Summer Solstice

Today, June 21, 2013 is the Summer Solstice. Summer officially began at 1:03 EDT. It is the longest day of the year, here in the Northern Hemisphere. It was light at 5 a.m. where I live and although the sun will set just after 9 p.m., there will be light well after that. In Sweden it will never really get dark and in Edinburgh barely.

I like to hike up Solstice Canyon to the little waterfall on this day.

Solstice Cyn pho #2 But this year I have had to send delegates instead. They assure me the falls is still there.

close up solstice fallsIt  is just above the ruins of the Roberts house that fell victim to wildfire years ago in spite of its deep, natural pool.

What a great place to perform Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream: Titania, Oberon and the fairies in the rocky grotto, the workmen, Quince, Bottom, et al rehearsing their play on the colorful tiles that were the kitchen’s, the erstwhile lovers who have run away from Athens on the gravel path, Puck flitting between, bewitching the wrong people into love, Bottom saddled with an ass’s head proving irresistible to the exquisite Titania. But they have to be quick, so quick, because it is the shortest night and this is a fleeting dream.

Failing this, do something unexpected to celebrate the light.


April Crocus in the Rain

April Crocus in the Rain

Chaucer begins The Canterbury Tales with a jaunty tribute to April:
When that Aprill with his shoures soote
The draught of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtue engendered is the flour
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

When April with his sweet showers has pierced to the root what March dried up and bathed every vein in such moisture… then people long to go on pilgrimages (chiefly of course to Canterbury.)

And so a knight, his young squire, a yeoman, a prioress, a nun, a monk, a friar, a merchant, a clerk, and a dozen others, including the Good Wyf besyde Bathe set out on horseback to pray to “the blisful martir”, St Thomas Becket. On their way, they pass the time by telling each other stories, some chivalric, some edifying and some downright raunchy.

Prologue-The Canterbury Tales by Lucille Gilling

Prologue-The Canterbury Tales by Lucille Gilling

T.S. Eliot, on the other hand lamented in “The Waste Land”
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Sounds a bit negative but then, this part of the poem is called “The Burial of the Dead”. Eliot felt that life, devoid of meaning, is death, while death, if sacrificial, is life-giving.

Vernon Duke, songwriter, celebrated April and Paris:
April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom,
Holiday tables  under the trees,
April in Paris, this is a feeling,
No one can ever reprise.

Lucky Paris! The chestnuts in my town won’t bloom until the end of May.

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 and died on April 23, 1616. He said, “Men are April when they woo and December when they wed.” His was a shot-gun wedding to an older woman.

Same ingredients, different cakes!

What do you make of April?

The Meaning of Life -in three phone calls

Sara was inspecting the garbage when she shrieked, “Who put this in here?” She was flourishing a dirty tissue which she had fished out of the black garbage bin and was now flinging into the green compost bin. At lunch she announced to me and our mutual friend Robin that she no longer gave to ‘people’ charities. People were a blight on the planet, she said. She gave to animal charities and  environmental causes only now.

A few days later, I was talking to Robin on the phone. “The world is not going to be saved by recycling,” Robin said. We agreed that it might be saved by empathy, by caring for others and by extension for Earth.

“But if it isn’t, it doesn’t matter because God is already perfect,” said Robin.

“And God is within us?” I asked, just to make sure she wasn’t talking about that remote, supernatural fellow, the church used to tell me about.

“Of course,” she said.

“So, in fact, we are already perfect,” I concluded. And we  changed the subject to family.

But it began to get to me, that February week. I had shingles. Again! Economic recovery still hadn’t kicked in. I had seen one too many shows about terrorism and torture. And I had shingles.

“What the fudge, is it all about?” I asked my sister, Georgia. “Why are we here, working hard like you, hurting hard like me? What does it mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” she replied. “It’s what Shakespeare said, ‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players’. It’s when we go off stage, we find our real life. But then, I’m a simple soul.” She didn’t add, “Unlike you who make everything complicated”. Then she did say, “We just do our best. It’s just practical.”

And that is how she lives. She devotes herself to making life better for others.

But she was right in her unspoken assessment of me. I couldn’t drop it.

My osteopath explained to me that the herpes or chicken pox virus that had been lying dormant in my body for these many years was doing its job and attacking the nerves. That was why I had had what I called the achey flu since mid-January, but now that it had surfaced in the form of a rash, I would begin to recover. The aching had already diminished as the itching increased. Recovery would come through rest and relaxation, not through yet more exercise and effort, he said, thus dismissing my default methods.

More time to think. Just what I wanted.

Maybe I hypothesized, we are trying to perfect the material world, to raise its consciousness. Okay, but the maple tree outside my window seems pretty perfect as it is. And the sheba innu I am going to dog-sit next week, ditto. Hum!

How about this? Out of the One came the many. Are we just trying to get back to the One, trying to remember that we are not isolated, victimized, powerless individuals but part of the powerful Whole?

So I posed the question to Julia in a long, long-distance phone call.

She said, “We are God experiencing Itself.”

“Well, why does it have to be so painful?” I demanded.

“That’s the nature of perception,” she said. “The nerves are part of the mind.”

I had a fleeting thought that as soon as there is mind, there is pain. That brought my mind back to torture.

“Someone like Thomas More,” I mused -I was thinking about how he was portrayed in A Man for All Seasons– “is invulnerable to torture because he is at one with God’s perfection.”

Perhaps during my relaxed and restful recovery, I could take short excursions there.

Isn’t there a liturgical blessing, “May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God…”?

Early October: reflections from Journal 119

The first weekend in October has always been an important one for me. As a high school English teacher, I found that by that date I had finally forged a relationship with my classes. I knew their names and I was interested in them as individuals and they had, usually, stopped testing me, having presumably given me a passing grade. So by then the hard slog of the new school year was over.

And there was another reward – it was a long weekend, the first Monday in October being Thanksgiving Day here, where harvest time comes earlier than it does south of the border.

Some teachers in the States have a long weekend as well in honour of Columbus Day. Not all, as I found it one year when I took my 7 year-old grandson for a hike in Topanga Canyon that day. I discovered to my mortification (I was a teacher after all) that his school, a private school in Los Angeles, didn’t have that holiday. It was the sort of school that let its students plan the lessons, so, in fact, our day trip was not much out of line.

This year, that child is in his first year residency at a New England hospital. Just saying.

On Saturday I drove to Stratford to see a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a trip of about an hour and a half with a bonus that hadn’t occurred to me. The trees were aflame with colour. In the middle distance woodlots glowed with orange and red and golden phosphorescence. (We are lucky here to have so many hard maples that produce such bright colours. The photographer who originally posted “A Tribute to Autumn”, which I reblogged lives farther north and west, I think, because the trees there produce mostly yellows.) The corn nearer the highway still stood dusky gold, but as we drove farther northwest, the fields became brown and beige stubble.

Surprising how cold it was when we got out of the car to find lunch. I had worn a sheepskin-lined rain coat and a wool tam, scarf and gloves, but the cold wind went right through me as if I were wearing diaphanous cotton. No doubt about it, summer was long gone.

I note by the way that, although it is only 70 degrees F. in Los Angeles today, it will be back up to 92 next week.

The Festival Theatre in Stratford Ontario has a thrust stage, rather than a proscenium arch. I first saw it when I was a teenager in the second year of its operation, although at the time, it was housed in a huge circular tent. The permanent structure was designed to mimic the tent. By the time, we had hiked through the park from our car, we were chilled to the bone and it seemed as if a glass of pinot noir was in order to get the blood moving again.

Once seated, I realized that my friend who had made the reservation online had upgraded us, not to the very best seats, but almost, thinking I wouldn’t notice her largess. It is hard in such a theatre to get a bad seat, but the sections at the sides of the horseshoe-shaped auditorium are more challenging. And the row in front of us was entirely empty, sold no doubt to some sponsoring company but not distributed so no heads obscured our view. The set had a staircase that swept up around a palm tree!!!! This production had been relocated to Brazil in the early 1900s.

I had looked up a summary of the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, just to sort it out from Shakespeare’s other comedies, but I was not prepared for how familiar I found it. I knew the next line before the actor spoke it. It was unsettling! Apparently, in my 35 year career, I had taught it many times and forgotten I had done so. Considering that most years I taught 5 plays by Shakespeare, I had much opportunity.

Basically, the play is about the duelling couple who apparently scorn each other and are always putting each other down, but eventually ….. Shakespeare used the same sort of plot device in Taming of the Shrew. He liked to set a headstrong, witty woman, in this case Beatrice, against the equally willful, caustic man, Benedict. There’s plenty of scope for pratfalls as they eavesdrop on their friends who are setting them up to fall in love.

After the show, we stopped at Balzacs for coffee and sugar enough to get us home through a dark and rainy drive.

Monday, turkey day, was a roast beef day in my house, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which I came to love when I was married to a Yorkshire lad. Fortune had carried him back to my table after many years’ absence and he assured me that I had channelled his mother’s pudding. (See recipe below.) My mother-in-law used beef fat but beef doesn’t have much fat these days so I opt for butter. And it turned out well even though we never succeeded in raising large bubbles. Like my mother-in-law, I chose a loaf tin rather than the 9 by 6.You start the oven at 400 and turn it down to 350 after 20 minutes. If you are like me, you forget when you turned it down and have to wing it after that. Maybe that’s when I got help from beyond. Proof I had channelled her: it came out of the oven puffed high and lightly browned. You have to serve it asap, so the mashed root veg (See recipe below.) had to be ready, the beef sliced and the gravy made. (Why is there never enough gravy?) The roasted beet and argula salad had to wait its turn. The meal was so delicious that we four fell to expressions ofthankfulness spontaneously. And of course there was pumpkin pie.

There were absent friends, some more permanently absent than others. We were a family reconstituted with good fellowship and food.

Early October has a way of reconciling me to the inevitable, which comes earlier here than it does down there in my second home.

 Yorkshire Pudding according to The Joy of Cooking 75th anniversary ed.

Have all ingredients at room temperature, about 70 degrees F. Preheat oven to 400 F. Sift into a bowl:

3/4 cup all-purpose flour minus 2 tablespoons
1/2 tsp of salt
Make a well in the centre and pour in
1/2 cup milk
Stir in the milk. Beat in:
2 large eggs well beaten
1/2 cup water
Beat the batter until large bubbles rise to the surface. …Pour 1/4 in. beef drippings or melted butter into a 9 by 6 baking dish or 6 regular muffin cups. Heat pan or dish until hot. POur in batter and bake 20 min. Reduce heat to 350 and bake 10-15 min. longer until puffed and golden brown.

Mashed Root Vegetables a la Desmond, my hairdresser

Peel or scrub equal amounts of carrots, parsnips and turnip, dice, add water to cover, salt, bring to boil and reduce heat. Cook until fork tender, but not soft. Drain and mash. Add butter and pepper.
Desmond says, “Don’t even think of adding sugar. These vegetables are sweet enough.”

The Right Mistake

Thelonius Monk, the jazz pianist, had a “unique improvisational style” Wikapedia tells us. He once said, after what he thought was disappointing performance, that good jazz consisted of making the right mistakes.

Robbie Robertson (late of the Band) borrowed that idea for his song, “The Right Mistake”.

We can call to mind scientific discoveries that resulted from mistakes or were at least accidental: small pox vaccine, penicillin, insulin, the Pap smear, as well as inventions including X-rays, the microwave oven and, apparently corn flakes. But, in addition to music and science, can making the right mistake be a good thing personally? Should we be trying, like Robbie Robertson, to make the right mistake?

Shakespeare’s King Lear did that. In his eighties, he decided to divide his kingdom, the ancient kingdom of Briton among his 3 daughters. Then he got annoyed at Cordelia, the only one who really loved him, and gave her share to the other two. They immediately set about curtailing his privileges.  He had a retinue of “an hundred” men that followed him as he sojourned first with one nasty daughter and then with the other. One of them ordered him, “a little to disquantity your train”. He bargained for 50, they cut him down to one and then to none. In despair and rage, he left the castle and went out onto the shelterless moor just as the storm of the century bore down upon it. By the time, he stumbled across supporters and rudimentary shelter, he was soaked to the skin and raving mad.

What he said made little sense, but already he had changed. He was no longer the autocratic egotist who demanded that his daughters compete in a contest to see who loved him best. He was humbled to such an extent that he sat at the feet of a homeless derelict, calling him a philosopher. By the time he was rescued by Cordelia, he was ready to live out his life in prison, if need be, so long as he is with her:

As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

His great mistake has allowed him to learn to be a loving human being. He does not get his wish to live such a life. He is one of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes and he must pay a price. That is really irrelevant because he has accomplished a much greater goal by becoming more completely human.

We perfectionists can relax it seems, for even our most egregious mistakes can lead us where we need to go.

Macmeth: Walter White begins his tragic fall

“Macmeth” turned up as a search word used to get to my blog, so I decided to put it into Google myself. There I found a series of short videos posted on Youtube, beginning with the 3 witches in a decidedly un-90%-pure lab, said witches sporting southern drawls and declaiming really bad lines. On a later post, we were told these scenes were intentionally bad. Wise disclaimer. I once had a grade 11 class that did a Jamaician Macbeth, which was really funny and also referenced illegal substances. Alas, we were living in the dark ages then and it didn’t make it to Youtube.

Here you are if you are interested:

This post is a follow-up to my previous post, “Walter White: A Macbeth for our time” in which I looked at the protagonist of Breaking Bad and compared him to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Now to get back to Walter White. SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t watched Sunday, Sept 2nd’s show, turn back, turn back!

Unless like me, knowing the ending just adds to your pleasure. Yes, I read the end of novels first, even sometimes mysteries. So you see I am in a unique position: I understand the pure evil that lurks in the human heart: evil bad enough to read endings first.

It was Tuesday morning before I could sit down to watch. I had had my admin assistant (Joyce) clear my calendar. Then I had the cook (Joyce again) prepare me a light lunch and serve it to me (Guess who? Joyce) in front of the television set. It takes a lot of person-power to keep the renowned critic going. I wasn’t unprepared, my sister, Georgia took time out of her birthday celebration to describe the entire plot of “Gliding Over All”, the final episode in this half of season five, the last season.

Look at the reviews and you will see that people are seriously ticked off at Walter. He didn’t actually shoot the kid on the dirt bike in the desert, who saw them robbing the train of thousands of gallons of the meth precursor. That was trigger-happy Todd. And it is possible that if the child had been allowed to live, he wouldn’t have caused a problem. After that, Jesse had a breakdown and refused to continue as Walt’s assistant cooker. Mike, who was in charge of distributing, also opted out, but, alas, Hank, Walt’s DEA brother-in-law, seized Mike’s money. When Mike sought to flee, he didn’t get far. Walt suddenly shot him in the stomach and he died sitting on a river bank, saying, “Let me die in peace”.

By now Walt has not only contributed to the inevitable decline of all his blue meth users, he has had Jesse kill his rival Gale Boetticher, he has poisoned a child with Lily-of-the-valley, he has arranged for a paralyzed pensioner to blow himself up taking his archenemy Fring with him, blown up Fring’s state of the art meth lab -complete with eyewash stations and safety equipment, robbed a train, allowed the boy’s murder, shot Mike and in this episode, arranges for the murder of 9 of Mike’s crew and their lawyer.

How does that stack up against Macbeth? Well, he began by carving up his king who was his cousin, who had honoured him lately with a new title and who was a guest in Glamis, Macbeth’s castle. He went on to eliminate his friend and fellow officer, Banquo, but failed to kill Banquo’s son, Fleance. He attacked Macduff’s castle and finding that Macduff had fled to England, made do by murdering Lady Macduff and their children. Meanwhile he ran the country into the ground. The people turned against the once popular general and a great military force was being marshalled to invade Scotland.

Is Macbeth worried? No. For the three witches have promised that no man born of woman could kill him and that he will reign until Birnam Woods shall come to Dunsinane. He hadn’t apparently heard of Caesarean birth, although Macduff had and even those who never read the play can figure out how a woods can move. By then Macbeth is grief-stricken over his lady’s suicide. He’s has had enough. He cries, “Lay on Macduff and damned be he who first cries hold, enough!”

I have been known to cry that myself.

So what of Walter White? Certainly he is a tragic hero about to meet his downfall. There is speculation that his cancer has come back. After his MRI he looks at the towel holder in the washroom that still bears the imprint of his fist, but he is completely controlled. Something is going to knock him off his prideful perch. The cancer? Some disaster relating to a child of his? Some machination of Lydia who thinks she has a deal that he will supply the Czechs with his great product? How can he in fact step back out of the meth business?

And then there is Hank who has discovered an inscription in a book in Walt’s bathroom, a book of Walt Whitman’s poems, that leads him to remember the “W.W” in Gale Boetticher’s notebook and what Walt said about it. Whatever else happens in next summer’s season, Hank will have to pursue Walter, without somehow bringing himself down in the process.

Ah, those were simpler times, back in Macbeth’s day. Evil comes in more shades now, not those 50 shades of gray, but black and ever blacker.

The worst downfall might be that Walter gets to live with what he has done.