Monday, August 21, 2017

An American Eclipse

-- by Tom Phillips

I ran with the eclipse across America today, and what a day it was.

It just so happened that August 21 was the day I had a ticket to fly west and visit our daughters and grandchildren in Seattle  -- right along the path of the total eclipse, or just north of it.  I woke up at 4 a.m. and caught a taxi from Manhattan to JFK -- with a young African cabbie.  
     -- You want some music?  he asked as we started out.
    Sure, I said, wondering what he had in mind.  On came Bob Marley.  The reggae beat begged to be turned up.   
   Turn it up, I said.
   -- Oh. you like it?
   Yes!

Ignoring the timed lights on First Avenue, he peeled out at every intersection and slammed on the brakes at the next.  Hitting the highways, we went at least 15 miles over the speed limit all the way.  Not content with one lane, he straddled the line and took up two.  But there was little traffic on a Monday, so I decided to just relax.  Bob Marley had bigger things on his mind.  Move .. Move ...Move.. A Movement.. of the People!

 Alaska Airlines was 30 minutes delayed but our pilot assured us we'd get to Seattle on time. He was a retired Navy Captain, and this, he said, was his "afterlife" job.  Before takeoff he came back into the cabin to brief us on the E-clipse -- that's how he said it.  It would be following us, tailing us across the west and reaching its peak just as we landed.  Still, he warned us, don't look at the sun unless you have those special glasses.  A couple of passengers did have them, but I had neglected to find some.  This was gonna be frustrating.

 Still, I had a window seat on a clear day, and I got my first look ever along the northern border of the US -- narrated by the pilot, whose interest in geology and geography sparked a running account.  We crossed Lake Erie, meandered over Canada and then across the farmland of Wisconsin.  "The Cheesehead State!" cried our captain. 

How many people get enthusiastic when sighting Bismarck, North Dakota?  He did, and I did shortly after that as the flat Midwest farmland broke into a rutted surface, then into stark Black Hills with only patches of farmland, then into a lunar waste with no towns and barely a road.  Then suddenly out of the clouds ahead a whole landscape, blue heaped upon blue, of sheer uninhabitable gorges and peaks -- the Rocky Mountains. "We're goin' over the Continental Divide!" whooped the pilot.  And now the race was on.

The E-clipse was starting, behind us but gaining fast, over eastern Montana and "the skinny part of Idaho," more farmland in eastern Washington, and then the Cascades erupted with Mount Rainier on the horizon, a volcanic mutant, too big to be true.

"It's right behind us!" shouted the pilot, "Don't look unless you've got those glasses!"  This as we banked north of Rainer,  the wing on my side drawing a bead on the sun.  Of course I looked, and winced and looked away. It was just 20% eclipsed, still a blinding ball of fire.

 A commotion broke out a few rows in front of us.  Two pretty flight attendants had got hold of a passenger's glasses, and were leaning over other passengers to get a look at the sun.  Everybody wanted a turn. -- I'm sorry to break up the party, said the head flight attendant over the intercom, in a mocking Hispanic lilt.  "But we gotta land!"  . 

I decided to look at the ground and see whatever effects could be discerned there. (I hadn't buckled my seat belt but nobody seemed to care.)  As we descended over of western Washington, the sun shimmered on stretches of water -- but wait, it was turning purple as it passed over.  My seatmate was a hard-nails silent type who'd been sleeping through the flight, but I needed a witness so I called him over.  He confirmed, he'd never seen such a color in reflected sunlight.  Then we saw something even stranger.  The plane's shadow was outlined darkly on a passing cloud below.  And around the shadow was a rainbow, a whole circle.  At first he couldn't see it, then he did.  As we came in for a landing, the plane's shadow on the runway was blacker than any we could recall.  It was 10:15 in the morning, but the atmosphere seemed like twilight.

As we taxied, the head flight attendant said he was keeping the cabin lights off so we could enjoy the effect.  The eclipse was now at 90 percent -- as full as it was going to get in Seattle. As we went down the gangway into the airport, I remembered a line from Charlotte Bronte's novel "Villette" about being content with just the "crescent moon" of life -- just a taste, but not the whole experience.  That's what I'd had of this eclipse, so I decided to be content.

But this was not to be. The first thing we saw in the airport was an excited crowd of people, looking up through the glass ceiling.  A few people were sharing extra glasses they'd brought. "Do you want to look?" somebody asked me.
Eclipse watchers at Sea-Tac Airport
 
Hell, yes.  And so I saw not the crescent moon, but the full moon, and a crescent sun! And the crescent was slowly growing, the two celestial bodies moving apart after their long-looked-for rendezvous. I didn't want to hog anyone's goggles, so I went down the line, borrowing at least four pairs for a few seconds at a time.

Then I rushed off to baggage claim, and then to the train, and then to the ferry terminal where I had my first meal of the day -- a bowl of Poke. You know Poke?  It's a Hawaiian dish, like Japanese sashimi but more of a mix -- raw fish and rice, plus many more ingredients around the edge, like bibimbap.  This one had avocado, carrots, cole slaw, spinach and I don't even know.  You mix it all together with spicy sauce and enjoy.

And then onto the boat for Bremerton, to my daughter and grandchildren, from sea to shining sea in one morning, beating the eclipse across America.  Time for a nap.  But first a blog, with a conclusion.

Some people say America is sinking into eclipse, losing to China, losing its touch, its will, its whatever.  And maybe it is.  But China will never be America, and neither will any other country.

In New York today, a great haven for the arts, the Chelsea Hotel, is being gutted and renovated, transformed from a bohemian hotel into luxury apartments.  Amid the construction debris around the lobby entrance, you can still see a few dusty plaques, honoring artists who stayed, lived, or worked at the Chelsea. One of them is for the Irish poet Brendan Behan, with this quote from him:

          "To America, my New Found Land -- the man who hates you hates the human race."

