Monthly Archives: July 2012

Facing Up To Bullies

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How wonderful our world is—but how terrible it can be! Happy moviegoers can be gunned down as they were in Colorado—or they can go to school with guts twisted into sick fear as they wonder what horrors await them.

Bullying. Cyber bullying. I have been reading too much about this lately. There have been reports about merciless hazing, about a young soldier who committed suicide after unceasing torment, and there are too many testimonials from traumatized children.

This morning I came across an article about a woman who had been systematically terrorized throughout her school years. Now an adult, she decided to write to the tormentor of her youth asking her what made her the bully that she was.  The answer was that the woman in question had been going through a ‘bad time’ in her life and so took it out by making others miserable—a reason, perhaps, but not an excuse and surely no comfort for the poor girl who walked in fear every day of her school life. Nor would such a statement help young people who are driven to self mutilation, or develop horrible psychological scars, or tcommit suicide because of unrelenting bullying.

It’s not just a national problem, of course. In Japan, for instance, ijime is rampant. So what’s there to do? Do we ever confront the people who seem to take delight in torturing us because we are weaker, or vulnerable, or walk to a different drummer?        In fiction, we do, of course. On our printed pages mean people can be dealt with, or are given their comeuppence, or—sometimes—learn the error of their ways. But fiction does not always mirror life, and real-life bullies often strut about unrepentant and unpunished. Nor are they confined to our growing up years, for the mean people who made lives miserable during school days usually go on to be bullies in the workplace and abuse positions of authority.

I suspect that at one time or another we have all been victims. About thirty years ago, at a time when cyberspace was yet unknown, I wrote a YA novel about bullies. While I wrote, I remembered a long ago day in the school yard of the all girl’s school where I was a fourth grade student. I remembered being not only short and slight but also the most awkward kid in the whole world—the one who was always chosen last for any game. And, of course, there were the mean girls, the one who were popular, bigger, the ones who enjoyed humiliating me at every turn.

On this particular day we were playing softball, and I had just struck out. The leader of the mean girls had her face pushed close to mine and was yelling at me and telling me what a complete loser, what a waste of space, what a miserable human being I was. I suppose I had had it, because without even thinking, I hauled back and smacked her. She was so surprised she reared back and fell over, and the world stood still.

Oh, the rush of triumph—followed immediately by horror! Now what would happen to me? But, as I carefully backed away and made my way from the field, nothing did happen.

Of course force is not the answer. Of course pushing back can result in an escalation of bullying not to mention deadly reprisal. But in one way or other there has to be a line drawn in the sand. Not by the bullied children alone but by their parents, by their teachers, school principals, fellow students, law enforcement, and by all of society saying, ‘thus far and no more can you go.’

As for my younger self on that long-ago day, I have to admit I felt guilty. I had never slapped anyone before! So I slunk home and told my father, who was busy reading the financial section of the paper. He listened, shook his head, and returned to his paper while muttering something that sounded like, “About time.” Not getting much help here, I went in search of my mother who listened with an attentive frown. Suddenly, she began to laugh, and when I asked her what was so funny she said, “Supposing I tell you a story?”

The mean girls never bothered me again… and as to my mother’s story, that is a subject for another day.

Line drawn across sand…

            It must hold against pounding

            Of destructive waves.

           

“Darkness Into Light”

 

 

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May I (mis)quote you?

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“Really, the peasants have no bread? Let them eat cake!”

“Cake” being nothing more than the scrapings from baker’s pans, these words damned Marie Antoinette as heartless and wicked. But— perhaps because we have just returned from Paris—I find it interesting to note that the actual author of this incendiary tidbit was Rousseau, not Marie. Even so this misquote has resonated through the years. She said what? Really! Well, she certainly deserved her fate at the Place de la Concorde.

Since all of us are going to be famous at some point or other—and if not, we well should be—there is every chance that at some point someone is going to ask, “Can I quote you on that?” Ah, mes amis what should our answer be?

George Washington—that epitome of respectability and honor—would probably hesitate to answer this one knowing well that he has been misquoted through the years, for never did young George chop down a cherry tree. His biographer, Parson Weems, tried to set the record straight in the 19th century… but no one has paid much attention to the Weems’ declarations that the tree in question was never chopped down. “I cannot tell a lie,” etc. makes for a much better story, after all.

Misquotes tend to linger in the mind, much as half truths and hearsay repeated over and over have a tendency to gather more validity than boring facts. How about the classic Humphrey Bogart line in Casablanca? Instead of “Play it again, Sam,” what Bogie said was the rather long-winded: “You played it for her, you can play it for me…If she can stand it, I can. Play it!” And there are literary misquotes, too.  Ask my old friend, Will Shakespeare, whether he ever been misquoted, and he will probably turn over in his grave. One of the many things he didn’t say is, “to gild a lily,” when his real words “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.” Close… but not close enough to make Will happy.

Nor is Shakespeare the only victim of the misquote. Politicians and administrators seem to delight in applying the Rule of Misquote at every opportunity. Al Gore was given much grief because he was purported to say, “I invented the internet,” when what he actually said was, “”During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”  Even the wily Machievelli could not escape, though he actually intoned, “One must consider the final result,” instead of  “The end justifies the means,” which you have to admit is a snappier sound bite

Perhaps the fact that one’s words get somewhat twisted (or completely invented) is a sort of perverse compliment, but I am not so sure. Though I personally have never really been misquoted, I remember reading on the dust jacket of one of my books that I had been born in Hong Kong. I suppose there is a proximity of that country to my birthplace in Japan, but still. Of course, those were the ‘old days,’ a time when computers and e-mail and telephone interviews were unknown entities. Nowadays it is so much easier for an interviewer to send an attachment of the article that needs to be checked for accuracy, or to verify a quote by e-mail. Even so, misquotes linger          Misquotes have no respect for the dear departed, either.  The one I remember most of this ilk is that famous line W. C. Field is supposed to have carved on his tombstone: “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” It does sound witty, but what really is carved on his final resting place goes: “Here Lies W.C. Fields: I would rather be living in Philadelphia.”

Which makes more sense actually—but please don’t quote me!

Words that are spoken

            Have many legs that wander

            Often  far from Truth.

 

From the Louvre

 

 

 

 

 

A city of light

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The changeable Paris skies were blue when we boarded the metro to the Louvre. We’d been told that if we only spent thirty seconds looking at each object in this renowned art museum, it would take us nine months. We didn’t have nine months, but we were determined to do our best.

Built 800 years ago as a fortress against invading barbarians, the Louvre is now enormous. In it are housed the world’s finest paintings, sculpture, and treasures from every country and every time period. Walls are covered with iconic works… the Mona Lisa being only one… and with bronze and marble sculpture of breathtaking beauty. There was so much to see and absorb, but what most caught my attention was an alabaster bust carved by Fillipini. Displayed in a glass case, the young woman looked serenely at the world, a delicate lace ruff carved about her throat, her head slightly tilted, her lips half curved in a smile. Other statues were all around me but their beauty was a cold elegance whereas she seemed alive. Any moment, I thought, this alabaster would change to flesh and bone. Any moment now she would open her eyes and speak to me. What would she say, this fair young creature of a far away time? I never would know…

What would she be like?

Could we have walked together

On warm, summer days?

After lunch our group headed in different directions, and Mike and I made our way toward Notre Dame. The clouds scudded above bringing drops of rain, but the sun was bright again when we reached the great cathedral with its gargoyles and its many statues. How different, I thought, was this from Gaudi’s vision. The interior of Notre Dame was dark, silent, old. Listening, I could almost hear the ghosts whispering to each other: We were alive, once, like you… we loved and strove with life. Who are you, strange people who disturb our sleep? Here was a place where the imagination surely could take wing. Perhaps, I thought, even the spirit of Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo still leaps from gargoyle to gargoyle as he rings the bells!

We emerged from Notre Dame in need of nourishment and found refuge in a crowded café. There we were served by a friendly young waiter who told us he had been married only two years (“ What is this you say? You have been married fifty years? Mais, c’est magnifique, ca!”) and had a baby boy one year old. Refreshed, we wondered along the Seine, checking out the booksellers on the bridge and the souvenir shops, until we reached the Musee de L’Orangerie. Here Monet’s water lilies are immortalized in two circular rooms. On the walls of these rooms, the master’s great canvases were placed in such a way that visitors could sit and enjoy the changing of the light, the sweep of willow branches on the water, the delicacy of those water lilies and experience the pa

Outside, we asked directions from a guard and, on impulse, wondered if he could tell us the catalyst that had brought on the storming of the Bastille. He asked us to wait a moment and fetched an older man who explained that the arrest of many popular leaders had caused the journalists (the fourth estate) to incite a riot amongst the people. On to the Bastille! Raise the bloody flag, citizens! Allons, enfants de la patrie…

 The guard, whose name was Dani, stayed to chat. He asked us how we liked Paris and glowed at our praise. He then told us that he had visited Venice and Florence and loved Italy, too. Learning that Mike had lived in that country as a boy, he cried, “Amici!” and joyfully shook hands all around.

Tired after hours of walking, we descended into the metro station and heard—was that Albioni’s adagio wafting up toward us? But yes! As we turned the corner, we saw that a nine piece orchestra was performing. Five violins, two cellos and a bass were playing in beautiful harmony, playing so skillfully that we joined a small crowd to listen. The crowd melted, but we stayed through Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and Bizet. “Ah, but they are struggling, these young musicians,” their manager whispered, thanking us as we bought their CD. We wished them well. With their technique, their heart and their talent, they deserved to be in the finest of concert halls!

She plays with eyes closed,

Heart-joined to her violin

In this cool subway.

We were late getting back to the hotel, and the children had eaten an early dinner before we returned, so Mike and I found an Italian trattoria and were bade welcome in French, English and Italian by the owner, a Parisian who had lived in Italy for forty years. The little place was full of happy people— regular clients, we realized since everyone was talking and laughing and hugging each other. Swept up in this convivial atmosphere, we enjoyed a native wine and excellent food and though we were not exactly hugged, the owner did kiss my hand on parting.

Thus it came— well, it had to— our last day in Paris, a rainy, chilly morning. A great discussion took place amongst the family: maps and metro schedules were studied and debated. In the end it was decided that some of us would go shopping while the more courageous would go on an outing. Mike and I, not in the least bit courageous, opted to shop and wound our way to the grand galleries of the Lafayette department store where July sales had enticed half of Paris to shop. Mobbed? For sure, but never mind! Between mini beignets and high fashion, we spent many delightful hours.

In the evening under still rainy skies we all boarded a boat that rode us down the Seine to view the sights of the city. Though we had heard that the late night Bateaux Mouche trip was something not to be missed, it was thought too late for the youngsters amongst us, thus the daylight ride. Floating along the Seine, I reflected on all that we had seen in the four short days we had had in this legendary city. Versailles, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, the  Eiffel,  the Musee de L’Orangerie… all of these had been elegant or magnificent or impressive, but the one thing that I would remember most were the people we had met. The elderly gentleman who made crepes for us each night in his hole-in-the-wall kitchen, and who called, “A demain!”—till tomorrow—to me each time we said good night. Dani, the guard at the Musee L’Orangerie; the lady in the metro who insisted on leading us to our ‘line’; the metro musicians; the bus driver who left his bus idling so that he could get down and point the right way to the Place de Concord; and, of course, the little alabaster lady in the Louvre.

As we rode the metro home at ten thirty that night, a guitarist began to play. Mike dropped a coin into his purse and he bowed and cheerily dedicated a tune to us. And as he strummed his guitar, we passed the Eiffel Tower, brightly lit and in all its glory against the dark sky.

Au revoir, Paris, truly the city of light!

 

 

 

Paris, je t’aime

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Paris skies were gray and lowering when we arrived on Day One… but speeding toward the city proper, patches of blue opened and our driver informed us that we had brought the sun. “It rained terrible last week,” he added as a car from a right side road cut us off. “But they have the right of way,” he explained to our astonished inquiries. “The cars from the right always do.” After lunch we took a very long and tedious metro ride to the great Eiffel tower.

This edifice, constructed for the 1889 World’s Fair 1889, is one of the most-visited paid monument in the world and stands 1,050 ft tall, about the same height as an 81-story building. From this grand height we could look out over all of Paris and beyond, a glorious view. The Eiffel has now become an icon, but in its day it was not always popular. In fact, Guy de Maupassant and Dumas hated the idea and opposed the building of the tower and opposed it with vehemence. After it was built, de Maupassant spent most of his time IN the tower, eating, writing, meeting friends. This, he was wont to say, was the only place where he didn’t have to see the tower!

It is no longer possible to climb to the top of the tower, but the second level is accessible. When we saw that there was a long queue waiting for elevators down to ground level, we decided to hoof it… and found what a long way we had to go. Afterward, (with trembling legs) we returned by way of train to our hotel, stopping to refresh ourselves at a tiny place with a giant hole in the wall for the kitchen. Here the owner-cum-cook- and- bottle- washer presented us with delicious crepes a la Paris. Voila!

On our second full day in Paris we took the train to Versailles. Half asleep in our seats, we were jolted awake by an accordion playing a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marchind In.” The musician played several more numbers, passed the hat, then disappeared to play in another part of the train.

Now wide awake we stood in a long line to enter the fabled grounds of the Sun King. Lavish is not the word to describe these grounds. Guarded by machine-gun toting soldiers, Versailles is opulence crossed with extravagance and laced with excess. But it is beautiful… room after room of art, of gold and gilt, of pomp and panoply. I was taken by the enormous fireplace framed with gold grapes and vines and by the Hall of Mirrors. Not hard at all to imagine this long room filled with courtiers in wigs and jewels, each vying with the other to be more fashionable, more beautiful under the hundreds of flickering candles and framed by mirrors and gold!

Proud aristocrats

Danced through life never heeding

What came tomorrow.

The grounds of Versailles stretch miles upon miles, but we didn’t get much farther than gardens filled with the most glorious flowers. I identified cosmos, delphinium, poppies, dahlias and roses… all in perfect bloom. Beyond the formal gardens were fountains and—more important—food. French bread cradling ham and cheese and most excellent French (definitely) fries!

By the time we left Versailles, storm clouds were gathering, but we wanted to see the Arc de Triomphe, and so we embarked on another train ride. Unfortunately, we miscalculated our timing and though we hurried when we reached our stop, only half of our party made it through the door! While we were waiting for these laggards to catch up to us, the heavens opened and it poured. But did we give in? Never! Before us rose the Arc under which each conquering army rode or drove since the time of Napoleon (Some of these armies had to ride out again in defeat, too). We climbed the stairs to the top of the edifice which, like the spirals of a chambered Nautilus, wove round and round narrow stairs that left me gasping for breath. Coming down the Eiffel was easy compared to this climb!

Some of us elected to stay on, but we old folk had had it. We found our metro by dint of asking several people for directions—policemen, people on the street, students—all of them unfailingly helpful. The myth of unfriendly Parisiens was dispelled once and for all by a kind lady on the Metro who told us where we needed to change lines and actually guided us to the spot. In fact, the only sour apple we came across was the guardian of the womens’ bathroom in the Eiffel—and since she was nasty to everyone without exception, I think we can delete her as an example of French hospitality.

Tomorrow… the Louvre!

Ole Barcelona!

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It’s no secret—Barcelona is mad about Gaudi. There are Gaudi T-shirts and Gaudi mugs and from our older son’s window we can see smoke stacks created by Gaudi in the shapes of baskets of fruit and other improbable things. Our window, alas, faces two walls… but there is a lot of Gaudi to go around.

 

We arrived three days ago, a family of six adults and three youngsters. Having only four days to spend in this city, we decided to ignore jet lag and to stay awake by eating a record number of tapas and paella and by walking all around the Ramblas, the famous street that runs through Barcelona and which offers everything from living statues to food, drink, stalls full of flower, and countless tourists. Oh, the langauages that flowed past as we sat and enjoy our tapas! Oh, the sights and sounds and… was that a man dressed up as a ladybug?

 

We are told that in Barcelona there seldom is mention of east, west, north and south… only of the mountains and the sea. New visitors that we are, we can see why, for Barcelona is placed on the northeast coast of the Iberian Peninsula, facing the Mediterranean Sea and flanked  by the Collserola mountain range. On our second day in Barcelona, we had decided to spend the day at the beach, Alas for sunscreen… it not only rained, it poured! Thundered! Stormed! Not to be defeated by weather, we gathered up our traveler’s umbrellas and hot footed it to the very nice aquarium which features Mediterranean fish. Afterward, the sun returned, and we returned to Las Ramblas once more, walking toward the Cathedral, a grand 14th century edifice with magnificent façade of statues. But were we thinking of art? Not when a duet of street artists were playing flamenco rhumbas on Spanish guitars! Of COURSE we had to dance, to the delight of tourists. Our grandson suggested that we pass the hat!

 

At night, the World Cup soccer match between Spain and Italy was aired. We holed up with our family, brought in subs beer and chips, and had a grand time shouting and cheering to the accompaniment of huzzahs and fireworks that were going on in the streets below us. When Spain brought Italy to its knees, we ventured out into the street and found that the city had gone mad… cabs honking, citizens wrapping themselves in flags and hanging from every lamp post and statue available proclaiming the glory of Spain! Eventually, the police moved in…. but only to control traffic. We left the crowd cheering and dancing and sounding ready to party till all hours.

 

Today, blearily, we stumbled to join a Gaudi tour and learned from our guide that  he was often arrogant, mostly difficult, but that he has revolutionized the concept of art. His Parc Guel—a strunning concept of natural stone forming aqueducts and walkways, gardens and woodlands— and of course the Sagrada Familia are amazing. Gaudi believed that Nature was the only true way in which the Craator should be worshiped. His Sagrada Familia has an interior with columns that are meant to be trees and which are topped with styalized leaves, an interior so  alight and welcoming that the spirits naturally seem to lift to the Gaudi inspired ‘stars’ above.

 

Gaudi is a legend and a genius—and his death is therefore particularly tragic. One day he was returning from this daily walk when he was struck down by a trolley. Because he was in his customarily poor attire, he was taken to be a homeless man and carried off to the indigent’s ward in the hospital. By the time his assistants found him and had him transferred to a better section of the hospital, he was beyond hope.

 

Would this great man of vision have lived with better care? No one knows. It offers a question, though. Why should any nation in this world of ours offer better help to the wealthy and famous and deny that help to the poor and defenseless? It is a question that Gaudi himself might ponder.

 

On our last day in this Spanish city, we walked. And walked. And walked. We visited the grounds of the 1992 Summer Olympics, shopped for handmade chocolate and beautifully woven shawls, rode a cable car up to the Castle on top of wind-blown Mont Juic, and… in the evening… ate biquini sandwiches (really!) and were served an enormous pitcher of Sangria before attending a farewell flaminco performance. Ah, the energy! The thrumming of heels! Ole, and Ole again!

With her hands held high

And heels that thrum with passion…

Fiery dancer!

Tomorrow we leave Barcelona and travel on to Paris, the city of light….

Gaudi aqueduct, Parc Guel