Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Why Kentucky? Why the Falklands?

Like certain sexually transmitted diseases, the archive that is the pile of still-unsorted papers from the Orchard has proved to be the Gift that keeps on Giving.

Yes, we moved Mom out of the Orchard 3 years ago, and we sold the house 2 years ago. But, in her valiant effort to empty the house in time for the sale, my sister took hundreds of pounds of unsorted files and papers back to Maine with her, to sort at leisure. A very funny concept of leisure, it is true.

Over the years some of us have enjoyed the wide variety of weird solicitations that come in over the transom for my mother. And for the past 3 years my sister and I have been fielding, ambushing, and then jettisoning said weird solicitations.

We were pretty inured to supplications from Little Sisters of this and that, the Needy Orphans of Cairo, as well as the Fund to Save the Gothic Revival Outhouses of Western Massachusetts, or the Steering Committee for 2035 - Celebrating 400 Years as Bucket-Town, even the Society for the Reinstatement of New Belgium in the New World. We thought nothing could surprise us.
Wrong, again.
My sister just shared with me this personalized solicitation that my mother received in 1982. And then saved for the next 30+ years.

Why Kentucky and the Falklands? Yes, I know about conflict between Argentina and the British. I just don't know what Kentucky has to do with it, or why. Thus, I have wasted several hours researching the two regions and am no closer to an answer. But I do now know a few things about Kentucky and the Falklands.

While the population of the Falklands hovers around the 3,000 mark, Kentucky has 4.4 million inhabitants: in both cases most of the residents trace their ancestors to the British Isles.

Kentucky has more miles of navigable rivers than any other state in the US. It has also the two largest man-made lakes east of the Mississippi, and the longest cave system in the US. The Falklands are 0% water, but – predictably – are entirely surrounded the Atlantic Ocean.

Kentucky has horse racing, bourbon, tobacco, coal, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Falklands have sheep. Kentucky produces 95% of the world’s bourbon. The Falklands have five varieties of penguins (King, Gentoo, Rockhopper, Macaroni and Magellanic) and some very large albatross colonies.

The entirety of the Falkland Island print media consists of The Teaberry Express and The Penguin News. Kentucky has colorfully-named conflicts: The Beaver Wars of the 1670’s, and the Black Patch Tobacco Wars of the twentieth century.

The Kentucky state seal features two men facing each other in what we can only hope is friendship; one is wearing buckskins, the other is wearing formal tails. The Falkland Islands seem to have two coats of arms: one depicts a sheep, while the other pictures a somewhat misshapen seal.

It is unclear whether my mother sent money to the Kentucky Committee for the Falkland Islands. Who was this person, this Kentuckian, so obsessed with the valiant Falklanders? And why should anyone else care? His solicitation strikes me as equivalent to me hitting up everyone I am connected to on Linked In and everyone they are connected to, for the Fund to Pay Groundskeepers for the Holy Wells of Dubious Historicity in Brittany and Wales.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Pleasure of Random Reading

I’ve written about it before, a year ago more or less, but it is no less true now than then, that one of the most pleasurable aspects of a week spent in Aquiares is reading at random.

It would not be an overstatement to say that reading is an enormous, and an enormously important, part of my life.

Much of my reading is project oriented. For instance, I have lately been reading Hungarian novels because I have created a character in my novel who is Hungarian. I have never been to Hungary, not do I know much about Hungary (current politics are rather unfortunate, so I read), but I believe that through novels I will gain an understanding of what it is to be Hungarian. Hence: Szabo, Esterhazy, Banffy and several whose names I cannot spell.

Likewise, with a reading group led by the remarkable and remarkably Proustian Anka Muhlstein, I am making my way through Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (about 60 pages to go), which led me to Chateaubriand, my latest crush. Also to Proust and the Squid, which isn’t really about Proust but about reading itself.

I particularly like guide books and reference books. Anything about reptiles and snakes in Costa Rica is appreciated.

The existence of this blog notwithstanding, I rarely read on a screen, especially small screens. I always have a small paperback in my handbag, because you never know when you will be stuck in a traffic jam or an airport or the checkout line at Costco. (Unlike Foodtown, where the magazine stand allows me to catch up on the peccadillos of celebrities I have never heard of.)

I feel about reading books the way others might feel about running, or eating chocolate: a non-reading life is not worth living.

So when I arrive at Aquiares, after making sure the volcano is still smoking, the first place I go is the bookshelf. Volcan Turrialba, seen from the Esperanza patio, and closer up, from the road to Irazu.
This past visit I discovered a novel by the poet James Schuyler, Alfred and Guinevere, about siblings who spend the summer with their grandmother and Uncle Saul, and are largely left to their own devices. It is simply brilliant. Then I picked up John Buchan’s Greenmantle and got about 50 pages into it before I realized it wasn’t necessary to continue; a little stiff-upper-lip, self-congratulatory, Brittania-rules-the-waves, can go a very long way. It felt perfectly acceptable to abandon Richard Hannay to his heroism, and turn to Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. This story of four single people, two men and two woman, who work together in an office that will soon become redundant, and their circumscribed lives, is rendered with exquisite and often painful tenderness and exactitude. My reading was enhanced by the pithy and witty marginalia of another sister-in-law, Fritz. After that I thought I would give mysteries a try, and there was Sue Grafton’s G is for Gullible. No, I just checked on-line, it is G is for Gumshoe. Either way, I couldn’t finish it. Her detective’s earnest heartiness became a little cloying, so I guiltlessly abandoned her and discovered Dawn Powell’s memoir, My Home is Far Away. This was not for the faint of heart. Anyone embarking on step-motherhood could find in those pages the absolute worst you could be. Lastly, I plucked Nabokov’s Transparent Things, which I had most likely read decades ago during my Nabokov-obsessive period, but even so, just in the first 10 pages I had to consult the dictionary four times and was rendered befuddled (I still am) by “unintentional pun” on page 14.* What could be better?

I wasn’t the only one reading at random. My sister-in-law, Sandra, was seen quietly laughing over Alfred and Guinevere, and then devoured several Barbara Pym’s. Even CSB, having dutifully read our book club selection, found some Faulkner that beckoned him. Only my brother Carl resisted the temptations of the bookshelf, and kept plugging along at Hawking’s Brief History of Time. I encouraged this, because I hoped to have him explain it to me. It is not exactly brief. Carl highly recommends the illustrated version.

We left Aquiares sadly, but one consolation was realizing that there remain several books, unchosen by me, that look intriguing. Until next year.

*3 Photos

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Passion in a Village on the Side of a Volcano

The last time we were in Aquiares, a coffee farm on the slopes of Volcan Turrialba in Costa Rica, for Semana Santa (holy week), was almost forty years ago.

That first Semana Santa, my daughter was just learning to walk, and she practiced her steps on the dirt roads from our house, called Esperanza, to the Aquiares village church, where small girls in home-made saint costumes, were carried aloft on wooden platforms by their older brothers and fathers. Now all my daughter’s children walk and run, and I limp.

More recently the AquiareƱos decided to mount the whole Passion story over the course of the three days leading up to Easter.

I have certainly heard of Passion plays all my life. I did after all go to a lamentable Catholic school where the only subject taught was religion, and even that badly. And in my hagiographic period I sought out and admired many saintly relics of dubious veracity and taste. But I had never seen a Passion play. What exactly did I expect?

Thursday evening we walked down to the playground where we found the table set for the Last Supper, on the basketball court. This proved to be a convenient choice, as there was existing lighting. An extravagantly bewigged and bearded Jesus entered from stage left, followed by his twelve apostles, with their names written in large letters on sashes across their chests. This being the 21st century, even in a small Costa Rica village, several of the apostles were played by young women. Then bread was eaten and wine was drunk, and words were said, words that that had been said thousands upon thousands of times before. Then Judas – a much coveted role – snuck out to meet with the Roman soldiers and tell them how he would identify Jesus with a kiss. For this, he got his 30 pieces of silver.

Judas returned to the basketball court, kissed Jesus and set the betrayal in motion. The Roman soldiers rushed the stage and took him away. I am sorry we have no more pictures, but it was quite dark by then and I had only a cellphone camera.

Good Friday was the big event. It was drizzling. We had Gallo Pinto, huevos, mangoes and papaya for breakfast, and headed up the Cuesta Dura hill. A large portion of the village was there, but not everyone. (Even Aquiares has a few Evangelicals, and presumably they would not be caught dead at a Catholic Passion Play.) People raised umbrellas or went back to their houses to get umbrellas. Mothers adjusted their children’s costumes. It was hard to tell when the action began. Then it did. Soldiers marched back and forth, very seriously, very much in step with the drummers drumming.

A word about the Roman soldiers: there were dozens of them, in age ranging from six to forty-six. They all wore tunics, capes, fitted pants, and soldierly boots. They all carried shields emblazoned with SPQR or a crab. They all wore silver helmets topped with broom bristles in a variety of colors. (Here, as previously seen in the Aquiares ‘super’.) Many soldiers had leather wristlets, and many others carried swords. Others drummed.

The soldiers brought Jesus out, his face almost completely obscured by his extravagant wig. His brown tunic was now marked with red paint. They flogged him with sponges attached to sticks. He made all the noises of pain, and a few children started to wail. If any young parents were questioning whether this spectacle was likely to traumatize their children, they did not make themselves known. The procession commenced, as it did nineteen hundred and eight-five years ago, with Roman soldiers marching, locals watching, commenting, greeting each other, and Jesus carrying the wooden cross. Along the way, various women stopped the procession and spoke to Jesus, often at length. It did not go unnoticed, by me, that all the long monologues were performed by young women. Halfway down the hill, Simon of Cyrene was enjoined by the Roman soldiers to help Jesus with the cross. And so we processed through the village of Aquiares, past houses of old friends, past sleeping dogs and lost shoes, past a pulperia and the ‘Super’ Mercado, past the tailler and the beneficio, to the churchyard. There, behind a scrum of Roman soldiers spreading wide their cloaks, Jesus was laid upon the cross that had been fashioned by the local carpenter earlier that week, with a platform for standing and straps to hold up his arms, in lieu of nails. More soldiers pulled the cross upright with ropes, and the well-known words were spoken, and a vinegar-soaked sponge was offered, and thus ended the day’s events.

What was our place in all this? The idle spectators? The gringos? The local populace? The interlopers? The Philistines?
Obviously, it is not every day that Jesus is crucified. It is also just an ordinary drizzling day in the village of Aquiares, and neighbors are chatting, and mothers are making sure their kids have snacks, and chickens are squawking on patios, and everyone, including the priest, is taking pictures on cellphones.

That evening, the evening of good Friday, after the crucifixion CSB had trouble breathing. He couldn’t catch his breath. It was troubling enough that, after ascertaining that the local doctora was away from the farm, we headed for the nearest emergency room.
There, in the waiting room at the William Taylor Allen Hospital there was a flat screen television mounted in a corner, showing Ben-Hur. With the sound off. At first I didn’t know it was Ben-Hur, or what it was. I guessed Spartacus (Roman soldiers, ancient times, hunky actor) but I was wrong: that was another movie, with another actor. Even in a Turrialba waiting room, it is possible to Google “Charlton Heston, movie with Roman Soldiers” and quickly discover Ben-Hur.
Like the Roman soldiers in Aquiares, the soldiers in the movie wore tunics, fitted pants and capes. Their shields bore the letters SPQR or the image of a crab. They wore silver helmets, and maybe the costume department at Universal had not refashioned brooms to create their bristly comb, but the effect was the same as in Aquiares.
The health care was excellent and unbelievably cheap. It took a long time to get all the necessary tests read, but even so, we did not see the end of Ben-Hur.
I hear the movie ends well. CSB also is feeling much better.