The importance of place

Amy Davidson has written  a piece for the New Yorker summarizing the last year using seven addresses.  It must have been on my mind after I read it last night because early this morning in that time when you are not quite awake and yet not asleep, I tried to name the street and visualize all the places I’ve lived.  I don’t, of course, remember the first place I went after I was born except from a vague memory of visiting as a very young child.  I do remember with some effort the other places.  Some of them – particularly early rentals as a young adult – were actually pretty awful.  I even remember a couple of the landlords.  But the last, almost 40 years, I’ve only lived at three addresses.  All of them were/are wonderful in their own way.  The seven addresses Davidson picked to remember 2014 evoke feelings from horrifying and sad to wonderment.

Davidson begins with West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson, Missouri and Bay Street, Staten Island, New York where Michael Brown and Eric Garner died at the hands of the police, events which have the potential to change policing as well as the way we talk about race.  Her next set of addresses are where Thomas Eric Duncan was exposed to Ebola and where he first became ill:  72nd Samuel K. Doe Boulevard, Paynesville, Liberia and The Ivy Apartments, Fair Oaks Avenue, Dallas.  Duncan’s illness set off an extraordinary and irrational panic here.  An epidemic never materialized and so, in the American way, we have mostly forgotten that people are still dying in West Africa.  One consequence is that people there no longer seek medical help for problems that have cures because they fear medical facilities and Ebola causing the number of deaths from ordinary medical problems to rise also.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

Have you heard of this next address?

Nathan Road [Hong Kong], which is six lanes wide and cuts through the central Mong Kok district, was closed for weeks this fall, as students and others assembled to protest what they saw as Beijing’s broken promises about free elections. It, along with other gleaming thoroughfares, was the scene of standoffs whose contrasts—crowds holding up umbrellas amid teargassing near destination boutiques and offices—embodied some trade-offs that have accompanied China’s economic rise in graphic, or geographic, terms. (Traffic or democracy?) The barricades on Nathan Avenue were mostly cleared away in a major police action at the end of November. Cars are passing through again, but the story is not complete, for either side.

We hear almost nothing about the students and their supporters these days unless one listens to the BBC.  Right now, no one is sure where the protests are headed and protesters themselves are divided about whether to continue or to rethink tactics.

I had never heard of this next address:  Naem Roundabout, Raqqa, Syria.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, has been geographically disorienting: it has made sudden, sweeping moves into Northern Iraq, threatened the Turkish border, and put out videos, shot in indeterminate stretches of desert, in which hostages are mocked and killed. But there are moments when the group’s brutality and degraded character can be given an exact address, as when, in Raqqa, the Syrian town that serves as its base, prisoners were beheaded and their remains put on display along the Naem Roundabout. (Naem, in Arabic, means “bliss.”)

Davidson ends with the wonderful address of Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The Rosetta spacecraft’s trip to this address took a decade and covered four billion miles. On November 12th, after a couple of bouncy knocks, Rosetta’s Philae module landed on the comet’s surface—the first such visit in human history. The lander settled in a shady spot and then, over a frantic fifty-seven hours, scientists at the European Space Agency performed all the experiments they could before its solar-powered batteries shut down. Philae is sleeping on the comet now, but it may wake up again next summer, when the comet next turns toward the sun.

Thinking about the world and one’s own life through place is a fascinating thing to do.  Try thinking about all of your addresses and how they shaped your life and how they will shape your future.  Think about places you have been.  And I can’t wait to see if Philae wakes up next summer.

Photograph:  MARK PETERSON/REDUX

 

 

Anne Perry: crime and punishment

A few years ago, a good friend suggested I try reading a book by Anne Perry.  She knew I enjoyed Victorian mysteries.  She also told me that when Perry was a teenager, she had been convicted as an accessory to a matricide by her good friend, served time, and now wrote mysteries.  I thought it curious that someone who had committed such a serious crime now wrote so well about crime, but I read my first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt book and was hooked.  After I retired, I went back and read all of them in order.  I’ve also read some of her William Monk books, but I find the Pitts very compelling.  I had forgotten about Perry’s criminal past until I read this past week’s column by Rebecca Balint in the Brattleboro Reformer. [link to be added when column is posted online,]

Becca is my neighbor and newly elected State Senator whose weekly column my husband and I always find interesting.  She had not known until recently that Anne Perry had committed murder.  Her column explores how she feels about Perry after finding out.

…Details of their delusions can be found in Parker’s [Perry’s friend] adolescent journal.  But the question persists for me:  Do I believe in rehabilitation and redemption?  If I do, as I have always claimed, then why do I view Anne Perry differently now that I know of her troubled past?  I’ve read her Victorian mysteries for years and always enjoyed them as inconsequential breathers from the dense non-fiction I read.  I’ve joked about some of her writing tropes but still find her characters compelling.  Yet, I feel undeniably uneasy about a convicted murderer as an author.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

I read this and wondered why I had reacted so differently.  I went back and located the interview I had read years earlier in the Guardian.

In 1954, Hulme felt as if she had been pushed to the limit. Three days before she took part in the killing of Honora Parker on June 22, her parents announced that they were to divorce – triggered by Hulme having found her mother, Hilda, in bed with a lover. At the same time, her father lost his job and she was to be sent to South Africa to stay with an aunt. The shock to Hulme – who had not been at school because of tuberculosis, from which she had suffered since the age of 13 – was cataclysmic.

She turned to her close friend, Parker, a working-class girl from a humble background. Some felt it was a curious friendship for Hulme, whose family were well to do, her mother glamorous and clever. The two friends believed they could stay together if Pauline’s mother would let her leave New Zealand. Her refusal triggered Parker’s murderous rage and Hulme believed she owed it to her friend to help lure Mrs Parker to a Christchurch park and cosh her with a brick in a stocking.

“I felt I had a debt to repay,” says Perry. “Pauline was the only one who had written to me when I was in hospital, and she threatened to kill herself if I didn’t help. She was vomiting after every meal and losing weight all the time. I am sure now she was bulimic. I really believed she would take her life and I couldn’t face it.”

Hulme served five years at Mt Eden women’s prison in Auckland – “supposedly the toughest in the southern hemisphere,” she says with what sounds like pride.

Yet Perry now calls her time in prison “the best thing that could have happened”. “It was there that I went down on my knees and repented,” she says. “That is how I survived my time while others cracked up. I seemed to be the only one saying, I am guilty and I am where I should be.”

In an interview with Ian Rankin, Perry explains further.

IR: I wondered: at what point does redemption come do you think, I mean at some point during incarceration?

AP: That is a very spiritual question, to which I can only give you my own estimate of the answer. The redemption comes when you no longer wish to be that kind of person. When you understand that… when you see it as ugly, and you understand why it is not what you want to be. Not what you should be, not what you want to be. And that’s the difference. Not because somebody outside is telling you: this is not what you do. But because you, yourself, say: this is not who I want to be.

IR: How do you feel about the fact that society requires people to be locked up, especially at such a young age, that we require what seems to be not redemption so much as a kind of vengeance.

AP: I suppose society does require a certain level of vengeance. It needs to be not only done but seen to be done because it is supposed to be enough to prevent other people wanting to do the same. I think it would have been the worst thing that could ever have happened to me in my life if somehow they had said: “Well, look. You know, you were under medical treatment. These are mind altering drugs. I am sure you are not really wicked. You go ahead and forget about it.” I think that would have been totally destructive to me.

IR: How important was the punishment to you?

AP: I feel it is vital. I think until you feel that you have settled the debt, you cannot move on. It is a bit like trying to walk with an open parachute open behind you. By paying, you cut the strings and then you can move on. You can allow yourself to move on. I can say it and look you in the eye, because I can say: Yes, I have dealt with it. I believe that I have paid. I believe that I have been forgiven where it matters. And it now for me no longer exists. I can move on and be the best person I am capable of being. But I think that is true of everybody. As long as you don’t say: “somehow it wasn’t really me, it was that person and somehow it didn’t matter and I don’t need to pay.”

