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October 5, 2015

Someone recently mentioned to me that I had to read Stephen King’s 2014 novel Revival, because it is, of course, ultimately about necromancy, and in good, old-fashioned horror style, necromancy most definitely does not pay.

It begins innocuously enough, with a young, small-town preacher befriending a young boy. The preacher has an affinity for tinkering with electrical gadgets and so when the boy, Jamie, comes to him with a problem, which is that one of his brothers has been injured and can no longer talk, the preacher makes what he calls an “Electrical Nerve Stimulator” and tells Jamie and his brother and sister that “the idea of using electricity to limit pain and stimulate muscles is very, very old. Sixty years before the birth of Christ, a Roman doctor named Scribonius Largus discovered that foot and leg pain could be alleviated if the sufferer stepped firmly on an electric eel.”
His device is successful.

Jamie sometimes calls the young preacher his “fifth business,” a term for a change agent in a movie. He meets up with him at turning points in his life, and as this continues to happen, readers, like Jamie himself, start to believe that his first meeting with the boy, when he cast a shadow over him, was symbolic of his effect in his life.

Almost everything we learn about the preacher at first makes him seem more saintly. He lost his young wife and son in a terrible car accident, lost his faith, and began working in a carnival, where he found Jamie in the audience one night, fainting from the effects of the flu and heroin dependency. He nurses him back to health and breaks his drug habit with the help of a new electrical device. After the cure, Jamie sometimes come to in the act of poking his arm with a fork or a stick, thinking “something happened” but not knowing what.

Over the years, Jamie sees and hears about others who have been healed by the preacher, who has established himself on the faith healing circuit. There is often some unanticipated side effect of the preacher’s healings, and occasionally they drive one of the healed completely crazy. Jamie begins to believe that the preacher is seeking forbidden knowledge, available only in the six forbidden books known as “grimoires.” He is told that “the couplet most people remember from Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon was stolen from a copy of De Vermis….’That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons, even death may die.”
Jamie begins to fear that De Vermis Mysteriis is “the most dangerous book ever written.”

Finally the preacher admits his evil plan: “Using lightning as a road to the secret electricity, and the secret electricity as a thoroughfare to potestas magnum universum, I intend to bring Mary Fay back to some form of life. I intend to learn the truth of what’s on the other side of the door that leads into the Kingdom of Death. I’ll learn it from the lips of someone who’s been there.”

Of course, what Jamie sees and hears when the preacher’s electrical device is successful at raising the dead is horrifying, It kills the preacher and brings Jamie himself to the edge of sanity, where he totters, off-balance for the rest of his days, afraid to die and find out that the horrifying glimpse he had of life beyond death is all that there is.

Spooky, huh? It’s a traditional tale of necromancy, even mentioning “The Monkey’s Paw” at one point. There are lots of in jokes, even at the end, when we find out that Mary has a son named Victor. If you like an old-fashioned horror tale, this one will bring you a few chills but no real surprises on an October night.

Wild Geese

September 30, 2015

Pippin follows me from room to room some mornings when I open windows to let the cool fall air blow in. He is a little puzzled about where Eleanor has taken most of her shoes, and why Walker has left behind a perfectly good bed. He’s a little scared of the crunchy leaves blowing around on the deck, and sticks close to me, even though he is now master of the secret of the cat door (the secret is you have to push with your head). I have so far failed to teach him, as I taught his four predecessors, that cats should not climb onto the dining room table. He is sprawled there now, behind the laptop, watching me type.  IMG_3465

The last weekend in September is “family weekend” at Grinnell, and it was always a lovely time of year to drive west, sunny with yellow and gold fields and the harvest just beginning. We went to the Ohio Renaissance Festival this weekend instead, driving a couple of hours south towards Cincinnati in the morning and coming back the same night, which was cloudy with the rumor of a lunar eclipse.

I’m preparing to cover things up and bring them in. On the deck, the outside furniture makes me sing “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” from Les Miserables every time I go out there. Geese fly over the house, wheeling their V in all directions. The late summer wasps are distracted from the red berries in the yard when I step outside with anything to drink in my hand. The light is every day lower, less bright, less warm.

I am trying to think of this place, this spot of ground I have watched so closely for decades, as the place I’ve staked a claim, like the pioneer-sounding narrator of Wendell Berry’s poem Wild Geese:

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here,
names that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

IMG_3448I like the idea that effort is required to be able to believe that “what we need is here.” That even though the sapling we planted on “Earth Day” when the kids were small has grown old and brittle, parts of it broken off by storms, it still roots us to this place. That although some of the people who were here to greet us when we arrived have grown old and some of them are gone, that we will always be arrested by our memories of them when, for instance, passing the croquet court built by John Crowe Ransom, where we once played croquet with his daughter and granddaughter–one gone now, one running for mayor next month.

If what we need is here we have to make it stretch far enough, not for some diminished, autumnal life but for the promise of more trees, more harvests, and the chance of more perspective from high above where the wild geese fly each fall. They are up there now, silhouetted against the clouds, making their ridiculous honking sounds.

And here I am, making mine. Pippin looks up

Everything I Never Told You

September 28, 2015

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, is a well-written and fast-paced read that will disappoint anyone who has already heard that it’s a bad idea for parents to try to live through their children.

At the beginning of the novel, from the first line of it, in fact, “Lydia is dead.” It’s a little like the British TV series Broadchurch, which begins with the death of a young boy and then reconstructs what happened. In this case, however, the dead young woman is sixteen years old and what happened to her, while not murder, came from entirely inside her own family.

Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, is a caricature of a 1970’s woman who wants to be liberated. She marries and gets pregnant before finishing college, and so she doesn’t pursue her dream of being a medical doctor. When her own mother dies, it’s the impetus for Marilyn to take steps to make her own life different from her mother’s. Instead of discussing it with her husband and telling her two small children, however, Marilyn takes off without explanation and lives for two months on her own, until the discovery of another pregnancy derails her plan to finish her college degree. Why she can’t go back to school after the baby is born is not apparent, except that she has given up on herself and transferred her ambition to her daughter Lydia, who will say yes to anything her mother suggests in the superstitious belief that this will prevent her from leaving again.

Lydia’s father, James, who grew up as the only Chinese boy in his small Iowa town, wants his half Chinese children to fit into the small Ohio community he has settled the family into. Disappointed in his older son, who reminds him disconcertingly of himself, James settles the weight of his expectations on Lydia, who is supposed to have the friends and the popularity that eluded James.

Lydia’s older brother Nath and younger sister Hannah are also caricatures, rivals for the attention of her parents and sometimes allies against their unrealistic expectations.

The saddest part of Lydia’s death is that when you get to the end of the novel, you see that she’d finally realized that it was up to her to assert her own ambitions for her life, but since she hadn’t been taught how to do such a thing in stages, her final demonstration that things could be different also fails. She tosses herself in the water, but she has never learned how to swim and can’t learn it all at once without any help.

Everything I Never Told You has a moral implicit in its title, so you can take the moral and skip the illustrative parable that goes with it. Here’s how I would phrase the moral of this story: don’t expect your children to do the things you always wished you could do; it will turn out badly.

And here’s another moral, less explicit in the novel because it’s harder to caricature: tell your children what they do well every chance you get, because what you want them to do well and what they want to do well are not often the same thing, and the weight of your expectations can keep them from launching at the right time to reach their most ambitious goals, the ones you didn’t even know you’d like to see them eyeing.


September 23, 2015

I borrowed a copy of Ruth Reichl’s novel Delicious! from a friend who discovered Garlic and Sapphires at the same time I did and is similarly engaged in reading everything else we can find by this author. It’s a nice enough little novel, with a heroine, Billie, who is different from Ruth herself, although similarly engaged in culinary arts.

Billie gets hired at a magazine called Delicious! which publishes recipes and is run out of a grand old New York City house called the Timber mansion. She answers phone calls and writes letters about the Delicious! guarantee, which is that if the recipe doesn’t work, the magazine will refund the money that a reader spent on ingredients. She has a regular caller and finds the work interesting, although she takes a second weekend job working at a cheese shop called Fontanari’s because she likes the people there. Her first article for the magazine is about Fontanari’s, a coup because he doesn’t allow writers in his place. The article includes some of Mr. Fontanari’s banter with one of the customers that they call “Mr. Complainer.”

Eventually Billie finds out some secrets about the Timber mansion and those who have worked there over the years. She gets interested in tracking down the complete file of letters from a little girl, Lulu, who was learning to cook during WWII, to James Beard, who worked for Delicious! during those war years. The letters play a big part in the novel, and readers grow almost as interested as Billie and her friend and colleague Sammy in finding out more of Lulu’s story.

The sad parts of Lulu’s story finally help Billie to be able to tell the sad parts of her own story to Sammy and Mr. Complainer, who turns up as the Timber mansion is being sold. As Lulu grows up, she begins to sound a little like Reichl herself: “a great meal is an experience that nourishes more than your body.”

When Billie meets her regular caller from Delicious!, an elderly woman named “Babe,” the sad part of her story sounds almost exactly like my mother’s story of being widowed:
“until Elton passed on, I’d never known a moment of loneliness. I’d never even slept alone, not one night in my entire life. When I was growing up, my sister Susie and I shared a bed, and after I was married, Elton and I were never apart.”

There’s something in this novel for all tastes, so to speak. The older peoples’ tales, the tragic tale of Billie’s sister, the story of Billie’s makeover and romance, and the stories of how women learned to cook and cope during WWII.

The most unusual thing I learned from this novel is that if you cook milkweed pods, they taste like cheese. What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever cooked?

The End of All Things

September 21, 2015

The End of All Things, John Scalzi’s latest novel in the “Old Man’s War” universe, is comprised of four novellas, available online or in traditional book form, as I read them. Together, they tell a story that would have been much harder to tell from one point of view. It’s about a threat of Armageddon on Earth and the conflict that affects the entire populated universe of this future.

The first part, The Life of the Mind, is told by a being who starts out by saying “So, I’m supposed to tell you how I became a brain in a box.” He tells about how he realized he no longer had a body, from the perfect darkness and silence to the fact that “I couldn’t taste my mouth.” Then he tells about finding out why he no longer has a body, when a voice tells him “we’ve integrated your brain with the Chandler. The ship is now your body. You will learn how to control your body.” Each day the brain, formerly a human named Rafe Daquin, is required to run simulations, and at night the only entertainment he is provided is to run the same simulations. “So I did what anyone doing a simulated run does when they’re bored and there’s no penalty for misbehavior: I started wrecking things.” Eventually he crashes the simulation system and discovers that he can get into the system that controls the ship. He spends two weeks creating what he calls a blue pill:
“I created an overlay for the Chandler’s computer system. A just about exact replica.
I copied it, tweaked it, attached everything coming in from the outside to it, as well as the bridge simulators. It looked like, responded like, and would control things like the actual computer system for the Chandler.
But it wasn’t.
That system, the one that actually ran the Chandler, was running underneath the copy. And that one, well.
That one, I was totally in control of. The reality underneath the simulation. The reality that no one but me knew existed below the simulation. The simulation that everyone throught reflected reality.
That’s the blue pill.”

After that, the brain gets the traitor who has stolen the ship to come on board and talk to him while he copies every file on the traitor’s handheld device:
“The entire copying process took just a little under two hours. I kept Ocampo talking the whole time. It required very little prompting.
Ever heard of ‘monologuing’? The thing where the captured hero escapes death by getting the villain to talk just long enough to break free?
Well, this wasn’t that, because I was still a brain in a box and likely to die the first time I was sent on a mission. But it was something close.”

The brain finds out that the group holding him calls itself Equilibrium, and is trying to keep the Conclave and the Colonial Union fighting each other. He plans cleverly, trapping Ocampo and his aide on the Chandler, blowing up the Equilibrium base, and bringing the ship and the traitor back to the Colonial Union so they can find out about Equilibrium’s nefarious plans.
The next story, This Hollow Union is told by an alien, Hafte Sorvalh, who is “the confidant and closest advisor to General Tarsem Gau, the leader of the Conclave, the largest known political union, with over four hundred constituent member species, none of whom number less than one billion souls.” We see the political machinizations of the Conclave, and witness General Gau’s transfer of power to Sorvalh, who is left with his death as a “tool to build the founding myth of the Conclave—to set it on a path toward wisdom rather than dissolution.”

The succeeding story, Can Long Endure, is told by Colonial Union soldiers fighting to suppress rebellions on their colonized planets. The first one is a neat job of emerging on the floor of the Franklin global government, where the representatives who mean to vote for independence from the Colonial Union are faced with the threat of having to give up their own “life, fortune, and honor” on the spot, rather than requiring their citizens to defend the independence. One of the soldiers, however, questions the usefulness of the mission:
“’The success of the mission depends on whether we achieve our mission goals. We did that—like Ilse said we killed the vote, embarrassed the politicians, didn’t get killed, and reminded the entire planet that the Colonial Union can come along and stomp them anytime it wants, so don’t screw with us. Which wasn’t explicitly in our mission parameters but was the subtext of the mission.’
“Wow, ‘subtext,’ Powell said. ‘For a former janitor you’re using big words there, Terrell.”
“This former janitor has a rhetoric degree, asshole,” Lambert said, and Powell smiled at this. “He just learned he could make more money as a janitor than as an adjunct professor. So yes. Successful. Great. But did it address the root causes? Did it address the underlying issues that required us to have to take the mission in the first place?”
No, and the subsequent action demonstrates this. (I also couldn’t resist quoting the bit about someone making more as a janitor than as an adjunct professor of rhetoric.)
The fourth and final story, To Stand or Fall, brings together the strands from the three previous stories and shows how Lieutenant Harry Wilson of the Colonial Defense Forces saves the earth, the day, the Colonial Union, and the Conclave. Along the way he drops in to have waffles with a beautiful woman, who asks why he couldn’t have sent a note to the U.S. secretary of state, and he dictates:
“Dear Danielle Lowen: How are you? I am fine. The group that destroyed Earth Station and made it look like the Colonial Union did it is now planning to nuke the surface of your planet until it glows, and frame the Conclave for it. Hope you are well. Looking forward to rescuing you in space again soon. Your friend, Harry Wilson.”
Harry’s plan involves getting Sorvalh and Vnac Oi of the Conclave together with Ambassador Abumwe of the Colonial Union and Ambassador Lowen of Earth. Together, the five of them announce a peace treaty and a final attack on Equilibrium, before its hostage brain-piloted ships can nuke the earth. Rafe extends amnesty to any brain-piloted ships that give up, and the members of the Conclave and the Colonial Union get busy administering the peace.

If you liked the previous Old Man’s War novels, you’re sure to like this one.

I, Iago

September 14, 2015

Othello is my favorite Shakespeare play. I’m not sure how this happened, but I love all the different interpretations of characters and scenes and even lines from that play, more than any other.

So I always thought that I didn’t want to know what Iago could possibly say after his line “from this time forth I never will speak word.” He’s impossibly evil, I thought. There’s no way he could explain himself. And so I thought I didn’t want to read Nicole Galland’s novel I, Iago, told from his point of view. But I was wrong. The novel does what I would have said was impossible–it makes you see the events of the play as they feel to a very “honest Iago,” and by the time you reach his famous line about not explaining himself, you know it’s because he expects that everyone else already knows the answer, should they ever bother themselves to think about it.

The novel takes about a hundred pages to tell about how cripplingly honest Iago was as a child, to the point where he and his friend Rodrigo became famous for it. By the time Iago has become a soldier, he can say something like that the creator of the greatest school of fencing, Agrippa, once challenged him to a swordfight and everybody will believe his outrageous claim:
“They were all still slack-mouthed. It reminded me of that childhood moment in Galinarion’s dining hall, when Roderigo and I had been caught during the egg incident. But then I had been telling the truth; now I was blithely inventing. I expected one of them to accuse me of gulling, but apparently the thought did not occur to a one of them.”
Later, Iago finds out that his attention as a “known truth-teller” has become a Venetian amusement, because the Venetians find it strange and are entertained by the spectacle of a person speaking bluntly, saying exactly what he means in a social situation.

The first hundred pages also tell the story of how he met and courted Emilia, including how he felt when he saw her surrounded by other young men at a party:
“This was jealousy, and it was new to me. Resentment I was used to, having been weaned on it within the family, but not jealousy. While I had often been unhappy with my lot, I had never actually coveted what somebody else had—until right now, when I was jealous of every man in that group for having her attention. It was the most atrocious sensation I had ever felt, as if some tiny monster were crawling around within my guts while somehow sending spasms of shock through my limbs, my throat, making everything inside me tighten, tight as a drum, twisting everything inside me into a knot.”
At this point, Galland can’t resist a bit of comic foreshadowing, as Iago is “ignoring the screeching actors in an offensive comedy about a Nubian and his albino bride.”

Soon after Iago and Emilia are married, he meets Othello and they become good friends, good enough that Iago drags him out of the Council chamber of Venice just before he has an epileptic fit, which Iago recognizes because “it had sometimes happened to my uncle, and my priestly brother when he was a boy.” They serve together for years, at Rhodes and Corfu and then “at the most dangerous part of the border” at a garrison where Emilia is allowed to join her husband. He is still uncomfortably honest about what he thinks and feels, saying
“the duties here were similar to my earlier garrison postings, but the civilized aspect of life was strangely…civilized. The fortress was large enough that officers’ wives would usually dress for dinner, as if we lived in civilization, as if we were not soldiers, as if at any moment we would not be called away to shatter another human being’s spinal column.”

In the novel, Iago and Emilia go with Othello to dinners at Desdemona’s father’s house because Othello knows little about Venetian manners and customs and wants them, as he says to Emilia, “for just as I need Iago to retain my humor, I believe that Iago might need you.” The first time Othello decides to go alone to one of Brabantio’s dinners, Iago feels hurt, while Emilia says “I think it is wonderful that he has gained his equilibrium enough to navigate the artificial sea of Venetian manners. Good for you for teaching him to steer it; good for him for being an apt pupil.” Emilia does tease Iago a little about being jealous of Othello’s attentions to Desdemona, but he blithely dismisses the possibility that the two of them could ever be married: “do you think her father would dispose of her to a man who is not a patrician? Who is not even a Venetian? Who would forever change the family’s race?”

Iago and Emilia quarrel over her defense of Michele Cassio, who Iago dislikes pretty much on sight. She says
“it is pleasant to see them [Venetians] embrace somebody who is unlike them….It causes me to realize that we need not be just like them, and yet we may still be respected by them. By all these patricians who currently only let you near them because you’re with Othello. If you would make the effort to be, occasionally, charming, you would find yourself admired by the entire patriciate of Venice—for your own merits, not because you are Othello’s man.”
Iago responds, incredulously:
“you are admiring a guileful fop for his ability to gull people into giving him things he has done nothing to deserve.”
He goes on to say that he will not try to charm anyone because
“I do not need their help….I have my own merit. I do not have to charm to have merit. I already have merit. With my merit, I earn what I deserve. There is an integrity to that, which nobody I know—except, I thought, you and perhaps Othello—has any understanding of.”
This is an important part of Iago’s character development in the novel. I think we consider it naive, today, to expect that other people will see and properly acknowledge our merits unless we find opportunities to show them off. So perhaps Iago’s attitude here seems childish, but we all understand it and most of us have felt it.

The turning point comes, as it always does, when Othello promotes Cassio instead of Iago. The novel’s Iago sees that Cassio’s actions as go-between for Othello and Desdemona has been rewarded instead of his military work. He realizes that
“Othello the Moor was a man of guile. I did not want to face that, but still it was true. He was rewarding a boozing womanizer for helping him to deceive one of the most powerful men in all of Venice—and to do that, he was robbing me of something I had taken years to earn. There was no justice in the world. There was no justice for me certainly—and so there should, there must, be no justice for Othello either.”

This Iago’s childhood friend Roderigo is really threatening to drown himself, after Desdemona’s marriage is revealed and Iago encourages him to hope for some future gesture of love from her because he doesn’t want to see his friend kill himself over his disappointment: “Even if Desdemona forsook Othello, she would never take up with Roderigo. I knew that. But it gave him such joy to believe it, and the romance of secretly wooing her gave him more pleasure than his estates or money ever had.”

Every day of the voyage to Cypress, Iago seethes. He “mused on all the ways there were to extract satisfaction from the men who’d wronged me.” He thinks that “the fantasy of it—Othello, betrayed by the woman for whom he’d betrayed his own better nature—scratched an itch in me that needed scratching.” He realizes that Cassio and Othello now
“took on hideous magnificence in my imagination. Their unrepentant selfishness and duplicity, their disrespect and disregard, Othello’s lack of gratitude and Cassio’s sycophancy—I gnawed those bones as daily diet….I so enjoyed my wrath that I did not want to every reach Cyprus; on Cyprus, the dreary daily grind of reality would require me to face the actual men I had (I knew) mythologized to suit my appetite. I preferred to engorge my bitterness on mental obsessions. I was not proud of that, but before you judge me, please do not pretend you have never done such a thing yourself.”

Having lost his childlike belief that virtue will be noticed and rewarded, Iago learns to tell less of the truth, as he demonstrates to Cassio after making it easy for him to get drunk while on duty:
“’Reputation is a meaningless nicety,’ I argued. ‘Half the time it’s gotten unjustly’—here I refrained from referring to a certain previous lieutenancy—‘and half the time it’s lost unjustly too.’”

The first time Iago tries to make Othello doubt Desdemona’s faithfulness, he succeeds, and thinks “I had never seen [Othello] this dejected. He was nearly as dejected as I had been when I’d realized he was deceiving me. It had taken such little effort to achieve this parity.” Moreover, when he reflects on what he has done, he sees it as a new weapon in his arsenal as a soldier:
“Words. Words. Words. All it took were words. Othello claimed he needed to see something concrete to be moved to doubt—but I had shown him nothing, and still he doubted. I had moved him more than the most ferocious battle ever had. I possessed a power over him, far greater than any he possessed, or ever would possess, over me.”
Even more than just a new weapon, however, Iago sees lying as something he can excel at:
“I had never sought competition, and still did not believe I should have been subjected to it: not with Cassio for a lieutenancy, not with Desdemona for Othello’s regard, not with Othello himself to grant or banish happiness…but being forced into those competitions, I was winning every one of them, and righteously so.”

Once Iago is made lieutenant, he thinks that it is time for “the banishing of all the chaos I’d so defly summoned.” He believes that he can “put to bed the demons I had roused.” Moreover, he says “I knew I could do it. When it came to managing Othello, I knew now I could do anything.” Here is the hubris that leads to the tragedy of this novel.

Events fall out as they always do, except that we see that this Iago stabs Roderigo after his fight with Cassio because Roderigo was already mortally wounded. This Iago is heartbroken when Emilia calls him a villain because she is “the first person ever who believed wholly in my goodness, the one person who had never wavered in her faith in me.” What he had wanted to say to Othello is “What kind of man reacts this way to words without proof? Why are you not the one to blame for this?” But he doesn’t care about explaining to anyone but Emilia, and Emilia is too taken by appearances to let him share his “rationale,” his rationalizations, the perspective in which he has set these pieces in motion and is helpless to stop them.

The moment of tragedy in this version of the story is the moment in which Iago looks into Emilia’s eyes and sees
“not a determined, deserving soldier earning his right to the lieutenancy by demonstrating his rival’s unfitness for office; not a slighted confidant testing his friend’s mental clarity and finding it alarmingly cloudy; not a doting husband trying to better himself to be deserving of a cherished wife. I saw only a man of a vindictive and violent nature, hell-bent on doing whatever it took to get whatever he wanted, no matter the cost; I saw a man so twisted up with jealousy and envy that he would sacrifice and demean anyone to tear others down; worst of all, a man of tremendous capabilities who would not hesitate to let those capabilities lead to the death of innocents.”

This is what makes Iago’s life no longer worth living. He says “my soul had run aground while I still thought it was expertly navigating open water. I had not noticed the shipwreck until Emilia forced me to admit it.” He now has to see himself as he believes his wife saw him: “she had given me the greatest and most terrible of gifts: unflinching honesty. Exactly the thing I’d prized myself for, before I’d abandoned the true path without noticing.”

So Iago gives up words entirely, after speaking his famous lines “As me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I will not speak another word.” It is a great tragedy, as much from this point of view, as from the other.

The novel’s Iago does reveal what he thinks about how his story with Othello will be told:
“In each telling, I am certain, there is an insidious rounding of rough edges, a subtle simplifying, a massaging of the tale into one of deliberate villain and hapless victims. It is easy to call someone a villain; the title allows dismissal and more important, distance: as long as you know somebody else is the villain, then you are not one, and you may rest snugly in your own nest of good intentions, no need for vigilance or self-reflection.”

Iago’s perspective makes the play come alive in a new way. If Martin Luther King Jr. is right that loving our enemies is an absolute necessity for our survival, then feeling some degree of agape for Iago or Hitler or Osama bin Laden is the only way we can escape twisting our own ideas of honesty, which may not be as unalloyed as honest Iago’s were at the beginning of his story.

A Serious Question

September 7, 2015

IMG_3432Is there anything prettier than an orange kitten stalking a white butterfly through the summer grass? I don’t think so. I was trying to remember poems I’ve read about kittens and butterflies, but this children’s poem is the only one I found:

A Serious Question
by Carolyn Wells

A kitten went a-walking
One morning in July,
And idly fell a-talking
With a great big butterfly.

The kitten’s tone was airy,
The butterfly would scoff;
When there came along a fairy
Who whisked his wings right off.

And then–for it is written
Fairies can do such things–
Upon the startled kitten
She stuck the yellow wings.

The kitten felt a quiver,
She rose into the air,
Then flew down to the river
To view her image there.

With fear her heart was smitten,
And she began to cry,
“Am I a butter-kitten?
Or just a kitten-fly?”

This poem makes me think of the Catwings books, by Ursula K. LeGuin: Catwings, Catwings Return, Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings, and Jane on her Own. These winged cats don’t cry over the semantics of their situation, but use their wings as any properly curious cat would, to see what they will do and how far they can take them.

When I posted the photo of Pippin about to pounce on the butterfly to Facebook, a friend of mine who is a dog-lover made a comment about the Heart song Dog and Butterfly, which is now a persistent earworm every time I go outside with Pippin:

See the dog and butterfly
Up in the air he likes to fly
Dog and butterfly
Below she had to try
She roll back down to the warm soft ground, laughing
She don’t know why, she don’t know why
Dog and butterfly.

FullSizeRender (1)Pippin and I have a new routine now that Eleanor and Walker have moved out. He keeps me company on the desk or the table when I work at home in the morning, and sleeps when I go to the office in the afternoon. I get home around 5, change clothes, put on his collar, get myself a glass of iced tea or wine, and we go outside. Usually I start out sitting on the glider. One day, after exploring, Pippin decided to hop up and join me for a while.

There are lots of caterpillars inching themselves around the lawn furniture, and sometimes I hum the “inchworm” song to them, about measuring the marigolds. When Pippin gets too far away, especially when he’s up a tree, I sing his song to him, two lines of melody copied from somewhere with adapted lyrics that go “They call him Pippin, Pippin, Lord of the Trees…”

The baby birds that were raised in a nest inside my begonia have all flown away. IMG_3420Earlier in the summer, I went to water the begonia on the side of the nest, as I had been watering it for weeks, and one of the babies had gotten out of the nest and flew/fell out of the plant onto the deck. Eleanor caught it several times in a butterfly net and tried to put it back into the plant, and it would propel itself out again while its parents shrieked and I tried to keep Tristan and Pippin away from it. Finally she took Pippin to the other side of the house (Tristan had lost interest) and I picked it up in my hands and put it far enough back inside the begonia that it couldn’t jump out again immediately. I think all the babies learned to fly in the next few days, though, because the next time I poked the watering can in there, very hesitantly, the nest was empty.

Empty begonia and empty house. Time enough to let the kitten lead me through the spiderwebs around the shady side, to hear the crickets and watch the ants running back and forth in the late afternoon sun. It’s a good end to the day, the part where I don’t have to know why about anything, but just follow where the kitten leads. Soon he will get big enough to go outside on his own. Then I guess I’ll have to make an extra effort if I want to do something aimless.


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