And I'm kind of worried, actually. The wind is quieter now, but earlier the gusts actually set the house vibrating, you could feel it in the floor. We're not at our house, we're at Chris' parents' house, which is not protected by trees and is right on the edge of a large river, so the wind whips off the water and slams into the house. There were whitecaps on the river, and the grass of the lawn fairly glowed a weird and unseasonable green under the hours and hours of rain. No snow here, just rain.

It's been worse elsewhere, of course; the news is full of tornadoes tonight. A handful of people have died, a drop in the bucket of a nation, but a drop the size of the sea as far as the affected communities are concerned. I'm thinking about how similar these tornadoes are to the recent mass shootings, also in the news, how violence falls, literally or figuratively, out of the sky, unexplainable and nearly unpredictable, and divides the lives of those in the way into before and after. There is no reason behind a shooting or a tornado, nothing to bargain with, nobody to convince. Mass shootings, of course, are the work of humans, and we think humans are supposed to be amenable to reason. The evening news makes it seem as though the shooter is in our living rooms.

But, while I am sympathetic to these scarred and torn families, I am not personally afraid of mass shooters. I am afraid of tornadoes, but that is because I'm a bit neurotic. Neither tornadoes nor armed maniacs are particularly common. I don't mean that steps should not be taken to improve tornado warnings or to prevent mass shootings, I mean that neither really represents a national crisis and neither is a reason for generalized fear.

I'm not afraid of mass shooters. I am afraid of the political consequences of panic. I am afraid of people who do not understand the statistics of risk; for so many, the death of ten people in a dramatic events seems worse than the death of ten thousand in ordinary car accidents. To avert one frightful tragedy, we will gladly ruin the quiet multitudes. I go online, and I read that people are seriously asking whether perhaps all people who are "mentally unstable" should be locked up. Maybe all schizophrenics, or all recently diagnosed schizophrenic men, or everyone with some other condition should be locked away from normal people to protect the innocent. Never mind that mental health diagnosis is neither simple nor consistent. Never mind that the mentally ill are an extremely small minority whom many people are all too happy to dismiss as "other." Never mind that many mass shooters die before being diagnosed, so any statements about their mental health are pure speculation. A nation is afraid, so clearly a small and unpopular minority needs to lose their civil rights. It's for the Greater Good.

I'm not talking about mass shooters when I say are these people crazy? We've seen societies go down this path before, and the result is horrific abuse. What I want to know is;

How many people actually have mental illnesses that could cause mass shooting behavior?
How many of these ever actually attempt violence towards randomly selected victims?
What proportion of mass shooters were actually diagnosed with mental illness?
How many people die in mass shootings annually?

What I suspect is that the mental health status of most mass shooters is unknown, that the vast majority of people who are diagnosed are never violent, and that locking up the "mentally unstable" would involve violating the rights of tens of thousands of people in order to save the lives of a dozen or so people who would likely get shot anyway because you can't lock up the mentally ill until you find them, and many mass shooters are never diagnosed. 

But these questions are not asked in a climate of fear.

Oh, my sensible friend, I miss the afternoons of talking together in the sunlight and messy alchemy of your office.

-best, C.

Saturday, December 15, 2012



I was just about to write to you about something, and now I can't remember what it was. I suppose I'm supposed to write to you about the latest tragedy on the news, but I find I'm out of step, once again, with the national zeitgeist, because I really have very little to say about it. Other horrors horrify me far more.

Oh, I did want to tell you about going to see Prairie Home Companion. I still don't know if you even like the show, but you must know of it, and going to see it live was a bit of an adventure. I told you a bit about the journey itself last week, when Chris and I first drove up to my mother's house and I saw all those hawks on the way. The next day dawned very foggy, and we proceeded in the fog to New York City, by bus. I'd intended to be all productive, but instead I slept most of the way. We took the train on the way back, again through the fog, a far more glamorous mode of travel. In the middle was the adventure.

My parents both grew up in New York, and I went there often when I was small, when my grandmother was alive, and oftener still when she was newly not alive and my mother was cleaning out the apartment. My father and I, not needed, I guess, explored the city together. We went to the Natural History Museum and bought soft pretzels from street vendors and ate them with mustard and we rode the subway. My Dad always got on the first car so he could stand and look out the front door window and I looked out the window, too. I suppose that basic curiosity, the desire to look out windows for fun, I must have had it naturally--I was four, after all--but my Dad showed me it wasn't just a kid thing, it was a human thing, to get a kick out of looking out of windows, of wanting to know. And I still do--I only just found out this week that apparently most adults don't care about looking out the windows on the subway, since both Chris and my mother thought it was strange that I wanted to. Mom reminisced fondly about my Dad's strange habit, her memory apparently triggered by my interest in windows. So apparently grown-ups aren't supposed to do these things, and I did not get the memo until this week. It's ok; I ignore this type of memo. I'm thirty-five, which is old enough to decide what type of grown-up I want to be. So I looked out the window, searching the dark for abandoned ghost stations (I saw one!) and I ate one soft pretzel with mustard and shared it with my husband.

One thing I know most grown-ups don't do is cover their ears against loud noises. I noticed that when I was twelve or so, grown-ups don't cover their ears against thunder. I saw no reason to stop, so I didn't. Thunder is loud. It hurts the ears and I do not like getting hurt. I don't like loud noises generally--train crossings, fireworks, of these days I'm going to get smart and remember to bring earplugs with me when I go to concerts, maybe even movies. School bells made me nuts, oppressed my heart, drilled into my skull. And the subways this time in New York...the subway noises never bothered me before, but this time the noise triggered a major anxiety state, not just the decibel level but its jangly discordance and too many people going every which way down alien tunnels and the knowledge that if I lost hold of my Chris or my mother I would be lost just as surely as I would have been when I was four. Except when I was four I did not expect myself to know where I was going and I did not think I could get lost.

And then there was Vivaldi.

Last week, I mean, in the subway, level upon level of echoing, grinding, screeching confusion and there was this strange sound slicing across it, slicing through at right angles to the other waves of sound, the dips and spikes of interference and I almost could not see it was so awful and it turned out to be this woman playing violin. She was tall and thin and swayed while she worked, her body echoing her music's grace. It's not that I don't like violin; I actually love violin music, the sound of the instrument, though I rarely listen deliberately because classical music does not hold my attention. But this woman was bowing right into my ear is the problem, playing fast and frantic and I could not get away fast enough. A man in another corridor played drums on upside down plastic buckets with skill but without arms and nobody looked at him twice, too polite or too jaded I could not tell and then onto another platform and the trains came screeching again. An unseen musician playing Silent Night  on a musical saw finally brought me some kind of peace.

Out above ground we saw Ground Zero, which I am not going to write about now, but waiting in the line to get onto the site I could see the new tower rising, a genuinely beautiful, deservedly iconic building I'd seen before only on television and there it was, a square becoming an octagon becoming a square again, the way things change as they go along, and it rose into the sky beyond the clouds and I could not see the top of it. A building to honor the dead cloud-snagged like a mountain.

New York is not my country. I do not feel comfortable there, I do not really enjoy my visits, which are therefore rare. But I can see why my mother likes it, its gritty, human reality of it, its glamor and complexity and energy, the street vendors and buskers like lianas on the great trucks of economy, a human upon human rainforest diversity greened by plane trees and ailanthus and the young white oaks of Ground Zero and a pigeon in Battery Park looked up at me in sudden surprise that I'd noticed it. It took two steps back and thought about me and I held its eye and thought about you.

Garrison Keilor likes New York City. It is a cultured and fascinating place for him and he describes the place as he sees it, a home of sorts for him, for part of him, while the other part still live on the prairie, he makes himself a conduits between these two lives, these two world, makes himself the contrasting dot on each half of the Yin Yang symbol every week, his stories now and then rising to the stature of secular homilies.

Watching the show was less of a big deal than I thought it would be; it was very much like listening to the show like normal, which is to say pretty darn good. Have you listened to it? You know those stringed notes and the introductory "from Minnesota Public Radio," that opens like a sonic curtain on the song that starts the show? You can hear that sitting in the audience, with those opening strings the show goes live and you get the thrill of knowing that if you yelled real loud your voice would go out to the nation.

Keilor is tall and awkward-looking and he wears red shoes always (or at least always when hosting the show). He is also an irrepressible flirt, which you can hear over the radio. What you cannot hear is that he stands too close to his female guests, stooping over them, invading their space, or at least he did so last week. The women slowly backed up and he advanced, the pair moving gradually across the stage as they spoke and he can't possibly know we can see him doing that, that we notice? Maybe he doesn't notice, and who is going to tell him? But never mind, this, his sonorous voice, has emerged from the dark of radio more often than not every week for all the weeks since that week in my childhood when we came across the show by accident while driving to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant and my Dad and I let my mother go hungry until the show was over because we wouldn't get out of the car. I had forgotten that, and the story makes me want to buy my mother dinner in recompense, though she has come to love the show, too, this voice, this storyteller, who links time and space, the one thing that does not change as we go along.

And this week, today, back in my living room eating Chinese take-out with my sweetie and the half-decorated Yule tree, I hear the opening strings and the sound is a conduit, an auditory passageway through the blind night and I know at that at the theater in New York the show has gone live and all across the nation millions of people are united in single experience and right now the man in the red shoes smiles awkwardly and sings;

Ah, hear that old piano
comin' down the avenue
I smell the spruce trees
I look around for you
my sweet, sweet old someone
comin' through that door.
It's Saturday, the band in playin'
Honey could we ask for more?

No, at the moment we couldn't.

--best, at ever,

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hawk Eyes

Hello, my friend,

I saw FIVE hawks today. I'm not sure what kind--they all looked to be about the same size, maybe roughly osprey sized, but not ospreys. I got a good look at one and it was brown and white, with a white chest and belly, no stripes or spots. But the thing is, I didn't just happen to see them. I looked for them and they appeared.

I was not officially birdwatching. We drove up to my Mom's house today, the first stage in a brief trip to New York, and Chris was driving so I was free to look out the window. The road is mostly lined with forest, and at one point I saw a large lump high up in one of the trees. I thought "that kind of looks like a hawk. I'm going to look and see if it is a hawk." And it was. It's not uncommon for me to see hawks by the side of the road, but normally I see the hawk first and then I notice it; it's hawkishness impresses itself on my mind before I really see the bird consciously, so I have only a few seconds to really look--is that really a hawk?--before I pass out of view around the corner. This time I saw what could be a hawk, a potential hawk, an undifferentiated waveform of probable hawk, and I decided to focus my attention on it the way I might focus my eyes upon something, I focused and what came into focus was a hawk.

It seemed such a magical think, to evoke a hawk by looking, that I decided to see if I could do it again. And so I began scanning the trees, focusing on any largish lumps, and the very next time I focused on a hawk-sized lump it was, indeed, a hawk. Then I saw one again--three hawks in three minutes. All of them were doing about the same thing; sitting on tree branches facing the road, maybe waiting for something, maybe just watching humans or other birds. I saw smaller lumps in the trees as well--maybe some birds' nests, but mostly probably the drays (nests) of squirrels. The squirrels have likely moved out; I've read that grey squirrels often nest in deciduous trees in summer, but in the winter when these nests are exposed by leaf fall the squirrels move to evergreens or maybe people's attics. About five minutes later I saw another hawk, and then another. Have there always been this many hawks along RT. 113? Do I now have the ability to see a hawk whenever I feel like it? Or was I just lucky today? It almost felt as though the act of looking made the hawks appear.