I think this explains why she writes novels about crime and punishment.  I can read Perry’s books without thinking of her past because it is her past that allows her to write.

 

 

 

History and war

I have to admit that my knowledge of the Second World War in Europe is limited to what I know from high school history class, some novels and movies.  I can name some of the famous battles and tell you that the all Japanese American 442nd fought in Italy, but my ignorance is pretty shocking.  So I have started reading the Rick Atkinson Liberation Trilogy starting with “An Army at Dawn” about North Africa.

But it seems that I am not the only one with a need to know some history.  Sunday’s New York Times had a long story about young Japanese students going to Guadalcanal to look for remains and learn history.

Using a trowel to dig into the shadowy floor of the rain forest, pausing only to wipe away sweat and malaria-carrying mosquitoes, Atsushi Maeda holds up what he has traveled so far, to this South Pacific island, to find: a human bone, turned orange-brown with age.

Mr. Maeda, 21, was looking for the remains of missing Japanese soldiers at the site of one of World War II’s most ferocious battles. Others have done this work before him, mostly aging veterans or bereaved relatives. But he was with a group of mostly university students and young professionals, nearly all of them under 40 and without a direct connection to the soldiers killed here.

A Japanese vessel was partly submerged off Guadalcanal in 1942 after being hit by American forces. The battle helped turn the Pacific war in favor of the United States and its allies. Some 7,000 Japanese were reported missing on Guadalcanal

A Japanese vessel was partly submerged off Guadalcanal in 1942 after being hit by American forces. The battle helped turn the Pacific war in favor of the United States and its allies. Some 7,000 Japanese were reported missing on Guadalcanal

As I understand it, the Japanese talk even less about WWII than Americans.  I had two uncles who were in Japan with the American occupying forces but it wasn’t until a few years before they both died that I knew anything about what they actually did. Ostensibly translators, they worked in support roles for the American army – mostly in supply.  My uncles didn’t talk much about the war because, like many vets, they were raised to accept the experience and move on.  In Japan, however, it has been almost national policy not to talk about the war they lost.

As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there has been a surge in interest among young Japanese about the disastrous war that their nation has long tried to forget.

It is a phenomenon that crosses political lines, encompassing progressives who preach the futility of war as well as conservatives who question the historical record of Japan’s wartime atrocities. What these young people have in common is an urgent sense that they learned too little about the war, both from school, where classes focus on earlier Japanese history, and from tight-lipped family members, who prefer not to revisit a painful time remains strong in Japan.

I found it interesting that most of the Japanese students are several generations younger than I am but that we are both driven by the need to know more.  200 pages into Atkinson’s story of North Africa, I keep reading about familiar names:  Tunis, Casablanca,  Marrakesh, Algeria – names of places that have been romanticized but where hundreds died.  North Africa is where there is an on-going struggle for democracy complicated by terrorism and tribalism.  (Think Benghazi)  We American invaders during WWII didn’t understand the local population or make a lot of effort to do so.  A mistake we still make today.

Kankoh Sakitsu, 42, the head priest of a Buddhist temple in Tokyo who organizes expeditions to Guadalcanal, has seen interest among young people grow after his first trip here in 2008. Since then, he has arranged three other journeys for groups of Japanese, including this one in September.

Mr. Sakitsu originally went to Guadalcanal to pray at the battle sites out of a sense of contrition because he feels Japanese Buddhism failed to oppose the war in the 1930s and 1940s, and so shares responsibility for it.

The story ends with a note of caution from a Japanese Guadalcanal veteran.

Mr. Sakitsu, the leader, said the September group was special because it was joined for the first time by one of the last surviving Japanese veterans from the battle, Junshiro Kanaizumi. Mr. Kanaizumi, 95, was an army engineer who helped build roads in the jungle. Now bent and frail with age, shuffling to the edge of the jungle with the help of a walking stick, Mr. Kanaizumi wore the same khaki jumpsuit with a Japanese flag on one shoulder as the other members.

Peering into one of the leaf-wrapped bundles, Mr. Kanaizumi said it was possible he once knew the man now reduced to a pile of crumbling bones.

