Lest we forget

Armenian-Genocide-

Last week, as I drove home on Hwy. 99, on the outskirts of a small central valley town, I saw a billboard similar to this one, marking the centennial of the 20th century’s first genocide. It is one of two dark centennials we will mark next week. Ones that no one wants to think of, but which we ignore at our own peril.

The Ottoman Empire had been in decline well before the start of the first world war. Their initial military efforts were disastrous. Six months after the start of fighting , they had lost the Balkans, and ruin threatened.

Well before the start of fighting, nationalist Turks and some religious extremists declared that to be saved, the Empire must purge itself of non-Muslim elements. By early 1915, as the government feared that Armenian Christians might seek a separate peace with Russia, it became policy.

On April 24, 1915, notable Armenians in Istanbul were rounded up, a move that historians agree was the first step in a wider plan of annihilation. One and a half million Armenians would die in 1915 and 1916, and the killing would not stop completely until 1922. Though headlines around the world reported the atrocities at the time, Turkey denies responsibility to this day.

No one would ever be punished, a fact not lost on a young German corporal named Adolf Hitler, who paid attention to world events. After the war, victorious nations, including the United States, found it more advantageous to seek trade agreements with oil producing nations than to seek redress for a scattered and decimated populace. The U.S. House of Representatives came close to a resolution condemning the killings as genocide in both 2007 and 2009, but Presidents Bush and Obama respectively, fended off passage of the bill, which they feared would upset our alliance with Turkey.

Denial is still the order of the day for nation states with strategic interests, but as individuals, we fortunately still have the option of recognizing the truth.

A poison gas attack in World War 1

A poison gas attack in World War 1

The other sad centennial we will mark next week is the first use of poison gas on the western front, on the evening of April 22, 1915, a day we now celebrate as Earth Day.

Seeking a tactical advantage at the second battle of Ypres, the Germans launched a two day artillery barrage. When the guns fell silent, instead of the infantry charge that usually followed such a volley, the British soldiers saw a white cloud moving toward their trenches.

One hundred and sixty-eight tons of chlorine gas wafted on the western breeze. Only when it struck did the soldiers experience the horror that hid in the cloud. Chlorine renders the lungs incapable of absorbing oxygen; the victim drowns in his own bodily fluids. Those who could ran for their lives.

The gas opened up a four mile hole in the British lines, the kind of breakthrough the warring armies always sought, but as usually happened, confusion and inept command kept the German army from exploiting their advantage, which was soon neutralized.

A British soldier with a background in chemistry, saw that the gas had turned brass buttons green. Realizing it was chlorine, he supplied the troops with an instant antidote – breathing through a urine-soaked cloth would neutralize the effects. Both sides rushed gas masks to the front, and any strategic advantage was lost.

Most casualties in “The Great War” came from artillery, but poison gas somehow haunts our imagination as we think of the conflict that opened the 20th century. Nations entered the war with 19th century illusions of bravery and heroism. Such conceits were swept away in the first few months of mechanized carnage.

For me, Earth Day, 2015 is a time to consider the warring impulses which live within the human heart. Every thought and every action of each individual matters. What can I do, now, on Earth Day, and every day, to aim in the direction of the world I would like to live in, rather then one where mass horrors on the evening news no longer cause us to raise an eyebrow?

Sources:

Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview, New York Times.

A Century After Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens,” by Tim Arango, The New York Times.

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer

Posted in Article, History | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thomas Hardy – take two

Let’s try this again…last time I pulled a classic not-paying-attention trick – I hit “Publish” instead of “Save,” and then trashed the previous draft.

So as I was I was saying….

A movie trailer for a new version of Far From the Madding Crowd got me thinking of Thomas Hardy. This is the fourth movie based on Hardy’s fourth novel and the first one that brought him critical acclaim and commercial success. The 1967 film version, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and Terrance Stamp, launched me on a long Thomas Hardy reading jag.

