Recipes For Success

There are times in every parent’s life, in the dark silence of the night, when the ticking of the kitchen clock sounds like the slow tramp of some invading army which you know is going to lay waste to your precious crops, when you wonder if you will ever be forgiven for the mistakes you’ve made with your children. Because, let’s face it, if you’re a parent, you’ve made mistakes.

This little pie tart came from Curio Confections, a charming new shop in Seattle that specializes in what they call "adventure baking," which sounds like a recipe for fun to me.
This little pie tart came from Curio Confections, a charming new shop in Seattle that specializes in what they call "adventure baking," which sounds like a recipe for fun to me.

Well, when I’m lying there trying to outrun the demons in my mind, I have, of late, found a new ally in the race, as if what was formerly a solo marathon has turned into a relay and the baton of guilt is lifted from my hands and whisked away on fresh legs. Because in the past few years since my children have left home, I have been getting occasional emails and phone calls that suggest I did some things right: apple pie, pizza, rolls, lasagna, tweed cake. They want my recipes. Okay, so all my finest moments seem to have originated in the kitchen. But hey, that’s better than nothing, right? And if it turns out that the best memories my children have of me are the things I cooked for them, well, that’s a kind of success.

Not everyone enjoys cooking, of course. I always have. But never more than when my children were young. There’s nothing like an appreciative audience to spur one to greatness. Or at least to reliable macaroni and cheese. So, as a person who values recipes and the sense of fulfillment that comes from preparing food for people you love, I was predisposed to like Julie Powell’s book, Julie and Julia, based on her year-long project of cooking her way through every recipe in Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking and writing about the experience in a blog.

What surprised me about the book was how much of it wasn’t about cooking at all. Rather, it got into the hot steamy mess of marriage, and the dark realm where desire and despair do battle. It made me laugh. It made me sigh. It reminded me of my mother and her funny Julia Child voice which she would put on whenever she made Boeuf Bourguignon from her own tattered copy of the book.

The movie version of Powell’s book opened this weekend, and  I’m excited about it. I love Amy Adams in everything, and Meryl Streep is . . . wow, there really aren’t adjectives good enough to describe her. Let’s just say, I have complete trust in her. And this is what Julia Child, and recipes, and cooking that means more than merely satisfying hunger, is about.

These days you can go online and browse hundreds of recipes for anything from tamales to tarts, and some of them are good. I’ve tried them. But each time you try a recipe from an unknown source, you’re putting your trust in someone, somewhere, who may or may not share the same core values about what makes food memorable. This is why, when it all comes down, those of us who were lucky enough to have mothers who liked to cook always refer back to the way mom made this or that.

A recipe is not about taste or skill. It’s about trust. If you cook, you know what it is to feel elated when something works like magic, or betrayed when it doesn’t. Julie & Julia isn’t really about the huge amounts of butter or the marrow, or even the maggots, though all of these elements speak to the messy, greasy toil of preparing food. J&J is not about love of food but love itself. And that, my friends, is messy heart-breaking toil indeed, but, when it turns out well, somewhat miraculous, and worth all the effort.

I’m looking forward to the movie. If it doesn’t live up to the book it won’t matter. In a director’s hands a book is like a recipe, to be followed or ignored, and even the most slavishly correct adaptation can fail to generate the magic of the written word. Sometimes you have to change a recipe to make it your own. And if you’re very lucky, someone may one day ask you for it.

Forever Young

This 1969 photo of the Claude Jones group won a national award for Washington Post photographer Steve Szabo.
This 1969 photo of the Claude Jones group won a national award for Washington Post photographer Steve Szabo.

Perhaps it’s the passing of Walter Cronkite, the last trustworthy newsman, who talked us through so many national dramas – the first steps on the moon, Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, Watergate – or maybe it’s that magic number – forty.  Forty years ago so many things seemed to take a sharp turn toward a brave new world.

For many of my generation, forty years ago this summer will always be remembered for the concert that changed everything. Before Woodstock happened, thousands of young people across the country were listening to a new kind of music, dreaming of peace and a future without discrimination of any kind. Many of us were new to discrimination as a firsthand experience. We came from middle-class  homes and had always operated under a banner of acceptance from the establishment. But then we grew our hair longer, and began to question government policies, and we dared to suggest that there could be a better way.

“Freak!” “Get a job!” “Get a haircut!”

Total strangers would slow down as they drove by to yell at us as we stood on the sidewalk. It was a kind of revelation. It seemed funny, and sad too, that people could get so worked up over some long hair and tie-dyed T-shirts. But, in 1969, such simple things were viewed as signs of moral decay, right up there with the easy availability of birth control and recreational drugs.

In 1969 I had already been labeled a hippie for some time, and I scorned the judgment of the straight people who tried to convince me I was headed down the wrong path. I thought I knew where I was going.

In the summer of 1969 many people I knew went to Woodstock. I didn’t. Didn’t want to. Have never regretted not going. But  I do appreciate what Woodstock did for the nation. For one thing it forced the whole country to recognize that those hippies might be crazy but they sure knew how to get along, and that’s more than you can say about a lot of people. And I was proud of the way my brothers and sisters managed to get through what was without a doubt a fantastic concert, but also a grueling physical ordeal, peacefully and even joyously.

But even though I wasn’t there, I consider myself a member of the Woodstock generation, and I respect how their shared experience has the elements of classic myth, where the hero/heroine goes on a journey and faces hardships and discovers wonders, and returns forever changed by the experience.

The reason I never missed Woodstock was a band called Claude Jones. Claude Jones began in the summer of 1968 in Washington, DC. My husband was the bass player in the power trio that got it started. As the band grew in size and following, it took on a life of its own which we called the Amoeba.

The Amoeba was my Woodstock. Only instead of three days, it lasted three years. The shadow and shine of that experience changed me fundamentally. Sure, some of it was carefree stoned fun. But a lot of it was an education in trust and hope and limits.

We were a communal group. It was a sort of family redefined as those who willingly joined to work for the good of the whole. Of course, human nature being the flawed thing that it is, such idealism may seem somewhat naive. But, if you can avoid the pitfalls of personality, you may be lucky enough to ascend to the next level where you feel truly connected, heart and soul, to a larger purpose. Kind of like religion but without the dreary dogma and threats of punishment.

Anyway. It was pretty darned great while it lasted. I don’t know if future generations will manage to override the seemingly unstoppable human drive to self-destruct. Maybe all this Twittering and internet jabbering will lead to a virtual Woodstockian harmony that will actually bring about the world peace all of us hippies never managed to secure.

But I like to think we got the ball rolling.

Sand Spell

The Sand Witch embraces all genres.
The Sand Witch embraces all genres.

The restful murmur of waves muted by gentle breezes, the occasional squawk of seagulls in the distance, the whisper of pages turning – it’s summertime and the reading is sandy.

Something there is about the beach that encourages even those who rarely lose themselves in a good book to give it a try. Sometimes the pulse of the reading nation seems to throb in synch with the dictates of whatever’s hot and fresh off the New York Times bestseller list, or Oprah’s even hotter book club.

A few years ago during our annual family beach gathering it seemed that everyone but me was reading “The Da Vinci Code.” I held out against them, firm in my disdain for conspiracy theories.

But this summer, I’m happy to report, the beach reading survey reveals a wonderfully diverse assortment of interests. I came away from the vacation not only slightly sunburned and exhausted, but inspired and renewed by the evidence of intellectual rigor in our culture. It gives me hope that books with actual paper pages will outlast the storm of technological doodads that seem determined to drive printed books into extinction.

Of course, at the beach, the flaws of systems which rely on delicate screens and keypads become all too clear. One false move and the combination of sand, saltwater and sunscreen can make short work of modern technology. At the beach, paperback books – lightweight, cheap, impervious to Coppertone or being buried in the sand – rule.

Here’s what our little band of sandy scholars was reading this summer:

Adele: “Irish Dreams” and “Sullivan’s Bond” by Nora Roberts
Michele: “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens
Rick: “White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga and “West With The Night” by Beryl Markham
Lorrie: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer
Nick: “The Soloist” by Steve Lopez and “Ender’s Shadow” by Orson Scott Card
Brad: “Windmills of the Gods” by Sidney Sheldon and “4th of July” by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Fred: “The Active Side of Infinity” by Carlos Castaneda
Mike: “Potluck” by yours truly and “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo
Nikki: “Going Postal” by Terry Pratchett
Jay: “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill
Shannon: “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert
Keith: “The Majors: In Pursuit of Golf’s Holy Grail” by John Feinstein
Marcus: “Ranger’s Apprentice Book II: The Burning Bridge” by John Flanagan
Pearl: “New Moon” by Stephenie Meyer
Dave: “Roma” by Steven Saylor
Kathryn: “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Stout

And me? Well, I must confess, that although I did bring two books to the beach (“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt, and “Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer) I couldn’t get myself to look at them while I was actually on the sand. Maybe if I lived closer to the beach, maybe if I were younger and more easily able to take it for granted. But for me, each summer seems to go by faster. A week at the beach disappears like a sigh in the wind.

I spent my vacation watching the waves sparkling under the hot sun. I read my books on the plane going home.

Zombie Chic

The enthusiastic reviews of the current bestseller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by “Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith” encouraged me to buy a copy. I laughed when I first saw the book displayed in the window of a Capitol Hill bookshop. So clever, so droll, it seemed.

And yet. Now, having dutifully read through the thing, waiting for the moment when it would make me laugh, or smile, or even admire the inventiveness of Mr. Grahame-Smith, I find myself back where I started, at the title. The title is funny. The rest of the book, rather like its purported innovation, lifeless. Things happen, the plot plods along, more or less faithfully following the events of the original masterpiece, but the added element of zombie attacks thrown in at intervals is rather like a nudge with an elbow to a sleeping classmate who has been called upon to comment on last night’s reading assignment in English class.

On the back of the book the claim is made that Grahame-Smith’s reworking of the Austen classic “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.” Well, I suppose I should have realized from that telling phrase that the book was written by someone who never appreciated Austen and thus could hardly be expected to improve upon her work. And since I am one of those who reread Austen’s six novels regularly for pleasure, rather in the way that some other people might go to a spa for a lift, I should have guessed that, for me, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” would fall short of entertainment.

For me, reading “P&P&Z” was like reading a copy of a beloved text that had been cut up by some toddler with his first pair of scissors and then scribbled on by some novice graffiti artist. I have nothing against toddlers. And I respect graffiti as an art form and a means of personal expression which, like all art, can run the gamut from the extraordinary to the toddleresque.

But I guess I was hoping for a bit more sparkle, a bit more cleverness. Hell, even a touch of irony in these irony-rich times would have been welcome. But no. It was not to be. What we get in “P&P&Z” is a dogged reassembling of Austen’s components—all the characters are there, all the main plot points, etc.—without a spark of wit (unless your taste in humor is satisfied by the occasional quips about Mr. Darcy’s musket balls). Sigh.

The most amusing aspect of the entire book is the “Reader’s Discussion Guide” at the end, in which Grahame-Smith gleefully skewers the sort of stuffy essay questions that turn a lot of students against literature.

Oh well. The important thing is to get those kids reading, right? And if it means we have to butcher the classics and remove all the brains from the writing, well, perhaps that’s not all bad. It could have been worse.

But, it could have been so much better. Not all zombie fiction is lifeless and flat. Consider, for instance, the Discworld fantasies of Terry Pratchett, whose zombie Igor is fully fleshed out, wryly humorous and even a sympathetic character. We care about Igor.

What if Mr. Darcy had become a zombie in the course of the story, and had handled himself with a quiet dignity and self-deprecating humor, and Elizabeth had been irresistibly drawn to him in spite of his rotting flesh? Ah, the possibilities.

Still, I expect we haven’t seen the last of the brain-eating hordes. When a mash-up novel about a plague of zombies makes the New York Times bestseller list, can a sitcom about madcap zombies be far behind? Got brains?

Walking On Air

I have always been afraid of heights. Unable to stand close to the edge of tall buildings without a terrifying sense of vertigo, I’m in awe of those who cheerfully defy gravity’s bonds.

Perhaps no one ever did so more dramatically than Philippe Petit, the French funambulist who on August 7, 1974, walked on a wire stretched between the two towers of the then-new World Trade Center.

Last night I watched “Man On Wire,” the remarkable documentary about Petit and his “artistic crime.” The film was everything I expected it to be – full of stunning visual images, funny little insights and historical footage of the Twin Towers back at their start. One of the most striking things about the film is the way it recaptures that time of relative innocence – when security was one cop with a flashlight, and ID cards could be easily forged with a little glue.

Even so, it  took Petit and his small crew of enthusiastic helpers six years to plan their illegal stunt. And the forty-five minutes he spent on a wire in mid-air above the streets of Manhattan will never be forgotten, largely because of the film, and the books written about the event.

But, while I agree with the critics that it was an amazing accomplishment, and that, in some ways, it was a sort of poetic act that transcends the personal, I was unable to swallow the whole thing without a certain bitter aftertaste. In trying to analyze why the film didn’t simply sweep me onto the cloud of admiration where so many others apparently feel dazzled by Petit’s undeniable skill and daring, I found myself haunted, not by the footage of the wirewalker’s graceful crossing, but by the words spoken by his most ardent supporters.

In the early segments of the film, which includes footage of Petit practicing his wire walking, the camera lingers on his former girlfriend Annie Allix, and in a voiceover from a recent interview, she says, “He never thought to ask me if I had my own destiny. It was quite clear I had to follow his.”

That floored me. Of course, the willingness to sacrifice your own interests for someone you love is fundamental, but, as the film went on, and as Petit’s account of  his determination to reach his own goals, at whatever cost, became more and more clear, I found myself less and less interested in him and more impressed by the small crew of crazy, passionate followers who devoted themselves to making this man’s dream come true. I think what bothers me is that he wasn’t exactly doing this to save mankind, or even to demonstrate his skill – he’d already done that many times over, after all, walking on wires suspended in other public places – and in each of those cases he was arrested too. That’s the thing that doesn’t ring true for me. He wanted to do something beautiful, something amazing. Fine. But he makes it clear in the film that it wasn’t enough simply to do it, he wanted to do it without getting permission, to enter the building illegally, sneak his equipment in, and shock people. To show off.

That he succeeded is clear. But, the most memorable moment in the film was not the sight of Petit lying on his wire in mid-air, or smiling at the baffled cops as he walked back and forth between the towers. To me, the most moving moments in the film come during the interview of Jean-Louis Blondeau, Petit’s childhood friend, who helped him every step of the way and watched with all the deep concern and tender joy of a parent as Petit had his triumphant moments on the world stage. Recalling how, after it was over, after he had been arrested, released and become an overnight celebrity, Petit had asked Blondeau what they should do next, Blondeau, fighting back tears, says there would be no more adventures for him. The strain of watching his friend dance on the edge of eternity was more than he could choose to bear again. He would follow no longer.

Petit, it seems, has been riding on the success of his great moment for the last thirty-five years. There’s no denying he did something no one else in the world will ever be able to touch. Yet, there’s something a little sad about it too. He never lost his footing, but sooner or later, we all fall down.

Map Quest

Is there anything more potent, more magical, more surreal than a map?

Some may think maps mundane, the stuff of Google, soulless grids charting featureless terrain, mere means to an end. But a good map can do so much more than just get you where you want to go. It can tell you what to look for, what to avoid, where the hidden treasure lies, where the roads end. And in a work of fiction a well-drawn map can open a whole new world in your mind.

Of course, not every genre lends itself to mapping. But none has done more to chart the unknown than fantasy. I recently finished reading “The Elfstones of Shannara,” a 500-plus-page journey into the misty domain of writer Terry Brooks, whose bestselling books have won legions of fans in the sword and sorcery camp.

I must confess that although I’d seen Brooks’s works around for years, until recently I’d never summoned the will to commit to reading one, due to an attitude I acquired while reading “The Hobbit.” This was back in the day when Tolkien worship was white hot and fresh on college campuses, and I dutifully tried to feel the passion. But I found it a trial, slogging irritably through the page after page of repetitive scenery descriptions, waiting in vain for the appearance of a single admirable female character. Seriously. Swept away I was not.

Of course, in principle I enjoy the classic fantasy tropes of an epic journey, a battle against overwhelming odds, and magical weapons to ensure victory in the struggle between good and evil. But really, all those dwarf songs? Hardly karaoke material.

However, map-wise “Lord of The Rings” set a new standard for those of us who like to boldly read where no one has read before. And Terry Brooks has a firm grasp of the map element. Also, to his credit, he crafts some engaging female characters, so that, on the whole, I think I prefer his Shannara to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

But while maps enrich works of fiction ranging from the sunny innocence of Winnie the Pooh and his 100 Acre Wood to the dark twists of Neil Gaiman’s alternative London underground in “Neverwhere,”  the power of maps transcends fiction. In fiction maps often lead to treasure or talismans of power. In real life, a good map is a treasure in itself.

So much of life is uncharted. The perilous path of parenthood, for instance, can be a twisting, gut-wrenching trial no matter how many guidebooks you read. Jane Hamilton’s brilliant, heartbreaking “A Map of the World” takes the reader through a nightmare of parental fears, but the author leads us out into the light with a flickering torch of hope held high. Though her work is nothing like escapist fantasy, it offers a similar redemptive resolution by suggesting that no matter how carefully you work to guard and protect your children, things happen over which you have no control.

Ultimately, there are no maps for parenthood. Every child is a whole new world, one that you may spend your life discovering. As Dr. Seuss noted, “Oh the places you’ll go!” We went to Los Angeles recently, on a sort of post-graduate parenting mission. Our daughter was running in her first marathon and, knowing that running 26 miles would be a challenge, we wanted to cheer her on. What we didn’t anticipate was the challenge of driving in downtown LA on a major holiday during the marathon when countless streets were closed and barricaded. Luckily, I had a map. Not a bad map, but sadly lacking in the kind of useful tips that set apart great maps from the mediocre. Your great maps offer helpful bits of advice such as, “Here be dragons.” In our case, one that warned, “Here be traffick barriers” would have been nice.

As we waited out the hours while the marathon progressed, our quest was more modest than that of Frodo or Wil Ohmsford. We simply wanted to find an open coffee shop, a public restroom, a route to the finish line of the race. Unfortunately, I was hampered by the fact that we had parked in an underground lot, and the overcast early morning skies offered no sunshine to help me get oriented. Normally I feel fairly confident about my sense of direction, but no matter how long I stared at the map I couldn’t figure out which way was up. My head was spinning from lack of sleep and coffee. What I needed was a magic ring, or, failing that, an enchanted sword, but there’s rarely one of those around when you need it.

Unless you’ve got a volume by Terry Brooks in your backpack. In which case, no worries. You can fight your way out of the blackest pit of underground parking and climb into higher realms of glory. Or at least find a place to grab some lunch.

As The Worm Turns


It’s springtime in Seattle at last. May finds us stumbling out of our burrows, blinking in the unaccustomed glare of bright sunshine. We’re digging, mowing, spraying, playing. There’s a sort of frantic sense of urgency to it. We know it can’t last.

All the more reason to throw our backs out today, for tomorrow the clouds and showers will, in all likelihood, roll back in, the temperatures will sink into the sullen forties, just cold enough to ruin a picnic.

But it’s all good. The days are getting longer, the Mariners haven’t started losing daily yet, and the roses are just beginning to throw caution to the winds and embrace the fleeting season.

Many people tout Seattle’s weather, dreary as it may be for eight or nine months of the year, as the reason for the region’s seductive charm. And it’s true that when it’s good around here, it’s really good. No humidity, few bugs, no need for air conditioning, brilliant vistas in all directions. What’s not to like?

Well, I could start that list too, but I don’t have time to spare. My garden is a mess. So what else is new, you say? Hey, just because I can’t keep a clean house is no reason to assume my garden will reflect the same casual attitude toward symmetry and style. No, my garden suffers from the same syndrome that dooms my wardrobe: I’m a sucker for impulse buys.

In my closet a lifetime of dubious choices has left me with a collection of mismatched tops, skirts and pants, to say nothing of footwear. It’s a cacophony of colors, patterns and styles, none in harmony. Sadly, the same can be said of my garden. I have, of course, made attempts to bring some sense of order to the chaos. But no matter how firmly I set out on the path of discipline and simplicity, I end up in the Bermuda Triangle of gardens. Plants go there and disappear.

I’ve tried to correct this. And judging by the collection of landscapers’ business cards which flutter onto my doorstep like confetti, the professionals look at my garden and see a cry for help. But, I really don’t want someone else working in my garden. The whole point of it is that I get to play in it. It may be a mess, but it’s a reflection of what I am – a sinkhole of desires, dreams and delusions. For me, the garden is a metaphor for life. The point is not to get it finished, but to keep at it.

So I’ll leave it to the horticulture experts and the hired landscapers to create garden perfection, while I stick to what I know – making messes, thankful that, though I may never escape my own folly, at least I’m still digging it.

A Tale of Two Cats

In general, I approve of cats, feeling that their artistic merit and entertainment value far outweigh the minor annoyances which inevitably arise when sharing a home with a cat. I’ve had a cat most of my life. Not the same cat. They come and go. The best one died at age 17 a few years ago, and in my grief I vowed that as soon as we were back from our travels I was getting a kitten. My husband, who is allergic to cats, sighed heavily and hoped I would give it a rest. Naturally, I did not.

However, what I didn’t know when I brought home this adorable, albeit insane, calico kitten, was that within a month we would be moving across the country. But as we went through the grueling process of selling our Virginia house, packing up, moving to Seattle, living in temporary housing, finding a rental, etc, etc, our new kitten Gabby took it all in stride, gaily tearing apart furniture and toilet paper wherever we happened to be.

Eventually we bought a house here, and Gabby has learned to bask in the sun breaks and endure the relentless rain. So far, so good.

Then last summer one of our daughters had to move across country to a housing situation which did not accept cats, and I, idiot mother that I am, offered to give her cat a home if she couldn’t find someplace else. That’s how it began. In my cheerily delusional way, I assumed that, although the cats might have some reservations about sharing our small house, surely they would work things out in time. Now, after nine months, it appears they have worked things out. They’ve got me trained.

They ring their little bells and I jump to let them in, out, up, down, to fill their bowls and clean up their messes, to comfort them when they have esteem issues, to yank their strings when they tire of clawing the furniture. All of this sounds fairly routine, and, of course, it is, until you realize the one thing the cats will not do. They will not tolerate each other’s existence. They cannot be in the same room without a referee vigilantly maintaining the peace with a firm hand and a full squirt bottle. Thus, if cat A, for instance, wants to go outside, but cat B is lounging in the room that contains the door, I must resort to wiles and stratagems to effect the change.

Cat B, aka Domino, is bigger and arguably crazier than Gabby, and she’s made it clear that this house isn’t big enough for both of them. Which is funny, when you consider that Domino is, for the most part, a very sweet and easy-going feline, never happier than when curled up inside her Eddie Bauer bag. She loves that bag with a passion. She disdains the over-priced feathery catnip-laced playthings we’ve bought to try to limit her impact on what’s left of our furniture. She’d rather climb in the bag, wrestle with it, sneak across the room under cover in it, poke holes in it and occasionally nap in it. But she’s not about to share it, or anything else.

Happiness is in the bag.
Happiness is in the bag.

It was funny at first. But you know how it is with a running joke. Eventually even the best joke needs a nap. I sure do. I tell myself things are going to get better, any day now. They’ll have some sort of breakthrough, look into each other’s mad yellow eyes across a crowded room and realize, hey! Let’s give peace a chance!

Sure. It’s going to happen. Spring is here. Love is in the air, floating like pollen. Or fur.

Don’t get me started.

There’ll Always Be A Festival

The fortieth anniversary of Woodstock is coming up this summer. Got your tickets yet? Or planning just to crash it?

I didn’t go to Woodstock. At the time, other diversions claimed my heart. But lots of people I know went. One of them, Gayle Nourse, wrote a short story called “Peace, Man” about her experience there. The story was selected to be included in Woodstock Revisitedwoodstock-revisited, 50 Far Out, Groovy, Peace-Loving, Flashback-Inducing Stories From Those Who Were There by Susan Reynolds, which will be released this summer, just in time for all the nostalgic hoopla. Love that hoopla.

While the original spirit of Woodstock may have been corrupted by the corporate takeover that brought us five dollar bottled water, ATMs and eventually fiery rebellion at the thirtieth Woodstock, the current of countercultural idealism still runs deep and strong. But, while many of my generation recall the heady late sixties fondly, few of us wear flowers in our hair anymore, and even if we may don the occasional tie-dyed T-shirt, it’s not easy to recapture the extraordinary shared sense of innocence and optimism that flourished in those years before the internet, the cell phone and the iPod came along, ushering in a strange new world of insulated detachment.

There will most likely be some sort of Woodstock commemoration this summer. But as for peace and love? I wouldn’t count on it.

However, that somewhat unhinged but powerfully positive spirit yet lives in Britain, where since 2003 an alternative music gathering called The Green Man Festival offers those who can manage to get there a chance to revel in music, film, theatre, literature, and comedy for three days in the sequestered pastoral Glanusk Park, Wales. The event has already been blessed by the local Druids, to ensure lovely weather for the campers. With its five stages of indie, psychedelia, folk, and “americana” music, not to mention the all-night bonfires and earnest environmental and social justice agenda, The Green Man Festival appears to offer a glimpse of the starry-eyed dream of Peace on Earth.

Will we ever see it for more than three days at a time? And will it ever feature better portable toilets?

The dream is alive.

Finding My Nietzsche

I take comfort in geology.

It wasn’t a science in which I excelled. Let’s face it, there is no science in which I excel. However, among the handful of science-like subjects I studied in college, only geology spoke to me. And what it said was: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Actually, what it said was more like, “There’s no point in worrying about the future of mankind, Con, because in another million years or so humanity will be gone, the only evidence of its brief existence a slim stratum of compacted plastic and radioactive waste in the layer cake of geologic sediment.” Yum.

My geology professor said that humans were a “niche species,” likely only to be around for a million years or so, the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. In the 80’s, I found this idea strangely liberating. Back then there were plenty of experts predicting the end of life as we know it (though none of them seemed to see the internet coming, or reality TV, so, once again, we find that the world is full of experts, whose sound and fury don’t necessarily count for much). Yet in spite of the gloom sayers, the greater number of Americans were blithely consuming non-renewable resources as if they were serenely confident that, when the time comes that we actually do run out of petroleum, clean water, air, etc., there will be another planet coming on the market in our price range, fully furnished, with cable.

Yeah. The Reagan years. Good times for some.

But though I, too, am a hopelessly deluded escapist, even I know that a Battlestar Galactica finale isn’t likely.

Nope. I’m all about acceptance now. President Obama recently compared the task of trying to change the direction of the economy to trying to turn an ocean liner—a slightly more complex maneuver than reversing a rowboat. But, even if that were true, it’s impossible to turn anything around if the people holding the steering wheel won’t cooperate. And, in our current financial and social mess, an unholy alliance of corporate and congressional “experts” have driven our ship of state into pirate-infested waters and the prospects for a happy ending look slim.

I love humanity. Really. I’m just enough of a sap to feel a shiver of hope and courage whenever William Shatner, as Captain James T. Kirk of the original Star Trek, launches into one of his trademark, “what makes humans great is that they thrive on challenge” speeches. I believe it’s true often enough to make it worth holding onto—the idea that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and all. But, I also think that when the going gets tough, the tough damn well ought to lend a hand to the ones who aren’t quite tough enough to stand on their own yet.

There’s no doubt in my mind that when we put our minds to it we humans can accomplish great things. But unfortunately our best intentions don’t protect us from making catastrophic errors. Sure, we put a man on the moon. That was pretty neat. But meanwhile, back on Earth, in our efforts to “improve” the food supply, our corporate farming policies in the last forty years have driven almost all of America’s family farms off the land. And our new “improved” food supply hasn’t solved the problem of hunger in America, although it has led to making us more obese and increased the risk of food-borne diseases.

Still, I guess it doesn’t matter, since in the long run, geologically speaking, we may be on our last legs. I never studied Nietzsche in college, when the phrase “God is dead” got a lot of lip service. These days more people seem to be calling on the god or gods of their choice to help us find our way back to the glory days of peace and prosperity that some like to think of as America the Beautiful. I don’t know if God is dead, but He sure doesn’t seem to be returning His calls these days, so I think it might be up to us to sort this mess out ourselves.

Yeah. It looks pretty bad in places. But, you know, we humans, we do our best work when the stakes are high. Sure, one person alone can’t do it. But if we all push really, really hard, maybe we can turn this beast around and ride it into the sunset. Now that’s a finale William Shatner would pay to see.