Survival is Insufficient

Survival is Insufficient

I need a little literary throat clearing in order to put this idea into play, because as is often the case, something I’ve read set off a confusing chain of associations that called for further reflection, and, if I’m lucky, a slight shift in my habitual thoughts about the world, life, the future, mankind, existence, etc.  I don’t like to think of my mental life as habitual, but whatever mentation is, it appears to dive fairly easily into some fairly rigidly engineered constructions.  So, when something jars me a bit, I try to summon some gratitude, as I did in reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Station Eleven presents a not-very-far-in-the-future apocalyptic narrative, neatly alternating relatively ordinary events in the lives of the contemporary characters before the plague that obliterates most of the world’s population with the foreshortened and dangerous lives they lead post-disaster as a small band of survivors about twenty years after the end of life as they knew it. There is no rhyme or reason to survival of the plague.  Passengers on one flight miss infection and live to form a new community huddling in the remnants of the airport; another plane filled with passengers already infected sits on the same tarmac, diseased bodies decomposing in the locked cabins.  In the course of a week, the age of technology ends; electricity, for example, becomes a thing of the past.  The small bands of survivors scavenge as they can, looting stores and homes until, by the sixth or seventh year, they live in quasi-tribal settlements amid the ruins, hunting,  gathering, and stockpiling weapons to protect themselves in a world that is without the rule of law.

All pretty much the apocalyptic fare exceedingly well written, but there are two additional elements that make the novel uncommonly arresting.

The first is that twenty  years on, those who were children have but dim memory of the world as it was; they cling to tales told by older survivors, barely recalling what it was to have enjoyed television and comic books.  Older survivors essentially live in the ruins of the world they knew, simultaneously wistful in remembering simple pleasures – bagels, coffee, bananas – and saddened in recognizing that they had taken so much for granted.

The second is that a multi-generation band of actors, musicians, and artists travel from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare’s plays.  Like the performers and lecturers who travelled the  Chautauqua Circuit, these survivors believe that art, beauty, and Shakespeare are necessary to life, even in perilous circumstance, and travel through this world is one perilous circumstance after another.  Some members of the company have fought for their lives; they commemorate the necessary death of their assailant by placing a tattoo of a knife after each kill.  This is a landscape red in tooth and claw, and yet, one of the actors also has a tattoo that reads, “Survival is insufficient”.

That character believes he has recalled a line from Star Trek, and he has come close.  In the third season, “The Hunted”,  an exchange between Prime Minister Nayrock and Roga Danar might have become heated, were Roga Danar, the mutated super warrior, actually capable of heat.  Relentless slaughter, that he can pull off; conversation, not his strong suit.  In any case, not unreasonably, Nayrock has plans to send Danar to the settlement known as Lunar V.  Danar thinks this a poor idea.

Nayrock:  You were programmed to survive.  You can survive at the Lunar V Settlement.

Roga Danar:  To survive is not enough.  To simply exist … is not enough

OK, first time I’ve quoted Star Trek.  May be the last.  With regard to Station Eleven, however, it is quasi-poignant that this particular nugget survives as one of the few cultural landmarks placed next to King Lear, and it is difficult to think of another piece of apocalyptica that presents a credo as a legacy of an earlier age.

The statement has weight in the context of a world in which the amenities we take for granted have been lost, and it pulled me way back to one of the hundreds of unassigned books I read when I might have been actually participating in what my college believed to be formal education.  The book was Homo Ludens, by Dutch cultural historian, Johan Huizinga, an author I knew well as two of his earlier books, The Waning of the Middle Ages and Erasmus, were among the assigned books I actually read.  Huizinga’s thesis in Homo Ludens has some punch.  “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.”

Got it.  Even animals (other animals) play. it seems that simple survival is not sufficient.

Huizinga took me down an altogether different and rocky path as he went along, noting that while many significant terms passed into the Romance languages, ludens and  ludere were not among them.  He had much to say about play and contest as what he called civilizing functions, but I was back in my language hut again, trying to figure out why words leave a culture and what meaning language has in the essential characteristics of a culture.

So, commonly used phrases, “getting by”, “hanging in there”, “killing time” seem dangerously close to statements of simple existence, which is, as we now know, insufficient in a culture.

We don’t have to be a noted Dutch historian to figure out that play, and friendship, and beauty, and humor allow us at least as much sustenance as dolphins and Roga Danar seek.  I understand that tough times do demand that we hunker down to some extent, but whether we quote Hamlet or watch Survivor (and I do both), we need to live broadly, way beyond survival.





No Hugging, No Learning

No Hugging, No Learning

When I retired, I put together a list of fifty novels I intended to read, each of which was critically acclaimed and each of which I had missed during my working years.  No real surprises on the list; One Hundred Years of Solitude has been glowering at me from the bookcase for more than a decade, and I’ve started Infinite Jest at least six times.  Meanwhile, however, lists be damned; my reading has been completely undisciplined, and the unread pile next to my bed has become an obelisk, I don’t recognize half of the titles I’ve downloaded on my Kindle, and I still haven’t read Infinite Jest.

This piece actually begins in response to the last three books I recently picked up, none of which were on  the list, and none of which I will finish. My willingness to drop a book quickly or at the midpoint interests my eldest son who is a punctilious reader; he sees every book to the end, no matter how annoyed he is by the subject, the author, or the genre.  I admire him and his grit, but I now have a list of thirty-eight books to get out of the way and can’t dally with books that don’t capture my heart and soul.  That being said, in  an attempt to be polite to folks pressing favorite books on me, in the last two days I have been reading The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, and Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.

I stuck with Seinfeldia for a good while with particular interest in how a show about nothing invaded the situation comedy universe, and, I have to admit, with sustained wonder that anyone as crusty as Larry David could stay in a room long enough to sign a contract.  “No hugging, no learning”, was the phrase used by Seinfeld and David to describe the character of their work together, a compressed reminder that sentimentality had no place in Seinfeld’s world.  As I think about the nine seasons, it strikes me that it also describes stasis; the characters don’t learn from their disastrous failures of judgment, don’t become closer, don’t grow.  I have to admit that much of my guilty pleasure in watching the show is in knowing that I am going to see self-involvement bordering on callous disregard for others, no matter how obviously a situation demands compassion.  I’d be more embarrassed by my heartless amusement were the show not in constant syndication, viewed by millions daily, available around the clock, only surpassed in hours-per-screen by Judge Judy and Kickin’ It With Byron Allen.

I am actually quite ok with hugs and with learning, with development of character, and with declarations of emotion unless they devolve into hyper-sentimentalized bathos (Hello, Elizabeth Berg).  The central character in The Language of Flowers, however, has a profound allergy to emotion and human connection, having been shuffled through a succession of foster homes.  Unaccountably, she does have an extraordinary connection with flowers, not simply enjoying their shape, fragrance, color, but sensing the emotional energy that each specimen projects.  As an assistant to a kind florist, she understands the deepest longings of a few special customers and provides them with the flowers that (almost literally) speak to their needs.  She understands, for example, that the shy woman whose request is halting and obscure is in need of passion, presenting her with a bouquet of jonquils (Narcissus jonquilla), blooms representing desire.  It’s not so much that particular flowers have power as that they make their meaning palpable to those sensitive to their language.

In the 19th Century, floriography flourished, as it were, as a sort of cryptological message board.  Romantic swains sent bouquets as coded declarations, assuming that the recipient would know that Heliotrope meant devoted affection and that purple Hyacinth asked for forgiveness.  Characters in the novel can’t summon words to express emotions they themselves do not understand, but they find the language of flowers communicates exactly what they mean to express.  I’m interested in the difference between symbolism, in which an object represents concepts and experiences, and language, which is a formal system of signs.  Not sure where the language of flowers lands.

A rose is a rose is a rose, but in the language of flowers, an orange rose signifies fascination while a yellow rose signifies infidelity.  Each of the roses is an object, but each is also specific in its essence, and so both sign and meaning.  It is not surprising then that some of the most evocative moments in Shakespeare’s works arrive in the language of flowers.  Ophelia’s descent into madness in Hamlet is made most tangible as she catalogues the various imaginary bouquets she presents to Gertrude, Claudius, and her brother, Laertes.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray love remember: and there is pansies.  That’s for thoughts.

A lovely passage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Oberon’s rhapsody as he prepares to enchant Titania:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and eglantine.

Ophelia, Oberon, and the central character in The Language of Flowers all seem to know what authority each particular flower possesses.  A similar presumption pops up in The Little Paris Bookshop, which I am so far still (barely) reading in what I hope is a translation from the original German novel, Das Lavenderzimmer (The Lavender Room).  Monsieur Perdu owns a bookshop on a barge, floating in the Seine, from which he matches books and customers.  He has lost (perdu) the love of his life and has retreated almost entirely into books, which like flowers, apparently speak more profoundly to deepest longing than can words.  He calls himself a literary apothecary, prescribing the book that can mend a shattered heart.

Early in the novel Monsieur Perdu has a customer, a woman weeping, and attempts to press upon her the book he thinks she needs rather than the vapid Romance she thinks she wants.

“It’s your choice, Madame!  You can leave and spit on me.  Or you can spare yourself hours of torture starting right now.”

Clearly, he feels strongly about her choice of reading matter, but in his own profound loss, speech has become less authentically communicative than his understanding of the power his books present.

Perdue confesses, “…sometimes it feels as if I am sewed up in my own skin, as if I’m living in an invisible box that keeps me in and everyone else out.  In such moments, even my own voice strikes me as superfluous.”

So, what have these two quasi-romantic novels have to do with Seinfeldia?

Ahem, let’s just say that emotions are often tricky, and that we rarely find words that carry the meaning of those emotions, in, part because we don’t ourselves know ourselves.  Like the unfortunate Monsieur Perdu, we may be sewed up in our own skin.

Seinfeld’s characters amuse themselves (and me) by noting the peculiarity of others, cataloging foibles, dismissing earnest endeavors, reacting to a world they observe in minute detail.  Allowed no hugging or learning, they remain slightly nettled but determinedly superficial, living from syndicated episode to episode with little expectation of love or loss.  My newly found florist and bookseller are truly broken, but in books and flowers, they attempt to escape self-imposed captivity.

I do not speak the language of flowers; I do find restorative refuge in books.  My own writing is full of frippery and playful digression, hardly the stuff of restorative refuge for anyone else; I amuse myself, but also clear my thinking a bit.  In reading the remaining thirty-eight books on my retirement must-read list, I hope I’ll be provoked and prodded, nudged into thinking, swept into feeling.

If I can just stay away from friends with books I really don’t need to read.








Rat King Dot Com

Rat King Dot Com

My wife does not fool around.  She spots something that needs doing, takes a deep breath, and gets on Google.  Lots of folks here in town offer advice, but she knows there are experts out there in the Googleverse poised to deliver the precise information she needs to get the job done right.

For example, we had rats in the attic.

Unacceptable to be sure, but hardly a topic I wanted to discuss at length.  My hope was that they would tire of scooting through the rafters, eating insulation and wiring, and head back out in search of more appropriate rat chow.  You know, take care of this on their own, without our having to jump in with corrective measures.

Live and Let Live, that’s my motto, especially when it comes to climbing into a dark space currently inhabited by rats of some size, and  I knew they were sizable rats because even a novice student of rodent behavior knows the difference between skittering (mice) and thumping (rats of some size).

Here’s the thing – once you know you have rats in the attic, you pretty much can’t un-know that rats of some size are up there doing profoundly rattish things under cover of darkness.  The thumping was intermittent, then constant, then accompanied by a sort of sloshing, leaving no doubt that uninhibited predation was taking place up there.  For all we knew, rats were stacking corpses like fire wood, and once the aroma of decomposing whatever-it-was up there seeped into the walls, it would be tougher to eliminate than the predators themselves.

Next stop, obviously, Google.

Try it.  Type in “rat extermination”, skip past the many outfits and enterprises happy to bring in extermination experts, and continue until you see where Jeff R. Morrison provides more information about do-it-yourself ratting than you might have thought possible.

“Social media,” he advises, “is one of the easiest ways for us to keep you updated with the latest news in the rodent control world!”

I can’t begin to describe the many fast-breaking stories emerging from the rodent control world, but I will pass on an observation that struck me as humane.  Rodent controllers use a curious phrase to describe the rat’s sensory sensibilities; apparently, the rat is directed by what they term “essential oils”, by which I take it they mean those elements in the rat’s world that are appropriate and comforting to the rat.  These essential oils are all over the ratscape, and the intrusion of foreign … oils … as introduced when plopping down the waiting jaws of the rat trap, give notice to the rat that he would be well served to stay away from the unfamiliar aroma and device.

Foiled again!

Confounded, when all else fails, the do-it-yourself rat battler can slap that bad boy in the whiskers with an assault upon the essential oils themselves.  Dipping rags in ammonia, draping the rags throughout the rat kingdom, renewing the ammonia bath for several days seems to so offend even the sulkiest of rodents that they pack up their belongings and hit the road.

MIssion accomplished.  Maybe.  We hope.

But now, the time has come to search for ammonia-stench-dot-com in the hope of allowing our own essential oils to resume their rightful place in the home we choose not to share with sloshing fat rodents.  I’m actually not anxious to get into social media conversations about odor, so if anyone has advice to offer, please feel free to jump right in.



Unclaimed Baggage

Unclaimed Baggage


It could be worse. I could be … well … I’ll leave the variety of unsavory addictions off the table and admit that this thrift shopping thing can occasionally get out of hand.  I’d like to present myself as merely frugal, but the trail of thrift stores I’ve left in my wake presents a different picture.  My dream vacation would include my favorite Junior League Shops – Michigan (Birmingham, Grosse Pointe), Pennsylvania (Ardmore, Lancaster, and the Hospital Benefit in Bryn Mawr),  Connecticut (Darien, Westport, Hartford), California (San Francisco, Claremont, Pasadena), New York (Long Island -Roslyn), Illinois (Evanston), Tennessee (Memphis), Maryland (Baltimore), and Texas (Dallas).  I’d need to stop in to see what’s happening at Keezer’s on River Street in Cambridge, slightly pricier than some but a sure thing when it comes to men’s wear.

Side note:  It is cheaper to buy a quality vintage tuxedo (and who doesn’t want a vintage tuxedo?) than to rent one.  At Keezer’s, a used tux (jacket and pants) is about $65.00.  At the Hospice Unique Boutique in Ashland, Oregon (where I volunteer), a Brooks Brothers Tuxedo will set you back about $25.00.  Similarly, touting the bargains at the HUB, a gorgeous bridal gown goes for less that $50.00.

But wait!  There’s more!

Churches (St. Alban’s  and Christ Church in D.C), Hospitals, etc. (Greenwich Hospital Auxiliary in CT, American Cancer Discovery Shops in Sunnyvale and Menlo Park, CA. St. Stephen’s in Armonk, NY), Friends of Pets (Animal Aid in Tulsa), Schools (Town School in San Francisco, Ann Arbor PTO MI) – all operate thrift stores that are NOT consignment shops, NOT junk shops, NOT grimy, stale, and high-priced.

The trick is to find a neighborhood with the right demographic; for me, the right demographic includes well dressed men whose widows clean out closets in one fell swoop.  College towns are great as profs generally dress reasonably well and apparently retire nearby and leave a full closet when they pass into the great mystery.  The St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Shop adjacent to the University of California at Santa Barbara was a gold mine; I would regularly tote home togs from Brooks Brothers, J Press, and Ralph Lauren, never spending more than $5.00 for a shirt or $12.00 for a suit.

All of which leads to the topic of today’s reflection:  The Unclaimed Baggage Store In Scottsboro, Alabama.

Scottsboro is a small city about forty miles from Huntsville, generally not on the beaten path for most tourists, at least until Doyle Owens began driving to airports and picking up unclaimed baggage.  Today the shop occupies more than a city block and welcomes more than a million visitors each year.  I expected to see a lot of umbrellas and rain coats, which were plentiful, and some clothing, and luggage.  I did not expect to see a mountain of electronic devices, from Ipods and headphones to laptops and amplifiers.  One room is filled with sporting goods – skis, snowshoes, skate boards, surf boards, golf clubs, tennis racquets, basketballs, bowling balls, lawn darts, catchers’ masks. The music room is a treasure trove of guitars, French horns, keyboards, drums, maracas, synthesizers, trumpets, oboes, violins, harmonicas, accordions, bagpipes (which worked out well for the guy who bought the tartan kilt in the menswear section) .

There have been some big-deal finds along the way, including a Versace gown, diamond rings, Rolex watches, moose antlers, a suit of armor, and a Vegas showgirl’s outfit.  Once a day, a customer gets to open a suitcase to see what treasures might hide beneath the pajamas and sweat shirts.  Too often, a traveller has failed to claim the bag filled with cheese from the Netherlands or bratwurst from Germany.

It’s exciting, but …

What comes to mind now, at a distance from hubbub in Scottsboro, is the cumulative distress of millions of travellers separated from cherished belongings.  At some time most of us have experienced the frenzy of baggage wars, shoved from our post at the conveyor belt by a heavier, more aggressive passenger.  Some of us have watched bags go by, round after round, hoping that ours will finally appear, only to stand alone as the belt carries a sadly wrapped carton for one more lap.  We wait for days, hoing the airline will call with good news, but, no.

Like the some cherished dreams, our suitcase fails to materialize.  It’s gone; we will never see it again.

As a teacher working on expressive writing with sophomores in high school, I set aside a ready supply of prompts, designed to bounce self-conscious writers into action.  Most called for well crafted essays; a few elicited lists.  The idea was that something on the list might be useful in writing a longer piece, but the list itself could also be an effective narrative, association and elipses suggesting the writer’s sensibility.

“What I Have Lost” usually brought significant pangs of memory:

A baseball glove

My lucky silver dollar


A letter from my father

Belief in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the political system, marriage …. and so on.


It’s a useful exercise, and it works as an antidote to writer’s block.

“Unclaimed Baggage”, however, is a prompt I did not, and do not, toss around lightly.  The two lists travel on the same journey; our stories in some ways are all about what we cling to and what we let go.  I hear a lot about letting go, and the notion appears to play a significant role in approaching confluence with the universe; it’s pretty much what the Buddha advised, and it worked for him.

He knew that the problem was attachment; from what I can tell, it still is.

Here’s the question that arrives with our unclaimed baggage prompt:  What is it exactly that is stuffed in the corner or under the tarp? Why do I continue to make room for it?  What am I hanging on to, and why am I hanging on to it?

So, the questions, it seems, begin the process of claiming.  “Yes, that’s mine, the scruffy one in the corner.”  Once seen,  we can haul it out and make some us of it, or … leave it in the corner, double up the tarp and try to forget all about it…

or, send it to Scottsboro and let someone else take it home.





What You May Not Know About Groundhog Day

What You May Not Know About Groundhog Day

Really?  Groundhog Day again?  Didn’t they do that last year?

They did, and they’ve been doing it in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania since 1887, home of Punxsutawney Phil, the official meteorological seer,or at the very least, one of a small number of marmots licensed to predict the end of winter.  Marmot sounds impressive; ground squirrel a bit less formidable.  Our friend the groundhog (marmota monax) is also known as a woodchuck, of course, and, less frequently, as a whistle pig.

Although not a pig, this hefty rodent can weigh in at up to nine or ten pounds, which for a whistling rodent is plenty hefty.  Marmota Monax is not the largest rodent; that honor belongs to the capybara, a South American rodent closely related to the guinea pig in shape and general affect, but toting up to two hundred pounds of herbivorous contentment.  Your North American beaver is the next chunkiest rodent, a mere sylph in comparison to the capybara, but still an impressive creature weighing up to seventy pounds.

Traditional observation of Groundhog Day elevates the emergence of the prognosticating rodent as a means of determining the length of winter left to be endured.  If the groundhog sees its shadow, we’re in for a good six weeks of winter.  No shadow, spring is due in about six weeks.

So, putting the prediction to the test, the shadowy six weeks of winter from February 2nd takes us to the end of the second week of March; the unshadowed performance takes us to the middle of March.

Potatoes/potatoes, pajamas/pajamas. (Doesn’t really work in print, does it?)

There are a number of controversies surrounding the groundhog, starting with nomenclature.  Why would the same creature have six or seven names?  The mountain lion/cougar/catamount debate is largely regional; go trotting out to see what ravening herbivore has cleaned out the vegetable patch and you’ll be looking at the work of the groundhog, woodchuck, chuck, wood-shock, groundpig, whistle pig, thickwood badger, monax, moonack, weenusck, or red monk.  That’s bad enough, but its spawn may be called kits or alternatively, chucklings, which, I have to admit,  is a pretty nifty term.

These rodents are among the most effective burrowing creatures, moving as much as six hundred pounds of earth in digging out their meadow retreat.  These burrows are so soundly excavated that entire sections of field sink; the foundations of buildings have been literally undermined as the marmots slap out another burrow.  They are also a snippy rodent, rarely cohabitating in that beautifully crafted earthen home.  Despite their cheerful appearance, the groundhog/ woodchuck/whistle pig is aggressive, feisty, and generally not the sort of creature you want to engage in hand to curved claw combat.

I was prepared to leave the down-side of groundhog collecting with those observations.  The deliberations of the Linnean Society of New York in 1884, however, include a strongly worded cautionary description of the animal mounted in 1883 by those who hoped to place a bounty of ten cents on groundhogs in New Hampshire:

“Your committee finds that the woodchuck is absolutely destitute of any interesting qualities … Its body is thick and squatty, and its legs so short that its belly seems to almost touch the ground.  This is not a pleasing picture.”

On the other side, there are those who hold the … whatever … in high regard.  Its burrows are impressive, all the more commendable for including a nesting chamber, a nest that appears to have been crafted for the sweet, sweet rapture of woodchuck love, and a spy nest.  In addition, most burrows include a chamber set aside for excrement.  That same New Hampshire committee, chaired by the Hon. Charles R. Corning, and so, I suppose the Corning Committee, attempted to soften their assault on the appearance of the woodchuck by tossing a few compliments to the chunky ground squirrels:

“The woodchuck, despite its deformities both of mind and body, possesses some of the amenities of a higher civilization.  It cleans its face after the manner of the squirrels and licks its fur after the manner of the cat.”

Couldn’t leave it at that.

“Your committee is too wise, however, to be deceived by the purely superficial observance of better habits. .. The woodchuck is not only a nuisance, but a bore.”

I’d like to ask the Corning Committee just how squatty and boring a creature has to be in order to earn a ten-cent bounty.  I know several … no, I’ll leave that unsaid.

Most of us aware of Groundhog Day, if we are aware of it at all, because we have seen the movie thirty times since its release in 1993.  The project was written by Harold Ramis who also directed the film and by Danny Rubin, who wrote the short story from which the script was derived.  Rubin, the Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, describes the inception of the story as an attempt to mess around with the question of how many lifetimes it would take for a man whose development was terminally arrested in adolescent self-centerdness to change, to evolve.  Not wanting to get into the issues surrounding the changing of history were a man to become immortal, Rubin came up with the repetition of a single day, in effect, as Rubin put it, changing eternity into a circle.

The loop has the effect of forcing the central character, Bill Murray as an insufferable TV weatherman, to look at himself as he indulges in hedonistic excess and wallows in suicidal despair.  Finally, in a moment of enlightenment, this noxious twit is transformed; he experiences something close to spiritual transcendence, becoming, in the end, a good guy.  I’ll take the message one step further, as we consider a future that has its shadowy features. Murray changes as his actions change. By acting like a good person, he becomes a good person.  To borrow a few Yiddish terms, he becomes a Mensch by performing mitzvahs.

Murray’s great in the role, maybe a bit better as rampaging jerk than as a romantic lead, but more than convincing enough to give substance to Rubin’s vision.

As we prepare to honor groundhogs large and small, squatty and trim, boring and effervescent, it’s not a bad day to chuck a thought back to the transformation of a human being.  As the film makes clear, it’s never too late to be better.