“I hope they learn the miserable reality of war,” he said. “Once I am gone, who will be around to tell them that the only lesson from war is to never do it again?”

I think when I finish reading about Europe, I’ll have to move to the Pacific theater.

Photograph:   US Navy/Getty Images

P.D. James, Queen of Crime

My mother introduced me to the mystery novels of P. D. James many years ago when I was a teenager.  James didn’t publish often; she was not a twice a year or even once a year mystery writer.  A new James was the occasion for celebration and we read all of them.  I believe there were 18.  The New York Times obituary outlines the story of her life.

She was born Phyllis Dorothy James on Aug. 3, 1920, in Oxford, the eldest of three children of Dorothy and Sidney James, a civil servant who did not believe in inflicting too much education on his daughter. The family settled in Cambridge when she was 11, and before she left the Cambridge High School for Girls, at 16, she already knew that she wanted to be a writer and that mysterious death intrigued her.

“When I first heard that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall,” she was fond of saying, “I immediately wondered: Did he fall — or was he pushed?” But a marriage to Ernest C. B. White, a medical student, and World War II halted her plans for a writing career.

P.D. James, in 2010.

P.D. James, in 2010.

James was a hospital administrator for a number of years and used hospitals as the setting for some of her early novels.  But

[a]fter the death of her husband at 44, in 1964, Ms. James took a Civil Service examination and became an administrator in the forensic science and criminal law divisions of the Department of Home Affairs. The work would supply her novels with the realistic procedural detail on which she prided herself.

Although she rarely describes actual murder, the dead bodies in her novels always make an indelible impression on the innocent bystanders who chance upon them. “To many of them, it’s a really appalling and dreadful discovery,” Ms. James said. “I think that the reader should share that horror and that shock, so I make the descriptions just as realistic as I can.”

Her primary detective, Adam Dalgleish, was designed to be the anti-Peter Wimsey.

Her intention with Dalgliesh, she told the British critic and writer Julian Symons in 1986, was to create a detective “quite unlike the Lord Peter Wimsey kind of gentlemanly amateur” popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. James envisioned a realistic cop as her protagonist, a dedicated and skilled professional, and yet “something more than just a policeman, you see, a complex and sensitive human being,” she said.

A few months back, James was featured on the Barnes and Noble mystery section as one of the authors who discussed their favorite books.  It was interesting that she picked Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair and Dorothy Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise, two of the more complicated   stories by each author.  Also on the list were a book by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (A Fatal Inversion), the first Ian Rankin (The Complaints), and Sue Grafton’s V is for Vengance.  I have to confess that I don’t care all that much for Rendell, but I liked the other books on her list, so maybe I’ll try again.  There was one book, Dissolution by C. J. Sansom, I had never heard of before.  On James’ recommendation, I ordered it and have it on my pile to read.

It is sad that there will be no more books by P.D. James, but I will spend them this next year re-reading and savoring all that she had left us.

Photograph:  Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Grand juries, Ferguson, lots of questions and incredible sadness

What do I feel this morning after the grand jury failed to indict Officer Wilson on any charge?  Just incredible sadness and weariness.

I served on a grand jury in Boston.  It was supposed to be a six month gig, but turned out to be over a year because we were following evidence in a case.  We heard maybe 75 or 80 different cases and I can only recall two in which we didn’t indict.  One was a drug deal complete with very bad video and audio.  We decided we just couldn’t see or hear well enough to know what was going on.  There was another case, don’t remember exactly what it involved, where there was also not enough evidence.  If I remember correctly, the prosecutors can find more evidence and present again to a different grand jury.  In both cases where we declined to indict, they came to talk to us about why we didn’t do so.  In my year and a half, we heard many cases of unemployment insurance fraud, one child porn case, several Big Dig contractor fraud cases, and the biggie, a public corruption case.  We were constantly reminded that we were not a jury deciding guilt or innocence, but were just to decide if there was enough that a jury should hear the case.  We were often given the option, as was the Ferguson grand jury, of indicting on one of several charges.  We heard the prosecutor’s case only as the process was designed to determine if the prosecutor had enough evidence to go to trial.  It is an interesting process.

We have no idea what went on inside that grand jury room.  We don’t know if there were jurors who voted to indict and on which charges.  (Grand juries usually need a minimum, but not unanimous, vote.)  This was a special grand jury which heard no other cases.  We do know that in this instance, the grand jury did hear from Darren Wilson the defendant.  According to the New York Times summary of the case

The prosecutor usually chooses the evidence that a grand jury will hear, but in this case, the grand jury was given more latitude in calling witnesses and issuing subpoenas, according to Susan McGraugh, a law professor at the St. Louis University who has followed the case extensively. Grand jurors viewed photographs, forensic evidence and medical reports. Witnesses who testified include people who saw the events and police officers who worked on the investigation. While it is unusual in grand jury proceedings for the defendant to appear, Officer Wilson also gave testimony.

I watched Prosecutor McCulloch give his lengthy and sometimes repetitious statement on why the grand jury decided not to indict and I was left with several nagging questions.  There had been an altercation at Officer Wilson’s car and Officer Wilson was the only one who fired a weapon.  Michael Brown was clearly not armed.  Why was he shot, from the front, twelve times?   Why the press conference at night?  John Cassidy, writing in the New Yorker this morning, has many of the same questions.

A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

A preliminary question to ask is why the St. Louis authorities scheduled such an incendiary announcement for after dark, even though the news that the grand jury had reached a decision had become public hours earlier. Surely, it would have been wiser for Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, to have met with reporters earlier in the day.

A more important question, also unanswered in anything but the most general terms, is this: Why did the grand jury decide not to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson? McCulloch’s press conference, when it eventually took place, was notably lacking in detail about the shots that killed Brown.

But we didn’t learn precisely how far away Brown was when Wilson shot him fatally, or what persuaded the police officer that his life was in danger, which is one legal justification in Missouri for shooting someone who is unarmed. According to some accounts, Brown had his arms raised when he was shot for the final time. Other accounts say that he was charging at Wilson. McCulloch, beyond saying that some eyewitnesses provided contradictory statements, didn’t say what evidence the grand jury had relied on in reaching its decision. He did say, though, that the grand jury had met for twenty-five days and heard from more than sixty witnesses.

I’m sure that there will be extensive analysis from legal scholars in the coming days and I look forward to reading them.  I hope someone answers one of my questions which is:  Did hearing from Darren Wilson make the grand jury feel this was a trial where they were to determine guilt or innocence?

Meanwhile, if the grand jury decision makes me sad, the reaction of the fools on the streets makes me even sadder.  I’ve seen this too many times before – when Dr. King was killed, after Rodney King, right after Michael Brown’s death, etc. etc.   John Cassidy writes

Perhaps the grand-jury transcripts, some of which were released late on Monday, will help clear up what actually happened. More likely, the exact sequence of events will remain in dispute, and so will the grand jury’s decision. Americans who believe that the legal system generally works well, and fairly, will be inclined to believe that the members of the grand jury reached the right decision. Those who believe the criminal-justice system is stacked against minorities, particularly against young African-American men, will be inclined to believe that this was another whitewash.

I am among those who can’t understand the grand jury’s decision, but burning police cars and Walgreen’s will not change the racism in the criminal justice system.  There is more than enough blame to go around.  The announcement made after dark and the declaration of martial law and calling out the National Guard before the decision created a confrontational atmosphere and, in the end, didn’t prevent anything.  Prosecutor McCulloch’s long non-explanation explanation.  The rioters who through their actions fulfilled every stereotype.  There are no good guys here.

It just leaves me sad and frustrated.

Photograph:  ADREES LATIF/REUTERS

Getting closer to things that really matter

Since moving to Vermont last summer I have seen stars I hadn’t seen in many year just walking out of my front door.  I have watched summer change to fall and now to winter in a way not possible in Boston.  With the leaves mostly gone, I could see the Connecticut River as I walked into town this morning.  And it is not that I didn’t notice stuff when I lived in the city.  I was a regular walker around Jamaica Pond, the Fenway, Boston Common and the Public Garden.  I lived across from a 2 acre city park.   And I did notice things.  There was a spot on Jamaica Pond where there were almost always turtles and in the spring you could see the young ones.  There were always birds to identify, plants to watch as they changed season. I could track planets in the Western sky from my bedroom window. But somehow it was different.  Perhaps it was the fact that one could rarely get away from road noise.  Or maybe it was just the feel, the pace of life clearly said “city”.  But I was still seeing nature first hand.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Review section had a wonderful article by the nature writer and essayist, Edward Hoagland.  I first came to know Mr Hoagland’s writing reading his collection of essays, “The Courage of Turtles”.  His New York Times piece begins

“LIFE is an ecstasy,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay called “The Method of Nature,” a founding document of American transcendentalism. Life is also electricity, as our minds’ synapses and heart muscles would testify if they could.

Living molecules bear a charge and thus can intersect with others of their kind, as molecules of rock do not. We marveled at electrical displays plunging from watery clouds in the sky as perhaps divine until we finally learned to manufacture and wire electricity ourselves, lighting the dark, then muzzling it for mundane use, to the point of blotting out the sky.

To forgo seeing the firmament, as many of us do, for Netflix and the blogosphere, is momentous — nature “unfriended,” enjoyment less impromptu than scripted.

He asks

Does life become secondhand when filtered through a tailored screen? Text unenriched by body language or voice box timbre, film omnivorously edited. Is our bent straightened or warped more deeply? That’s our choice in what we Google, but in the meantime, will we notice the birdsong diminishing?

I think life can become secondhand but that doesn’t stop any of us from watching the news or movies or internet streaming of important events.  I am addicted to NASA videos of events in space that I know I will never experience first hand.  But Hoagland fears that we are becoming more and more estranged from live experiences.

I live on a mountain without utilities for a third of every year, so for nearly half a century I’ve swung back and forth to and from electrification. In the summer, living by the sun couldn’t be simpler. There’s more daylight than I can use, and I revel in the phases of the moon, the conversation of ravens, owls, yellowthroats and loons. The TV and phone calls resume before winter, though life itself does not seem richer than when I listened to the toads’ spring song or watched a great blue heron fish, amid the leaves’ ten-thousand-fold vibrancy.

The difference of course is that leaves, heron, loon and toad would not remain as glories when I returned to electricity. They are “electrifying” only when Vermont is temperate. I appreciate the utility of power in the winter, but many people seldom see a sunrise or sunset nowadays; they’re looking at a screen. What will this do? The Northern Lights, the Big Dipper — are they eclipsed like the multiplication tables? There was a magnetism to aurora borealis or a cradle moon, to spring peepers’ sleigh-bell sound or spindrift surfing toward shore under cumulus clouds, that galvanized delights in us almost Paleolithic.

Are we stunted if we lose it, a deflation associated with migrating indoors to cyberspace, Facebook instead of faces? It’s lots of fun, but will ecstasy remain in play in front of a computer screen? With microscopes and telescopes we are able to observe unscripted reality, or (if you prefer) Creation.

Dried Queen Anne's Lace seen on a recent walk.

Dried Queen Anne’s Lace seen on a recent walk.

 

Something is lost when everything is experienced secondhand. Unfortunately most of us do not have the kind of double life experience Hoagland has had.  Most of us live in urban or suburban areas.  But we can be more mindful of the small things,  get off our phones and our computers,  turn off the television and experience things first hand for some part of everyday.  You can do this no matter where you live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph by FortRight.

Some cartoonists view the 2014 mid-term election

There are some great cartoons this Sunday on the President and the mid-terms.  Here are a few.

First from Signe Wilkinson

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Another view of the President and Congress from Nick Anderson.

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And my favorite from Stuart Carlson.

 

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I have to think that President Obama is expecting the Republican Congress to erect roadblocks and force him to veto some of their legislation (like repealing the Affordable Care Act), but I’m not sure there are many Republicans left who understand that their job is to actually govern.  We shall see.