Gauguin’s tarnished legacy.

As long as art has existed, so have artists. Artists present problems.

Not all artists are decent human beings. Frank Lloyd Wright, an arrogant SOB, ran off with a client’s wife. Caravaggio killed two men, and was on the run and waiting for a papal pardon when he died. No doubt the tribes in prehistoric France hated one of the first painters in the caves of Lauscaux.

We still admire Wright’s buildings and love Caravaggio’s painting and stand in awe of the bison and horses made by those cave artists.

Some artists evoke a stronger response: sexual misconduct places some artists even more beyond the pale. Woody Allen has been accused of abusing his stepdaughters. Director Roman Polanski, who helmed such brilliant movies as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, is currently avoiding the United States, having been charged with drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl. He pled guilty of unlawful sex with a minor and skipped the country when it appeared a judge was going to refuse a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail.

And there is Paul Gauguin.

Paul Gaugin was not a nice man. Christopher Riopelle, co-curator of a show about the painter held at the National Gallery in London, describes him as a “very complicated person, a very driven person, a very callous person.” After a failed career as a stockbroker, he moved to France to become a painter, leaving his wife and five children in Copenhagen. While there, at one point he tempestuously shared a house with Vincent van Gogh. An argument between the two of them led to the mental breakdown during which Vincent cut off part of his ear.

 After another stint in the South of France, Gauguin abandoned his family to run away to Tahiti.

In Tahiti, he “married” – to the extent a middle-aged man can marry them — a succession of pubescent girls, impregnating them and giving them syphilis. He painted what are on the surface eloquent portraits of them.

Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women (usually women, rarely men) usually include nudes.  The women are exotic, fetishized – a colonialist’s wet dream. Gauguin presents the Tahitians as “noble savages,” exhibiting that picture to Western audiences and fixing it in their minds. The women are presented as demure, passive, subservient. One particularly disturbing picture (Contes Barbares (Primitive Tales) includes a red-headed male figure in beret and painter’s smock anxiously chewing on his nails in the background.

Even the pictures of the women in Western dresses are not without issues. Tehana has Many Parents – a portrait of his child bride in a high-necked dress – has in the background a stylized nude picture and “hieroglyphics” which have no meaning in Tahitian culture. Gauguin could not resist the lure of the exotic, even if he had to make it up.

All of which presents a problem for museum curators, especially those who curate exhibits specifically on Gauguin. Do the problems posed by Gauguin’s life and picture mean that those pictures have no place on museum walls? Are they offensive enough to merit being ignored?

Some museums refuse to display Gauguin. Some museums place explanatory plaques next to exhibits, placing the pictures in the context of Gauguin life and explaining the colonialist impulses behind them. Some museums do nothing.

The media weigh in, too, with ominous articles titled “Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled?” from the New York Times and from the Independent, “More than a century after his death, has the time finally come to cancel Gauguin?” More reasoned articles appear, too, such as the BBC’s “Gauguin’s ‘strange, beautiful and exploitative’ portraits.”

The pictures are certainly important from an art historical point of view. Gauguin’s use of color and form influenced later painters greatly. His Tahitian pictures are part of a significant oeuvre that forms an important force in subsequent art movements.

At what point does the art transcend the artist, and the subject?

Certainly, the subject matters. Modern-day Tahitians have found ways to protest the clichéd exotic colonialist “otherness” of Gauguin’s paintings, which hang on in Western culture as depictions of Polynesian life.

Gauguin himself presents answers. He had a significant body of work aside from his Tahitian paintings. One of those paintings, After the Sermon, showing Breton peasant women in prayer, demonstrates the startling use of color and form that was to become his trademark. Perhaps exhibiting those pictures might be enough to give a sense of his genius.

Art belongs to the world. Once a painting – or sculpture, or movie – has been sent forth by the artist, in some sense it no longer matters who made it. We can evaluate art on its own merits, and find the Tahitian portraits offensive based on their colonialist “savage” vision of Tahitian life. We can object to his pictures of his child brides based on the sexualization of children.

Paul Gauguin’s art matters. His squalid, terrible, and in the end, evil, life does not.

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Everyone has 9/11 stories. How did you find out about the attack? Did you see the towers fall? Did you know anyone who died? I too have a story – less important than many. I didn’t lose anyone. My mother-in-law alerted me to the attack when she called me and told me to turn on the television.  As far as I went, I was just another American coping with the unimaginable, spending the day – and many days afterward — in shock and bewilderment.

But sometimes God answers prayers you don’t even know you’re going to say.

In the second week of September 2001, The Rocket Scientist had gone on the road. He intended to go to New York for meetings with engineers at a firm in lower Manhattan, and then fly to Phoenix for meetings there. That didn’t happen.

At the time the first plane hit the towers, he should have been eating breakfast in the restaurant in the Marriot at 3 World Trade Center, preparing for his morning meetings. He lucked out. The engineering firm had decided that they were not ready for his visit and so he had gone first to Arizona.

As for me, I went around in so much shock on 9/11 that I didn’t think about the alternative. He was safe in Phoenix, that’s all I knew. I worried for a friend of ours from college who had previously worked in the towers. I hadn’t talked to him in a long time. Fortunately, when I got hold of the Rocket Scientist, he knew that E. was now working in Connecticut. 

It wasn’t until later that I thought about what might have been. In all likelihood, he would have gotten out of the hotel – all but about forty of the over 900 guests did. But at what cost? What level of PTSD would he have suffered? What toxins would he have inhaled? How much more would our lives have changed, beyond the almost unbelievable ways all of our lives would be upended by the events of that horrible day?

Instead, he ended up having to get home without being able to fly. That involved its own set of troubles (such as locating a rental car and fighting with Hertz about price-gouging), but which in the end were inconsequential.

As I said in the beginning, I didn’t lose anyone. My story is not all that different than many. Sometimes when I think of 9/11, though, I am haunted by the way it could have been worse for my family.

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Truth in music

I was listening to my “Going Places” playlist (all songs with names of places in them, as well as those involving transit) and I came upon the song “Banana Republics” (original by Steve Goodman, cover by Jimmy Buffet). One line stood out to me, about the natives of aforesaid places:

“You know you cannot trust them, because they know they can’t trust you.”

This seems to me to accurately reflect United States foreign policy for a while now.

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The obligatory Summer Olympics post.

Every two years I lose two weeks of my life, as the Olympics comes to my room. A dozen-odd thoughts about the Summer Games:

  1. I use the term “stick the landing” when discussing matters other than gymnastics.
  2. I get cranky when I can’t easily find television coverage of equestrian events. I realize that dressage is not everybody’s cup of tea, but I find the marathon really boring, and they show that.
  3. I think I like badminton and table tennis better than tennis. Perhaps because I only get to see them every four years.
  4. Best uniforms: Chinese table tennis players, with a pink and purple dragon on a black background.
  5. I have a list of who I root for, and the USA is not at the top. I pull for individual athletes I like (Katy Ledecky, anyone on the US gymnastics team), athletes from the Olympic Refugee Team, athletes from odd little countries (Flora Duffy won Bermuda’s first gold medal in the women’s triathlon, making Bermuda the smallest country to have a gold medal; even better, San Marino (San Marino!) has both a silver and a bronze in shooting, making it the smallest country by population to have Olympic medals), Team USA, South Korea, the host country,  the Canadians, and the Brits, and whatever athletes have interesting life stories. In that order.
  6. I hate to admit it, but I occasionally engage in sexist behavior such as ogling the male divers in small Speedos. I do wonder why the divers wear those rather than the longer suits worn by swimmers. I’m assuming it is for competitive reasons – maybe it makes it easier for the judges to assess their form?  (Their diving form.) Women’s beach volleyball, ditto. I can see where the small bottoms can reduce the chance of getting sand in delicate places, which I can attest (having grown up in Florida) is distinctly uncomfortable.
  7. I am disturbed by the de facto segregation in sports in the US. Swimming is almost completely white; track and field, while not exclusively Black, is heavily so. This reflects a long history of segregation of facilities, both as a result of overt discrimination, and more insidious forms of racism. Even today, Blacks at swimming pools can be viewed with suspicion. (Not to mention that the international governing body for swimming has outlawed the use of swimming caps designed for Black hair in competition.)
  8. I am delighted that women’s gymnastics, once the exclusive purview of white women, seems to be less so. This year’s USA team is composed of two Black gymnasts (Simone Biles, whom I love, and Jordan Chiles) and a Hmong gymnast (Sunisa Lee) with Grace McCallum, Mykala Skinner, and Jade Carey (white gymnasts). Dominique Dawes (the first Black woman to win an individual Olympic medal) and Gabby Douglas paved the way, of course; and of the run of five consecutive gold medals at the Olympics in the women’s all around, three (Douglas, Biles, and Lee) are BIPOC. Props also to Laurie Hernandez, a Latina who was part of the gold-winning team in 2016, and who won a silver medal on balance beam.
  9. Speaking of Sunisa Lee, I have learned about the Hmong, an ethnic group I was heretofore unaware of.
  10. Seeing all the “my parents sacrificed everything so I could be an Olympian” stories makes me question my parenting skills.  Of course, a lot of things make me question my parenting skills.
  11. Since watching the Olympics is how I learn about unusual sports, I wish cricket were in the Olympics.
  12. I am still in love with Megan Rapinoe.

In two years, I’ll write another post about my feelings towards the Winter Games, starting with my love of curling.

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Leave her alone.

[Spoiler Alert: If you are not following the Olympics in real time, and want to be surprised, DON’T READ this. Go off and watch the replays of Tom Daly and Matty Lee winning the men’s 10-meter platform synchronized diving event. Ogle the guys in the really small Speedos, the counterpoint to the women’s beach volleyball outfits.]

Simon Biles dropped out of the women’s gymnastics team all around.

Claiming she did not suffer from physical injuries, after a botched vault, she decided that her head was not in the right space, and pulled out. Her teammates went on without her and won the silver. She watched and cheered them from the sidelines. It is unclear whether she will compete in the individual all-around and apparatus finals.

Good for her.

When Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open, citing mental health issues, critics lambasted her for her decision. Fortunately, other athletes and the public came to her defense. Biles will likewise face a storm of shit headed her way.

She should ignore it, as hard as that may be.

If Osaka goes on past the point where her head is in the game, she loses a tennis match. If Simone Biles goes past the point where her brain tells her she should stop, she can break a leg – or worse. As she commented, she didn’t want “to be carried out on a stretcher.”

Simone Biles has changed the sport of gymnastics in almost unimaginable ways. She has not one but four different maneuvers named for her. Some observers have criticized the sport’s governing body for giving those moves too low a degree of difficulty. One theory says that they have been given such low designations to discourage other gymnasts from trying them because they are dangerous. Biles has done things on vault that some men gymnasts don’t try.

All the while she has been a role model of sportsmanship and civic engagement. When her teammate Jordan Chiles was ready to quit the sports, Biles encouraged her to come to her Texas gym, and together they worked on not just Chiles’s skills but her confidence. Chiles is competing in Tokyo. 

Biles has spoken out about her sport. She has criticized USA Gymnastics for failing to protect scores of gymnasts – including herself – from sexual assault at the hands of serial abuser former team doctor Larry Nasser. She has spoken out, bravely, about her own experience as an abuse survivor. As the last of Nasser’s victims in the sport, she showed the resilience and courage that is her hallmark. “I just feel like [with] everything that happened, I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles told People“Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.” 

Biles has been unafraid to use her high profile to talk about other important issues, as well. In an interview with Glamour magazine, she spoke about the death of Breonna Taylor, and of her support for Black Lives Matter. “We need change,” she said. “We need justice for the Black community. With the peaceful protests it’s the start of change, but it’s sad that it took all of this for people to listen. Racism and injustice have existed for years with the Black community. How many times has this happened before we had cell phones?”

Olympic athletes are competing for their country, ostensibly, but really they compete for themselves. If Katy Ledecky destroys the competition in the women’s 1500 meter freestyle, we marvel at her abilities, not at the United States for having produced her. Oh, we pull for the national team, but really in the long run it’s the athlete who gets to hang the medal on their wall.  (In a lot of cases, I am not necessarily rooting for the US, but for whatever tiny country is the biggest underdog. I was tickled pink when Flora Duffy of Bermuda won the woman’s triathlon, thus giving Bermuda its first gold medal ever, and making it the smallest country to ever win an Olympic medal.)

 No athlete — Olympic or otherwise — owes us a damn thing, especially not Simone Biles, who has given us so much already. All she owes us is to take care of herself.

Because I would bet anything that, even if she never performs another vault or floor routine, Simone Biles is going to be a force for good in the world for years to come.

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Progress.

I have stashed a bag underneath a coffee table at the edge of the dining area. (Like many modern plan houses, we have a combined dining and living area.) Inside I have a colored pencil set, originally 72 colors, but supplemented by very nice Prismatic pencils from Michael’s. The colors run the gamut: viridian to silver to hydrangea to carmine to peacock green. Ultramarine. Vermillion. Jade. And so forth, through the shades of the rainbow and on and on.

You would also find two tattered and dog-eared “adult” coloring books. Not the pornographic kind, but the ones with the small and fiddly areas to be filled in, that take a level of patience never found in your typical pre-teen. (Teens are, of course, too cool to do anything as pedestrian as color in coloring books.) One has a variety of themes, from realistic nature scenes to complicated abstractions. The other is filled with butterflies and flowers, again with naturalistic insects and also complicated butterflies never seen in the wild.

The pages of the book have been colored in, with differing levels of neatness, depending upon the difficulty of the picture. Each page has its own color scheme: cool – blues and greens, purples and pinks – or warm – reds and oranges, yellows and browns. About half of the pages have been completely filled; the rest are mostly empty, with only a couple half-filled and then abandoned.

These are not the pursuit of tense adults trying to let go of the stresses of the day. They’re physical therapy.

I have essential tremor. (I once asked a neurologist what that term meant and he responded “It means that essentially we have no idea what causes it.” Ha ha. Very funny.) My grandmother had tremors, my mother had tremors, one of my kids has a tremor. In my case, the tremor is exacerbated by my (absolutely necessary) medications.

The tremors have been bad enough that at times I have considered brain surgery to control them. Fortunately, my doctors and I have found a medication that reduces the tremors to a level I can live with, even if they don’t go away completely. 

And that is where the coloring books come in. They help me strengthen at least one of my hands to help control the tremor. It works, too: while my right hand still has a quite noticeable tremor, it is definitely less than the tremor in my left, which I do not use. The coloring was not my doctors’ idea but mine, but they enthusiastically supported me.

Although it was kind of fun at first, it has become somewhat of a chore. I don’t remember to do it every day, but I do color at least two or three times a week. I find it annoying; nevertheless, I persist.

Writing is still difficult, but I can eat soup from a bowl (if it is a relatively thick soup – consommé is still hard). I can use regular utensils without difficulty. Carrying cups of coffee is still tricky, so I put whipped cream on them.

And I hit a milestone yesterday. I made a bracelet.

It’s not a particularly interesting bracelet, although the color scheme (black, white, and red) fills a gap in my jewelry. (Since I was not sure whether I could complete it, I used relatively inexpensive beads – I wasn’t going to pull out the lapis or malachite for this. The most expensive item I used was Swarovski.) Other than design (which didn’t take very long) the bracelet took me about forty to forty-five minutes to make, as opposed to the two hours it took me last time I tried to make one. I found it frustrating at times, but it didn’t reduce me to tears. My tremors made it somewhat difficult, but my eyesight was more of a problem.

So those hours filling page after page of butterflies and flowers, of birds and abstractly designed elephants and hippos have partially paid off. I have a long way to go (and I have to find some way to strengthen my *left* hand) but I have definitely made progress. (Trying to string cloisonné beads – tricky little buggers – is probably beyond me still.)

So here it is. Snowflake obsidian (6mm), mother of pearl (3 mm), Siam (it’s a color) Swarovski bicones (6mm), and onyx (3mm), silver-plated toggle clasp.

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Losing the world.


Happy day after Earth Day, 2021.

The earth has been slapping us around the past year: drought, hurricanes, blizzards, pandemic. Every time you turn around you see yet another natural disaster barreling down on a usually unprepared populace.

That doesn’t include extinctions. In the past year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) listed dozens of species as extinct on their “Red List” of endangered and threatened animals. These species range from the Lost shark to the Bonin pipistrelle (a small Japanese bat) to 22 frog species in Central and South America to dozens of plant species worldwide (including 32 orchid species in Bangladesh and 65 North American plants), among many others. (Many of the species have not been seen in years, sometimes decades, but were only listed by IUCN as extinct in 2020).

The reasons for extinction range from natural (many frog species were wiped out by a fungus), to the usual effects of “civilization” such as habitat destruction and overfishing, to the almost unbelievably silly. Simeulue Hill mynahs were decimated by over collecting for the songbird trade. Extinct in the wild, it is thought that a few may exist in captivity.

According to IUCN, more than 37,400 other species are threatened with extinction – 28 percent of the assessed species. Mammals, fish, reptiles, birds, plants, all have species on the brink. 

God knows what this does to us. True, maybe losing 15 per cent of mite species won’t affect humans directly, but it does affect the ecosystems in which they exist. Ecosystems that may well be home to species we do care about.

Extinction denial, much like climate denial, does real damage in the world. Pretending that the extinctions are not happening, that they are part of the natural order and not caused by human activities, or that they don’t matter at all, will lose us the biodiversity upon which our long-term survival as a species depends. Answers to questions we don’t even know to ask yet may be lost with the Amazonian rainforest.

Not only our physical survival, either. We risk losing the wonderful world around us, filled with species that may not yet be extinct but that may be well on their way. We need a world in which we can marvel at small bats, or the amazing color of South American frogs, or the majesty of elephants. Children delight in dinosaurs; children delight in snow leopards and cheetahs.

It would be a tragedy if the latter were as gone as the former.

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It’s that month again.

 April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

I turned sixty on Saturday (I am determined not to lie about my age).

Just another depressing anniversary in a month filled with them.

It’s not enough that we have Hitler’s birthday, Lincoln’s assassination, Waco, Columbine, and Oklahoma City. The Boston Marathon bombings. The Virginia Tech Massacres. The Indianapolis FedEx shootings.

The San Francisco earthquake and fire. The sinking of the Titanic. The Deepwater Horizons oil spill.

Now we have the Derek Chauvin trial and the police shootings of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo. We have yet another justified protest being met with more police overreaction. 

But I have a glimmer of optimism. At least April will not see “Officer acquitted in George Floyd murder” as yet another black mark on the month. The verdict is not justice, not really – the injustice runs too deep and too long. But it does give a measure of accountability. Maybe it can be the start of change.

For once, April brings hope.

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Deliver us from evil?

Last Sunday, I watched the livestream of the Easter service from San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. The recital of the Lord’s Prayer brought me up short.

I have always mentally heard the prayer as asking the Lord to “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil,” but it’s not. In other words, I always thought the prayer asked for us to be delivered from the evil others directed our way. It isn’t.

The prayer instead asks the Lord to deliver us from evil that we are tempted to do. As originally stated in the Bible (Matthew 6:9), we are to ask the Lord to “deliver us from the evil one.” We are to be delivered from the clutches of Satan – and how do we place ourselves at the mercy of Satan? By committing evil.

All of which asks, “What is evil?”

As one can see from the prayer, a lot of evil follows temptation. At least five of the deadly sins result from giving in to inducements to desire – avarice, lust, gluttony, sloth, and pride all come readily to mind – but is there a temptation towards anger? It seems to me that to be tempted requires at least a modicum of awareness of the temptation being fought. Too often anger seems to arise almost with no warning, with no knowledge of how near it is. Anger is often a sin, but not always: sometimes anger is a righteous answer to injustice. Jesus was angry when he cleansed the temple, and I do not know any Christian who would claim He was acting sinfully. Too often we do not engage in enough anger – or at least not enough of the right type of anger, the anger that means something.

Everyone thinks they understand sins of commission: breaking of the Ten Commandments, say. We actively do unto others – sometimes unto ourselves as well – indefensible things. Sins of omission…they’re trickier.

It is accepting credit where we deserve none.

It is, by what we do not say, causing emotional pain to another human being.

It is staying silent in the face of injustice.

It is allowing ourselves to slip into despair.

It is indifference to the plight of others.

It is all the “You were great”s, all the“I’m proud of you”s, all the “I love you”s never said.

These may be small evils, or maybe not. But evils they are. All of us, at some time, commit them. It’s the human condition; nobody’s perfect. 

May God deliver us from these evils.

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Words matter.

CW: Sexual Assault, Rape

In the March 31, 2021 New York Times, Marta Blue had a moving article about the unwanted touch that women are subject to through their lives. She wrote an interesting piece discussing the boundaries of consent and the ways in which those boundaries get elided by experience of the world’s – i.e., men’s – expectations.

Much of what she wrote about stroke a chord. Like her, I have experienced non-sexual situations where consent to touch is explicitly required, but where my refusal of that consent met with passive-aggressive disapproval. I have found myself subject to unwanted hugs from male acquaintances – without making my displeasure known. (Those hugs ran from perfunctory to creepy, such as the male “friend” who used to massage my back when he “hugged” me, to my silence.) The only case that comes to mind when I pushed back forcefully was when a man I had met only a few hours before tried to “comfort” me after my car had been broken into. He was offended when I snarled “leave me alone,” replying “I’m just trying to offer support.” I have sometimes asked not to be hugged, and had those requests ignored. It was only after I developed fibromyalgia, where hugs can be not only unwanted but physically painful, have I been able to rebuff hugs not only feeling comfortable doing so but fairly sure that my refusal of consent would not be taken badly.

One part of her piece, though, bothered me even more than the rest. She described how, as a girl, she had ended up in a bathroom with a group of boys, including one who slid his finger inside her and coerced her into giving him a hand job. A pretty horrible experience for a young teen. But later, when discussing the issue of consent and her stint as a sex worker, she stated “Likewise, I’ve never been sexually assaulted.”

I said out loud when I read that, “Oh, honey, you sure have.” How else would you describe her unwanted sexual experience as a girl? Although, in context, she may have meant that she had never been sexually assaulted during her time doing sex work, the sentence was ambiguous.

I have railed at people over the term “sexual assault.” All too often, it has been used simply as a euphemism for rape. That does a disservice to victims of both. It softens “rape” into something that sounds less violent, less destructive. On the other hand, if “sexual assault” equals “rape,” victims of sexual assault that do not fall into the category of rape may view their experience as being less important than it is.

Call rape “rape.” Call sexual violence that cannot be characterized as rape, “sexual assault.” Don’t use those words to minimize the experience of both rape victims and those whose experience is something other, but not automatically less.

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Happy Birthday, Kid.

Twenty-seven years ago, Railfan came into my life. It’s not always been easy, but I would not wish it any other way.

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Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

During the course of this epidemic, our family has begun to create that which before we would have simply bought. We don’t sew our own clothes, but we do cook our own pizza and bake our own bread and… brew our own beer.

This is not entirely new: the Rocket Scientist and I have been homebrewing off and on for decades. (When we were looking through our homebrewing materials, we found a recipe for a “milk stout” that we brewed when I was expecting Railfan, some twenty-seven years ago.) Ales, stouts, lagers, you name it. (Except for India Pale Ale, which no one in the family likes.) We haven’t brewed lagers much because we generally lack the cold necessary for lagering. (When we did it before, we were in Virginia and had a crawl space next to the basement.)

One year ago, we brewed a porter, which we named “Pandemic Porter.” Yesterday we brewed a red ale, which we will name…

Vaccin-ale.

(In all honesty, I didn’t come up with the name.)

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Memories.

My most vivid memories from travel, both good and bad. (I have previously written about some of them.) In no particular order:

  1. The feel of a baby sea turtle in my hand as I helped him to the ocean (Cumberland Island, Georgia).
  2. Experiencing the Sagrada Familia (Barcelona, Spain). Words fail me.
  3. Wandering the Metropolitan Museum of Art after having had two Apple Martinis in the museum bar (New York City).
  4. The homicidal sheep-truck driver who tried to force me off the road in rural New Zealand.
  5. My chant driving through Illinois on the way to Chicago (“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we have a full tank of gas and a half pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses,” Elwood Blues, The Blues Brothers). My family was not amused.
  6. Driving Big Sur by myself for the first time (mainly to get over my fear of driving Big Sur).
  7. Learning a lesson about democracy in St. Isaac’s Cathedral (St. Petersburg, Russia).
  8. Falling in love with Puppy, a flower sculpture outside the Bilbao Guggenheim (Bilbao, Spain). In fact, falling in love with the entire country.
  9. The “Prado moment,” where I nearly passed out due to jet lag and Hieronymus Bosch (Madrid, Spain).
  10. Penguins in their native habitat (Ushaia, Argentina).
  11. The one of the happiest days of my life, spent on a boat motoring in the waters around San Cristobal Island (The Galapagos, Ecuador).
  12. Going to the Musée de Orsay with the kids, especially the Not-So-Little Drummer Boy (Paris, France).
  13. The majesty of the Grand Tetons (Grand Teton National Park).
  14. The drive from Vancouver to Whistler (British Columbia, Canada).
  15. Driving a thousand kilometers in one day through Bavaria, and arriving after dark in a rainstorm at the castle where we were staying (Germany). I half expected Count Dracula to meet us, although the lodgings were quite nice, if dark and sort of “hunting lodge” in decoration.
  16. Eating king crab at a small local restaurant in Tierra del Fuego (Ushaia, Argentina). There are pictures of me with the crab; I named him Bertie. He was delicious, and absolutely fresh, having been pulled from a salt-water tank after we ordered.
  17. Echidna Quest (San Diego, California).
  18. Disturbing a black bear along a deserted road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee). We were frightened, but he was more so.
  19. Antietam, one of the most profoundly sad battlefields I have ever visited (Maryland).
  20. Sitting in front of The Kitchen Maid in the Vermeer Room in the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, the Netherlands).
  21. The family – the mother in a hijab – in the nearly deserted St. Mark’s Square at nearly sunset after the tours had left. (Venice, Italy). The boy (who appeared to be about ten) put pigeon feed on his younger brother’s head, thus proving that boys are the same the world over.
  22. Walking through St. Peter’s Cathedral (Rome, Italy). Michelangelo’s Pieta moved me nearly to tears. I lit a candle for my dead sister, and thought of my mother, and wished she were there.
  23. The Service of Lessons and Carols in Westminster Abbey (London, England). Lessons and Carols has always been one of my two favorite services of the liturgical year, and being a participant at the seat of my religion was special.
  24. Wandering through a nearly deserted cathedral in Magdeburg (Germany). While I was looking at “the angels in the architecture,” ethereal music began drifting around me. A choir had chosen the cathedral because of its acoustics to record an album, and they were practicing.
  25. The beautiful New Mexican backroads we drove on a clear November day, the fields golden in the slanting late afternoon sun.