This version of Far From the Madding Crowd is the movie I most clearly remember from my teenage years. Not only did Hardy’s melancholia mesh with my teenage angst, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only teenage boy to fall in love with Julie Christie.  Observe her gaping audience as she sings “Bushes and Briars:”

You can’t read Thomas Hardy without noting his stark vision of tragic fate in human affairs. The simplest act or coincidence can trigger chains of events that lead to disastrous outcomes. In Far From the Madding Crowd, an anonymous valentine, sent as a joke, leads to heartbreak, murder, and a hanging.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, also made into four movies, a snatch of conversation overheard at a crossroads by Tess’s drunken father leads to heartbreak, murder, and a hanging.

Gemma Arterton as the doomed Tess, 2008.

Gemma Arterton as the doomed Tess, 2008.

In Return of the Native, Hardy’s sixth novel, the beautiful Eustacia Vye, who longs for greater life than she can find on a remote heath, suffers the fate of a Greek tragic heroine. Her moves to escape her fate bring it upon her. Eustacia and her husband’s mother drown. In grief and despair, the husband becomes a preacher.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustachian Vye in "Return of the Native," 1994

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustachian Vye in “Return of the Native,” 1994

With recurrent themes of the conflicting demands of culture versus nature for the individual, as well as liberal doses of illicit sexuality, Hardy’s 19th century works were popular with 20th century readers. Seeming to contrast with that is a tragic vision more purely classical than any other novelist I can think of.

And let’s face it, we Yanks love good British period dramas whenever we can get them, whether set in Camelot or on Egdon Heath. So you better believe I’ll be in line to see the new Far From the Madding Crowd when it’s released. It might even prompt me to take another foray into 19th century literature, something I thought I had long left behind. We never know where imagination will turn…

Posted in Authors, Books, Characters, Culture, Movies, oral tradition | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Does daylight savings time save energy?

Public Domain

Public Domain

Ok, now that daylight time is here for us in the new world, and coming in a few weeks for the EU, it’s time for a pop quiz: who invented daylight savings time?

Yes, fellow Googlers, it was Benjamin Franklin who reasoned it would save candles in the colonies. It was not mandated in the US until we entered WWI, when the intent was to preserve resources.

According to Scientific American, the first study of the effectiveness of daylight savings time was conducted in the 70’s, during our first “oil crisis.” The same article notes that a study in Indiana in 2006, the year that state mandated daylight time in all rather than just some of its counties, showed an increase in energy usage.

Similar results were seen in California in 2007, when daylight time was lengthened by four weeks. California Energy Commission researchers found an energy savings of only 0.2% with a margin of error of 1.5%. Changes in air conditioning patterns as well as the pervasiveness of electronic controllers in homes and businesses are possible causes of the flat or negative results.

I, for one, enjoy the light in summer evenings. Farmers dislike daylight savings time, for it disrupts their schedules. Sports enthusiasts favor it. In the late ’90’s, for instance, representatives of the golf industry said daylight time earned them and extra $400 million in fees each year.

For it or against it, the odds of it’s changing are practically non-existent. Unless you live in Arizona, you’ve lived with it all your life. Besides, there are more pressing issues for Congress to fail to act on than this.

Daylight time is one of those things, like the Superbowl and plum blossoms, like St. Patrick’s day, and the start of baseball season, that signal the coming of another spring and summer. I’m not inclined to complain too much if that costs me an hour of sleep.

Posted in Culture, Current Events, News | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Andrew Bacevich on “An Extraordinary Opportunity for Congress”

Andrew Bacevich

Those who follow this blog will know the high regard in which I hold historian Andrew Bacevich. In a 2012 review of his book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, I mentioned a few of Bacevich’s credentials:

Bacevich, a Viet Nam veteran, retired as a colonel after 23 years in the army. He holds a PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998. In March, 2007, he described the US doctrine of “preventative warfare” as “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.” Two months later, his son died in Iraq.

On February 14, Bacevich posted a brief article on Moyers & Company that I’d love to see more widely read. He likens the current administration’s middle-eastern initiative to Nixon’s 1970 “incursion” into Cambodia and says:

“How did we arrive at this predicament? Where exactly are we headed? What is the overall aim? How will we know when we have succeeded? What further costs will the perpetuation of the enterprise entail?

Back in 1970, when the predicament was the Vietnam War, those questions demanded urgent attention. Today, the enterprise once known as the Global War on Terrorism, now informally referred to as the Long War or the Forever War or (my personal preference) America’s War for the Greater Middle East, defines our predicament. But the questions remain the same as they were when Cambodia rather than the Islamic State represented the issue of the moment.

So President Obama’s requested Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) could not have come at a more propitious moment. The proposed AUMF presents the Congress with an extraordinary opportunity — not to rubber stamp actions already taken, but to take stock of an undertaking that already exceeds the Vietnam War in length while showing not the slightest sign of ending in success.”

Read it, and instead of weeping, pass it on.

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Where did this come from?

notebook

A few days ago, looking for a piece of scratch paper, I picked up a 5″ x 8″ spiral notebook from a desk in the back room. I flipped it open to some curious notes on fairytales – and I cannot remember where they came from. Not from any book I possess, nor from any lecture I remember. Did they come from a blog post? And if so, why did I take the time to jot down two pages of notes without bookmarking the post?

The words were those of a writer who said, “I am eager to show what fairytale techniques have done for my writing and what they can do for yours.”  This is curious, because most of what followed – the “four elements of traditional fairytales” that he or she discussed violate the usual advice given in writing books and seminars.  Here the four elements as I recorded them.

1) Flatness – flat characters (no psychological depth), which allows depth in the reader’s response. Eg., the child who escapes monsters does not grow up to be a neurotic adult. Also, few fairytale characters are named.

2) Abstract –  Few details given. Fairytales tell, they seldom show.

3) Intuitive logic –  “nonsensical sense”  This happened then that. Causality not shown. Events may not be connected except by narrative proximity. But inside that disconnect resides a story that enters and haunts you deeply. Details of fairytales exist apart from “plot” and are a “violation of the rule that things must make sense.” Dreamlike.

4) Normalized magic:  breaks the notion that the more realistic a story element, the more valuable.

All four of these points are accurate statements of fairytale characteristics. The idea that they hook the listener’s imagination to “fill in the blanks” may help explain why fairytales make far better oral narratives than literary fiction.

At the same time, I can’t think of any published fiction that follows such a structure, least of all modern fairytale retellings. For one thing, since the 19th century, psychologizing has been a favorite pastime for almost all lovers of folklore.

The unknown author of these notes made a few more statements I wrote down:

“Every since I was a child, I have been happiest living in the sphere of story.”  ( me too!!!)

“Trickery is the instinct to know when something is wrong.”

“I will end by saying that story is what makes us human.”

Whoever the unknown author is, you have my thanks (a second time) for your most stimulating thoughts on a genre I love!

Posted in Folklore, oral tradition, Stories, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Strays

When the year turns, I tend to watch for events, private or public, that set a tone for the days ahead. I witnessed something on January 6 that I can’t forget, that seems important, like something I need to remember and pass on.

We took our dogs to the local park for a walk in the late afternoon, a beautiful clear winter’s day. Soon after we started, two bedraggled and pitiful looking stray dogs began to follow us. They were small, of no breed I can name, but clearly siblings, and clearly they had been dumped in the park.  No tags, and they were shaggy, dirty, smelly, and seemingly desperate for the company of our dogs.

We kept ours moving – not wanting this pair to come too near – fleas and/or disease came to mind. We circled the park and dropped our own dogs back in the car. One of the strays fell behind, but the other kept up the pace, though it must have been painful, for its nails were overgrown, and walking was difficult. I planned to go to the Arby’s at the edge of the park to get a couple of sandwiches for the dogs, but this little bedraggled one shied away from humans and wouldn’t even come near enough to pick up our doggie treats. It turned back toward it’s companion somewhere behind on the trail.

Words can’t convey how forlorn these two little dogs appeared. How their abandonment evoked the thought of all abandoned, discarded, and unloved beings. How their plight aroused such a strong desire to do something, to relieve their suffering, but what?

Call animal control? They’d be warm and well fed, at least for a while. But who could predict their odds of being adopted or being put down?

In the end, we left them in the park. Once before, I encountered a similar stray, who followed our dogs back to the car and even managed to jump in. Later I learned he’d been adopted by a friend who works in the Parks and Recreation Department. I can only hope someone who wants a dog will find them before cold and hunger or coyotes do them in.

The feeling of compassion never guarantees the wisdom to do the right thing. In the end, all we can do is take our best guess and do our best. As I think of these dogs, as well as the human strays I see from time to time in the park, I think of these U2 lyrics:

Every sailor knows that the sea
Is a friend made enemy
And every shipwrecked soul, knows what it is
To live without intimacy.

The dogs, at least for a while, had each other, but plenty of others do not. Haven’t we all been there at times? And it’s not always people who visibly live at the margins, for margins are not always visible. To watch for a chance to reach out with kind words or a helping hand – is there anything more important to consider at the start of the year?

Posted in Animals | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Reversion by Amy Rogers: a book review

Reversion

Dr. Tessa Price lost her infant son to a rare genetic disorder. For Tessa, much more is at stake than science when she invents a radical gene therapy to save another child, seven-year old Gunnar Sigrunsson, who suffers from an equally fatal disease. When her procedure fails to gain U.S. regulatory approval, she opts to treat Gunnar at the Palacio Centro Medico, a posh international center for cutting edge medicine.

During one of her visits to the Palacio, Tessa finds Gunnar almost miraculously improved. On the same trip, chimpanzees in the animal lab seem to go mad, savagely killing one of their own. The events seem disconnected until an animal technician begins to exhibit signs of the same madness and releases the animals, despite their rabies-like symptoms, into the nearby forest.

The leader of a brutal drug cartel occupies the Palacio with his private army, while a rival cartel with modern weapons, lays siege from the outside. As the two factions exchange blows and animals attacks increase, Tessa and a small group of patients hide in the research wing, hoping to avoid detection.

Tessa realizes that the greatest threat may not be the drug lords or deranged chimps, but a revertant virus, combining elements of rabies with a bat virus that creates a rabies-like contagion that can be spread through touch, and apparently through the air. Tessa’s cell studies show that Gunnar is the host. The boy she is trying to save for the sake of personal redemption – for the fatal genes she passed to her own son – might doom everyone around him.

Reversion is the second novel of Dr. Amy Rogers, MD, PhD, who writes science thrillers, a genre one can explore in depth on her blog, sciencethrillers.com.

Dr. Amy Rogers

Dr. Amy Rogers

Amy is also a writing friend I know from the Sacramento branch of The California Writer’s Club. I posted an enthusiastic review of her first novel, Petroplague, in 2011. Once again, she has created a gripping story that parallels the headlines we read in the papers. You can find both ebook and hardcopy versions of Reversion by clicking the icon at the top of this post.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A “small” thing

I’ve read about this, but it never happened to me before.

Late yesterday afternoon I was driving home from the bay area. I’d been up at 6:30 to attend a second day of Dharma teachings. The weather was fine, traffic was moving, I was listening to a decent audio book, but a wave of fatigue overtook me, and all I could think of was stopping for a stretch and caffeine at a Starbucks up the road.

I pulled up behind a small truck and half a dozen cars at the Benicia Bridge tollbooth. The truck seemed to take forever getting through, as if there was an argument about the toll. With some mixture of fatigue and (hopefully) the wisdom I had absorbed from the teachings, I waited patiently, and finally reached the window. I handed a five dollar bill to the cashier.

“No need, sir,” she said. “The lady ahead of you paid your toll.”

As I said, previously, this was something I had only read about before. I was suddenly wide awake, wondering how I could pass the gift on. Carry $10 next time I came to that bridge and pay for the stranger behind me, yes, but what about day to day actions? I don’t cross toll bridges often, and as I felt the effect of that small gesture ripple through me, all I could think of was how to pass it on.

“Don’t bother trying to save the world,” one of the lamas had said. “What right choice is in front of you now?”

What a powerful question, and how worthwhile it is to keep it in mind!

Posted in Buddhism, Culture, Inspirational, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments