Saturday, August 29, 2015

Get-Under-Your-Skin Books

Here are five recent "Get-Under-Your-Skin" books: Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind; Fifteen Dogs; The Incarnations; The Casualties, and Fortune Smiles. Read them and see if you agree.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

N is for Nature

I'm a walker. The art of slow travel, like slow food (or slow anything for that matter), allows me to savor the smallest details of life, stop to investigate, ask questions, engage on a more intimate level with the physical world, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. I've done regular 4-5 mile daily walks wherever I've found myself in the world, e.g. New York City (here and here), and Berlin (herehere, and here. In the past handful of years, this has meant (with the exception of stints in China and in Europe) walking (interspersed with 13-mile bike rides) in Chicago-area forest preserves.

In tandem with these walks and rides, I've become more interested in reading about the natural world. In particular, I've enjoyed the following books which have served to simultaneously narrow and broaden my focus as I make my way through the woods either on foot or on wheels: A Philosophy of Walking; Wild; Limber; H is for Hawk; The Wallcreeper; At Hawthorn Time; Fifteen Dogs; and The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs.

I haven't yet learned to tell time by the moon or stars (in fact, this may never be within my grasp), nor can I determine what kind of soil I'm walking on or where a glacier may have passed, but I have learned to identify a variety of wildflowers and trees, birds and other fauna; sometimes, I can even distinguish among individual birds of the same species by the variations in their song as I move along.

I have enjoyed tuning in to what the natural world is trying to tell me; the result is that mankind's often-unpleasant sights and sounds recede mercifully into the background, allowing my senses to recharge.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Identity Theft

"Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?"   ---Virginia Woolf, from her 1930 essay "Street Haunting: A London Adventure"

I got a letter from the Office of Personnel Management the other day. It stated that my personal information “may have been exposed as a result of a recent cyber security attack.” OPM “…regret[ted] the incident” and offered a credit monitoring service and substantial identity theft insurance.

What is identity? How is it determined and who determines it? What exactly is it we wish to protect if it comes under siege? Our cash? Do identity thieves hope to gain something other than money? Would it be such a bad thing to get another identity?

Is your identity based on race/genetics? Rachel Dolezal – a woman who has identified as black, though her parents claim she is white/Caucasian – was the subject of a recent article by James M. Calcagno, a professor of biological anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. Professor Calcagno argues that “genetic races do not exist and race is purely a cultural construct.” He added that if one were to go back far enough, “…everyone on the planet is African-something” because all human beings have ties to that continent. Take a look at Nell Zink's latest novel, Mislaid.

What about gender? Caitlyn, (fka Bruce) Jenner is a man who says he has identified as a woman for most of his life, but has only recently begun to appear physically as a woman. Why the change now and not before?

Can your identity be reduced to a collection of numbers - social security, PIN, bank accounts, credit cards? Governmental entities think so.

Or maybe biology? In a June 2015 Harper's article entitled "Shooting Down Man the Hunter," Rebecca Solnit writes that "...we are not necessarily what we once were." Our identities can and do change constantly. Alexandra Fuller says in her book, Leaving Before the Rains Come, that "...identity is is easily corruptible."

Maybe it’s your chosen career/job/profession that determines your identity, and you decide that it will identify you. Here in the U.S., it has long been the case that one of the first things someone asks about is your profession. In other parts of the world, this topic may eventually come up, but only after, for example, “where are you from?” and other questions s related to country-specific information (yet another identifying factor). 

Most of the jobs in my professional life can more or less fit into the fields of sales, teaching, law, diplomacy, and the arts, though there's a category I'd call "miscellaneous" that would include wrangling animals on a farm in Andalusia. Although I have enjoyed many of those jobs, I hardly ever derived my identity from any one of them. Yet that is what people in the U.S. tend to do, often to the exclusion of all other possible identifying features, e.g. favorite books, films, food, sports.

Is your identity your name? At the very end of The Dream Lover, Elizabeth Berg imagines the writer George Sand (born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), contemplating her controversial life, one filled with triumphs and tragedies, a life during which she continually searched for answers to questions about the true nature of love, spirituality, politics and identity. She wonders what it was all for, the endless questions about why she did this or that, who or what she was. “In the end,” Sand says, “there is but one answer to every question, whether it is spit at me or made as gentlest inquiry: I was I.” I prefer this categorization.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Location, Location, Location

Ten years ago, I was living in a Rosslyn, Virginia hotel in preparation for my departure to Iraq. I had recently returned to the DC area after two years in India and was in these temporary quarters for about six months. During this time, I was a member of Gold's Gym and regularly parked in the adjacent covered lot. Later that summer, journalist Bob Woodward revealed the identity of Deep Throat, his source for the critical information about the Watergate break-in which led to then-President Richard Nixon's resignation. Woodward also stated that the two had met clandestinely in that same parking lot. [A 2014 article stated that this garage will be torn down to make way for residential buildings.] Unaware of this scintillating connection at the time, to me the garage was just a garage; not until the events that took place there become known did the rather ordinary lot become extraordinary.

I thought about this because last week, I re-watched All the President's Men, the film based on the Woodward book. And it got me thinking about locations - movie locations in particular - and how critical they are to the overall mood of a film.

In a previous post, I wrote about my trip to Poland one year ago and briefly mentioned discovering some of the filming locations (in Warsaw) of several episodes of Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue. It was kind of a breathtaking rush to stumble onto these places. [By the way, I recently learned that The Criterion Collection is working on its version of The Decalogue (wonderful news), and that NBC is planning its own version to be set in Boston (not as wonderful, but I'm sure my curiosity will get the better of me and I'll watch.)]

Not long ago, I watched the three films in Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy: Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero. I was moved by all three, but particularly by the latter which was filmed on location in 1947 in the midst of Berlin's World War II rubbly aftermath. This Berlin in no way resembled the one I knew when I lived there in 2010. Wim Wender's Wings of Desire, filmed 40 years after Germany Year Zero, showed Berlin in a similar (though much-rebuilt) otherworldly apocalyptic state of despair. I found quite a few of these locations five years ago, all but the Wall of course. The most recent movies to be filmed in Berlin were Run, Lola, Run (1998), and The Lives of Others (released in 2006, though set in the 1980s). I am waiting for a contemporary cinematic look at Berlin, one that will at last offset the heavy melancholy of its history I found around every corner.

Does the earth remember? While photographing Civil War battlefields, photographer Sally Mann asks this question in her wild and lovely memoir, Hold Still. Well, I say it does.