Saturday, March 12, 2011

bradley manning and the microcosm of the american myth

with so much huge stuff going on in the world--the tsusami's, the various rebellions in the Middle East--i feel my emotional reactions clogging--it's millions of people dead, millions being destroyed.  at least with the tsumais, i know what i want to happen; the bad guy is nature, though a nature possibly abetted by human abuses.  i want it to stop and go away, and everything to go back to what it was before.  with the middle east, i don't know enough about any one government to know whether the rebellions are good for the people or not.  some of the dicatators are american puppets, which perhaps means it's good that  they fall.  but will the western countries allow that to happen to their puppets, or allies?  further, i don't have a sense of what might take their places.  years back, when our puppet in iran was ousted, we took care of him; he flew to the US [gold toilet seats in his plane intact] where he lived out his life in luxury, wholly held unaccountable for the thousand of iranians he had tortured and killed during his reign.  but he wasn't replaced by anything better, only more religious.  the ayatollah was a monster on his own, and the country has been ruled by fanatics ever since.  so i find myself caught in mixed emotions and mixed hopes, and the sum total is numbness.

as all this goes on, i have been leading my own comfortable life, which includes grading papers for my classes here at the castle.  as we do every year, we study among other works anne frank's diary.  reading their midterms, i see again and again how anne's story personalizes the unthinkable, reminds us that the 6 million jews were 6 million humans, living their different lives, good, bad, dull, interesting, the whole human glut.  hardly an original thought, that microcosm illuminating the macrocosm.

but today reading the news, the grief and anger i have not felt at any of the large destructions reminded me of where i do feel anger, the one individual who for me encompasses the suffereng of the wronged.  he is none of the people involved in these huge incidents, and it is possible he won't even be murdered.  but when i read today of obama's approval of this man's mistreatment, all those feelings of hurt for betrayed humanity broke through.

bradley manning, the 22 year old soldier arrested by the CIA and kept in solitary for months, isn't even the hero of the big news story he has been caught up in, which will be back in the headlines once we've gotten our media fill of more dramatic, or at least more deadly, events.  the dashing, handsome julian assange, founder of wikileaks whose probable sexual misdoings have become an improbable excuse for the various manhunts he's facing, is the protagonist in this story. his drama has all the right elements for media attention, whether he's viewed as the bad guy [betraying governmenr secrets] or the good guy [helping uncover information about events the US is paying for and killing for].

meanwhile, a little side story in assage's drama, remains in prison, facing daily humiliation, degradation, and deprivation, which our president says is just hunky dory.  bradley manning is charged with giving much of the information wikileaks has published.    [one wonders why this unimportant kid had access to such presumably important material, but i suppose that's another story.] 

cleverly, predictably, they are trying to use his own mind against him. locked in solitary, visits even with his lawyers kept to a minimum, he is given no access to other prisoners or other means of communicating with the outside world.  for a while, apparently, he was forced to sleep naked without a blanket. now they seem to have given him a blanket.  he has been called mentally disturbed and so is under suicide watch, with all its attendant restrictions.  there's something so kafka-esque about this; he is put in a position that would after so much time convert the most mentally sound of minds to symptoms of instability  [which, by the way, have not even been proven in his case].  in any case, a 'suicidal' prisoner may be very useful, if he does turn out to know things he hasn't yet shared with wikilinks.  it wouldn't be US history's first suspicious suicide. 

but even if that's too dramatic a possibility, the young man's life will, in the most optimistic scenaro, be permanently damaged.  in our land of freedom of speech, this young man is a convenient scapegoat.

