From the Belly of the Press

I have lived through a passel of Presidential elections.  Since I first became old enough to realize that such things as issues and platforms existed, I have read the editorials and endorsements in as many newspapers as I could find.  As a hobby, I have reached back into the press morgues to find what the newspapers said about presidential candidates who were merely historical names to me.  It has been an ever-replenishing source of astonishment and amusement.

To say that this year’s election is remarkable is to engage in the broadest of understatements.  The politics on display are not in the purview of a blog like this.  But with regards to endorsements, I will observe the amazing one-sidedness – only one of the candidates is being endorsed, even where it flies in the face of tradition and normal political alignments.  

Even more striking this year’s crop of editorial stands is the number of dis-endorsements that have been published again the very lopsided numbers.   It is one thing for a hitherto conservative newspaper to endorse a Democrat.  It is quite another for the same paper to run a separate piece arguing why the so-called conservative candidate is in their eyes unacceptable.  One can argue that negative arguments are never the most effective, but when a publisher and editorial board start with the stance that one candidate is simply unqualified it makes a strong and remarkable statement.

A typical argument from the aggrieved supporters of the maligned candidate is that no one cares what the newspapers say anymore.  Newspapers are losing readership in this country at alarming rates.  Fewer people, according to polls (mostly online), are using newspapers as their primary news source.  Circulation is shrinking, as is the size of the papers themselves both in terms of page size and number.  Many local papers are closing shop, or selling to national interests while maintaining their local editorial boards.  Some have abandoned unique editorials altogether.  So, the argument goes, if no one is reading the newspapers, who cares whom they endorse?

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, is it Obama’s fault? (There’s that nasty politics again.)  But the real question is, does an editorial lose its authority because fewer people are reading it?  It may lose its effect.  I remember my grandmother waiting to see who the Boston Record American endorsed to decide where to cast her vote and the wild arguments between her and my New York Times devoted mother.  Now it is probable that fewer people are informing their decisions on what a publisher says to them.

But that does not remove the validity of the editorial statement.  In the best circumstances, editorials and endorsements are carefully thought out and explored decisions.  At a recent luncheon, the Associate Editor of the Dallas Morning News described the process in detail:  ten editorial board members wearing their board hats (not personal opinion) hash out what they want an editorial to say based on their interpretation of the stories and the prevailing sentiments of their readers and community.  It is a painstaking and thoughtful process, or it should be.  Even in those areas where an editorial is the written from the personal beliefs of a single editor, it still reflects a consideration of what that individual thinks the readers believe.  Newspapers are not blogs.  They have community investment and speak, in however flawed a manner, with a public voice.

So this year’s flock of endorsements and dis-endorsements do mean something.  They mean that on consideration of the values and the mores of the community, a trained board of writers has determined what the community believes – not the only belief to be sure, but that which reflects the consensus.  In this setting, the overwhelming support of one candidate and the disproportionate lack of support for the other are all the more striking.


Get Me to the Greek (Festival)

The Greek stones may not actually speak, but the food does.

Yesterday, we went to the 60th annual Dallas Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in the North part of the city.  The day was gray and gloomy, hinting at thunderstorms which never quite arrived.  But we are steadfast aficionados of Greek Festivals from many years back, so it would take more than impending rain to keep us away.

Despite the weather (or threat of it) the Fair was happy and busy.  The church is a large stately edifice with a matching parish house and a broad campus.  The friendly grounds were festooned with festival tents for the occasion which served as ticket and coupon booths, drink and dessert dispensaries and a massive and impressive food court.  The food court is the heart of all these festivals; that which attracts folks year to year even if they are Christopoulos’s or Levines .  More on the food later.

The Fair also boasted a small but thriving vendor’s area (where else would you buy your Pysanki eggs?) and cooking and music demonstrations.  To me, the church bookstore was by far the most intriguing retail spot.  We found it well stocked with incense and icons of all shapes and practical size (including a small palm sized diptych of Jesus and Mary which we added to our collection).  In addition, the shelves were lined with thought provoking books on liturgy, history, epistemology and all aspects of the life of the Greek Church.  One of the things I admire most about the Orthodox religions (including Roman Catholicism) is the desire to explore and understand their devotions. 

A crowning part of the day was a visit to the church itself.  Like many Orthodox Church buildings, Holy Trinity is shaped like a Roman basilica with a large narthex, squat and broad nave and aisles and a bold screened apse and altar crowned with a gilded dome.  The airy clerestory as well as the bright yellow paint gave the building a welcoming air which was countered by the haunting and solemn paintings of saints and priests, rendered in a Byzantine style.  These works were so strong and deft that they had a serene antiquity that belied their recent vintage.  The same sure hand was seen in the elegant and charming icons on sale in the store.

One small disappointment was the earnest choir toiling through their demonstration hymns on high in the choir loft.  It is surely no one’s fault, but an Orthodox choir without the booming grounding of deep basses is like a Kourabiedes without powdered sugar.   It is recognizable as a cookie, but not the kind it was meant to be.

Ah, and the food.  In full disclosure, I am mad for Greek food, haven’t never met a souvlaki that didn’t enrapture me.  In further candidness, I was not my usual trencherman self.  We chose lighter fare, but feasted nevertheless on spanakopita, pastitsio and salad.  The foods were fresh and genuine, down to the flair of the cumin in the noodles.   Other dishes on sale were grilled chicken, fried feta balls, the obligatory French fries, souvlaki, and crisp looking dolmanthes.  One thing missing that the festival we used to visit in Raleigh boasted was lamb kleftiko, which I love but always thought was ungainly for mass consumption.  Instead, the Dallas version featured lamb sliders with generous portions of juicy meat on small buns, probably a better approach and certain to leave fewer shank bones to clog the trash bins.

Greek families sang, Greek children danced, Greek deacons flapped about.  The outstanding feeling of this Festival was one of shared community, not just local but with all Greek Festivals everywhere.  I was transported not only to Raleigh but also to the heady days at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Brookline, MA where we were young.  For brief moments, even though we live in a strange city and we are not Greek, we were home.


Pirate Talk

It be Speak Like a Pirate Day, me buckos.  Arrrh.  Grab yer hornpipe and cut yer jib for smooth sailing.

I wonder why we assume that pirates ever sounded like that, speaking with a horrible cockney brogue broken with guttural growls.  In our imaginations, even pirates on Dutch or Spanish or French ships sound like they were just Shanghai’d in Stepney.

Our most enduring image of pirates comes from the book and the various movie versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  The cut of the pirate suit, the filthy bandanna across the brow, the garish rings in both ears leap out at us from that quintessential story.  But if you read the dialogue, there is nary a “shiver me timbers” or a “belay that” to be found.  Stevenson, a Scotsman who traveled throughout the world, might have heard the flat southern accents and the colorful expressions of English seamen on his travels, but he chose not to garble their talk into Piratese.

It was the movie makers that filled in the sounds, just as they brought all aspects of American imagination to life.  In the classic 1934 Hollywood version of the story, the director needed an instant representation of how far into the dregs the brigands had sunk.  So although most of the backup actors were American, they can be heard growling in an unlikely mix of Irish and West London accents, some barely intelligible as human speech.  Even the great Wallace Beery, the classic embodiment of Long John Silver was born in Missouri.  His booming bass and the outlandish seadog utterances were meant to project low-born and criminal.  Because of the power of his portrayal, they became the essence of how pirates are meant to act and sound.

Of interest, other contemporary buccaneer movies, like The Sea Hawk (1940) or Captain Blood (1935), have the British freebooters speak in cultured tones.  Even the least noble of them has a rude poetic quality.  Of course these were British actors and were cast as the heroes of the show.  It was the French or Spanish brigands who do the grunting and the swearing.

So what would a real crew of pirates have sounded like?  It would have depended on factors such as who owned the ship, where was the crew recruited, what seas did it ply?  There would be a range of worldliness from callow rural runaways to the unlucky sons of richer families joining to escape debt or by misadventure.  There would be a wide range of accents and dialects, and even languages, since most pirate crews were not recruited along national lines.  There were probably pirates who sounded very much like you.

But where is the adventure in that?  On a fine made-up holiday like today, feel free to drink some grog, toss your tricorn and clay pipe in the air, play the pipes and dance a jig, feed a few crackers to Polly and praise a many of “me hearties” as you can.  The image is too fixed in our imagination to change now.  And if it makes you feel freebooting and swashbuckling, than a fine wind in your sail, lad. 



Empathy For The Devil?

It is Election Season and the pundits are out in force trying to out-erudite each other.  Here come all the arcane words like ‘hegemony’, ‘demagogue’, ‘tatterdemalion’ (okay, I lied about the last one but I love it so much).  The most commonly used and misused word in this cascade of verbiage is ‘empathy’.  People understand that empathy is something good, but they don’t use the proper context for a very complex concept.

For most people, empathy is a fancier way to say compassion.  An empathic (or the more correct ‘empathetic’) person in their eyes is one who is moved by the suffering of others and therefore acts on their behalf.  They could use the word ‘compassionate’ or ‘sympathetic’, but the word ‘empathy’ has a gravitas, a sense of being a higher order of feeling.   And it is just that, but not within the confines of the pundits’ usage.

The sense of sharing someone’s sorrow is sympathy.  Sympathy is the innate understanding of the tribulations of another through self-experience.  You can be sympathetic to a heart stricken lover because you have had a heartbreak yourself.  You can understand the pain of a broken arm because you once broke your ankle.  Sympathy is selfish and self-focused; the recognition of the responses of another only through what you have felt. 

Compassion is a more generalized and weaker term, the description of an emotion.  You feel sorry for suffering individuals because you can sense that they are suffering.  It is the sorry state they are in that moves you and not an understanding of the cause or effect of that state.  Compassion, though a kindly feeling at base, can border on pity and even condescension. 

Empathy is far more difficult to attain.  It allows you to understand a state of being without having experienced it yourself.  In empathy, you don’t need to have broken your arm or have even felt the same level of pain to recognize that the pain is enormous and requires treatment.  You don’t need to have gone hungry yourself to recognize that poverty and its resultant starvation are woeful conditions.

Sympathy is easy and common although sadly not universal.  Most people are likely to feel bad for someone in pain having experienced pain themselves.  There are some who will not of course.  But even the feeling of anger at a person who is complaining of suffering is a form of sympathy.  You were strong enough to survive.  Why aren’t they?  You have overlaid your response to a known situation onto a stranger, even if your reaction is not a kindly one.

Empathy is difficult and rare.  It requires the abstraction of a state to the point where you can understand not only the condition but the responses of the people involved.  Again there is no implication of compassion in the term.  What you do with your understanding is strictly up to you.
Where the punditry most falls apart is in the ascription of empathy to a candidate or another figure in the public world.  A candidate may be said to be too removed from daily lives of constituents, so that person cannot have empathy towards them.  In fact, that person could only have ‘empathy’.  

Sympathy is impossible without the shared experience.  But an intelligent and thoughtful statesperson might know enough about the human condition to understand that issues of daily life for a person of a different status.  FDR did just that in attempting to reverse the Great Depression.  He was never on a breadline in his life, but his understanding of society allowed him to realize that the want of food was a dreadful thing.  In his case, his empathy moved him to compassion and he implemented a number of New Deal initiatives.

Literature is rife with episodes where a character has to live the life of those in need to understand and act on their behalf.  Ben Hur must experience slavery in order to rise up and lead the slaves to the emancipation of Christianity.  Scrooge has to witness the biting poverty of most of England and recognize his own aloneness in order to save Tiny Tim.  Joel McCrea as Sullivan in Preston Sturges’ classic movie “Sullivan’s Travels” must pretend to be out of work and destitute in order to realize what the films his audience wants to see. In each case, the character’s sympathy is released by sharing the downtrodden state of his beneficiaries.

As in life, it is rarer to find the character who acts from reasoned understanding without needing to suffer the actual scars.  John Galt, for all the flaws of the book Atlas Shrugged, is an empathetic character (perhaps the strong desire of Ayn Rand to associate her character with Jesus, the original empath).  With far less self-conscious depth, both The Scarlet Pimpernel and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities are empathetic.  Why are you doing this?  It is the right thing to do.  “It is far, far better thing…”


A Modern Olympian Ode: To Michael Phelps

Yesterday, August 11, Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer ever won his thirteenth individual gold medal.  In so doing, he broke the record of the greatest of ancient Olympians, Leonidas of Rhodes, stuck for 1600 plus years at twelve.  Arguments can be made as to whose achievement was more overreaching - travel, training, diet, lifestyle and level of competition are all so different.  But even the most ardent of purists would have to recognize that the modern swimmer's feats are unparalleled.

Absent for the modern athlete is a bard or poet such as Homer or Pindar to memorialize the achievement.  It has been a long time since any new Olympian victory odes were completed.

In poor substitution, and with vast apologies to Pindar and any other ancient Greek whom I might offend, I present this effort.  The complex meters of Pindar's odes were beyond me, so I fell back on dactylic hexameter, fitting I think for the extraordinarily epic nature of Michael Phelps's accomplishments.

Olympic Hymn #1

Glory, unquenchable son of Poseidon!  Your epos sings forward through
age and the passage of countless Olympiads.  Timeless, yet measured in
intricate seconds and fractions of moments.  Ephemeral.  Frozen and
captured in images, sweet preservation of youth’s endless power.  Yet
aging before us, through photograph trickery - ever compared with the
specter of earlier triumphs, of golden medallions engraved with
lost cities – Athens. Beijing. England’s capital. Now with a tropical
paradise.  Pool edge to podium, change is untraceable.  Victory
stands in identical prominence, heedless of year or location.

Glory, impossible national treasure, whose exploits rewrite every
Olympic history.  Lists you’ve rescripted of champion’s banners and
futile nemeses, lurking and snatching a victory, finally,
only to fade back among the broad registers of all the vanquished.
Glory, great flag bearer, larger than life, and reminder that swimming and
other sports not wreathed in helmets and uniforms still can be meaningful;
capture attention and imagination, if only quadrenially.
Every four years your face rises, grinning and tragic, from depths of the
green natatorium.  Wingspan, as broad as the oars of a trireme,
beats first the torso then conquers the water with ruthless endeavor.  E-
longated fingers trip electric sensors as watchful as Argus, then
clench in victorious power to splash on the overcome waters.
Every four years you leap from the height of the starting block, pushing your
intricate muscles beneath the smooth battleground, surfacing buoyantly,
hardly a splash made, yet farther than each of your flound’ring opponents,
gaining momentum in uncanny fashion despite the exhaustion of
moving through glistening pressures not meant to be mastered by humans.

Glory, indominant son of the waters whose Olympic legend is
safely entrusted to history and the persistence of myth.
       Keith Mankin, 2016


World Building 101, with Lindsay Buroker

I am writing and revising two high fantasy novels.  They are set in the same location in sequence but as the second progresses I have added new locations and new characters to push the story forward.  Already, I am stumbling over consistency in my geography, my topology and the political layout of the map of my imagined realm.  Inventing a world is not easy.

Lindsay Buroker, who is my favorite fantasy and science fiction author, seems to create worlds for the fun of it.  I have traveled with her through three of them so far (and looking forward to more). Each one is full and rich as well as consistent and distinct, peopled with characters who are as distinct as their environments.  I could not imagine Amaranthe from The Emporer’s Edge series   strolling down the capital of Iskandia any more than I could see Ridge Zirkander from Dragon’s Blade flying over the skies of the Empire.  Ms. Buroker is a generous author.  Not only are her city- and countryscapes richly described and rendered, but every character is fleshed out with a full and complex personality.  Each is given a full share of humanity, complete with strengths and many weaknesses.  As such, I would recognize Maldynado or Cas or any of her creations if I met them in real life.

Recently with uncharacteristic daring on my part, I contacted Ms. Buroker to see if she would be willing to share some of her experience in writing fantasy novels.  After my initial (and obligatory) gushing, she agreed to answer a few brief questions.  There are dozens more I could and should have asked and I hope for an opportunity someday, but for now please enjoy her responses:


Q:  When you are working in a series, do you meticulously plan the world that your characters inhabit or do you discover it along with them as the plots unfold?
LB:  Oh, I’m not meticulous at all. About anything in life. ;) I do try to plot out the basics of a series and have an idea how things will end before I get started, but I find that new ideas crop up along the way, so I like to leave room to explore them.
Since I tend to do a lot of world-building as I go, I’ve started writing the first two or three books in a series before going back to edit and publish them. This gives me more time to discover the world and add some depth. I did this with the series I launched with my pen name last year, and it worked well, so I’m doing it again right now with a science fiction adventure series that I plan to launch this summer. 

Q:  How do you maintain the distinct voices of your characters?
LB:  This is a challenge as I write more and more books. I’m up to 30 full-length novels now and I don’t know how many novellas and short stories. From series to series, I think my heroines will often have a lot of me in them and perhaps be a little similar in that regard, but I try to give all of my characters distinct backgrounds and quirks that make them feel a little different from each other. 

Q:  In addition to very strong female characters, your books always include well-developed male characters as well.  Do you find any difficulty in writing the opposite gender and any tips for doing so?
LB:  Thanks! I think there’s always some guessing and a bit of the unknown when it comes to writing the other sex. I tried listening to the audiobook version of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus once, but mostly I just remember what it was like being in the army. I was the only woman in my platoon for a while, so I was inundated with the guy humor and the guy perspective on life. That scene where Maldynado pees his name in the snow? That happened on a field exercise. :D (The guy had a shorter name, so it wasn’t quite so impressive of a feat.)
For tips? I would just say eavesdrop on some all-male conversations. And the same goes for male authors: listen to some all-female conversations. We often edit ourselves when the other gender is present. You get the genuine stuff when they don’t know you’re listening! 

(Lindsay Buroker’s books are available at bookstores and online.  For more information and excerpts, I recommend her blog at www.lindsayburoker.com).



Cameron graduates this week, a studio art scholar at University of Virginia.

I write these words with all the trepidation of any parent.  They are the clarion call of transition.  For him, it is transition to adulthood – the continued “large steps” in the great adventure of becoming him.  For his mother and me, it is a bittersweet transition from active parentage.  He is always our son, but he is no longer our child.

His graduation synchronizes with our great relocation, a thousand miles west to North Texas.  At the same time as Cameron was mounting his spectacular fourth year art show, I was cleaning out the collected clutter of sixteen years in our old house.  In Cameron’s room especially, untouched for the better part of a childhood, I felt that I was dismantling whole worlds.  With his permission if not his wholehearted endorsement, collections of tiny cars were moved out, armies of plastic soldiers were demobilized and Lego structures designed for the intricate topology of his imagination were dismantled.

One aspect of the move that cheered was the opportunity to review his artistic journey, at least in the part that had been preserved by active collection and hoarding.  Works from grade school are stacked with projects from college.  High school art meets art school work.  This fortuitous juxtaposition demonstrates his artistic voice as a continuum.

Cameron’s imagination has never been limited by constants.  His artistic eye has always played with shape and pattern as his creativity explored different materials and structures.  I see the same experimentation in his earliest pieces – all colors and textures, exploring the contrast of shape and hue - that I think are the hallmark of his more recent work.  I can find it also in compiled art compilations like a coat hanger “Don Quixote” or masks made from soda cans (a lot of strange liquids were consumed for that project).

The accidental retrospective was most compelling in seeing his current show.  As always, Cameron uses a broad variety of techniques and media, from prints to collage to painting.  In each set and each individual piece is tension – between colors, between shapes, between positive and negative spaces, between the outwardly stated and the implied.  Even recognizable shapes – faces, hands, a car – are given new roles in the narrative through challenging placement within a work, within a series, within the whole show.  The current art seems to be the logical extension of his elementary school pattern studies – polished and mature but completed with the same playful insouciance.

I am so proud of Cameron’s achievement’s as an artist and a person.  And I feel so blessed for the unique perspective that I have in the viewing of his accomplishments.  No one else at his show besides his mother and I could see his art through the filter of twenty-two years of its creation.  This may be the truest joy of parenthood.

I returned to the old house and careful packed all of the artwork.  The traces of an evolution need to be preserved.


The Moth Cinema

April is National Poetry Month. 

I have dabbled in poetry hardly at all since high school.  Why is it that all children are poets by nature?  In school, prosodic lines flow out like seeds from a dandelion.  Kids who cannot begin to fashion a paragraph can express themselves in reams of vivid verse.  It is not all good poetry, for sure, but it is all personal and genuine.  Where does that go?

Last fall, my son, a Miller Arts Scholar at University of Virginia, was involved in the installation of a Moth Cinema on the Arts Grounds.  The cinema, designed by famed eco-artist Natalie Jeremijenko, consists of a screen stretched across a garden filled with moth-friendly plants and bathed in gentle backlight.  The moths cavort in their playground as their shadows perform their intricate puppet plays.  I attended the groundbreaking for the installation and the artist described the cinema as a continuous love story.  Strangely compelling experimental music was being played at the site and I could imagine the balletic flitting of the elegant insects, spurred by whatever mysterious urges pass through their sightless and soundless existence – to fly, to mate, to lay, to die – a perfect circle of narrative.

The artist asked for student and faculty members of the Arts Council, the sponsoring organization, to contribute a thought or a story about moths.  The stories ranged from reminiscence to romance, all touched by a lyrical quality that anticipated the installation in its full effect.  She did not ask for audience contribution, but my mind searched for some expression of the ethereal novelty that the as yet unborn moths would provide.  It insisted on a poem.  The accompanying piece emerged fully formed, ready to flick its gossamer wings into flight:

Maybe poetry is part of a child’s nature because all the world is new to them.  Like fledgling moths, they flit through their world, sampling the untasted nectar, feeling the vibrations of the undreamed music that surrounds them.  Poetry is the most honest reflection of their developing emotions.  As adults, when we have heard it all and done it all, we close ourselves in the cocoon of prose – solid, comfortable, risk-free prose – and burst out into the light only on those wonderful rare occasions when our hearts chance on the novel, the wondrous, the ethereal.  Then it is our dance of delight which can be reflected in shadows on the screen.


Everything That You Absolutely Have To Know (About Hyperbole)

There are thousands of figures of speech.  Almost everything that a person may say has a term to describe it, often of Greek derivation and known only to a handful of grammarians and rhetoricians, as well as high school students during their once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the shrine of proper English.  It is in turns impressive and insufferable to not only know terms like “anaphora” or “litotes” but also to be able to give clever little examples of their use, but it will not generate a lot of free beer at the local bar.

One figure is universal to all languages and to the human condition.  Hyperbole, the classic overstatement of exaggeration, can be found from our first declarations (“You never buy me candy!”) to our final breaths (“The rest is silence!”).  I think it is a very human response to pretend to expand our own importance in a world over which we have shockingly little control.

For most of us, our first awareness of the word, “hyperbole” comes in grammar class in the ninth or tenth grade.  The word sneaks in with all the other Greek mouthfuls that our instructors try in vain to teach us, but I think it lasts with many of us for two reasons.  First, it is the easiest to remember – a word that sounds well to describe something we all understand, making it almost unique among grammatical terms.  The second reason is that around the same time we learn the English class version, we are also taught a Mathematical variant.  Out of the morass of arcane geometric terms comes the “hyperbola” – a sort of crowning version of the boring arc of a parabola.  In fact both words are from the same Greek root, leading to even more confusion with the adjective “hyperbolic.”   For once we need to remember what class we are sitting in.

All crises pass.  Few of us have need for either of these words in our daily parlance.  We may see hyperbolae (the math variety) all around us but the only part of us that remembers what they
are called is the cringing shadow of our prepubescent memories.  We, as humans, exaggerate in a constant stream, but we only recall the Greek name for our bold expostulations if we are editing or trying to win a bet.

Which is a shame, really, because names do have power.  The act of identifying a statement as a figure of speech allows us to master it.  Not all paper tissues are Kleenex and realizing that we have experienced synecdoche reminds us that variety is the spice of life.  People who answer their own questions (“Where have all the flowers gone?  Young girls have picked them, every one.”) are not be shunned as crazy or arrogant, but recognized as devotees of hypophora.

No matter how bold or brazen the exaggeration, by exposing the hyperbole we can shrink the statement down to a manageable size.

I remember the first North Carolina State Fair that my son (then seven) and I attended.  The very concept of a State Fair is hyperbolic in its implication that the entire state is involved, but we’ll leave that point aside.  The midway is a sea of exaggeration, full of improbable and impossible promises – wonders of the world and never-before-seen treasures magically transported there just for our benefit.
We poised before the ticket booth below a sign boasting the World’s Smallest Horse.  My son read the words and looked up at me.  “Dad,” he asked, “how do they know?”

Hyperbole tamed.


A Small Tragedy

Spring has seized the region and everywhere animals play out their old, old urges.  High in the sky, two hawks cavort around each other delighting in the sweep of the warm breezes as well as each other’s company.  More earthbound, a lush red squirrel gives her would-be lover a breathless chase.  She sidles up trees, dashing limb to limb, ever staying one branch ahead of his lusty attentions.

By my window, three small sparrows swoop and fetch.  It takes a moment to decipher but as the game plays on two males boldly wrestle and bristle, squawking ferocious challenges to each other while a tiny female looks on with jaded eyes.  After posing and strutting, puffing and fidgeting the two take chase again.  One of the males takes a momentary lead, rapidly overtaken by the other.  To their fierce competition, the small gray she is now a fleeting blur that sails just ahead of their wingspan.  Just before reaching her, the males stop and replay their elaborate choreography.  It is not enough to catch her.  They must win her small rapid heart as well.

Stop and chase, stop and chase – the game swoops high into the trees and low to skim the lowest brushes.  Each pass sweeps a widening circle through the yard.

Perhaps she has chosen.  Perhaps the song of one or the head tilt of the other has melted the cruel coyness of her spirit.  Perhaps the males are wearying of the chase, wondering if the small she is worth the effort.  The threesome assays one last broad pass to skim the flagstones on the deck.

A jarring thud.  A small forlorn squawk.  The tiny female lies broken at the base of my broad window.

The two pursuers land at her body.  Each male gives a pallid shadow of his courting display.  Each male tilts a befuddled head at the responding stillness.  With a wistful chirp, each male flies off into an opposite sky.


Back On The Chain Gang

Once, during a summer when I was immersed in intensive organic chemistry, I found myself alone and lonely.  In an effort to connect back with life, I played my then favorite song, The Pretenders’ Back on the Chain Gang, on the stereo I was boarding for my roommate.  As the song would end, I would replace stylus to vinyl and listen again.  After the sixth play, with behavior bordering on obsessive, I reluctantly switched over to the FM band.  In one of the odd serendipities that play in my life, the tune sang out from the airwaves for a seventh time giving me a sense of inevitability, solace and finality.

“Music hath charms” but the magical charms are bittersweet.  On that long-past summer afternoon the instant of sheer satisfaction in my favorite phrase (“Those were the happiest days of my life”) gave my heart each time a warming thrill.  But each instant also left it yearning.  I could anticipate the moment, I could revel in it as it occurred, but I could never hold it.  Music is forever touched by a reflection of an emotion.

With the possible exception of sculpture, where you can physically grasp the object of beauty, most art is enhanced by redolent echoes, the nostalgia for the sensation which you have encountered.  With painting or printmaking, you can stare and dream as long as you wish, but you can never reach in and immerse in the beauty.  In dance or in theater, or the spoken word of poetry, the moment strikes you and then passes.

Writing may be the most permanent of arts.  The word is always on the page and the page can always be in your hand.  In my favorite works, there is always a moment where I pause and savor before moving forward in the story.  In some, I will return to a passage or a chapter even after I have finished the book for the first or fiftieth time.  I will read and relive the moment, attempting both to hold onto and be held by the stirring sensation of completeness.

Perhaps after the seventh time, I will have achieved my goal.


On the Tomb of Mary of Burgundy, Bruges, Belgium.

Not all stories are told in words.  A work of art can have enormous impact where language is simply too limited.

Traveling in the city of Bruges in Belgium a few years ago, I chanced upon the tomb of Mary of Burgund with its marvelous effigy sculpted upon her death in 1482.  I was swept away by its peaceful beauty and the tale of human emotion that it imparted.  For the length of my stay, the tomb became a place of pilgrimage.  My visits to her moved me daily and, when I finally had to tear myself from her side, the memory became a steadfast source of calm and comfort.  These are the words I wrote on my return home:

“Her golden effigy lies in comfort on marble brocaded cushions.  Carvings of filigreed silk cover her body in sumptuous imitation of her living gowns, caught eternally in restful poise on her sepulchral bedding.  Her eyes speak of holy faith, but also of human spirit, lively and playful.  Her blossom mouth, small but elegant is pursed in a wry smile as if the new mysteries were just a continuous part of the rich humor of her life.  The small soft chin, no Hapsburg jut for her, points upward with indomitable courage.

Mary’s hands are clasped in prayer.  Unlike those of her father, Charles the Bold, on the tomb next to her which tilt toward his head in supplicant prayer, her hands reach straight upward as if she is about to open her arms in encompassing embrace.

At her feet, two small dogs lie obediently.  The hounds turn their heads up towards their mistress with cunning smiling faces, lapdogs well-used to play and cuddle looking for a game or a loving chuff of their heads.

What love inspired this wonderful monument!  The effigy is brilliantly crafted from death mask by artisans who worshipped her alive.  Surely their work was guided by the grieved father who sought to capture an eternal memory of her dear form.  Although she may have been insignificant by historical record, her tomb lies centrally in a majestic chapel of an important church in her father’s capital.  The father enshrined her at the very heart of the magnificent edifice, leaving only room for himself to pass the eternity of days next to his beloved daughter.  Mary's hands are worn and polished - grabbed by pilgrims and supplicants seeking her graceful intervention for their prayers.  More moving still, her right cheek has a burnished patch as well.  Imagine her father praying each day by her side and then touching the beloved face as he did in life, until the monument bore the permanent imprint of his love." 