           Enough said.

---  Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips 

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

In the Shadow of the Bomb

-- By Tom Phillips

In my lifetime, Western Man's greatest fear has always been that he will be "hoist by his own petard," blown up with one of his home-made  bombs.  Baby boomers grew up in the shadow of the A-bomb, then the H-bomb.  Today, the fear of nuclear war has receded, but another spectre of the post-war era has returned -- babies themselves. 

With the earth warming and seas rising, the "Population Bomb" is upon us again, bigger and uglier than ever.     

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Why God Created Woman: My Feminist Theology

-- by Tom Phillips

The Bible tells us that God created woman as a helper to man, because it was not good for man to be alone. But God's ways are not our ways, and God's reasons are hidden from us.

For Mother's Day, let me offer an alternative theory of Why God Created Woman.  Maybe he just saw the flaws in his original design, and wanted to improve it. 

Woman was a new form of humanity, not just a helper but a refinement of the original.  Botticelli painted it in his "Birth of Venus."  This was a new being -- more beautiful, subtle, gentle, peaceful, more like God herself. 

Plato described it in his Symposium.  The character of Aristophanes tells us the first humans were hermaphroditic, all in one, like primitive organisms that reproduce themselves.  ".. Each human was a rounded whole, with a double back and flanks forming a complete circle... These people could walk upright like us in either direction, backwards or forwards, but when they wanted to run quickly they used all their eight limbs, and turned rapidly over in a circle, like tumblers...  Their strength and vigor made them quite formidable, and their pride was overweening."  Aristophanes says their arrogance led them to attack the Gods, so Zeus decided to weaken them -- he took a sword and cut them in two, "just like fruits." 

The Bible also describes this separation as surgery, but adds general anesthesia.

"God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs, and closed up its place with flesh.  And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man."  (Genesis 2, 21-22.)

The operation was a success, but like most major surgery, it left the patient permanently wounded.  The division of humanity left an ache in the human psyche, a feeling of incompleteness, of longing for one's other half.  In the Symposium:  "Each of us is the mere broken tally of a man... it is clear that the soul of each has some longing which it cannot express, but can only surmise and obscurely hint at...  The reason is that this was our primitive condition when we were wholes, and love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole."

Saturday, April 22, 2017

End Game


The Seventh Seal
-- By Tom Phillips

The game is on, and I'm already losing.

The game is chess, in which I have little experience and no aptitude. My opponent is ranked number one in the world, having checkmated every player who ever lived, excepting possibly one.

I didn't make this up. I saw it in a movie, Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," from 1957.  A knight plays chess with the hooded figure of Death. He plays his best, he draws out the match, but Death makes a surprise move, takes his queen -- and soon, checkmate.  I saw it at 19 when it was new, and couldn't comprehend it.  I saw it again at 39, and it scared me, but I held out hope that I could avoid this defeat, by staying out of the game.

At the time I was a Buddhist, sitting on a cushion every day, achieving an equanimity that supposedly went beyond birth and death.  It's true, I'm sure, that the universe is One, and we simply pass from one form of existence to another -- eventually into a many-tiered heaven that rises to Nirvana, the end of suffering, extinction of desire.  I was pretty good at that game. 

Then, I had the misfortune of marrying a Presbyterian minister and losing a chess match with her, in which the loser was bound to adopt the religion of the winner. And I found myself in a new world, where this earthly life mattered, and you had one chance to make yours mean something.  Equanimity was neither the path not the goal -- life was a struggle to bear witness to the truth in a world that didn't want to hear it, to show mercy in a world that lived by conflict. Worst of all, other people mattered. Suffering was not to be contemplated, but fought on every front. Our job is to not to get out of here and into God's Kingdom, but to prepare the way for God's Kingdom on earth.

And where does death fit into that?  I have no ready answer. 

Recently, I made my first move -- a stupid move -- and only then realized the game was underway.  Visiting children and grandchildren on the West Coast, my wife and I went to see an apartment complex designed in part for the elderly and infirm.  No need to climb stairs, the agent assured us. It's a nice place, new and sterile, but comfortable and affordable. I found myself tempted by the prospect of an easy decline, with daughters and sons-in-law nearby to scrape me off the floor when the inevitable fall came. A comfortable death. But something in me screamed NO, that's not what I want.  I want the struggle to continue -- my pride intact, my faculties working, my words read, my music danced to.  

My second move was even worse, and a direct contradiction to the first. Unconsciously I set out to prove I was still young and strong, in no need of Senior Living.  I tried to make myself attractive to a much younger woman -- for no reason, just to see if I could do it.  She seemed to like my stories and jokes, so I set out to impress her further. At that point I immediately became self-conscious and lost my charm, becoming a clanging bell, a nattering nabob. The rest of the evening was painful. Still, at bedtime, I preened in front of the mirror, puffed out my chest and asked my wife, "Do I look young and strong?"

"Sure," was all she said. 

Two moves -- two pawns advanced on opposite sides of the board. That can't be right. Meanwhile Death has moved his ranks into some classic position, the first steps to an invasion that will inevitably destroy me.  I have no more strategy than Donald Trump, sitting in the West Wing in his underwear, watching TV for his next cue to act. 

Come to think of it, I don't really want to play chess!

I'd rather not identify with the hero of the movie --  the knight, a tortured, self-hating intellectual searching for God -- especially when there's another character more to my liking, the knight's squire. He's a cynic, a jester, a fighter, a singer, a ladies' man -- and facing death, his counsel is to savor the incomparable feeling of life, right up to the end.      

Oops! I knocked the pieces off the board.

See you later, Mr. Death.

-- Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips


Knight and Squire (Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand)