Half frozen or half melted? Not a trick question, or a philosophical pondering on half full or half empty. The answer is factual. By mid October, the lake was frozen already. But by the end of the month, it began to melt. So there you go, beauty in double measure, not half. As for the birds, they can handle both.
And on that half frozen, half melted lake I saw them. Thanks to some fellow birders alerting me. Who would have expected to see swans stopping by here? They must be migrating from the Tundra, flying south to the US. And we’re their midway rest stop. Just a few days of respite here in sunny (most of the time) Southern Alberta.
The following pics are from a long distance, so quite blurry. I think I saw a Trumpeter here with a juvenile. Ice on lake? No problem. It’s Nature’s dance floor. Let’s just call it a father-daughter dance here:
Here are several Tundra Swans, noting the yellow edge of the bill:
A couple of days later, I saw this solitary juvenile swan at the Pond some distance away from the lake. Not sure if it was lost. Even though just by itself, I could sense its calmness… eat some, swim some, preen some, always congenial, thoroughly enjoying the environs there. How do I know it’s a juvenile? From its greyish plumage, pink bill, and yellowish tan feet:
While I was taking its photos, I saw in a distance a group of large birds in the sky heading my way. What an opportune timing! I quickly snapped these shots as they flew over me. When I uploaded the pics, lo and behold, I saw they were Tundra Swans. This time quite clearly. The yellow patch by the edge of the bill is the distinct difference from the Trumpeter. And learned a new word to call them: a wedge of swans (in flight).
I don’t have a garden, so no canning of harvest for the winter. But these photos and sightings will be my canned treats for the frozen months ahead… yes, something like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea.
When you hear the word nomad, what do you think of? The Bedouin in the Arabian desert? Now, what about American nomad? Maybe John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) comes to mind, dust bowl families on a wagon heading to California to escape poverty. Or, maybe the famous image of the migrant mother with her children captured by photographer Dorothea Lange (1936). Or in more recent years, Jeannette Walls’ family when she was a child in The Glass Castle (2005).
Journalist Jessica Bruder has followed some modern-day nomads and chronicled their lives in her 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. These are van and RV dwellers in California, Nevada, Arizona and several other Western States. Many of them are fallout of the 2008 financial meltdown when they lost their homes, jobs and investments. In the book, Bruder stayed close with them for a year, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, LaVonne and many others, all in their 60’s and 70’s but still active as itinerant workers. What she has revealed in her book is eye-opening.
Linda is a sixty-four-year-old grandmother. She drives a salvaged Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Towed behind the jeep is her home, a trailer she calls the “Squeeze Inn.” It’s a “fiberglass relic” built in 1974. Inside dimension is ten feet from end to end and room enough for Linda to stand up straight. “It’s 5’3” inside and I am 5’2”… Perfect fit,” she says. A positive outlook is the sustenance of the nomads Bruder has come to know personally in her research in situ.
Linda has worked as a Camp Host, which pays $8.50 per hour for her to welcome campers, settle them in, clean toilets, maintain campground, and be a service person and problem solver at all hours. She also belongs to CamperForce, an Amazon labour source made up of mostly workers in their 60’s and 70’s living in vans and trailers parked on RV lots near Amazon warehouses. When not walking miles on the concrete field of these warehouses during her 10-hour night shift, Linda would find work at outdoor crop harvests or camp sites.
In 2011, United States Gypsum shut down its mine in Empire, Nevada. As a result, the USG company town was emptied as its whole population rented their homes from the company. Empire became a ghost town, its Zip Code discontinued. Seventy miles to the south of Empire was a convergence of a different kind of town around Fernley. They were itinerant workers living in RV, trailers, and vans parked on RV lots. They belong to a population described by the new term ‘precariat’: temporary laborers doing short-term jobs for low wages.
In her book, Bruder points to Bob Wells’ influence on many of these homeowner-turned vandwellers. For twenty years, Wells has been preaching anti-consumerism. The guru of modern-day nomadic life spreads his message of simple and mortgage-free living on his YouTube channel and website CheapRVLiving.com, bonus is staying close to the land and nature, but above all, being self-sufficient. With the 2008 economic meltdown, many saw the positive message Wells was preaching.
Wells also created RTR, Rubber Tramp Rendevous, which takes place every January in Quartzsite, Arizona. It is a popular annual meet-up of campdwellers coming together for support, camaraderie, and education. There are seminars and classes to learn all sorts of essential knowledge and skills related to RV living or just general living. Some of these courses include solar cooking, get out of debt, living in small cars, and the art of stealth parking (puzzled? Google it)
Bruder’s book is a detailed coverage of a marginal population. It’s full of relevant statistics, background information and interviews, all approached and presented to highlight their humanity as she followed and befriended the vandwellers. We come to know them as respectable human beings seeking an alternative way of living away from the rat race. Unfortunately, their toiling inside humungous Amazon warehouses could well be an inevitable but poignant irony. It might not convert you to become a vandweller, but Bruder’s matter-of-fact reportage could have its effects in loosening our grip on consumerism and the necessities of living.
Now, can such a non-fiction book be turned into a movie? It’s been done and the feature film has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival which took place in their scaled-down, Pandemic mode. Indeed, Covid-19 has made us re-think many basic assumptions of life and modern day living. Nomadland the film has the power to shake us to the core.
Directed by Chloé Zhao (The Rider, 2017), a master in blending documentary and fiction, the film puts Bruder’s book subjects Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells onto the big screen. Two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017) mingles in with her self-effacing role as a vandweller, perfect casting in this inspiring docudrama. The cinematography is exceptional, the score soul-stirring. Look for it when it is released in December later this year.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, W. W. Norton, New York, 2017, 273 pages.
Multiplicity is what makes environmental historian Jessica J. Lee’s writing so unique. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, to a mother who had immigrated from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has since moved back and forth between England and Germany. Her biracial roots and her experience living in different countries have informed her nature writing, a voice that exudes a unique poignancy of a personal quest for identity and home.
In a previous post, I reviewed Lee’s debut memoir Turning: A Year in the Water, in which she describes how she swam in fifty-two lakes in the Brandenburg vicinity outside Berlin while completing her doctoral dissertation there, an exceptional and original endeavour to overcome personal issues.
In her new book, Two Trees Make a Forest, Lee writes about another quest that’s more complex and adventurous. In 2013, she visited Taiwan with her mother after the death of her grandfather, Gong 公. In 2017, she went back on her own to spend a few months to explore the island’s natural environs and immerse in her ancestral language, Mandarin. At the same time, she wanted to get close to a family history that she had just begun to unearth. Upon her grandmother’s death in Niagara Falls, Lee’s mother discovered a sealed envelope containing letters that her Gong had written but never sent, maybe to record his own life before Alzheimer’s snatched his memory away.
Gong was a pilot with the famous Flying Tigers during WWII, at that time under the Nationalist government of the Republic of China, defending the country against Japanese invasion. After WWII, the country was torn by a civil war. As the Communists took control, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. That was when Gong moved to Taiwan and continued his pilot career and became a trainer as well.
Gong met Lee’s grandmother, Po 婆, in Taiwan and made a home there for decades until they immigrated to Canada in the 1980’s. Being rejected his flying credentials and too old to start all over again to be a pilot in a new country, Gong conceded with a job as a factory janitor. A sad but typical immigrant story.
Lee’s grandmother, Po, was born in Nanjing, China, and was there at the time of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (Lugou Bridge 蘆溝橋事變), which sparked the Sino-Japanese war in July, 1937, often noted as the beginning of the Pacific front of WWII, two years before Hitler invaded Poland. As a young teenager, Po had to escape the subsequent Nanjing massacre in the hands of the Japanese. Lee’s short few pages of Po’s experience succinctly describe the horrors of the atrocity which she read about only in her twenties in the British Library. Po’s war experience had remained bitterly hidden. To some, grandparents sitting by the fire telling grandchildren their life story is a romantic myth.
As they settled in Taiwan, Gong and Po never returned to mainland China even after the travel ban between China and Taiwan was lifted in 1987. The home that each of them had known when they were young had long disappeared.
Lee’s book is a remarkable narrative of a granddaughter trying to piece together a family history while weaving in her own interests and specialization as an environmental historian and nature lover. The storytelling is a beautiful tapestry of multiple yarns. Lee’s use of metaphors from the natural world are exquisite and eloquent; the juxtapositions of natural history with family history alongside the author’s personal quest make Two Trees a multi-layered and intriguing read.
Taiwan is an island just eighty-nine miles wide, but with a central mountain range that rises close to thirteen thousand feet, resulting in a huge variety of habitats rich in endemic biodiversity. The Portuguese first gave it the name Ilha Formosa: ‘Beautiful Island.’ But they later abandoned it, same with the Spaniards and the Dutch. Then it was colonized by the Japanese, and after WWII, occupied by the Nationalist Chinese. Records and management of the natural environs of the island fall in with the history of colonization.
The four main sections of the book are entitled with a single Chinese word: 島 Island, 山 Mountain, 水 Water, and 林 Forest. The title “Two Trees Make A Forest” actually is a simple tip to write the Chinese word for forest, which is made up of two ideographic symbol for wood 木 .
It’s interesting to note too, that the word for island, 島, doesn’t involve water, but an ideogram of a bird hovering over a mountain. One doesn’t need to be surrounded by water to be insular. The natural environs point to that notion. When describing the biodiversity on Taiwan’s mountain peaks, Lee writes:
… for many species there is little place to migrate but skyward. Tree lines creep ever higher, and the realm of the cold-loving species shrinks. Bound to the summits, these species can live a lonely life. And in this way, mountains become islands of their own. (p.52)
The accounts of Lee’s hiking and the rare sightings are not all as idyllic as one would expect, like the frightening moment when confronting a territorial macaque (rock monkey) alone on a mountain trail, or the storm and rain that pounded her hiking group as they climbed the legendary, ‘haunted’ Qilai Mountain range. The feeling of being an outsider is particularly acute in situations like these.
This is not a place I could simply learn, and it is not mine anyway. I belong in a forest in a much bigger, colder country. I am not built for heat any more than my mother was built for winter. I speak in broken tones, making half sense to everyone I meet in Taiwan. My worlds exist in halves. (p.111)
Back to the liminal concept that pervades her previous book Turning about her experience in Germany. Again, Lee finds parallels of her personal situation in the natural world. Like the mangroves growing by the shore in between land and sea, she sees herself existing in such a liminal, in-between space. Having only a child’s level of Mandarin growing up in Canada, Lee finds herself unequipped to communicate in Taiwan. Here’s one encounter:
A taxi driver asked me why my Mandarin was so good for a foreigner. “My mother is from Taiwan,” I explained, and he turned on me in reprimand. “Then why is your Mandarin so poor?” (p. 106)
Wherever she goes, language grants her the potential for more meaningful engagement with the people in Taiwan, or in Germany. Instead of a geographical location, language could well represent home. “And where I couldn’t find words, I fell to other languages: to plants, to history, to landscape.” (p. 17) Indeed, Nature is a language unto its own.
The Taiwan sojourn is her attempt to be in touch with a family’s past. It is Gong’s death that elicits a deep lament in her. When he was afflicted by Alzheimer’s, Po took Gong back to Taiwan, found a care home for him and came back to Canada on her own. Gong died a lonely death, with which Lee strives to come to terms.
Edward Said wrote that the pathos of exile is the impossibility of return… Whatever the circumstances, there exists tragedy in being forced from home… Alzheimer’s brings another exile: from the imagined world of past and memory.
In Turning, Lee takes to swimming in lakes to confront her fears and personal loss. In Two Trees, dealing with regrets and longings for a grandfather who had died all alone, she has turned to the trees and deep woods in Gong’s homeland:
I find in the cedar forest a place where the old trees can span all our stories, where three human generations seem small. The forest stands despite us. (p. 253)
Like her experience in Turning, Nature once again embraces and absorbs her joy and grief; it too is home.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of my Family’s Past among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts by Jessica J. Lee, Catapult, New York, August, 2020, 282 pages.
Jessica J. Lee is the recipient of the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She received a doctorate in environmental history and aesthetics in 2016. Two Trees Make a Forest was noted in Best Books of the Year by New Statesman and The Observer. She is founding editor of the Willowherb Review, publishing nature writing by writers from diverse cultures.
My thanks to Catapult, New York, for providing the reviewer’s copy and photos.
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.” –– George Eliot
The above quote comes to me as I read Jessica J. Lee’s memoir Turning: A Year in the Water. From the beginning, I’ve an inkling that what she intends to say isn’t just about swimming but something deeper. I’m not disappointed. Swimming in fifty-two lakes throughout one year in Brandenburg in itself is a fascinating idea. What more, I’m much gratified with the candid revealing of her interior journey as she describes the physical terrain she treads. Often, the two mirror one another.
At twenty-eight, Lee goes to Berlin from Canada to do research and complete her doctoral dissertation on environmental history. She brings with her trunks of emotional baggage of hurts and loss from broken relationships and a transient existence, traversing between Toronto, London, and Berlin.
Born in Canada to a Chinese mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has been straddling multiple worlds all her life, first learning Mandarin at home, then English, then French in school. The multiplicity of languages reflects the challenges of growing up bicultural. The divorce of her parents further shakes up the fragile psyche of a teenage girl’s search for a sense of self. As a young adult she looks to other relationships and experiences to find anchor but only reaps disappointments. A move to London, England, later leads to deeper personal loss. By the time she arrives in Berlin, accrued pains and hurts have left indelible marks in her life.
To find strength and healing in a new land where she has to learn yet another language and culture, Lee decides on a venture to come to terms with her predicament. Her plan is to swim in fifty-two lakes near Berlin in the Brandenburg vicinity through every season of one year.
In short chapters under each of the four seasons, Lee captures succinctly her experience carrying out this plan, interspersing a swimming log with the back stories of her life.
Perhaps it was a drastic response. In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear. So, I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself. (6)
This unique resolve of hers fascinates me. Lee’s memoir is a log of a brave yet quiet venture through the seasons. Not only that, she has introduced me to the natural beauty of the Brandenburg landscape and the travelogues of the German writer Theodor Fontane (1819 – 1898). I read with interest the German socio-political situations she shares, also lap up tidbits on the environmental history of lakes, glaciers, and the etymology of terms associated with her experience.
Limnology is the study of lakes. Originally from Greek, but with the German overtone of Schwelle, it refers to an in-between space, an apt metaphor for Lee’s liminal identity between cultures.
Fragments of Chinese slipping out between English and German, as I press new words and places into place. Return. Home is as much in a language as it is in a landscape. (9-10)
In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at the border, as if constantly searching for home. (14)
The term ‘Turning’ refers to the movements of the water in a lake. In lakes, there’s stratification of water and overturn, with the different layers of water in constant vertical movement. This action creates ‘cycles that keep the lake alive, ever-changing, breathing oxygen into every part of the lake.’ Isn’t that, too, a beautiful metaphor for our very existence, the essence of life?
Lee’s metaphors are fresh and relevant, akin to her academic field of environmental history. Here are two other ones I’ll remember for a long while. Lakes are markers in time in the glacial retreat:
In Lakes the present history of our world contracts and intensifies, urgent and shrinking like the ice… I take my parents’ divorce to be a marker, a line drawn between childhood and adulthood… For a girl on the cusp of teenhood, there was never going to be a good time. (56)
And this one is another apt description of so many being called diaspora: Glacial Erratics. The word erratics has the Latin root errare meaning to wander, to roam, to be mistaken, to go astray.
Erratics carry their origins with them, telling the story of where a glacier has been and how the ice deposited the erratic in the landscape. An erratic is a rock that doesn’t belong to the geology in which it is planted; instead, it’s a record of another place… Like an erratic, I was carrying past places with me. I felt mistaken. (170)
Above all, I’m mesmerized by a determined mind and body as I read how she adheres to her personally-set rules: no cars, no wetsuits. She bikes to her destinations, carries her bike on public transit when needed, most of the time pedalling for hours. She prepares a light lunch and a change of clothes in her backpack and sets off in the morning, sometimes with a friend, but mostly alone.
Every lake has its own features, the water has its own feel, the sensation swimming there can be different from another, but it doesn’t stray far from calming and revitalizing. In winter, she brings a hammer from home to break the ice on the lake surface before slipping into the frigid water. There’s numbness and pain, surely, but she has developed the courage and the tenacity to face the dark mass and not withdraw.
In solitude, she finds strength; in conquering her fears, freedom. The ghosts of the past might still be there, but she has learned to face them.
Simple yet poetic, honest and mindful. Reading Turning is like dipping slowly into the lake of empathy, gradually getting attuned to the chill to find the water soothing. And you’d want to stay there just a while longer.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Turning: A Year in the Water A Memoir by Jessica J. Lee, Hamish Hamilton publisher, NY, May 2, 2017. 304 pages.
Canadian Edition (book cover image in this post): Penguin Random House Canada, April 7, 2020. 304 pages.
My thanks to Catapult.co for providing me a pdf version.
We know how hard it’s been these past few months for you humans. Not gathering together means no more communal bathing. That’s tough.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re very adaptable. We love congregating, but we’re also fine with just being with our significant other.
and practise yoga together:
You may think of us as flocks, but we enjoy being solitary as well. That’s when we gain clarity:
or being solitary together, gleaning collective insights through our silent vibes:
Guess by now, you’ve gotten used to social distancing. We do that all the time when flying, no fun being poked in the eye by a flapping wing. Social distancing is not a problem as long as you know there’s someone flying with you, only 6 ft. away:
Some of you are gifted with a beautiful voice, we know all that. So you got to belt out from your balcony, we from ours:
I’m glad you’re finally reopening. Just like us, you can come out to eat, drink, and be merry, instead of doing that in isolation. We can share the world with each other once again.
But huh… keep your distance please. We’re bathing.
What I find walking in the woods can be redundant and mundane, that goes for my photos too. But looking up into the trees can be therapeutic psychologically, especially these days, not to mention beneficial for the neck muscles.
Mundane or unusual, here are some sightings during my walks in the past weeks.
You see them everywhere, their by-products littering your grounds. But the Canada Geese in my neck of the woods don’t gather at the Pond or on the ground, but high up on trees. I think they nest there too:
Here’s one taking the abode of a previous tenant, the owl family. How do their young come down from so high up? They’ll have to learn to fly first, just like other birds, another birder said when I asked. Or, the mother could carry them on their wings, my imagination added.
A Robin, never too common for me, especially when I capture a handsome one:
One time, I saw this ball from afar:
Walked closer and found this. Do porcupines nest on trees too, or just for naps? Or, is it something else? The next day I went back to look for it and it was gone.
Mundane or unusual, my curiosity is piqued walking the same paths year after year. This curious Yellow Warbler well represents my feelings:
Here’s another curious one:
In a previous post about the Yellow-rumped Warblers, I’d noted that the white-throated one is called the Myrtle Warbler of the East and far north, and the yellow-throated one the Audubon’s Warbler from the West. Just curious, what do you call this one with both white and yellow on the throat:
Curiosity in the mundane. Maybe that could get me out of bed on those days when I get too used to that stay home mandate.
I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek years ago. At this moment in time, with the pandemic and disruptions, it seems like what she describes in her book is a piece of Arcadia, a setting in a totally bygone era, idyllic, clean and pristine, and also something I’ve long swept to the back of my mind. Just this week, I’ve the chance to listen to the audio version of the book, read by the marvellous Tavia Gilbert, a very ‘Dillardy’ voice. Her narration prompted me to dig out my copy of Tinker Creek.
This time, Dillard’s nature writing meant much more to me. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t a birder, couldn’t even ID a chickadee. Now, though still with minimal knowledge, at least I know what bird it is she’s describing.
It’s her chapter entitled “Seeing” that grabs me most. Her words I must quote directly:
Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair… the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift…
I know how hard it is to capture an oriole before it ‘fades into leaves’:
For nature does reveal as well as conceal: Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do. For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away. They simply materialized out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again. I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged…
Even though I haven’t seen an Osage orange before, I know exactly what Dillard means by hundreds of blackbirds taking flight from one single tree. I’ve seen not blackbirds, but waxwings or starlings like that. As for our blackbirds, they usually gather at the Pond, solitary among cattails, seldom in flocks of hundreds:
How I get what she means by nature reveals as well as conceals. Just a few days ago, I had both of these experiences.
I saw a pelican swimming peacefully on the Pond:
Just as I went closer, she flew away. It happens a lot of times when I try to take bird photos:
And conversely, I also have a now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do moment. Walking in the woods, I suddenly caught sight of something in a distance, a ghostlike appearance:
As I waded around fallen trunks and leaves to get closer to investigate, hopefully to get to the front to take a picture, I lost sight of it. Then suddenly, something huge close by me flew away. It was right beside me!
It was a Great Blue Heron. I’d never seen it in the woods perching on a tree, only by the water. Just as I didn’t expect it, I saw it, and just as I realized what it was, it disappeared.
Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do, now-you-don’t again. “These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration,” Dillard writes. Too mundane to even mention? Far from it. “The grand nonchalance” of nature keeps us in a place of humility and evokes our need for sharper senses.
Thanks to the 1920 Club, I’ve the chance to explore the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. After reading his debut short story collection Flappers and Philosophers which was published in 1920, and now that the week of the Club read has passed, I continue with seeking out more of FSF’s works published in subsequent years.
As I can’t go to bookstores now, I turn to my shelves to see what I have in my stockpile, and unearthed this one which I’ve never read: A designer’s copy of FSF’s short story first published in 1922, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in hard cover and fully illustrated, a thin little gem hidden between thicker books. Illustrated by Calef Brown, published by Collins Design, NY, in 2008 when the movie adaptation came out.
What could have motivated Fitzgerald to write a story about a baby born as an old man then gradually grows younger and younger, creating an imaginary scenario that’s opposite of the human trajectory? FSF’s reply had been cited as thus:
‘This story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” FSF seems to be offering a hypothetical answer with a question: Is growing younger necessarily more cheerful than growing older?
All along I’m aware of the premise of the story. So with much curiosity I open and read it through.
First off, no need to use logic or your rational mind to wrap around this scientifically impossible happening. Just take it as a fantasy and let curiosity be the guide. The setting is 1860 and forward in Baltimore. Benjamin is born to Mr. Roger Button, president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, a well-off businessman and a respected figure in the community.
The baby is born with a long beard, “a man of threescore and ten”, in other words, 70 years old, with a ready-formed personality and full mastery of speech to communicate with his dumbfounded father, whose immediate reaction is this:
Mr. Button, sank down upon a chair near his son and concealed his face in his hands. “My heavens!” he murmured, in an ecstasy of horror. “What will people say? What must I do?”
Have you caught it? Indeed, what he’s worried is what people will say about this horrifically different offspring of his.
What follows is a story, while whimsical, is quite sad. Mr. Roger has trouble accepting this undefined being in his home. Fitzgerald’s storytelling is light humour with an acerbic tone. His father calls him Benjamin, albeit a more appropriate name in his mind at first was Methuselah. Benjamin ‘grows up’ being ostracized due to age disparity among his peers, barred from Yale University for his advanced age (I’m sure by now the system has changed). One good thing is, later he does find a young woman to marry, Hildegarde Moncrief, daughter of a general, for by that time the age gap though still large is overcome by love.
But as years go by, as Benjamin becomes more youthful and Hildegarde much older, he begins to grow tired of her, and their relationship deteriorates. Some years later, he has turned so youthful that his son feels uncomfortable to be seen with him and his grandson surpasses him in intellect. Eventually, Benjamin degenerates into a state without memory, a baby that responds to mere instinctive urges. Despite the lively book illustrations, this is actually a very sad story.
This curious case reads like a cautionary tale of Ageism that applies both ways: one can be discriminated for being too old, or too young. Fitzgerald could well be using a fanciful tale to depict the norms of social acceptance which seem to be strictly dependent on appearances. Further, in response to Mark Twain’s comment that first prompted the story, Fitzgerald seems to conclude that what an old man has but a baby doesn’t is the wealth of memory he has stored throughout the years. Without an iota of memory, does that make it ‘the best part of life’?
A cautionary tale? Maybe. A whimsical literary farce? That too. Definitely something that’s very different from FSF’s other realistic stories of the Jazz Age.
Learn of the 1920 Club early this week and am instantly sold. I’m to pick a book published in the year 1920, read it and share my thoughts in this one week April 13-19. This past month and likely some more to come will probably be indelible in our collective memory. Joining The 1920 Club is an excellent diversion as I follow the Stay Home and Stay Safe directive during this Covid-19 Pandemic.
1920, exactly one hundred years ago, saw F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) rise in America’s literary horizon. In March, 1920, he published his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, and later that year, a short story collection Flappers and Philosophers. Upon the end of his short life of 44 years, Fitzgerald had left a prolific oeuvre of four novels and 164 short stories published in magazines, some included in his four short story collections.
I found Flappers and Philosophers online from Project Gutenberg. Due to time constraints, I thought a short story collection would be a good choice. Glad I picked this up as it’s a pleasant surprise. Reading Fitzgerald’s stories has altered my previous impression of the Jazz Age author.
I must admit, I was attracted to the title first. What’s a flapper? I’d to look it up for a precise definition. Several online dictionaries offer similar, succinct ones. But I like the Wikipedia’s more detailed descriptions:
“Flappers were a generation of young Western women in the 1920s who wore short skirts (just at the knee was short for that time period), bobbed their hair, listened to jazz, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behaviour.”
But when I delve into the eight stories in this collection, I’m pleasantly surprised and have much enjoyed Fitzgerald’s versatility, humour, descriptive prowess, and his observations of the American life which is so different from the impression I got from The Great Gatsby. Long story short, here’s my synopsis of the tales.
The Offshore Pirate
Imaginative and fanciful, a story that takes place out the shore of Florida. A 19 year-old heiress who wants to break out of the mold of the upper echelon cautiously falls prey to Stockholm Syndrome when a pirate storms her yacht, taking her captive in both mind and soul. The opening lines draw me in instantly:
This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colourful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children’s eyes. From the western half of the sky the sun was shying little golden disks at the sea––if you gazed intently enough you could see them skip from wave tip to wave tip until they joined a broad collar of golden coin that was collecting half a mile out and would eventually be a dazzling sunset.
A word of caution though, Fitzgerald’s language reflects that of his time. When it comes to race references, modern day readers might find it uneasy to come across such descriptions.
. The Ice Palace
19 year-old (apparently the author’s favourite age for his female protagonists) Sally Carrol, a Southern girl in Georgia, swept by ennui, plans to venture to the great Northeast by marrying his boyfriend Harry from there. She soon finds the North may not be as ideal as she has dreamed of. Fitzgerald’s own life and marriage could have a little influence on the creation of the story. The author’s fictional take on the North South divide. .
Head and Shoulders
So far we’ve seen two ‘flappers’. But who’s the ‘philosopher’? Here’s an interesting story, again, with Fitzgerald’s humor and irony, tells how a brainy academic prodigy falls for a chorus girl, and how the two manage to invent a new life together. Horace gets into Princeton at 13 and into the Masters program at 17, but life takes a 180 degree turn when he falls in love with show girl Marcia. Under Fitzgerald’s pen, life can be altered into the most ironic and unimaginable.
. The Cut-Glass Bowl
A cut-glass bowl, a popular wedding gift in the Middle West, is Evylyn Piper’s treasure in her home. It is also, sadly, a metaphor for fate, the misfortunes that will befall her. Fitzgerald’s more serious story here but equally vivid in the description of marriage life, and the journey Evylyn has to travel alone. Here’s what her friend Carleton, the beau who’s lost her to Evylyn’s future husband Harold, says to her: “Evylyn I’m going to give a present that’s as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.” That of course is the cut-glass bowl. I love the suspense Fitzgerald embeds in even a metaphor.
. Bernice Bobs Her Hair (Book cover above)
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Marjorie’s cousin Bernice comes to stay in her home for a few weeks. At first disinterested with the homely-looking and socially inept girl, Marjorie suddenly sparks excitement as the miserable Bernice looks to her for advice. Marjorie teaches her lines to memorize when speaking to boys at parties, and getting her hair bobbed seems to be the key to attract them all. Well, what follows is an episode that even our dear Jane herself would LOL.
The most serious story in the collection as Fitzgerald depicts the struggle between the flesh and the spiritual. Lois is at the crossroads, trying to decide if she should continue to see a man who takes her only for sexual pleasures, albeit the desire is mutual. Lois’s internal struggles face a haunting experience as she visits her brother who’s in a Jesuits monastery getting ready for priesthood. Fitzgerald possibly had built the story upon his actual visit to a seminary in Woodstock, Maryland, when he accompanied his cousin to visit her brother there.
. Dalyrimple Goes Wrong
Could be Fitzgerald’s brief version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with a twist. Coming back from the War, ex-star-soldier Bryan Dalyrimple has no luck in the work world for which he’s ill equipped. He’s stuck in a job with no future and low pay, albeit he thinks highly of himself knowing he deserves better. He then schemes to commit a series of petty crimes. Unlike the doomed Raskolnikov, Bryan is spared Siberia and on track to reaching the American Dream.
. The Four Fists
Throughout his life, Samuel Meredith has had four punches laid on his face, each time results in an epiphany of some sort, changing him a bit, and even leading him to a totally different life course. A most ingenious story told with much humour. Once again, looks like Fitzgerald is saying, life is full of surprises; what comes as a blow could well elevate one to a path of success. But most importantly, do what is right.
Light rising out of total darkness makes the most stark contrast.
I took this photo at sunrise two days ago. It wasn’t that dark in the environs but my camera pointing at the light source darkens everything else.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.
–– excerpt from The Valley of Vision
On that first Easter Sunday, the ultimate paradox came to pass, for without a willing death, there would not have been a resurrection.
The One who had gone through utter isolation and known our griefs laments with us at this time.
A man of sorrows who had experienced the ultimate separation: In a crisis, his followers deserted him, even his closest denied him; above all, the physical torments on the cross couldn’t match the pain of searing separation from his Father, forsaken.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
–– Isaiah 53: 2-5
This song has been on my mind all week. An apt meditation on this Good Friday as we’re all going through separation like never before. I chose a minimal video with just the words and the music. Take a 3 minute respite in your isolation this Good Friday.