Monday, December 10, 2018

EM Forster, HG Wells, Tom Stoppard, and the Meaning of Life

Annamaria on Monday

Where to begin?

Chronologically perhaps. But my chronology—not theirs.

Somewhere around fifty years ago, while living in Brooklyn Heights and working on Wall Street, I was on a packed subway—going to work, standing up.  The train stopped somewhere under the East River.  It was summer, and the NYC subways were not air-conditioned in those days.  Sweltering! This incident was a common occurrence, and that day it lasted much longer than usual.  It would not have been at all memorable, but it sticks in my mind because of the book in my hand and the story I was reading—“The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster.  That fiction, published in 1909, seemed, at that moment, to have everything to do with what I was experiencing.


If you don’t know the story, you can find it here:

It tells of a futuristic society in which the bulk of the human population live in tiny cells under the surface of the earth, where a machine takes care of all their needs.  It provides music and entertainment.  And the means to communicate with people half a world away through what reads (in this hundred+year-old story!) a whole lot like our FaceTime.  Food also comes through the machine (FreshDirect, perhaps?).    The main characters are a rebellious young man and his mother.  He wants to fight the machine.  She believes—as most people in the story do—in the omnipotence of the Machine.  Then the machine stops.  (Like the subway train I was on!)  And to survive, the people in Forster’s story have to fight their way to surface to survive.  You can see why I never forgot any of this.

The story is a masterpiece of what was science fiction a hundred years ago.  Scholars believe that Forster wrote the story as a response H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, in which there is a clash is between good and evil.  Forster, instead, foresaw a future where the central conflict would be between mankind and machines.

Where Wells comes into my thinking today is not with The Time Machine, but with his War of the Worlds.  That brilliant novel imagines machines long left buried underground by aliens.  The creatures from outer space return to dig up their technology and wreck havoc on humanity.  The Martians lose that war, defeated—not by human beings, however brave. It is the earth’s microbes that infect the invaders and kill them. The humans, therefore, survive.

Microbes cast as the saviors of humanity!

Of late, my beloved science section of The New York Times has published a few articles about research into the actions of microbes on humans.  We have known for some time about how they can cause disease.  But nowadays, it’s looking as if the flora in our guts might have as much to do with our behavior as does our upbringing or the rules of our religions.  Data has begun to show that the microscopic critters in our intestines might be the source of happiness, optimism, crankiness—all manner of motivational emotions. Certainly, they play a huge role in digestion, taking the food we eat and turning into new substances that profoundly affect our wellbeing—for good or for ill.  Which microbes we have in our guts determines what chemicals go into our bloodstreams and therefore into our brains.  This little creature takes in carrots and gives you Zoloft.  That one turns carrots into Valium.  Or something like that. 


Which brings me to this past week, when I had the pleasure and the privilege of seeing Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.  The main conflict in his story is between scientific researchers who hold two opposing prejudices.  Some believe that the brain is all we humans have, and in a more or less mechanical way, it determines behavior.  Others of Stoppard’s characters hold that there are greater forces, outside our human “mechanical” brains and the lust for self-interest.  They believe in God, for instance.  Or altruism.  Or coincidence as an active determinant of human connection.  Forces not explained by the mere clicking of synaptic endings.

In the midst of the play’s action, one of the characters describes the role of microbes that live in cows. As is always the case, when my brain comes up against Tom Stoppard’s, I have a really hard time keeping up.  I wish I had the script to go by in describing what the woman in the play said.  Stoppard may have gotten this part of the story from an actual occurrence from nature, or maybe he made up something that only sounds real.    Anyway, what the actress said went something like this:  a microbe that lives in a cow needs to stay in the cow to reproduce.  But it comes out in the cow’s poop.  To get back inside the cow, the microbe infects an ant and lays its eggs inside the ant. The “diseased” ant then finds itself compelled to relentlessly climb up and down blades of grass and in the process leave some of the eggs at the top of the grass, which the cow then eats.

I think I have this part of the play right.  It all went by very fast in the theater.  But—the point certainly was that the microbe is doing some pretty fancy maneuvering to get what it wants: back inside the cow.  Real or fictional (or botched up by me), the process sounds quite plausible, given the strange ways in which all kinds of critters on this planet control one another.

And it is especially fascinating since scientists are toying with the possibility that microbes, might—in some extremely complicated ways—be in charge of us.

Where do you think we humans all fall in this story?  Are we the cow?  The ant? Or the microbe?

Are we controlling the machines?  Or are they controlling us?  

Most important: Will the microbes be able to save our planet? 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Kumano Kodo Nakahechi - a Journey Through History and Time

--Susan, every other Sunday

Last Saturday night, I returned to Tokyo after a week-long, 100-km hike along one of Japan's oldest and most sacred pilgrim routes.

On the Kumano Kodo

For over 1,000 years, Japanese emperors, nobles, and other Buddhist pilgrims have walked the Kumano Kodo, a series of mountainous trails through the Kii Peninsula, in what is now Wakayama Prefecture.

An ancient teahouse at Tsugizakura Oji

The Nakahechi Route (sometimes called the Imperial Route, because starting in the 10th century, it was the trail favored by retired emperors undertaking this pilgrimage) bisects the peninsula, beginning at the ancient shrine of Takijiri-Oji and carving an arc-shaped trail over mountains and through forested valleys to Kii-Katsuura and Shingu on the eastern coast.

The Nakahechi Route

Along the way, pilgrims reflected upon their past, present and future, with each time period corresponding to one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines: Hongu Taisha (the past), Nachi Taisha (the present) and Hayatama Taisha (the future).

One of many smaller shrines along the route. This one commemorates a 19th century pilgrim who died on the trail.

Each of these Grand Shrines has existed for well over a thousand years (Hongu Taisha is celebrating its 2,050th anniversary this year), and is dedicated to one of the three Kumano deities who descended to earth at Gotobiki Rock, a sacred stone on the grounds of Kamikura Shrine that visitors reach by ascending an ancient flight of 538 stairs.

Gotobiki Rock

After alighting on Gotobiki Rock, the deities split and settled at the three Kumano Grand Shrines.

Kumano Hongu Shrine, dedicated to Kumano Gongen (also known as Ketsumikono-okami) is home to the largest torii--Shinto sacred gate--in Japan. It stands on the original site of the shrine and measures 33 meters high and over 40 meters wide.

The massive Otorii at Kumano Hongu Shrine

Hongu Jinja also serves as the head shrine for all of the 3,000+ subsidiary Kumano shrines across Japan.

Yatagarasu, the sacred three-legged "eight-span" crow.

(As an aside: you can generally tell a Kumano shrine by their numerous images of the three-legged crow, Yatagarasu, the sacred messenger of the gods who led the first emperor of Japan to the mountain where he accepted his destiny and assumed the throne.)

Kumano Hongu Shrine - a welcome sight after days on mountain trails.

Pilgrims walking the Nakahechi typically reached Hongu Shrine on the third or fourth day after leaving Takijiri, about half way along the almost 100-km trail.

Two days later, they would reach the coast and Nachi Shrine, home to Japan's highest free-falling waterfall, Nachi-no-taki (Nachi Falls).

Spectacular Nachi Falls

The free-falling portion is 133 meters high, and the ancient staircase to the bottom of the falls has precisely that many steps, though visitors can also observe the falls from a pagoda on the grounds of Nachi Shrine.

The overland hiking portion of my pilgrimage ended at Nachi Shrine - I spent that night in an onsen (volcanic hot spring) hotel built into an island just off the coast of Kii-Katsuura.

"Pilgrimage" doesn't always require "roughing it" in Japan.

After almost a hundred kilometers on the trail, I was more than ready to experience the natural hot spring caves, with their spectacular views of the Pacific.

The light in the lower right is one of the hot spring caves, with a view of the sea.
I took this photo from my guest room window.

The following morning, I completed my pilgrimage (by train...) with a trip to Shingu and the final Grand Kumano Shrine - Hayatama Taisha.

Hayatama Taisha, the third of the Kumano Grand Shrines

To make up for the train, I also climbed the hundreds of steep stone steps to Gotobiki Rock.

After the climb.

I chose to treat my week on the trail as a real pilgrimage, contemplating life, death, and my past, present, and future. While I hope to share many of my experiences from the trail, I'll be unpacking others, far more personally, for years to come.

I bought a bag of  tea grown on these bushes. The Kumano Kodo is the trail that splits off to the right.

I'd heard it said that walking these ancient trails was like stepping back in time. In addition to being only a third of the story, it's an enormous understatement. I have seldom felt as connected to the past, the present and the future as during my seven long, but irreplaceable, hiking days on the Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep . . .

We seldom take the time to reflect on where we've been, where we are, and where we're going. The needs of the day take precedence.

The future is that way.

But my holiday wish for everyone, this year, is that you take the time to step off the beaten path (into the trees, or into history, if you can) and center yourself in your life and your dreams again.


Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Story of Chanukkah, It's Telling is Long Overdue


With December upon us, I was thinking of my traditional Christmas post when it hit me that this week is Chanukkah, and I’ve written nothing about it. Ever.  Shame on me.  So I searched around for a way to tell its story and through the kind help of my-son-the-rabbi settled upon the version told on the website Judaism 101.  I’ve tinkered a bit with it, but it’s virtually lifted straight off that website. So thank you, whoever wrote this piece.  By the way, for those of you who wonder why one who writes about Greece is writing about Chanukkah… read on.

Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev (roughly equivalent to December).

Chanukkah is probably one of the best-known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as gift-giving and decoration. It is ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on the Jewish calendar.

Alexander the Great

The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

Antiochus IV
More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

Judah Maccabee
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud (the written version of original oral law and commentary comprising Jewish civil and ceremonial law), at the time of the rededication there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. Significantly, an eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle, not the military victory.

Chanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won't find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Chanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three blessings are recited. On subsequent nights only two blessings are said.

After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. Candles can be lit any time after dark but before midnight. The candles are normally allowed to burn out on their own after a half-hour minimum, but if necessary they can be blown out at any time after that haif-hour.  Special candle lighting rules apply on the Sabbath (Shabbat), by reason of the Sabbath rule against igniting or extinguishing a flame.

Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all candles are lit.

It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews (essentially those from Central and Eastern Europe), this usually includes latkes (pronounced "lot-kuhs" or "lot-keys" depending on where your grandmother comes from—aka "potato pancakes").

Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, so their children don’t feel left out of receiving gifts. It is extremely unusual for Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money--because coins are a symbol of independence!

Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus' oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight.

I never knew that last bit.  Perhaps I should have studied more and eaten less latkes.

Happy Chanukkah.


Friday, December 7, 2018

Island Hopping.

Today I  threatened Mr Douglas Skelton to do a blog for me as he was island hopping during the recent Scottish Book Week. So I penned a few incisive questions. As well as being a great writer, award winning journalist, playwright, actor, and Alec Guiness impersonator, he is a very talented photographer, so I threatened him a little more and got some pics, which I am sure you will enjoy.

                                                       A view from the ferry crossing Oban to Mull

Why is it so great to set thrilling adventures against the Scottish landscape?
I think because it can be so dramatic and diverse. Also, and perhaps only Scots can feel this, there is a melancholy to it, thanks to the history (clans, massacres, wars, clearances). The weather also plays a part. You don’t like it now? Wait half an hour, it might change. The Highland landscape is stunning on a beautiful day but add some mist on the mountain tops and a wee smirr of rain and you have something else, something mysterious. Plot is good, character is great but I also like atmosphere. And we got that by the bucketload. Sometimes it can seep right through your anorak.
                                                                         Lismore Lighthouse

When you wrote Thunder Bay (Polygon, out March 2019) - how did you go about designing the island for your purpose,  was it based  on a real one?
It wasn’t actually based on a real island, although I’ve used elements of the islands I know and also bits from the mainland that suited my purposes. My God – the power we hold as writers! Stoirm in the book is a fairly large island but I even used bits of tiny Gigha, the land of my forefathers. I wanted to control all aspects of the land and its history so I put together what I needed for the story – mystical mountain CHECK, rocky shoreline CHECK, stormy weather CHECK (also, cue song), rich folklore CHECK. To have used a real one would have limited my scope and, to be honest, there are elements in the storyline that would have any real inhabitants burning me in effigy. (Effigy is a small place and they don’t need the smoke pollution)

                                                               The view across Loch Fyne

And what is your favourite Scottish island? Where do you get the best chips? How sick have you been on the ferry?
I don’t have a favourite island. I know – that’s a cop out but it’s true. I’ve not visited every Scottish island, there are nearly 800 of them, but of the ones I have visited – Bute, Arran, Cumbrae, Lewis and Harris, Skye, the Uists, Iona and, of course, Gigha – I couldn’t possibly pick a fave. As for the chips, I think the only one on which I’ve tasted the delicacy is Bute and they were lovely. However, I have no frame of reference. And I don’t get sick on ferries. Yet. 

                                                         Wade’s Bridge on the Isle of Skye

What appeals to you about writing about island life and would  you like to live on one in real life?
It’s a stock answer but it’s true nonetheless – it’s the notion of isolation. For a thriller/mystery/crime writer isolation can be important to some plots. The fact that you can’t easily escape, that the water is a barrier and sometimes a threat. And when you throw in our stormy weather it compounds that threat level and adds to the atmosphere. 
                                                             Ailsa Craig in winter  

You do tour a lot, and are  known to sneak off to take pics  into the darkness.  What is the best time of day, year to show the Scottish island at its best? Or it is just when you can see it through the rain?
Seeing it through the rain does help! Just around sunrise and sunset are the best times to grab landscape shots. Real photographers – which I am not – will leave the house at Ohmygod o’clock in order to get to a location to catch the sunrise and the light that follows. The Golden Hour is just before and after the sun going down. Or Michael Bay time as we film buffs call it. I have a fondness for autumn (that’s Fall, for the benefit of our US readers) and winter (that’s Winter for the benefit of our US readers) because the low light is softer and during autumn (Fall, etc etc) the colours are breathtaking. That’s one of the reasons I’d like to visit New England in the autumn       (see above). So anyone would like to invite me..
                                         Loch Leven and Eilean Munde, Isle of the dead    
Have you ever been on Ailsa Craig? Do you think it looks like a soufflé? A tea cake? Or a bobbly hat? Please tick one answer only.
I have not but I used to live in rural South Ayrshire so have driven past it many, many, many times (many times, many, many, many times, as Dame Celia Molestrangler and/or Binkie Huckaback would have said in ‘Round the Horne’). It does resemble all the above but also, in winter with a sprinkling of snow, a Christmas pudding.

                                                        The ferry heading to Bute

What was bestest, writing about New York or Thunder Bay (The Janus Run versus Thunder Bay )? 
Oooh, you saved the hardest one for last! The Janus Run, set in New York, was something of an experiment for me, just to see if I could do it. I hope I pulled it off. But writing about New York, any real place, is more difficult than a fictional location, simply because you have to stick to the facts, ma’am. Well, more or less. I did take liberties with Janus. I would say that I much preferred Thunder Bay, because it freed me from worrying about the location and allowed me to concentrate on characters, plot and finding all the right words and putting them in the order right.
                                                                Ornsay Lighthouse, off Skye      

Will you come back and  do a blog when Thunder Bay comes out?
Yes – did I mention it’s out in March 2019? From Polygon? Available in all good book shops and on line?
                                                                              Tobermory on Mull.

            Douglas Skelton For Caro
            07 /12 /2018