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My past few weeks have been spent watching, rewatching, and blathering on about “Long Way Round” and “Long Way Down”; two motorcycle documentaries made by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman.  “Long Way Round” is the first trip with Ewan and Charlie and they ride motorbikes from London to New York going east, or “the long way round”.  The boys spend three and a half months traveling through France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Khazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia before flying across the Bering Strait and crossing Alaska, Canada, and America.  Filmed with one cameraman on a third motorbike and a support vehicle to meet up with them at borders, the filming is bare bones and perfect. Their sense of adventure is incredible and the people they meet and the places they ended up in truly makes this the trip of anyone’s lifetime.  I loved seeing them go through Ukraine and Russia and was rather envious of their experiences there, although I think Mongolia and far East Russia were the highlights of the trip.  Ewan is also a UNICEF ambassador and in both trips they make stops at UNICEF centers to highlight the plights of children around the world, which is never a bad thing.

As for the second film, well, I have a tendency to find a new interest and become obsessively immersed, so of course, I heartily enjoyed it, though I must admit that it was not as interesting as the first.  “Long Way Down” has the boys ride from the northernmost tip of Scotland to the southernmost tip of Africa.  The trip seemed more rushed this time and Ewan’s wife decides to join them for a stretch in the middle, which puts everyone on edge and changes the group dynamic.  Still, the series is fascinating and it shows a much more colorful and less horrific picture of everyday Africa than one normally sees.  Both films have made me ridiculously heart-sick for adventure and I do recommend them both!

Teashirts

I absolutely love these!  Hanger Tea was featured in Ad Age’s Creativity a few months ago, and I have been enthralled with them ever since.  Cute and functional.

My little bird

I came upon a bird the other day. I was walking down upper Wacker drive to meet a friend for lunch and passed a sparrow sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. I approached, I passed, and he did not move. His little head shook right and left tremulously with every passerby, which was no small number given that he was in the middle of a very busy sidewalk, in a very busy city, on a very busy day. I stepped around him and got maybe fifteen steps before turning around and looking back. Most people seemed to slow down around the poor thing and he didn’t escape anyone’s notice, yet what was to be done? He was probably ill, or injured. He’d most likely die. He was going to perish on a vast, hot, stone sidewalk.

I stood indecisively, watching the procession of businessmen and women arcing their strides around the poor little thing. I should do something…call someone, I thought to myself. No, no, there’s nothing to do. But he’ll die. And he looks frightened. It seemed too cruel to leave him so I walked back and knelt in the middle of that very busy street and scooped him up in my hands. His fragile body trembled and he feebly attempted to struggle for a moment. Then he calmed and let me carry him to the side of the street and place him gently in a raised planter. I sat him in the soft earth underneath a little tree that offered him shade and cover. At the very least, he wouldn’t have to die as fearsomely gargantuan oiled dress shoes and heels tromped every which way about him.

I was being watched curiously by some and in disgust by others. I assume they were repulsed that I would touch a bird. Then I went to lunch. An hour later, I was walking back along the same sidewalk and I went to check in the planter. My little bird was gone.

I’ve been thinking of Oscar Wilde quite a bit recently, which seems fitting for an Easter weekend, as he is considered by many a messianic figure.  He was a passive man, aggressively persecuted by his own people, and he had quite the way with parables.  No matter, here is one of his fairy tales, “The Nightingale and the Rose”:

“She said that she would dance with me if I brought her red roses,” cried the young Student; “but in all my garden there is no red rose.”

From her nest in the holm-oak tree the Nightingale heard him, and she looked out through the leaves, and wondered.

“No red rose in all my garden!” he cried, and his beautiful eyes filled with tears. “Ah, on what little things does happiness depend! I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched.”

“Here at last is a true lover,” said the Nightingale. “Night after night have I sung of him, though I knew him not: night after night have I told his story to the stars, and now I see him. His hair is dark as the hyacinth-blossom, and his lips are red as the rose of his desire; but passion has made his face like pale ivory, and sorrow has set her seal upon his brow.” “The Prince gives a ball to-morrow night,” murmured the young Student, “and my love will be of the company. If I bring her a red rose she will dance with me till dawn. If I bring her a red rose, I shall hold her in my arms, and she will lean her head upon my shoulder, and her hand will be clasped in mine. But there is no red rose in my garden, so I shall sit lonely, and she will pass me by. She will have no heed of me, and my heart will break.”

“Here indeed is the true lover,” said the Nightingale. “What I sing of, he suffers–what is joy to me, to him is pain. Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the marketplace. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold.”

“The musicians will sit in their gallery,” said the young Student, “and play upon their stringed instruments, and my love will dance to the sound of the harp and the violin. She will dance so lightly that her feet will not touch the floor, and the courtiers in their gay dresses will throng round her. But with me she will not dance, for I have no red rose to give her”; and he flung himself down on the grass, and buried his face in his hands, and wept.

“Why is he weeping?” asked a little Green Lizard, as he ran past him with his tail in the air.

“Why, indeed?” said a Butterfly, who was fluttering about after a sunbeam.

“Why, indeed?” whispered a Daisy to his neighbour, in a soft, low voice.

“He is weeping for a red rose,” said the Nightingale.

“For a red rose?” they cried; “how very ridiculous!” and the little Lizard, who was something of a cynic, laughed outright.

But the Nightingale understood the secret of the Student’s sorrow, and she sat silent in the oak-tree, and thought about the mystery of Love.

Suddenly she spread her brown wings for flight, and soared into the air. She passed through the grove like a shadow, and like a shadow she sailed across the garden.

In the centre of the grass-plot was standing a beautiful Rose-tree, and when she saw it she flew over to it, and lit upon a spray.

“Give me a red rose,” she cried, “and I will sing you my sweetest song.”

But the Tree shook its head.

“My roses are white,” it answered; “as white as the foam of the sea, and whiter than the snow upon the mountain. But go to my brother who grows round the old sun-dial, and perhaps he will give you what you want.”

So the Nightingale flew over to the Rose-tree that was growing round the old sun-dial.

“Give me a red rose,” she cried, “and I will sing you my sweetest song.”

But the Tree shook its head.

“My roses are yellow,” it answered; “as yellow as the hair of the mermaiden who sits upon an amber throne, and yellower than the daffodil that blooms in the meadow before the mower comes with his scythe. But go to my brother who grows beneath the Student’s window, and perhaps he will give you what you want.”

So the Nightingale flew over to the Rose-tree that was growing beneath the Student’s window.

“Give me a red rose,” she cried, “and I will sing you my sweetest song.”

But the Tree shook its head.

“My roses are red,” it answered, “as red as the feet of the dove, and redder than the great fans of coral that wave and wave in the ocean-cavern. But the winter has chilled my veins, and the frost has nipped my buds, and the storm has broken my branches, and I shall have no roses at all this year.” “One red rose is all I want,” cried the Nightingale, “only one red rose! Is there no way by which I can get it?”

“There is away,” answered the Tree; “but it is so terrible that I dare not tell it to you.”

“Tell it to me,” said the Nightingale, “I am not afraid.”

“If you want a red rose,” said the Tree, “you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s-blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.”

“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” cried the Nightingale, “and Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the Sun in his chariot of gold, and the Moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”

So she spread her brown wings for flight, and soared into the air. She swept over the garden like a shadow, and like a shadow she sailed through the grove.

The young Student was still lying on the grass, where she had left him, and the tears were not yet dry in his beautiful eyes.

“Be happy,” cried the Nightingale, “be happy; you shall have your red rose. I will build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with my own heart’s-blood. All that I ask of you in return is that you will be a true lover, for Love is wiser than Philosophy, though she is wise, and mightier than Power, though he is mighty. Flame- coloured are his wings, and coloured like flame is his body. His lips are sweet as honey, and his breath is like frankincense.”

The Student looked up from the grass, and listened, but he could not understand what the Nightingale was saying to him, for he only knew the things that are written down in books.

But the Oak-tree understood, and felt sad, for he was very fond of the little Nightingale who had built her nest in his branches.

“Sing me one last song,” he whispered; “I shall feel very lonely when you are gone.”

So the Nightingale sang to the Oak-tree, and her voice was likewater bubbling from a silver jar.

When she had finished her song the Student got up, and pulled a note-book and a lead-pencil out of his pocket.

“She has form,” he said to himself, as he walked away through the grove–“that cannot be denied to her; but has she got feeling? I am afraid not. In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish. Still, it must be admitted that she has some beautiful notes in her voice. What a pity it is that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good.” And he went into his room, and lay down on his little pallet-bed, and began to think of his love; and, after a time, he fell asleep.

And when the Moon shone in the heavens the Nightingale flew to the Rose-tree, and set her breast against the thorn. All night long she sang with her breast against the thorn, and the cold crystal Moon leaned down and listened. All night long she sang, and the thorn went deeper and deeper into her breast, and her life-blood ebbed away from her.

She sang first of the birth of love in the heart of a boy and a girl. And on the top-most spray of the Rose-tree there blossomed a marvellous rose, petal following petal, as song followed song. Pale was it, at first, as the mist that hangs over the river–pale as the feet of the morning, and silver as the wings of the dawn. As the shadow of a rose in a mirror of silver, as the shadow of a rose in a water-pool, so was the rose that blossomed on the topmost spray of the Tree.

But the Tree cried to the Nightingale to press closer against the thorn. “Press closer, little Nightingale,” cried the Tree, “or the Day will come before the rose is finished.”

So the Nightingale pressed closer against the thorn, and louder and louder grew her song, for she sang of the birth of passion in the soul of a man and a maid.

And a delicate flush of pink came into the leaves of the rose, like the flush in the face of the bridegroom when he kisses the lips of the bride. But the thorn had not yet reached her heart, so the rose’s heart remained white, for only a Nightingale’s heart’s-blood can crimson the heart of a rose.

And the Tree cried to the Nightingale to press closer against the thorn. “Press closer, little Nightingale,” cried the Tree, “or the Day will come before the rose is finished.”

So the Nightingale pressed closer against the thorn, and the thorn touched her heart, and a fierce pang of pain shot through her. Bitter, bitter was the pain, and wilder and wilder grew her song, for she sang of the Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb.

And the marvellous rose became crimson, like the rose of the eastern sky. Crimson was the girdle of petals, and crimson as a ruby was the heart.

But the Nightingale’s voice grew fainter, and her little wings began to beat, and a film came over her eyes. Fainter and fainter grew her song, and she felt something choking her in her throat.

Then she gave one last burst of music. The white Moon heard it, and she forgot the dawn, and lingered on in the sky. The red rose heard it, and it trembled all over with ecstasy, and opened its petals to the cold morning air. Echo bore it to her purple cavern in the hills, and woke the sleeping shepherds from their dreams. It floated through the reeds of the river, and they carried its message to the sea.

“Look, look!” cried the Tree, “the rose is finished now”; but the Nightingale made no answer, for she was lying dead in the long grass, with the thorn in her heart.

And at noon the Student opened his window and looked out.

“Why, what a wonderful piece of luck!” he cried; “here is a red rose! I have never seen any rose like it in all my life. It is so beautiful that I am sure it has a long Latin name”; and he leaned down and plucked it.

Then he put on his hat, and ran up to the Professor’s house with the rose in his hand.

The daughter of the Professor was sitting in the doorway winding blue silk on a reel, and her little dog was lying at her feet.

“You said that you would dance with me if I brought you a red rose,” cried the Student. “Here is the reddest rose in all the world. You will wear it to-night next your heart, and as we dance together it will tell you how I love you.”

But the girl frowned.

“I am afraid it will not go with my dress,” she answered; “and, besides, the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.”

“Well, upon my word, you are very ungrateful,” said the Student angrily; and he threw the rose into the street, where it fell into the gutter, and a cart-wheel went over it.

“Ungrateful!” said the girl. “I tell you what, you are very rude; and, after all, who are you? Only a Student. Why, I don’t believe you have even got silver buckles to your shoes as the Chamberlain’s nephew has”; and she got up from her chair and went into the house.

“What a silly thing Love is,” said the Student as he walked away. “It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true. In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.”

So he returned to his room and pulled out a great dusty book, and began to read.

*******************************

When looking for the text online, it seemed funny to me that the first notation on Wilde’s fairy tales was a precaution that his stories are not for children.  However, Wilde wrote them for his two sons and they were/are very much for kids.


I finished “Birdsong” and I have to say that I am disappointed.  In expecting an equal to “All’s Quiet on the Western Front,” and having heard that “Birdsong” is a must-read in terms of both WWI history and general Brit-lit, I was more than a little let-down. While the war-torn visuals were staggering and the trench warfare perfectly written, the relationships fell flat.  I won’t ruin the novel for anyone, but near the end of the book, there is a perfect moment.  A second of pure emotion that seems to capture the fundamental essence of the war and all of the subsequent horrors, tribulations, and the futures both promised to and taken away from everyone involved, from the white-haired children back home to the ghost-eyed veterans.  But that is all taken away.  Faulks trundles on through a mundane and unsatisfying “conclusion” – if it can be called that – to Wraysford’s personal life that adds nothing and detracts substantially from the last stunning portrait of the war…and more importantly that of the soldiers.  I so desperately wanted to fall in love with this book, and I’m a bit heartbroken that I didn’t.

So now I have moved on to “The Swimmer” by Zsuzsa Bank.  Again, we fall into wartime territory, but in a very different landscape.  Set in 1956, Hungary, the book deals with the Hungarian Revolution against Stalinist rule and the toll taken on one family.  When Kalman and his two children find themselves abandoned by their mother, who flees to the West without a word, they too flee their home in a rambling, disjointed journey throughout their country.  What the book lacks in plot, it more than compensates for in the eloquent prose of the daughter, Kata.  Her voice is utterly beautiful and compelling as the broken family moves continuously from place to place, her Father practically comatose and her brother desperately trying to make connections to anything and everything.  I’m only half-way through so far, but I will confidently recommend this book to anyone.  I look forward to giving a more positive final verdict on this one.

I’m currently about halfway through Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong: A Story of Love and War,” but I’m not sure what to make of it.  I have always been incredibly drawn to WWI and many of my favorite books are British novels dealing with men sent to Passhendale, Ypres, Flanders Fields, and the like.  The first quarter of the book deals with an affair that is tremulous at best and never really captivated me so I was excited to reach France 1916…or I was before I got a few pages in.  I was quite fine until an infantryman had to go down into a tunnel seventy feet below ground.  With a gun to his head commanding him to march into the suffocating crawl-space to listen for Fritz, and unable to quell his terror, he crawls halfway through before collapsing and sobbing into his lieutenants chest.  For some reason, I cannot shake that image from my mind, despite far-worse tableaus having been vividly etched by Faulkes.

Sometime I wonder if America had been invaded like Britain had, if we were surrounded by that history today, I would still find the subject so interesting.  To this day I’m still a little pissed off that grammar school so wholly glossed over WWI.  The re-teaching of WWII every single year of childhood was more than anything desensitizing and not a single childhood teacher encouraged any remote semblance of critical thinking by providing the historical framework that led to the second world war.  Apparently our delicate little minds could handle the holocaust but not the Somme?

I will never forget visiting a cemetery off of a nondescript road in Belgium.  We walked slowly to the center, between innumerable rows of bleached headstones reading simply “A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.”  Reaching the solitary tree standing starkly against the pale sky, we found ourselves unable to see anything but markers of the dead.  The loss is so incomprehensible, and in return for the loss books are written, poems recited, and memorials sprung.  I feel that it is an important responsibility to read the records and remember the men even if it feels uncomfortable and so far removed.

I have no agenda concerning the morality of war, I’m simply working out my own thoughts as I continue on through such a thought-provoking book.   So, below is a poem by Wilfred Owen, one of the most notable poets of the Great War.

Dulce et Decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.  Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod.  All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas!  GAS!  Quick, boys! —  An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:  Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori