Friday, May 30, 2008

The Phoenix Landing & The Martian Chronicles

They came because they were afraid or unafraid, happy or unhappy. There was a reason for each man. They were coming to find something or get something, or to dig up something or bury something. They were coming with small dreams or big dreams or none at all—Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles)

When I was but a sprite, and before I became an avid reader of books (I preferred comic books), I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It changed me, what I thought of books and what I felt about the power of stories. It made me cry. And perhaps that was when I decided to become a writer. I wanted to move people as Bradbury had moved me.

The Martian Chronicles isn’t really about Mars (though I’ve chosen to give it my Friday Feature placement as homage to the recent Phoenix landing on the red planet). True to Bradbury’s master metaphoric story-telling, the Martian Chronicles is about humanity.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Phoenix Landing on Mars

"It is good to renew one’s wonder, said the philosopher. "Space travel has again made children of us all."—Ray Bradbury (from The Martian Chronicles)

“The Phoenix spacecraft successfully landed in the north arctic plains of Mars today,” Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, announced to my friend Danny Bloom. “This is the first landing in 32 years -- since the Viking spacecraft made landfall on Mars in 1976 -- that we have soft-landed a craft on Mars using retrorockets.”

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day—Lest We Forget Why…

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

For those of you observing Memorial Day today, I wish you peace.

Memorial Day is a United States Federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May (in 2008 on May 26). It commemorates U.S. men and women who perished while in military service to their country. First enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War, it was expanded after World War I to include casualties of any war or military action.

The day, not unlike our Remembrance Day in Canada, the UK and other Commonwealth countries (observed on November 11th to recall the end of World War I on that date in 1918. ) is typically spent visiting cemeteries and memorials and observing a moment of silent remembrance. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. US Eastern time. The U.S. flag may be flown at half-staff from dawn until noon local time. Volunteers usually place an American flag upon each grave site located in a National Cemetery.

It is certainly a time to think of those who gave their lives for freedom and their country. It is also a reminder of the atrocity of war in all its forms.

War is a paradox. It is both tragic and an opportunity. The very action of being at war, seems to galvanizes us and polarize us. War heightens contrast, increases pitch, and resonates through us in ways we have no inkling. It brings out the very worst but also the very best in us; for, as some of us sink into despair and debauchery to help ourselves, others heroically rise in service and humble sacrifice to help others. War defines us, perhaps like no other phenomenon.

Charles Dickens wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities” of a violent and turbulent time during the French Revolution:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of
wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the
epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything
before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were
all going direct the other way…

Memorial Day is a time to remember the past and to realize our future. Sometimes that means finding peace amidst calamity; balance amid chaos; grace within turmoil ; light inside the darkness; and joy from sadness.

Let us remember, so that those who follow us have a chance to remember too…

Now, please indulge me by going back up to the top photo. This is an amazing and stirring photograph by Daniel Wood. I was first struck by the sepia-tones of the graveyard contrasted with the red blooms of roses in the foreground (appropriately suggesting the bloodshed of war). It suddenly reminded me of the little girl in the red coat in Spielberg's film Shindler's List. The girl's coat was the sole item in an otherwise black and white film that had a colour. It singled her out, a “real person” in an anonymous sea of atrocity, a sea so large and horrific we cannot comprehend nor want to even think of and therefore ignore. Schindler could not ignore that little girl once he’d set his mind (and heart) to single her out. That was the turning point for him and he could no longer deny his compassion for those oppressed people.

The red rose of courage, passion and true love blooms in front of the dark graves of men and women who died for freedom, justice and honour; a symbol of everlasting peace and hope and a reminder that we must remain vigilant and honourable.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Illustrator, Emma Biron--Friday Feature

Before I dashed off into the science program on registration day at Concordia University, I was signed up in their fine arts program; I was going to be a commercial artist and go into advertizing. Then, I decided to save the planet instead (big grin). I'm still doing it...

Ever since I was a kid, I've been a cartoonist. I created the first "Get Smart", a spoof on James Bond. I called my cartoon, James Back, 000 (triple O). My recent graphic art piece was a cartoon, The Adventures of SF Girl, which you can see below. Well, my constant fascination for this medium led me to today's Friday Feature, Emma Biron, a fascinating illustrator from Vancouver, B.C.

Emma met me at one of my book signings and immediately caught my attention when she mentioned that she did animation. What follows below are a few examples from her recent comic book, MITMOL, which I'd describe as funky anime-style, with something else. Not sure what to call it, certainly an Emma-signature. Emma tells me that she draw s"everything by hand, using fine liners for inking."

When I asked her to elaborate on MITMOL, Emma told me that it "is set in outer space and follows the characters April, Neko, and a few others. The one with purple hair and blue skin is April. Right now I’m still working on MITMOL, which is an acronym that is not really worth figuring out (it has something to do with the meaning of life)." Okay...

"I love drawing," she continues. "But I think eventually I would like to become a writer. I’m especially looking forward to the comics exhibit (KRAZY) that will be coming to the Vancouver Art Gallery." Me too, Emma! See you there!

I asked Emma to describe her pictures shown here.

The first cartoon, about talking to a container of milk, is a dream sequence from MITMOL. Says Emma: "Perhaps it has a slightly religious subtext, but that’s entirely subjective."

The next cartoon describes a scene with women in burkas and masks who are interrogating a police officer. Says Emma: "This page was rushed sadly, but I liked its subject matter."

The blue girl is April. Says Emma: "I was inspired for the pose by Egan Shiel paintings. Some comic artists have sexy main female characters, but April usually isn’t, so I was joking when I drew her like this and named it 'trying to raise viewership' ".

The illustration at the top is, according to Emma, "a self portrait I drew when I was feeling sick after eating some cheap food. My friends said my sweater looked weird in it, but it honesty looked like that... I was leaning weirdly!"

There you go... lean weirdly and you too might draw something that awesome.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Novelist: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Writer—Part 1 (Characters)

Have you ever wondered how an editor decides not to read your cherished tome past the second paragraph of the first page and has pegged you as a beginning writer? This used to really bug me… Well, as a published author and occasional mentor, I do from time to time read manuscripts (please don’t send me any unsolicited ones! This isn’t an invite). Well, I now recognize what these editors do. Most beginning writers commonly do some things that unfortunately identify him/her as a novice; these can work against you when a busy editor (who wants nothing better than an excuse to stop reading) reads your precious work.

So, I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years (some of the very same comments that have been made of my work, I am sharing back with you).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Aeon Flux: Motion Picture & Animation--Review

When I was first tantalized by the high-speed trailor for the 2005 Paramount motion picture, Aeon Flux, directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), I was blissfully unaware of its history: that it was based on the darkly irreverant and raunchy 1995 MTV Liquid Television animated SF series created by Korean American animator, Peter Chung. The series achieved cult status among a select audience of imsoniacs (it played at midnight on MTV, if that tells you anything). This may have worked in my favour. I had no expectations or preconceptions, except for a hair-flying ride. As a result, when the content (written by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay) had merit as social commentary, I counted it as a bonus.

In typical dystopian fashion, we join the Aeon Flux story roughly four hundred years after an industrial-related virus has killed 99% of the world’s population. Scientist, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) has developed a cure and the Goodchild dynasty secures a home for the five million survivors in the last city on Earth, Bregna, a paradise walled off from the unrestrained wilderness that ever-threatens them. Dystopias, like Bregna, often appear utopian on the surface, exhibiting a world free of poverty, hardship and conflict, but with some fatal flaw at their core. Built from scientific premise and intended only as a temporary measure, the technocratic society of Bregna continues long after its intended span as the Goodchilds attempt to deal with an internal and enduring glitch (infertility) of the “cure”. Like most imposed provisional governments, this one’s solution to a problem (cloning) has created yet another problem (fugitive memories from the previous clone’s life).

It is now 2415 and the walled society of Bregna appears utopian—clean and organized, beautiful, rich and spatious; but beneath the laughter and contentment, stirs an uneasy disquiet. Bregnans are losing sleep, having bad dreams, and are plagued by memories that don’t belong to them. Rebels challenge the Goodchild regime, run by Trevor and his brother Oren, and among the rebels is a highly competent and ruthless assassin, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron), whose tools include whistle-controlled ball-bearing bombs, drugs that allow her to meet people on higher planes of existence, and interchangeable eyeballs. She is aptly named, as she serves a true agent of discord to Goodchild, the guardian of order and all that he naïvely believes is good.

“Some call Bregna the perfect society,” Aeon tells us in the opening scenes of the motion picture, “Some call it the height of human civilization…but others know better…We are haunted by sorrows we cannot name. People disappear and our government denies these crimes…But there are rebels who…fight for the disappeared. They call themselves the Monicans. I am one of them.” Several critics disliked the narrative introduction. I found that it particularly worked, by adding a reflective literary quality to the motion picture. It is noteworthy that in the original animated series, Trevor Goodchild often frames each episode with his reflections; only fitting that Aeon gets her chance in the film version. The reflective narrative of the motion picture is meant to enlighten its audience that this is not your ordinary action thriller. What follows is a fast-paced yet thoughtful story, with elements of romance, that explores notions of longevity, social structure and connection, faith and greed to a satisfying end. aptly called the motion picture “biological science fiction”. Says Oren, Trevor’s treacherous brother who betrays him: “We’ve beaten death. We’ve beaten nature.” The film’s clean organic high-tech look faithfully captures the “sense of biotech gone wild” of the TV series by exploring several paradigms inherent in a society that lives deliberately in the absense of nature’s chaos. Indeed, the lack of connectivity resonates throughout the motion picture in its exploration of friendship, family, loyalty, and purpose. When her sister is murdered in the beginning of the film supposedly by Trevor’s men (but in actuality by his scheming brother, Oren), Aeon’s mission becomes personal: “I had a family once. I had a life; now all I have is a mission.”

The film truly launches into stylish action and intrigue when Aeon gladly accepts a mission to assassinate Trevor, thinking that this violent act will make it all better. Instead, it unravels her, beginning with when she confronts him; finding him uncomfortably familiar and alluring, she hesitates and decides not to kill him. “What do you want?” Trevor asks her. “I want my sister back. I want to remember what it’s like to be a person.” It is indeed he—or rather what he knows—that holds the key to who she is. The key is that she, like he and all those in Bregna, is a 400 year-old copy of someone before the virus. Four hundred years ago she was the original Trevor’s wife.

Filmed in Berlin, the movie is visually stunning, from the opening shot on the steps of Sans Souci to the labrinthine wind canal used by the Nazis. Displaying an eclectic mixture of spareness and mid-century design the film is acted out in a fluid dance to Graeme Revell’s (Sin City) haunting score. The action is rivetting and seamless with both plot and underlying theme of bio-tech gone awry. Early on we are treated to a thrilling sequence of Aeon and her biotech-altered rebel colleague negotiating the security of Goodchild’s sanctuary that consists of a beautiful but deadly garden, guarded by patches of knife-sharp blades of grass and poison dart-spitting fruit trees.

Aeon champions moral ethics and single-handedly destroys the relicor, the supposetory of the clone DNA, pursuing honour at the expense of loyalty (to Goodchild) and heralding in a new age of “mortality”. The movie ends as it begins, with Aeon’s narrative: “Now we can move forward. To live once for real and then give way to people who might do it better…to live only once but with hope.” This is truly what Aeon Flux represents and what her very name embodies.

The term Aeon comes from the Gnostic notion of “Aeons” as emanations of God. Aeon also means an immeasurably long period of time; the Suntelia Aeon in Greek mythos symbolizes the catastrophic end of one age and the beginning of a new one. This is apt for our heroine, who, at least in the movie version, pretty well single-handedly destroys an old corrupt world, and heralds in a new age. Aeon was “emanated” back after four hundred years by the gentle oracular Keeper of the relicor, whose original version saved her DNA and kept it hidden and safe until the right moment.

Fans of Peter Chung’s baroquely violent animated Aeon Flux will recognize some similarities between Kusama’s 2005 film adaptation and the original MTV cartoon. While admitting that the motion picture version was only based on Peter Chung’s characters (check the credits), Karyn Kusama intended to “honor [the cartoon version’s] wierdness in spirit and…pay homage to its esoteric boldness and…strange energy.” Homages to the animated series include: Aeon’s signature fly-catching with her eyelashes, demonstrating a woman extremely in tune with her body; Monican anarchists (though in the film they are subversives within Bregna rather than from an adjacent society); a virus that kills off most of the population and assassination attempt on Goodchild (Pilot); the harness worn on the torso that transports the wearer to another dimension (Utopia or Deuteranopia?); passing secret messages through a french kiss (Gravity); issues of cloning and two colleagues crossing a weaponized no-man’s land together (A Last Time for Everything). Original and movie adaptation also share at their core the exploration of the consequences and ambiguities of choices in life and the role that nature plays, subversive or otherwise.

Although they share recognizable motifs and characters, the 2005 movie adaptation contrasts in some important ways from the six 5-minute shorts of 1991 and 10 half-hour episode TV series that aired in 1995. Chung’s avante garde series is set mostly in a surrealistic dark future Earth (presumably) where two communities, Bregna and Monica, are juxtaposed but separated by a wall (not unlike East and West Berlin). Bregna is a centralized scientific-planned society and Monica is Bregna’s ‘evil twin’, an anarchistic society. Chung’s innovative use of “camera angles” reminiscient of cinematography, together with a spare, graphic choreography, portrays a sprawling Orwellian industrial world. Peopled with mutant creatures, clones, and robots, it features disturbing images of dismemberment, mutilation, violent deaths and human experimentation as Chung explores post-modern notions of cloning, mind and body manipulation, and evolution through a series of subversive aggressively non-narrative pieces. On the subject of his cloning experiments (A Last Time for Everything) Goodchild says to Aeon: “My work offends you. Why? Human beings aren’t so unique, just a random arrangement of amino acids.” To which Aeon retorts, “These people you’re copying are already superfluous. You’re trafficking in excess.”

The title character in the animated version is a tall, scantily-clad anarchist (featuring the sultry voice of Denise Poirier) skilled in assassination and acrobatics, who infiltrates technocratic Bregna from the neighbouring revolutionary society of Monica. As with the movie character (elegantly portrayed by Theron), the animated Aeon is a stylish dance; completely in tune with her body. Says Chung of his creation: “The way she’s dressed, the way she looks, the way she moves was tailored to seduce the viewer to watch more, even though they may not understand at every moment what was happening.” Despite their similar intelligence, physicality and drive, the two Aeons depart as characters. For instance, one of the major differences between original animation and adapted film is the ongoing relationship between Aeon and her nemesis/lover, Trevor Goodchild (John Rafter Lee). The sexual and intellectual tension between Flux and Goodchild is far more palpable in the TV series and does not explain itself or resolve itself like it does in the movie. The opening of the animated series describes their odd relationship, which suggests that their destinies are bound together: Aeon: “You’re out of control.” Trevor: “I take control. Who’s side are you on?” Aeon: “I take no side.” Trevor: “You’re skating the edge.” Aeon: “I am the edge.” Trevor: “What you truly want only I can give.” Aeon: “You can’t give it, you can’t even buy it and you just don’t get it.”

The Gnostic “Aeons”, emanations of God, come in male/female pairs (aptly represented by Flux and Goodchild). As with the Gnostic “Aeon pairs”, Flux and Goodchild make up inseperable parts, the yin/yang (complementary opposites) of a whole, and represent the paraxical oxymoron of chaos in order. Long-limbed and continually in fluid motion, Flux dances through Goodchild’s rigid scientific world of order with an ease that stirs both his fascination and his fury. He, in turn, enthralls her and ensnares her with his intellectual hubris. The Gnostic “Aeon” male/female pair (called syzygies) of Caen (Power) and Akhana (e.g., Love) closely parallel Goodchild and Flux as they flirt with each other in a complex dance of power and love. Their attraction/antagonism mimics the characterizations of Eris (Greek goddess of discord) and Greyface (a man who taught that life is serious and play is a sin) in the Discordian mythos. Like Eris and her golden apple, Aeon Flux stirs up trouble for Goodchild’s complacent technocratic regime, constantly challenging his hubristic notions of human evolution, perfection and even love.

The cartoon Aeon Flux—and Trevor Goodchild, for that matter—are also far more compelling than those depicted in the movie. Headstrong, foolish and selfish but also dedicated and deeply compassionate and honourable, Chung’s Aeon Flux is a paradox. She scintilates with passionate self-defined notions against an industrial tyranny, while nurturing a naïve desire for personal love; the target of both being found in one man, Trevor Goodchild. Often cruel at times, she shows moments of selfless consideration, compassion and humour. Despite her violence, perverted fetishes and lustful obsessions, she is as appealing as she is strange; a discordant rock tune, which often enough hits a resonating note that draws out one’s interest and captures one’s empathy. In contrast to the super-hero competence and aloofness of the two-dimensional movie Aeon, the animated Aeon is wonderfully flawed; she is a complex paradoxical character, who makes mistakes, blundering often due to over-confidence and poor decisions (usually connected with her feelings for Trevor). Chung’s Goodchild is equally complex, and is, unlike the naïve feckless scientist of the movie, a true equal to Flux’s energetic and often misplaced heroics. Kusama’s Goodchild is neither menacing nor diabolical; rather, he is a well-intentioned and watered-down version of the Machiavelian scientist that Chung created. And, though quite appealing, he is also uncompelling as a result. Chung’s Goodchild is a visionary pedant, who often spouts twisted Orwellian diatribe: “That which does not kill us makes us stranger.” “The unobserved state is a fog of probabilities…” “There can be no justice without truth. But what is truth? Tell me, if you know, and I will not believe you.” Flux cuts through Goodchild’s dogma with her own one-liners—“Trevor, don’t trouble me with your thin smile”—and usually shuts him up with either a smack or a kiss.

The animated series is far more gritty and edgy than the movie version, featuring twisted eroticism and dark humor amid scenes of graphic violence. It oozes with a delicious perversity that the movie version abandoned in favour of cohesive narrative (and a PG-13 rating). Showing a healthy and irreverent disregard for that very narrative continuity, Chung’s animated series successfully makes commentary on various societal notions and behaviours through his uniquely disjointed and liberating form. Chung asserts that this plot ambiguity and disregard for continuity were meant to satirize mainstream film narratives. I think it does far more than this as art form, by providing a journalistic style of reporting the nuances and filigrees of life that gives it an immediacy hard to overlook. Chung’s apparent intention was to emphasize the futility of violence and the ambiguity of personal morality. This is best shown in his six 5-minute shorts and pilot, created in 1991. The shorts commonly featured a violent death for the title character, sometimes caused by fate, but more often due to her own incompetence.

The TV Aeon Flux flows like a subversive movement; punctuated by a series of abstract, often garrish, statements on various themes of souless biotechnology. Each episode is a vignette that explores singular questions of integrity, honour, loyalty, belief and love using the clever platform of the kiss/kill dynamic of Aeon and Trevor. Their interactions scintilate with clever wordplay, often amid physical-play that usually involves a pointed weapon: Aeon: “You’re psychotic. You no longer have a common conscience with your fellow man.” Trevor: “I understand the will of evil…[it] is like an iron in a forge...conscience is the fire.” Aeon: “you’ve lost the substance by grasping at the shadow.” The underlying question of connectivity and what it is to be human filter through his discordant series primarily through the twining of his two main characters, both loners with little connection to anything except to one another (which they both seek and abhor). The motion picture version pursues through a more structured and lengthy narrative, the same theme of connectivity (with nature, with others of our society, with family, and our beliefs) and the consequence of living a life with out meaning, though on a far more simple level. At the end of Kusama’s movie, Aeon challenges Trevor’s assertion that cloning is their only answer for survival: “We’re meant to die. That’s what makes anything about us matter…[otherwise] we’re ghosts.” In contrast, at the end of Chung’s episode, Reraizure, Trevor closes with these words of reflection: “We are not what we remember of ourselves. We can undo only what others have already forgotten. Learn from your mistakes so that one day you can repeat them precisely.”

Kusama’s film version chose narrative coherence to make its statements by sacrificing character for story and challenging its audience cerebrally. Chung’s cartoon version challenges us more deeply, at a visceral level, through the interplay of his characters where cohesive narrative doesn’t matter. In the final analysis, the motion picture version pursues the same questions posed by Chung’s original animated version. Only, Chung isn’t so eager to provide answers, leaving both interpretation and conclusions to the individual. Both versions are mind-provoking and a celebration of excellent art. While the film’s moralistic tale resonated and lingered like a muse’s long forgotten poem, the subversive kick of the comic series (which I thankfully saw later) struck deep chords and left me breathless with questions.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ishmael—Friday Feature

Ishmael, the allegorical novel by Daniel Quinn, examines mythology, its effect on ethics, and how that relates to sustainability. This story’s premise and its relationship to sustainability intrigued me so much, it appears in today’s Friday Feature. I found the discussions on evolution and ecology fascinating, particularly as they related to human ethics.

The novel starts with a newspaper ad: "Teacher seeks pupil, must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." When a man responds to the ad, he finds himself in a room with a telepathic gorilla, Ishmael. The story continues as a socratic dialogue between Ishmael and his student as they discuss what Ishmael refers to as "how things came to be this way" for mankind.

Ishmael uses the example of Nazi Germany to show how the people of his culture are in much of the same situation: either held captive with the mythology of being superior, or "an animal swept up in the stampede" of the captivity of those around them.

Before proceeding, Ishmael defines:

  • Takers as people often referred to as "civilized." Particularly, the culture born in an Agricultural Revolution that began about 10,000 years ago in the Near East; the culture of Ishmael's pupil.

  • Leavers as people of all other cultures; sometimes referred to as "primitive."

  • A story as an interrelation between the gods, man, and the Earth, with a beginning, middle, and end.

  • To enact is to strive to make a story come true.

  • A culture as a people who are enacting a story.

The premise of the story enacted by Takers is that they are the pinnacle of evolution (or creation), that the world was made for man, and that man is here to conquer and rule the world.
Ishmael explains that life is subject to immutable laws and it is possible to discern them by studying the biological community and an evolutionarily stable survival strategy for all species called the Law of Limited Competition: "you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war." Species follow this law or go extinct. Takers believe themselves exempt from this Law.

Leavers take what they need from the world and leave the rest alone. Living in this manner (in the hands of God), Leavers thrive in times of abundance and dwindle in times of scarcity. The Takers, who practice Totalitarian Agriculture produce enormous food surpluses. "When you have more food than you need, then God has no power over you."

"Takers are 'those who know good and evil' and the Leavers are 'those who live in the hands of the gods'."

According to Ishmael, by living in the hands of God, man is subject to the conditions under which evolution takes place. According to the Takers' story, creation came to an end with man. "In order to make their story come true, the Takers have to put an end to creation itself."

"The premise of the Takers' story is 'The world belongs to man.' ...The premise of the Leavers' story is 'Man belongs to the world.'"

As a writer, I enjoy allegories for their metaphoric narrative descriptions of subjects under the guise of another having similarities to it (e.g., Pilgrims Progress, which describes life as a journey). The socratic, polarized imagery of Ishmael counterpoints humility with hubistic endeavor; self with others; compassion with greed. I'm sure it wasn't lost on Quinn that the Ishmael of the Bible was a rather troublesome and quarrelsome character, who lived in the wilderness and according to God "shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen." Both the biblical Ishmael and Quinn's Ishmael were "outsiders" and, as such, more likely to be in the position to make commentary.

Ishmael, from the Hebrew word meaning God hears, was the son of Abraham and Hagar, the Egyptian maid of his wife Sarah. When Sarah found herself not having children, she arranged to have a child with Abraham by Hagar acting as a surrogate mother (Genesis 16:1-4), even though God had specifically stated that a child would be born to Sarah in due time. The result was bitter conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, and their descendants, that has gone on right to the present day. Ishmael was born at Mamre, when Abraham was 86, 11 years after Abraham's arrival in what would become the land of Israel (Genesis 16:3). He grew up to be a man of the desert wilderness, with a wild and hostile attitude toward people.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dreams or Nightmares

My journey in Paris provided only one of several epiphanies I experienced since my initial encounter with a tornado in Louisville, Kentucky, last January. Challenges that thrust my comfortable bloated self toward an edgy lean cliff of awareness. Soon after the tornado, I had that climate change nightmare. It prompted a spate of blog posts on climate change (Tornadoes & climate change; human health; solastalgia). Posts dedicated to our culture’s headlong hurtle toward a “speed of life” that may result in a collision with disaster if we aren't careful.

Paris showed me another culture; a culture who’s reflective gait lies more in step with Nature, a walk that embraces a pace in keeping with life’s cherished sensual qualities: to see, hear, smell, touch and taste all one can… Taking the time to converse with a friend over a quality coffee or wine; waiting contentedly in line at a local boulangerie or patisserie for their favorite loaf of bread; stopping at the metro station to listen to a local chanteur singing a French love song.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day

Life began with waking up and loving my mother's face
--George Eliot

What is a mother?

Before I had my son, I harboured doubts about being a good mother. Even after my precious son was born, I experienced (and no doubt will continue to experience) moments when I wondered if I'd done the right thing...pushed him hard enough in this or that pursuit...encouraged him enough in his interests...imbued him with enough but not too much independence...provided him with the right example to pursue integrity and honour in his life...given him the opportunities to grow into the young man he can be...

Of one thing I am certain: I have loved him entirely and unconditionally.
And he has grown into a wise and beautiful human being. Wiser than his mother, I think. I am so proud of him. And I am learning from this incredible miracle of God (giving birth is truly a miracle) who is less than half my age; this young man who sees the world through the open eyes of quiet compassion and the wisdom of an angel. My precious son...

What is a mother?

I think automatically of my own mother, who was loving, kind, gentle and inspirational. She devoted herself almost entirely to raising me and my brother and sister, almost to a fault; certainly to the detriment of her own pursuits and identity (like many women of her generation). I am happy to say that she later pursued her interests as a professional landscape artist, botanist and naturalist prior to succumbing to a stroke.

The role of a mother is probably the most important career a woman can have--Janet Mary Riley, Lawyer and writer

According to Francis Cardinal Spellman:

A mother is a font and spring of life,
A mother is a forest in whose heart
Lies hid a secret ancient as the hills,
For men to claim and take its wealth away;
And like the forest shall her wealth renew
And give, and give again, that men may live.

What is a mother?...

She broke the bread into two fragments and gave them to the children, who ate with avidity.
"She hath kept none for herself," said the sergeant.
"Because she is not hungry," said a soldier.
"Because she is a mother," said the sergeant.
--Victor Hugo

What is a mother?
We are all mothers. Every woman is a mother, whether she gives birth to a child or a movement; whether she nurtures a family, a corporation or a nation.
--Nina Munteanu - author, scientist and mother

Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Pearls Before Breakfast

After hearing my laments about returning from Paris, France, to “the speed of life” in North America, my good friend, Margaret, passed on to me an interesting article in the Washington Post; something I’d like to share with you:

In it, staff writer, Gene Weingarten, asked the question: Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?

Weingarten then proceeded to answer it with an experiment, using internationally acclaimed virtuoso violinist, Joshua Bell, who’d agreed to play anonymously as a street performer at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington DC. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by; and virtually all of them kept walking.

Bell’s performance, arranged by The Washington Post, was an experiment in context, perception and priorities – as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Bell played masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls. “The violin,” says Weingarten, “is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.”

Weingarten describes Bell as a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, with a dose of the “cutes”, that, onstage, elides into “hot”, his thick mop of hair is a strategic asset: because his technique is full of body—athletic and passionate—he's almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.” Interview magazine wrote that his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live."

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period," toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection. "Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete," Bell said, "but he, he just . . . knew."

Bell began with Chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won't be cheating with some half-assed version."

Bach's Chaconne, according to Weingarten “consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.”

Weingarten describes what happened: “Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something. A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened. Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”

Bell had not expected this reaction and was frankly a little dismayed. He says that as he plays he is capturing emotion as a narrative: "When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you're telling a story…It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ." The word doesn't come easily. ". . . ignoring me."… ignoring his story…

Mark Leithauser, curator at the National Gallery, suggested that we shouldn't be too ready to condemn Metro passersby as unsophisticated. Context matters. In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Immanuel Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.

Would it have been different if people had recognized Bell? Perhaps that is a loaded question; to recognize Bell would be to already have joined a “club” per se and to have no doubt seen him in concert. Moreover, it brings up yet another question about North Americans as a culture: do we need someone else to tell us what is beautiful and worthwhile?

Weingaraten describes the one case of someone who did recognize Bell:

As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn't arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn't know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell's free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't about to miss it.

Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.

"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"

“We're busy,” says Weingarten. “Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.” If this had been staged in a Paris Metro, say Châtelet Métro Station, I assure you that the level of appreciation—lack of it, that is—would not have occurred. As I scaled the stairway to the Station lobby, I would have encountered an appreciative crowd surrounding this virtuoso musician, who plays like an angel. I have seen more attention given to a middle-aged local French chanteur (who sang with a so-so voice, but with passion) at Saint-Michel Métro Station in Paris than was apparently shown for young international star Joshua Bell in l'Enfant Plaza Metro in Washington, DC.

Not much has changed since Tocqeville’s visit to America, says Weingarten. “Pop in a DVD of Koyaanisqatsi, the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere.” See my own post on this movie as part of a dissertation on the speed of life. "Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word that means "life out of balance."

British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world in his 2003 book entitled Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, Lane suggested, “not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.”

"This is about having the wrong priorities," said Lane. And losing one's balance of life.

Weingarten ends with this dark reflection on our culture and cautionary note: “If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that—then what else are we missing?”

Much of the text was excerpted from an article by Gene Weingarten that appeared in the Washington Post, Sunday, April 8, 2007. Read the entire article and watch the heart-breaking videos here. Gene Weingarten can be reached at

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.