I have many more memories, but I decided that twenty-five was a good number to write about.

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That’s one blessing counted.

I find myself struggling. The stress of the ongoing pandemic, and the knowledge that until everyone in the household gets completely vaccinated I am not going anywhere (we agreed on this as a family), gets to me. Having a relatively healthy twenty-something in the household means that won’t be until May, probably. (As for me, thankfully, I have snagged an appointment for my first shot for tomorrow. Hurrah! I will be getting the Pfizer vaccine, as though I cared.) Having gone well over a year since my last hair styling, I will endure at least a couple of months more looking like the most disreputable of Macbeth’s witches.

In order to look past all that upsets me right now, I decided to following the lead of a college Facebook group and list the places that I have been by letter. Turns out I have traveled more extensively than I thought I have.

My travels have taken me to places that cover every letter of the alphabet except X. (Unless X marks the spot. Or a lot of spots.) My most recent acquisition, Quito, where I stayed overnight (and saw a performance of the Ballet Folklorico) a year and 793 days ago, covers “Q.” The list encompasses Alabama and the Alhambra to Zion National Park, and includes cities in twenty-one countries on five continents, and all the states except Alaska, the Dakotas, and Idaho. (I am a little hesitant about Africa, because all I have seen of Africa is Tangiers. A day trip to Morocco doesn’t seem like it should count, somehow, but I included Tangiers anyway. The Rocket Scientist had a conference in Capetown which was supposed to have happened last May, but which is now going to be held over Zoom instead. Damn pandemic.) The only continents I am missing are Asia (which, given that the Not-So-Little Drummer Boy lives in South Korea and is likely to remain there, I should see sometime) and Antarctica (where I am never likely to set foot, not that I care that much).

I have seen the sun set over Tuscan hills. I have stood on a cold winter’s day experiencing the magic of Stonehenge. I have driven in Paris (and Madrid – Spanish drivers are if anything worse than French drivers). I have gawked at the splendor of the tsar’s quarters in the Hermitage and the stunning grandeur of Versailles. I have looked at Picasso’s Guernica with tears in my eyes. I have walked on Omaha Beach on the Fourth of July, reflecting somberly on the sacrifice of the men who crawled up on that shore on D-Day. I have giggled over baby tortoises, after viewing their huge elderly relatives. I have beheld in wonder the geysers in Yellowstone, the stunning waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, and the majesty of the Grand Canyon.

It’s a humbling list. My parents never traveled across country until I had my first child and they were in their sixties. My brothers have never traveled west of Texas. One of my sisters lives in Alaska, but beyond that has seen little of the country outside the South. My eldest sister has traveled in Europe, but not as extensively as I have.

I have been so many places, and done so many things, that it takes my breath away when I actually contemplate it. I have been unbelievably fortunate to have a husband who is forced to travel so much for work, and to have the wherewithal to accompany him. Sometimes we have gone without other things so I could go along, and I am more grateful than I can say. We traveled with the kids as well: giving them experiences of other places was more important to us than getting them the latest toy or game.

I have so many blessings in my life – from my family to the roof over my head to the food that I eat without worrying how we are going to pay for it – and traveling may be the least of them. But when I have trouble remembering the good in life, it oddly helps to think about how big the world is, and how small my place in it is.

There’s a whole big world out there, and I have been blessed enough to see quite a lot of it.

Posted in My life and times, Travel (real or imaginary) | 1 Comment

Aliens, and the rapture that didn’t happen, and Q-Anon.

I caught Cocoon on FXM the other day. I only saw about the last hour of the movie, but it nonetheless brought back waves of nostalgia.

For those who don’t remember Cocoon, it concerned a group of St. Petersburg, Florida nursing home residents who discover a source of youth and vitality in the swimming pool of a mansion next door to their home. It turns out that the pool is the nesting area for alien eggs, and the aliens who came to retrieve them take most of the elderly people with them when they go. Directed by Ron Howard, the movie starred Wilford Brimley, Jack Guilford, Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, Jessica Tandy and Gwen Verdon.

Cocoon was filmed about a mile and a half from where I lived. The creepy old house in the film was the empty Barnett mansion, a little over a mile away. I had never seen what the old house looked like before the movie came out; all I could see was the high white stucco wall surrounding the property and the thick tangle of banyan trees and undergrowth I glimpsed through the wrought iron gates that closed off the white shell driveway. 

I played all the time at the park where the final chase scene started. My father fished for bait where the Wilford Brimley character and his grandson fished. There was a field close by where we would park our motor home on a Friday night so dad could catch small fish to be used the next day, when he went out in a small boat looking for snook. Given that Wilford Brimley is a dead ringer for my father, that scene caused me to miss my dad, who died in 1996.

All in all, watching Cocoon was a lot of fun.

But the movie brought back other, less welcome, memories as well. And thein hangs a strange, unsettling, tale.

When I was in middle school, I had a best friend, Ann. She and I were in almost all of our classes together; I was the fourth saxophonist in the band, she the second clarinetist. (She was more ambitious than I, always trying to move up, whereas I simply resigned myself to being mediocre at best.) We used to walk home together, and I would sometimes hang out at her house in spite of the fact that she had been told in no uncertain terms that she was forbidden to have friends over. I wonder now why I became friends with her; she browbeat me into giving her a birthday present, and told me I needed to use the diet supplements her father sold for a living because that was the only way I would attract the attention of boys.

In the spring of our eighth-grade year, Ann became cagey. She hinted that she knew a great secret, and since I was her best friend, she would tell me eventually.

She did. Apparently, she and her parents would be whisked away by an alien spaceship about a month hence. She seemed completely sincere. Since I was her friend, she could get a place for me on the spaceship as well.

I totally fell for it. Partly it was her clear belief that yes, the alien rapture would happen, and partly her faith in the omens she kept pointing out to me. (I later realized that these “signs and portents” consisted of a combination of natural phenomena and coincidences.)

I was all in. At that point, I would have done anything to escape a miserable home and school life. Being taken away to outer space seemed like a good deal to me. We were to get our best things and put them in a suitcase, and on the day of the ascension wear something attractive but comfortable. I put on a satin caftan I had snagged from my elder sister: pretty and cream-colored and covered with blue roses, and sneakers.

Obviously, the deal fell through. We were not taken up into the skies. Ann gave me a lame excuse that she had called off our participation in the pseudo-Rapture because she had an important part in the upcoming spring concert and she didn’t want to let people down. To say I was disappointed was an understatement – I’m not sure I ever forgave her.

“You can’t tell anyone,” she told me. “If you do, I will say you’re lying. They will lock you up and throw away the key.” After some thought, I decided she was right. Besides, I was embarrassed that I had ever been that gullible.

I went through high school – and Ann and I drifted apart. I finished high school, attended college, got married, graduated law school, had children, and never told a soul. Not my other high school friends. Not my friends in college and law school. Not my husband. I was frightened – had I really been so psychotic as to believe such craziness? – and ashamed – had I really been so stupid?

Fast forward to 1997 and Heaven’s Gate.

You remember Heaven’s Gate, right? It was a cult who committed suicide in San Diego. They were discovered all wearing new track suits and sneakers.  The more I looked into it, the more the cult resembled the bizarre plan my friend had told me about in eighth grade. At least one member had ties to the Tampa Bay area.

Had my friend participated in an actual cult? Had her parents? Had their friends? Had she been initiated or simply overheard things she was not meant to hear? What was the real reason she didn’t continue? Clearly, the Heaven’s Gate founders had not gone through with a suicide pact in the 1970s, if indeed they had planned to at that time. 

At any rate, Heaven’s Gate raised a question I thought I had answered in the affirmative years before. Had Ann simply created the scheme out of whole cloth? All of a sudden, I could no longer answer that with a definitive “yes.” I asked a friend of mine, a priest, whether it sounded like she had invented everything.  That depends, he answered. Was she bright enough and imaginative enough to create such a ruse? And why would she?

No, although somewhat bright, she lacked the imagination and the acting skill to carry off such a complicated hoax. She was also egoistic enough that she would have tried to bamboozle the whole school, not just me.

I broke down and told my husband and psychiatrist, both of whom seemed unconcerned. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” the psychiatrist told me when I asked if I had been psychotic. “Everyone’s psychotic when they’re thirteen.”

I think about my brush with cults every now and then when I read about some of the far-right conspiracy theories making the rounds. Q-Anon makes alien abduction seem almost quaint. What are a few spaceships compared to a Democrat child-sex trafficking ring run out of the basement a DC pizza parlor, that’s going to be exposed and smashed by Donald Trump? Or a massive revolution (“The Storm”) that’s going to remove the legitimate government and install Trump as “rightful” president/dictator?

I know the seduction of a cult, of a secret knowledge that only a few special others know about. I know what it’s like to believe the unbelievable. I know how some of these people are going to feel if they come to their senses. If they were not so damned dangerous, I might almost feel sorry for them.

Almost. But not quite.

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