Gestures Made and Unmade

In an earlier century there was the concept of the beau geste.    This was defined as a gesture made with no thought of reward or return.  It needed not be a thing of magnificence; just an action without fanfare that somehow made someone’s life a little better .  In the 1800’s it might involve stepping aside so that your brother could marry the girl.  In today’s parlance, it may be paying for the lunch of a soldier in uniform.

For a certain type of person there is pleasure in gestures of this sort.  Besides the satisfaction of knowing you have done a little something for someone - the “random act of kindness” - there is also a bittersweet pang in knowing that your gesture may never be discovered.  Sometimes humans like to feel the ache of being overlooked.   The longing hurt of unrequited love gives sweetness to the one that is consummated.

There is another kind of gesture that can fill the heart with longing.  It is the gesture unmade.  I think that many humans have generous souls but the realities of life may force us to avoid showing them either from inconvenience or from diffidence.

The other day, just before Valentine’s, I had given in to the temptation of buying a dozen succulent chocolate-dipped strawberries for my wife.  Now she loves chocolate and strawberries, but no one needs twelve of the delightful confections.  On the way home from the store, I walked near to but not quite past a bus stop where two homeless people were sitting in conversation.  It was a beautiful day and they seemed content – pleasantly wiling away their shared destitution.  My heart sang out to me to share my candies with them.  What were two strawberries to us?  But what a sweet, simple and pleasant gesture it would have been – a true beau geste. 

I didn’t do it.  Shyness and the untimely arrival of a bus stole my organic opportunity and if I had doubled back to them, the action would have felt forced and unnatural.  But those were just excuses.  The gesture died unmade and I regretted its passing.

Literature is full of examples of the gesture made, but I think the unmade one is at once more dramatic and more poignant.  Does the actor rue his lack of action?  When a word would have saved his friend, does Henry II regret not saying it in Jean Anouilh’s Becket?   Does Scrooge’s regret over not showing small kindness to Bob Cratchit lead to his ultimate reclamation in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol?

I am writing a book in which a business executive is seeing some of his labor force come to despair.  The executive is haughty and arrogant but not without heart.

“While most workers continued to thrive, a percentage simply dropped out.  They would arrive at work one day and simply stop functioning.  The lost souls were politely and gently turned out the door.  The corporation continued to issue paychecks in their names but what the fate of the checks or the workers was no one could say.  Nicholson would see them sometimes standing forlornly at the factory wall, but he always left them alone in their misery.  How often he wondered if a single word from him would have made a difference.”

Will this pang of ill-defined remorse lead to a rescue?  The plot is still unfurling in my head.

In real life, I urge you to give away your strawberries, for the good of others if not for your own peace of mind.  But reserve the gesture unmade perhaps for the good of the story you are telling.


Why We Love Dragons

Literature is full of flying lizards.  Some dragons blast fire from ravenous snouts.  Some dispense anile advice through mystic telepathic bonds.  Some make knights in armor look good.  Some demolish ogres and trolls.

Why is there a fascination with dragons above all other creatures?  Unicorns seldom appear in adult fiction despite widespread popularity among medievalists and young girls,  Although a basilisk made a brief and terrifying appearance in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when was the last time anyone wrote a good manticore novel or a juicy echidna tale?  Yet dragons continue to dominate fantasy literature and even cross into general fiction as well.

Having worked on two as yet unpublished dragon books and with the promise of more on the way, I have puzzled over what attraction of these beasts keeps authors and readers revisiting them.  Here are some of the reasons why dragons have become loved and respected members of my cast of characters. There are universal points that have embedded them in the collective imagination.

DRAGONS ARE A BLANK SLATE – Other mythic beasts are hewn from rigid traditions.  The lore of vampires or werewolves weighs down any writer.  Tolkien's strict classification of goblins, orcs and other beasts forces an author to either conform or defend any innovation.

Dragons have no single tradition.  There are vast differences in the creatures from culture to culture and even within a solitary mythos.  They may be unimaginably huge or approachable in size.  They can come in any number of colors.  They can channel fire or ice or even water for their powers.  They may be winged or apteric.   They may be mindless and feral or wise and nurturing (but not tame).
This diversity of heritage gives rise to a range of characteristics, of personalities (or dragonalities) depending on the needs of the story.  Thus, the dragons in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur can be vicious beasts whose whole purpose is to be vanquished by noble and saintly knights.  Tolkien’s Smaug can be a hyperintelligent but merciless and arrogant killer, making him one of the most developed characters in The Hobbit.  Saphira in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle can be protective and sisterly to her young human partner.

No one can ever say they have heard all the dragon stories.  The limitless permutations mean that each story or book is as unique as the dragon itself.

DRAGONS ARE POWERFUL – At some point in every book ever written, the reader wishes for a character who can rise up and overcome the interminable obstacles that the author devises.  Dragons embody the power to do that very thing.  

While not immortal or indestructible, dragons are formidable to the point that no odds seem insurmountable.  Their ennobling strength gives them both versatility and attraction.  It makes them proud enemies that lend glory to the meekest of protagonists.  As heroes themselves, their power can be relied on to deliver a satisfying victory.

DRAGONS ARE MYSTERIOUS – The reader can never presuppose dragons the way they can a humanoid creature like a zombie or a vampire.  Every reader knows what a werewolf will look like before the creature even appears.  But the range of appearances and powers available to dragons make them impossible to anticipate. Even as the creature is revealed, there is so much residual mystery that they always seem to be on the verge of recognition like a voice in a dream.  

Since no one in a story ever knows all the secrets of dragonhood, the vagueness allows a writer to engage in a classic slow reveal.  Each small morsel provides new plot tensions and unexpected tangents.   A reader should be forever and deliciously uncomfortable in the midst of a dragon story.

DRAGONS ARE SCARY – In addition to their power and their size, their mystery and magic, dragons are physically unsettling because they are giant reptiles.  They are often linked with snakes, a source of primal and Biblical fear.  Scales impart a sense of tactile discomfort for tender-skinned readers, as well as a sense of untouchable hardness and coldness (even in the fire breathing ones).  Their reptilian otherness lends a nightmare aura which both thrills and fascinates.

DRAGONS ARE ECO-FRIENDLY – Since dragons source their power from nature, they are inherent champions of the natural world.  A modern reader, cognizant of environmental concerns, may recognize the power and freedom of the creatures as a testimony to the strength of Earth.  Dragons often are pitted against the nature-smothering forces of civilization.  Even when they are killers, we recognize their inherent beauty in the same way we are attracted to a waterfall or a volcano.

DRAGON CAN FLY – All humans enjoy reading about creatures that can soar through the air.  One of the most challenging and pleasurable parts of writing my books was to convey the sense of wonder in the flight of my dragon.  Such a scene is fairly easy to describe from the perspective of a human catching a ride, but readers don’t want to be carried through the sky.  They want to fly themselves.  I tried to describe it from the dragon's point of view.  Does she feel the cold wind as it buffets her?  Does she feel the air cushioning her?  Does she delight in the sense of speed and power? 
“Her heart soared and raced.  She gave a great dragon grin and leaped from the platform.  Wind rushed by her, but… she embraced it.  She felt the cool air caress her outstretched wings and lift into a smooth line.  She tested her diving and her soaring and found the moves to be as natural to her as walking or stretching.  She even went through a quick roll, exhilarated at the power of control.”  (K. Mankin, Dragon Symphony, Chapter 13)

My dragon, Allegra, courtesy of MtnGoddessStudio

There are surely other reasons, personal and distinct, for a dragon's ability to captivate.  I confess to being under the spell of the magical and mystical creatures.  A golden dragon sits by my keyboard and tells me her story on a daily basis.  Even when I am not writing about her, she fills me with inspiration and wonder.  And when I close my eyes, I dream of flying by her side, my wings pushing me through the air with insouciant power.


The Things We Write

Humans are story-tellers.  More important, humans are story-hearers.  Stories define our understanding of life from our very earliest moments.

The spoken story comes first for us.  It may be as simple as "How big is Baby?  So big!"  This classic familial game has all the hallmarks of a narrative.  There is a subject (Baby).  The subject has an internal struggle (to determine how big she is).  In the end, after interminable suspense (to Baby at least), the tension is released  (She is "so big.")  Homer could not have developed a more classic heroic journey.

From there the stories become personalized as we try to express them for others.  We narrate our lives with excitement and awe, no detail too small to leave out.  Ask a toddler to talk about her day in school and then count the number of times she says "And then," stretching the tale out to encompass her whole experience.. 

As the stories are told and heard we have the inevitable desire to preserve them.  The simplest and oldest means is with graphic representation; pictures on a cave wall are very similar to the crayon drawings in the kindergarten theme-book.  Pictures evolve into pictographs and then into writing.  "Go Dog Go" becomes "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."  This in turn gives way to "A Wrinkle In Time," to "Catcher In The Rye," to "Look Homeward Angel" with thousands of stops and tangents along the way.

Even without the written word, the stories find ways to be heard.  They may emerge as music or dance, as songs with or without words.

Stories will hide in the strangest of places.  They lurk in anatomy textbooks in medical school, in investment prospectuses, even in historical documents - anywhere that an idea struggles to be understood by a human being.  The surest way for us to make our meaning clear is to incorporate it in a recognizable narrative, even if that narrative does not begin "Once upon a time...," but rather "When in the course of human events..."

The problem with being a story-hearer is that we sometimes forget to listen for the story.  We may be too caught up in the form or format.  If the words are complicated or in a language we don't know, then we may not try to understand them.  If they are too dry or even too ornate, they may not seem worth the effort. Finally, if they involve complex interpretation, such as the that of wordless art forms such as dance or music or art, we may simply not be able to find the story.

But even if we don't fully understand, it is so important to keep listening.  Remember that Baby has no idea what the word "big" means.  She has only the vaguest sense of being "Baby."  It is with the nurturing repetition of the narrative that she begins to realize "Baby is me" and "Baby is so big." When she masters this understanding, she can then move on to other abstractions like "Baby is growing," "Baby has thoughts," or "Baby has dreams."

I feel that it is important as an artist to emphasize the story and the story-hearing.  Twist the story around.  Tell it backwards.  Make up a language if needs be.  But always strive to maintain the connection between the art and the story-hearer at the other end.