It happens that way sometimes. At school, I expected to find superb faculty, and that is what I found, but I noticed not everyone there had the same experience--the complaints I heard generally concerned faculty members whom I did not know, so maybe it was just our program that had the best faculty and the other programs had to make due with more ordinary people. That is possible. But it is also possible I saw excellence because that is what I was looking for, while other people were not looking for it. I do not mean that I saw what I expected to see because I expected to see it. I do not mean that I projected something that wasn't there. I did not project the birds I saw today; those hawks were incontrovertibly real.

I've always liked hawks; I like predators generally, and birds have the trick of possessing a full measure of predatory glamor but in a package too small to actually engender my fear. Seeing a hawk is fun in a way that seeing a bear is decidedly not fun. My intersection with your life has further sensitized me to birds, multiplying my appreciation of raptors again. It is not that I have become a birder; the mad obsession of the naturalist has struck me in other forms, and the years find me more and more incapable of neglecting plant ID, while I can still let a bird go as simply "a bird." I doubt that will change. What has changed is that all birds are now important by proxy. It's like the way I notice if I happen to hear about the football team my husband likes or a news story about a place where a friend of mine lives. It's like if I keep an eye out for birds I might somehow see one you might like and send it to you as a present.

Towards the end of The Little Prince, the title character is getting ready to leave. He will not come back, so he is saying goodbye to the narrator. The boy explains that he lives on an asteroid that is too small to be seen from Earth, so instead his friend can look up at the stars and imagine that the boy is living on all of them, that they are him in some way. He says;

All men see stars differently: to thinkers, they are problems; to businessmen, they are wealth. But you shall have stars as no one else shall have them, for you shall have stars that can laugh.

One might say the same about birds. For chicken growers, birds are indeed wealth. To ornithologists they are problems (in the sense of puzzles, not burdens). You do not laugh much, though I've heard you chuckle occasionally, but you do smile a lot. It is an unambiguous smile, simple as sunlight. I do not know where you are; you might as well be on an asteroid, maybe you netted a star, one of that flock we call the Milky Way, and it flew off with you. But I saw five hawks today, and I thought of you.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Day at the Beach.

Hello, my friend,

Do you ever get a song stuck in your head? Of course you do, you must, everybody does. But do you ever get just a phrase, a non-musical phrase, stuck? I mind these a good deal more, in no small part because I hardly ever hear of anybody else with the problem. It's a bit like having food stuck in between the teeth, a small irritation, not quite painful, but over time maddening.

Today it was "graphic blandishment," the phrase Charles Schultz uses to refer to his animators in the closing credits of The Charlie Brown Christmas Special, which Chris and I watched last night. Graphic blandishment. I'm not even sure if the phrase means anything, apart from Mr. Schultz's use of it. But there it was, stuck in my head this morning, over and over, appearing early in the morning, right after the images and emotions of my dream faded, and it kept repeating itself, over and over again, for the better part of six hours. Graphic blandishment. Finally there was nothing for it but to tell Chris about it and thereafter to repeat the phrase over and over again, at intervals, throughout our conversation, throughout the day. Finally he started repeating "graphic blandishment" too.

The problem is we weren't alone. Chris has been involved in leading volunteers on Assateague in cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy, and today I decided to join him as a volunteer. So now and then someone else heard a "graphic blandishment" and I had to explain. Eventually, I got other people doing it--that, I admit, was deliberate. I'd stopped in the visitor center while Chris did concluding paperwork or something so I could copy down the list of plants that grow on Assateague (these include no less than three oaks, all of them new to me, and four pines, two of them new--I intend to learn ALL of them), and so as I copied I told the desk personnel about my day, including graphic blandishment. I discovered that the bookstore clerk has recently discovered birds and is in the process of expanding her geekdom from Manga (Japanese comic books) to include animals, so when I was done copying, I launched happily into stories about my friend, the ornithologist (I can almost hear your eyes role, but you are impressive, and she was suitably impressed), and I had gotten as far as explaining that statistics are actually a central part of doing science, when Chris finished up and I had to excuse myself and go, since he had somewhere he needed to be. My new friends cordially wished Chris a happy graphic blandishment, and he wished the same to them. 

Really, I had a good time out and about and cleaning today. Mostly we were up on the north end of the Island, an area I always find mildly frightening, because it is so exposed. Assateague is very narrow there, too narrow for anything besides grasses and the occasional low shrubs to withstand the constant, killing, salty wind. There is no way to shelter from the weather, apart from maybe crouching behind the occasional low, grass-topped sand dunes, and there is no drinkable water. I feel a similar low-grade anxiety sometimes in the desert, though I like both the desert and Assateague generally. It's just that I am aware that if one thing goes wrong in a place like that, everything could go very wrong very fast. But today the weather was forgiving, and nothing went wrong anyway.

We--maybe half a dozen of us, in my group--were engaged in picking up tiny bits of plastic from what Chris had described as a "gyre" of trash. Evidently, a swirl of stormwater had concentrated a stew of plastic and broken vegetation in an area not much bigger than that classroom in the west wing--you remember the one? before the water drained away and left the trash and the vegetation behind. We couldn't pick the trash out of the vegetation because the pieces were so small, so mostly we just shoveled up the mess entire. I was mildly disapointed that the "gyre" did not look all whirlpool-shaped, but I suppose Chris was right that a whirlpool caused the pile. Graphic blandishment.

Later, I went with Chris to inspect other, wider, parts of the island, climbing back into the brush and forests, ducking under greenbriar, investigating pine cones, and walking on the ever-present litter of storm-tossed vegetable bits. In places, clumps of storm-wrack hung three or four feet up in the trees and brush, and this is hundreds of feet inland from the normal high-tide line. Chris showed me a boardwalk that had been raised at leased two vertical feet from its former position. The storm picked it up and filled in the post-holes underneath, leaving the walkway stable enough but higher, the posts striped algae green and soil brown to show where the former intersection with the surface had been. Another walkway--and I think I mentioned this to you--had simply floated away. I'd heard of these things, but today I saw it.

Hurricane Sandy was scary and tragic in a lot of places, but Assateague is not one of them. As far as we can tell, the animals fared well, and only a few trees have been lost. There is now plenty of wide, flat sand for the plovers to nest on. I was just having a good graphic blandishment of a time climbing through the shrubbery and daydreaming about botanizing and tracking there on another day. As it was, I saw fox tracks, dog, tracks, and the small crescent moons of both deer and the tiny sika elk. There was also some tiny creature with sharp little nails whose feet made no more impression on the sand than that. The sand, by the way, cut here and there by storm waves, is layered vertically and variegated horizontally, magnetite, quartzite, and other minerals lapping together, a dry, quiet record of wind and wave. Speaking of animals--you'll like this--hordes of tree swallows visited the island today, too, rolling over our heads as we worked, the leading edges of the migrating flock strafing the bayberry bushes, according to Chris, for the ripe berries, before the birds surged and flew and returned for another pass to feed again. And there was a dog, too, a puppy. You'll like this also; two of the volunteers found an adolescent Labrador mix on the street on their way in to the cleanup. They asked if any of us knew who he was, and then one of them took him home to hold until they could track down his people using his tags. Graphic blandishment.

Well, I usually try to have these letters loop around to make some sort of point, subtle and unstated though that point may be, but I'll be graphically blandished if I can figure out what the point is here. Maybe it's just words, friendly, mildly informative, but disorganized words about my day. Or maybe you can identify a point.

Either way, believe me ever to be your (graphic blandishment) friend,

-Caroline (graphic blandishment).