and he is also a microcosm. he is what governments are allowed to do to people, even in the-land-of-the-free.    as we now set about to teach the newly rebelling countries how to become democracies,  it wouldn't hurt to challenge the limits of our own.  and maybe to start with a 22 year old kid who did what he beleived right, and is now huddling naked under a blanket in a cell no one can get to. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Pilgrimage that Wasn't

luckily for me, i'd been to prague several times before--had even considered not joining this semester's group tour. but other plans weren't coming through and it's a gorgeous city, so i planned my personal journey there, to visit again the street where jan neruda had lived, and to get to the cemetary where he and other luminaries are buried. i spent a lot of happy time on google trying to learn more about the cemetary and how to get there.  we arrived friday afternoon, and the class trips begun. one was being led by an old and beloved colleague whom i hadn't seen in years [since he decided tht part-time teaching at the Castle was delightful, but a bit less so than the directorship of one of Europe's great museums, the Rijksmuesum in Amsterdam. ] i went along on his tour, knowing it would be interesting and wanting to spend as much time as i could with him. when that tour was over i would join the group going to see Madame Butterfly, then do my one gig for the occassion the next day, the Kafka Museum, and would devote sunday to hunting down the spirit of my beloved neruda.

the tour was wonderful, and seeing peter again was exciting.  it was i who suggested he end his tour at the Charles Bridge so our group of students would be more familiar with it on their later excursions. in that, at least, i was successful. the kids saw the bridge.  what i saw was the concrete step before the bridge, onto which i promptly and thoroughly fell.  oddly i didn't lose consciousness at all; even more oddly, my glasses went flying but  didn't break. i could hardly get them back on my face though, since the cheek under my eye had developed a huge hump.  which probably didn't matter since the eye closed and wanted to stay closed, though i was able to persuade a slitful of light to make it through.

caretaker roles were at once, and dramatically, reversed. i wouldn't let peter end his tour, but 2 of the kids insisted on helping me; they got me to a bar and got the waiter to bring me ice, and were preparing to bring me home when the program director, dulcia, and her group walked by, saw me, and joined the kids in taking care of me. someone bought me a whiskey, dulcia got us a cab and wanted me to go to the emergency room, which i refused.  nothing seemed broken, it wasnt the top of my head, and anyway i just needed to lie down.  caroline and joel got me back,  brought me to my room,  settled me in, left emergency numbers for me and didn't leave till i'd promised to call if i needed anything, anything at all.  later in the evening some other kids came by to see if i was alright, and 4 of them brought me flowers along with one of the sweetest notes i've ever gotten.  several others, and a couple of staff and faculty members, came by later.  i felt enormously cared for and protected.

the next day some of the swelling was down, but the eye was still very puffy and i couldn't see underneath it; it was like a purple shelf had grown between lower lid and cheek.  i did get to do the kafka tour, though it would have been impossible without one of the student-staff members, rene, who got the kids to the museum, sent them into it on their own, then taxied back to get me,  organized the students around me outside, listened with apparent fascination to my lecture on kafka, taxied me back to the hotel, helped me pick up some groceries, and got me back into my room.  he did this all with such grace and cheerful  kindness that you'd have thought that he couldn't imagine a pleasanter way to spedn a saturday afternoon in prague.
i didnt go out again til we left for home; i spent the  rest of the weekend icing my face, sleeping, reading,  and looking out the window, with its wonderful view of baroque hotels and scurrying people.  and chatting with students and staff who dropped in when they could to see how i was.

i was unhappy, but surprisingly undepressed [that began the monday we left and i felt it coming at the airport; but knowing the signs i was able to keep it well under control].

i was lucky through the end. i became completely convinced that when i got back to the busstop  for the castle, the long walk in the dark would cause me to fall again, and no amount of logic would allow me to believe it remotely possible that wouldn't.  it turned out that ralph, one of the teachers, who lives in germany, had left his car at the castle.  ralph walked with me, and in spite of my gloomy foreshadowing i didn't fall.  when we got there the huge castle door, closed only when the place was empty, had been locked.  ralph phone dulcia, she phoned the ground manager, he phoned his assistant, and a near disaster, thanks to ralph, had shrunk to a small inconvenience.  and the depression never came on fullscale.

i'm sad that i didn't get to do my pilgrmage, but i'm sure neruda doesn't mind.  i got some rest today, and am still a bit sad.  but the swelling has been going down, sending black bruise-blood own my face; the effect is very attractive.   but it could have been so much worse.   not just the fall itself, which didn't seem to break anything.  but i could have felt totally alone and isolated.  instead, through it all, there was so much care and kindness, it's hard not to feel a little blessed [though i'd prefer my blessings henceforth to manifest with a little less oomph].  and still the fun of seeing the students going off to their big breaks remains.  caroline is staying in prague, to be joined by her boyfreind from home, and i loved her beaming face when she told me he was coming.  i do hope they're having a great time in that exquisite city.

and i hope they watch their step when they get to the charles bridge. caroline has had enough nursing for one week!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

jimmy we hardly knew ye

for 7 years, conductor james levine pulled off the remarkable challenge of running both the metropolitan opera in new york and the boston symphony  orchestra. during these years, for which boston classical music fans owe him a huge debt of gratitude, he had numerous health problems and was forced to cancel numerous performances.  now, at 67, he has decided he can't maintain both jobs.  boston, understandably, is the loser. he has been with the met for decades, and has always 'belonged' to them.

an opera lover of fairly recent years, i discovered the bso when levine arrived and did a few concert operas. he was such a brilliant director, and knew so well how to work with actor/singers, that his concert operas appeared almost as full productions.  they were breathtaking.

i'm disappointed that we're losing him, but grateful that we've had  him as long as we have.  i hope the decision improves his health; i hope that the bso will find as creative a replacement in time.

the article in the Times sai he might come back to boston for an occasional  guest appearance.

good luck, mr. levine--and come visit us often.....

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Carnival of their own

i just got back from America Night in Well, the Netherlands.  This is the night that one of the local bars, Onder de Linden, dedicates to the Emerson College students; they bring the music they like to dance to.  Bars and college students aren't always a good mix, but they're an inevitable one, and somehow hanging out  with each other in a different venu than the castle they [and i] live and study in seems to make many of the students happy, and the proprietors are pretty good about not letting their young patrons get too 'trashed.'

but the linden folks did something this night that moved and pleased me. for love or money, they made this american night Carnival night.  In the southern netherlands, catholic through the centuries, carnival is a big deal, and in a little town like ours, the annual parade is a major community event.  like Mardi Gras, the idea is historically to provide one last fling before the sacrifices of lent start their 6-week reign.   (Years ago, when this was first explained to me, my dutch colleague added, "Of course, no one does the sacrifice part any more.")  People work for months creating elaborate floats  and corresponding costumes, all reflecting aspects of the town's current events and history.  The carnival parade is always a joy to me, and one of the few authentic local expereinces the students have: we are heartily welcomed to join in the festivities, but they will take place with or without any foreigners around.  This year, unfortunately,  carnival weekend coincides with the required class trip to prague.  no, i don't feel sorry for myself or even the students:  having to go to prague doesn't quite qualify as a hardship.  but still, i'm sorry they get to miss this unique expereince: i at least get to participate in carnival every year.

enter the linden.  simply by calling it carnival night and changing the rules--no student-chosen music; all carnival songs, which sound sort of like dutch polkas. with  the week being a leadin to carnival anyway, most of the dutch patrons wore costumes, and all the castle students came in hastily created  costumes. [so did i, of course].  i didn't stay long, not being much of a party fan, but long enough to see the students having a taste of carnival fun.

in reality, they did what they do every american night--drank a little or a lot, danced a little or a lot, laughed a lot. but they did it in the context of a special carnival night, and i think that does make a difference. 

it made a difference to me too. i pulled together a variation of last year's costume, stuff i had stored here when i left. last year i had been,as  i thought, a court jester, but  with a couple of bright boas, i looked more like a parrot, or so one of my students told me. this year i ignored the jester and declared myself a parrot. so i too had my taste of carnival. 

and we still get to see prague.  i manage to have my cake and eat it.  if i can get the damn feathers out of my mouth......