Saturday, January 2, 2021

Netflix's Bridgerton--a First Impression

My wife and I enjoyed Shonda Rhimes' TV show "Scandal," and especially how the show stuck a thumb in the eye of racial bigotry. To discover that a Black man was secretly running the United States for years while all those old white men thought they were calling the shots! And how the Black puppeteer chortles when he confesses all to those assembled old men, daring them to tell the world! Intrigued that Rhimes has produced "Bridgerton," a British Regency era series about early 1800s high society, my wife and I were ready to find out how the producer's outrageous unpredictability would play out, whether Rhimes' thumb in the eye could make it past Britain's stiff upper lip, so to speak.

After viewing the first episode of the series, we are pleased to say that the production has met our expectations--and exceeded them. Yes, the thumb is still there, ready to poke--and as usual it's coated in Rhimes' rich syrup of witty, intelligent grandeur. 

First, let's talk about the setting and costumes--this is a lush production. Having seen just the first episode, there's nothing gritty about the show. The rich are very rich, and the lives they lead are excessive and indulgent, fueled by big bucks. Starting 2021 with the beauty of the sets . . . and fireworks and gushing fountains and garden topiary--well, that's a welcome escape from 2020.

Next, the writing is quite deft, matching the fast-moving and insightful plotting and dialogue we enjoyed with "Scandal." The love matches and lack of them, the rich, smirking buffoons and the entitled and unaware young men just needing a nudge to get "woke," and the women who really run the show, some well and some not so well--it's all there, a naughtier, more lavish, and romantically suspenseful version of "Pride and Prejudice."

Finally, any consideration of "Bridgerton" cannot exclude Rhimes' casting of people of color liberally into British Regency aristocratic society--not only casting in excessive proportion to historical fact but also scripting the storyline so that no racial prejudicial reactions exist. That was a bold move by Rhimes, and I think it works by both allowing the fantasy to exist and by also making a point by the startling contrast with historical reality. Show writer Chris Van Dusen (in The Oprah Magazine) stated that the show was not intended to be historically accurate but rather "a modern take on a period drama that resulted in fantasy." An Ed Times piece puts it this way: "The tone and attire of the show also remind us of the fact that we may have left behind the enduring whiteness of authors like Jane Austen. Call it a recreation of history or escapist fantasy, the show does represent change and also opens a lot of avenues for other similar possible dramas in the future." I find the inclusion of people of color beyond the historical accuracy of the times is indeed an invigorating "fantasy." It's a subtle, silky poke in the eye, a thumb in the ugly eye of bigotry. Perhaps a Black James Bond is possible.

We're looking forward to more of "Bridgerton," to more romance, intrigue, and period escapism. After seeing the first episode, one of our favorite (or should I say favourite?) characters is plump Penelope Featherington. "Pen" is also an ill-matched character for Regency society--according to those standards, an overweight bookworm who is too quick to display her dazzlingly radiant smile. In the first episode, Penelope is the focus of the snarky bigotry of the times, becoming the perfect foil to the ignored racial bigotries that the fantasy side-steps. Expecting racial tension, we discover a smart, joyful young woman who will probably get along because of her fortitude and despite the prejudices of the times. Well done! And we look forward to more to more ribbons, bows, and knowing Rhimes, probably daggers--real, metaphorical . . . or both. We'll see, won't we!

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Friday, November 20, 2020

Why the Holidays Are So Dangerous During This Pandemic

Remember the early days of the pandemic? The danger of getting COVID-19 was defined as geographic--"hotspots" such as major cities and travel centers. Don't go to those places was the advice, and it was good advice. Then the advice was to not go to "super-spreader" events such as sports or entertainment events because the odds were that some individuals in those events would be sick and would infect others. This was and is still also good advice. 

Associated with super-spreader events were gathering spots such as bars, where alcohol consumption and a lot of social interaction created ripe circumstances for virus transmission. Included in this "gathering spot" designation were also weddings and religious gatherings. Time has allowed for enough empirical data to be gathered to verify that there are places we should avoid in order to be safe, and although the news is filled with blatant examples of people not following the advice of medical professionals, the truth is that many people are following the advice of the medical profession--they are not traveling out of their local area, they are wearing masks in public, and they are not frequenting public watering holes such as pubs.

We're getting pretty good at taking precautions--and I use the pronoun "we" deliberately. We have been careful and are careful. We are even aware of "covid fatigue" and are watching our behavior in order not to let down. The environment has changed, though, and even though I don't want to write these words, the pandemic environment is now more dangerous. Why?

  • The virus is now everywhere. To say "I'm avoiding hotspots, super-spreader events, and public gathering spots, so I'm safe" is not true. From the least populated to highly populated locations, all are getting hammered.
  • The main cause of spread is from asymptomatic individuals. 
  • The main cause of infection is through the air, and with colder weather, more people are spending more time inside.
  • Pandemic fatigue is real and insidious . . . and the holidays are upon us.
Fact-gathering now indicates that the most likely way someone will be infected with this novel coronavirus is by a family member who is contagious, asymptomatic, and who conscientiously continues the cautious behavior of past months and unknowingly passes the virus on to a family member. Let me phrase this another way--that asymptomatic carrier just might be you . . . or me.

Extended family celebrations during the upcoming Thanksgiving season, the seasonal religious holidays, and New Year's celebrations are now considered high risk activities this winter season, where families will be sharing food and time together . . . and COVID-19. That's the main concern of medical professionals, and why they are asking families to cancel or amend holiday get-togethers. We have to be careful that we don't love ourselves to death. If we can get through this winter, hopefully next spring and summer will be safer. 

Have a central meeting place, such as a family member's porch. Swap pies and main dishes. Then go home and eat alone or with the family members you live with. Wear masks, keep your distance, wash your hands. Or meet and chat, wearing masks and being careful. Then go home to eat. Eating together at the family table, not wearing masks--this is now considered one of the highest level risks for being infected with this virus. The best advice is old advice from early in this pandemic. Assume you are asymptomatic and have the active virus. Would you go to a family get-together and not wear a mask? 

Here are two links to useful articles about how to plan a safe holiday celebration: 

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Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Peach Pie to Celebrate a Wedding Anniversary

Blossoming peach with wren house at spring
Today is the sixteenth anniversary of Sandy and my marriage. At the beginning of our marriage when we bought our home, on our first spring together we planted a peach tree in the southeast corner of our lot, replacing a crabapple that hadn't survived the winter. That tree is now sixteen years old, a grand old age for a grafted semi-dwarf fruit tree, and its limbs are propped up by two supporting poles, its profile over the years grown more gnarled and wind-sculptured. But it still grows delicious fruit, and this year was a year of high production. 

The website Gardenia describes the Reliance peach tree as follows: "Noted for its cold-hardiness, Prunus persica 'Reliance' is a vigorous and fast-growing peach tree adorned with profuse soft pink blossoms in early-mid spring. They are followed by a heavy crop of medium-sized, freestone, red-blushed yellow fruits in mid-late summer. The soft yellow flesh has a good flavor."

This spring our peach tree was spared from late frosts, so an abundance of blossoms led to an abundance of fruit set and harvest. Usually harvest follows a pattern. First I pick early maturing fruit that we eat for breakfast, added to muesli or yogurt. Then as more fruit matures, we begin a one- or two-week cycle of baking peach cobblers or peach crisps three or four times a week. It's hard to imagine, even for me who has lived the reality, but after a couple of weeks of frequent crisps and cobblers, we get a little tired of the bounty. Then I begin harvesting a bowl of peaches every morning, cutting them up, and then freezing them in around six-cup batches for peach pies. At the end of this season, I had put aside enough peaches for six pies.

Last week, Sandy and I talked about our wedding anniversary. "Don't get me a card or gift," she said. "I just want to do something together."

"How about we bake a peach pie?"

"Oh! I'd forgotten about the peaches! Perfect!"

The peaches thawed to a generous, delicious portion just right for a deep dish pie. Sandy used a beautiful etched, clear-glass pie plate given to us by my mother, and the pie was probably the best-tasting peach pie I've ever eaten, the flavors full yet subtle and the crust light and flaky. Of course, it wasn't just how the pie tasted; it was also how Sandy and I spent our time together, how we shared this experience over an entire year of enjoying and caring for our peach tree.

It's a temptation to make a big symbolic gesture with that pie regarding our marriage: pure, nurturing, a product of shared values and energy. I'll keep it simple, though. It's a good pie, and it's a good marriage. In these times of challenge, I'm looking forward to baking one home-grown peach pie a month to help us get through the winter. 

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Friday, October 16, 2020

Covid in the Family? "Grandpa's Gone Camping" Is the Last Line of Defense

During the last six weeks, I've been camping for four weeks--two at the beginning, then two weeks at home, and now just finishing up the last two weeks. The reason for these stints of camping certainly is in part because fall camping is so exciting, with the colors and the weather variations. However, there's another aspect of my time in camp that is not just about fun, and it's related to COVID-19.

At some point in late summer as our two grandkids and their parents were gearing up for school to start, my wife and I asked ourselves the question, "What if the kids go back to school, catch covid, bring it home, and then their parents and us both get sick. Who takes care of the kids?"

We distanced ourselves from our grandkids (ages 7 and 5) and their parents, just to see how school went. Classes were based on a hybrid model of part time at school with a 50/50 blend of smaller classes and schooling at home. It went pretty well, and my wife and I felt that the situation was about as safe as realistically possible. Therefore we began seeing the kids again, with time outside at the park and by wearing masks when we were in closer quarters. 

The school circulated a survey of parents, and based on information gathered decided to go back to full-time in-class teaching, following the wishes of the majority of the parents. The school had been getting a great deal of pressure from parents to take the kids all day long so that parents could return to work. The economic pressure on parents was undeniable, and the chaos of politics infiltrating health policy on the state and federal levels with its resultant weakening of guidelines was also undeniable. 

Therefore, I went camping again for another two weeks, my wife coming up to camp with me on weekends, and while at home my wife once again not visiting the grandkids. After just under two weeks of school, the grandkids' mom was contacted and told that our seven-year-old grandson had been in contact in the lunchroom with another student who had been tested and verified to have COVID-19. The kids and grandkids were told to stay at home in quarantine. My, who had met the day of the phone call with her daughter, also needed to be in quarantine. 

My wife called that night while I was still at the state park, telling me the situation was exactly as we had logicked out earlier and feared would happen, based on how the state of Iowa had adulterated its health policies with political measures. Out of the four of us--parents and grandparents--I was the only one who was without a doubt not exposed. Fortunately, the next day our grandson was tested and found negative. He received a note that he could go back to school and the parents wouldn't have to quarantine.

My wife brought up the point that sometimes there is a false negative. What if that was true? We were back to our original question of what if all the adults get sick. Who will take care of the children?

My wife decided (and, of course, I agreed) that we two grandparents should extend our quarantine for a bit longer, my wife from her daughter and family, and me from my wife. That way just in case someone falls ill from this situation, perhaps my wife won't get ill and can mask up and assist if needed . . . and if my wife gets sick, then I can be the last grandpa standing, there to care for everyone as best I can. The irony, of course, is that Grandma and Grandpa are in the most vulnerable group, regarding the virus.

Desperate situations are possible in any medical crisis such as this, but when we see cut-offs for distance instruction set at levels above those suggested by health professionals, when we see modes of instruction determined by surveys rather than the best medical advice, when we see state infection rates used that may very well be inaccurate, then my wife and I and our children feel isolated in our danger, not supported and protected by our government. We need to end this arrogant disregard for science. We need to end this placing of political agenda over people. We need to end the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Lincoln said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I sit now alone in my tiny trailer, writing these words. A cold wind is blowing outside off the lake, rocking the trailer. From where I sit, cooperation and unity seem pretty darn desirable. "Every man for himself," now that Grandpa is the last man standing, seems a bleak and tragic possibility that I hope myself, my family, and my nation can avoid. 

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Friday, October 9, 2020

Reading Emerson's Essay "Nature" While Camping

"Landscape and Transcendence," Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900)
In his essay "Nature," Ralph Waldo Emerson says this about being outside during times "wherein the world reaches its perfection," speaking specifically about October: "These halcyons [days of peace and tranquillity] may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather, which we distinguish by the name of Indian Summer. The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts."

As Emerson's description of the beauty of the New England autumn unfolds, we are led from an  individual perspective, creeping out of our "close and crowded houses," to the cosmic perspective of the laws of nature. "The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles," to live beyond history, church, or state, in unity with "the divine sky and the immortal year." Nature, he says, is medicinal; it sobers and heals us. It is our first home, feeding our senses with with "room enough," to be whole. If we could be "rapt away" into the fullness of nature, he says, "the upper sky would be all that would remain of our furniture."

The purpose of Emerson's essay is to remind us of and inspire us to our essential nature, that the fullness of nature is also our fullness. He seeks to move us from the everyday "profane" to the eternities of sacred nature, describing "the innumerable florets" of the flower houstonia, glassy lakes, and the south wind that "converts all trees to wind-harps." He seeks to expand our mind through his description--senses, intellect, and emotions--and to lead us to that place within where boundaries fade and even as we sit inside our homes, reading his essay, listening to the "crackling and spurting of hemlock in the flames" of the fireplace and gazing at the patterned grain of the wood-paneled walls, we see "the music and pictures of the most ancient religion." And we are changed, transformed.

"I leave the village politics and personalities, yes, and the world of villages and personalities behind, and pass into the delicate realm of sunset and moonlight, too bright almost for spotted man to enter without novitiate and probation. We penetrate bodily this incredible beauty; we dip our hands in this painted element: our eyes are bathed in these lights and forms."

Is it nature that transforms us, or we that transform nature? Does our perception perceive or create? What is the sequence, the process? The question will betray the unity of the moment. There is no sequence, no creator and creation, only the experience of unity, transcending time, place, and causality. "The difference between landscape and landscape is small, but there is great difference in the beholders." Emerson says that "nature cannot be surprised in undress. Beauty breaks in everywhere." Nature need not be fenced and called a park; it is equally present in a woodlot or planted field. "Compound it how she will, star, sand, fire, water, tree, man, it is still one stuff, and betrays the same properties."

Honey Creek State Park, my home for two weeks
And that is how I come to be spending two weeks in mid-October, camping in a state park in Iowa. Given the opportunity, I choose to bathe "in these lights and forms," to give myself the opportunity to let beauty "break in," to enliven within myself the "same properties" that exist in cosmic reality, to transcend our "petty omnipresence," where "flowers jilt us, and we are old bachelors with our ridiculous tenderness."

Reading all of the essay "Nature" beyond Emerson's introductory laudations that are giddy with transcendental epiphanies, a more somber explication of his ideas--obviously based on his personal experience--is developed. The matter of the universe is all one "stuff," and the motion of the universe is all one energy. Living this unity, though, is not an intellectual construct, nor is it an abandonment of the intellect or mind. The primal essence of existence compels us, even though we cannot fully embrace that essence with our reason. Therefore, "no man is quite sane," seeking to know that essence, and coming up esteeming our "hat and shoes sacred." 

The unified oneness of the perceiver, that which is perceived, and the process of perceiving is an elusive oneness, even for Emerson. He admits the frustration at his fleeting glimpses of that which he does not eternally own. "A man can only speak, so long as he does not feel his speech to be partial and inadequate." We intuit the whole within the part, yet lose the wholeness within the boundaries. This fleeting, intuitive, deja vu-like experience of knowing wholeness is our experience with nature. We have been one with nature before, haven't we? We almost remember it. "There is throughout nature, something that leads us on and on, but arrives nowhere, keeps no faith with us." Our hunger, even when we eat, is for something greater than the physical food. All thoughts and exertions fall short because they are expressions of boundaries which limit the unboundedness that teases us with reminisces with every hard line and definitive action. "This disappointment is felt in every landscape." We cannot come "near enough" to the objects of our perception. "The pine tree, the river, the bank of flowers before [the poet], does not seem to be nature. Nature is elsewhere."

What is fickle is not nature, not matter and motion; nature is not petulant, nor are we "tickled trout." It is our individual consciousness that is fickle and variable. "We cannot bandy words with nature, or deal with her as we deal with persons." There is no personal or individual relationship with nature, only a cosmic relationship. If we wish to see nature in its wholeness, then we must be whole. Our knowledge of existence is structured in our own consciousness. We cannot experience unboundedness while being bound by our own individual limitations. "Nature cannot be cheated," or tricked into revelation, Emerson writes. "Man's life is but seventy salads long, grow they swift or grow they slow." What we perceive through unenlightened eyes is only a glimmer of full sunlight. "The reality is more excellent than the report."

Emerson provides us with hope, though, even though he provides us with no clear technique for transcendence. Transcendence is our nature, after all. "The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought." Consciousness makes "the whole and the particle its equal channel." Since nature is in every particle of our existence and in all of existence, we should hope and live for that transcendental unity. "Every moment instructs and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form." We must strive for unity with nature, no matter how many days it takes.

"It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time."

The irony of Emerson's conclusion is that being nature, we yearn to know our nature, to live fully our unbounded nature, even if our individual, bound selves are too busy or preoccupied to remember. Being out among the trees can help us remember, though. That's why I'm camping right now, surrounding myself with nature, with trees and sky and lake. Ideas of enlightenment and unity reside in our mind, but also "stand around us in nature forever embodied, a present sanity to expose and cure the insanity of men." I'm here for the cure, even if it doesn't happen until after a long time.

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