Pinned Butterflies

I must say, though not known for its artistic side, my school, Texas A&M University, does get some pretty good traveling exhibits… 

Once, I was completing my odious math homework in the “Flag Room” of Texas A&M’s* Memorial Student Center.  Sighing after completing a problem, I raised my head and, seeking a distraction, I turned my gaze toward the windows that looked into the J. Wayne Stark Galleries.  Contrary to the sight I had come to expect—pristine walls and shining floors—the gallery appeared almost ransacked.  Boxes and bits of packing were scattered around the ordinarily spotless space.  There were only a few artifacts on the walls, and it was hard to tell what those objects were.  I could only discern bright colors, and if I had to hazard a guess, I would have said they were artistically shaped and decorated paper.  Whatever they were, it was rather diverting to see the normally serene galleries in such a state of confusion.

When I entered the gallery after its transformation was complete, I still wasn’t sure exactly what this exhibit was.  Upon closer examination, the art on the introductory walls contained bit of what might be paper, to be sure, but perhaps it was merely fabric aged to a papery consistency.  In fact, some of the pieces were definitely slick, modern fabric.  They were formed into flat shapes and painted with “Asian” pictures (for lack of a better term).  Some had streamers hanging from their ends.  Curiouser and curiouser!

I turned to the exhibit’s “title card.”  “Art on a String” it said, organized by Blair-Murrah Exhibitions, Sibley, Missouri, USA.  Very well, the pieces were hanging from hooks on strings, but what were they?  Surely there was some rationale behind it?  Very much intrigued, I turned the placard next to it, which looked to contain a lengthy explanation.  It was titled: “The Origin of the Kite.”

“Oh,” said I, nearly out loud.  “Kites!”

From there I commenced a rather interesting reading on the history of kites: who first invented them (allegedly China), what parts of the world ancient kites are found in (Egypt, for example), what they were used for (religious ceremonies, primarily), and where our modern kite comes from (from the curved Malaysian design).

I figured I’d better write some of this down, so I headed for the nearest bench to dig something out of my backpack.  As I sat down, I sensed something above me…and oh!  There was a caterpillar hanging from the ceiling!  Well, a caterpillar kite.  It was made of round pieces of fabric, ladybug red with black dots in the center of each, all strung together to create a body.  I have no idea how such a contraption would fly, but I’d be delighted to see it in the sky.  There were about thirty or so other kites of various antiquity strung on the walls or suspended from the ceiling.

Though, I must admit I have come to the conclusion that I am not too crazy about Japanese art, at least as it is manifested on the faces of kites.  They contain too many (what I would consider to be) grotesque faces, though perhaps their expressions are culturally significant.  The outlines of other objects depicted (birds, flowers, rolling waves) are too bold and the colors too garish for my tastes…but then, these kites would show up well against a pale blue atmosphere.

Following this train of thought, I came to discover through this exhibit that there is an awful lot of engineering that goes into the making of kites.  I read of so-called “fighter kites,” extremely delicate kites—too slight for vigorous U.S. winds, I read—that are designed to cut their opponent’s string.  On the wall next to this corner of the exhibit was a crude kite of dark green leaves stitched together, with a string and hook attached to the end as a tail.  Tribesmen—Malaysian again, I think I remember—would send these to bob above the water, until an angry fish jumped out and caught himself on the hook.  Quite a clever idea indeed, I must say.

Of course, not all of the kites were so practical.  One kite I caught myself studying—in fact, I might not have known it was intended to be a kite if I hadn’t been told—was simply a bird.  That’s really the best way to describe it.  It was a hawk with its wings spread maybe more three feet.   But this wasn’t just a painted image: it was 3D.   its brown plumage was actually fluffy feathers, individually affixed to whatever the body of the kite was made of.  The yellow beak was curved and its point was sharp.  What I wouldn’t give to see this fowl fly…

…Along with the adorable little dark blue bug-kite, maybe eight inches long and eight wide, with white and pale blue wings, accented in gold, and with a curling seal on its body.  I can imagine it buzzing about on a draft like a real beetle…

…Though I have a bit of trouble figuring out how the willow tree kite would remain airborne.  No matter, it was a pleasure to look at: the curls of the willow tree highlighted by a soft pink background, and the branches escaping the painted fabric and turning into streamers…

…and then my serenity was gone, as I happened to glance up, straight into the eyes of the dragon kite, a massive creature at least four feet long.  The panels of fabric were again arranged so as to make a 3D creature, with turquoise blue scales, with bright yellow and parrot green accents.  True to Asian ideals, the dragon had a bright red tongue sticking out like a dog, a bright red beard that reminds me of a goat, and one of those thin mustaches—for lack of a better descriptive term—that looks like it belongs to a catfish.  But it was still a dragon: the staring eyes were wide and it had rows of sharp teeth (yes, the artist bothered to give the beast bright white teeth!).  I still have trouble imagining how such a beast would float on any air, but wouldn’t it be a fearsome sight!

But aye!  There’s the rub.  I so want to see this kites fly, all these kites fly, but I can’t; that is not the nature of the exhibit.  Perhaps I’m being melodramatic, but it seems kind of like caging an exotic bird or pinning a detailed butterfly.  After all, the song goes “Let’s go fly a kite,” not “let’s go look at a kite in a museum.”

But then, why do you pin butterflies?  So you can better appreciate the meticulousness of their beauty.  If a kite is flying “up to the highest height,” then all you can see are bright blocks of color (thus, I surmise, originate the rather boring designs on our run-of-the-mill American kites).  Here, strung on the wall, you can study every delicate flick of the paintbrush on the kite-canvases.  It’s a pleasure to see the details…

…but I’ve still got an itch in my fingers.  I want to go fly a kite…

Short Scribblings on The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne

Many years ago, I enjoyed Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and then moved on to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. With less than thirty pages to go, I threw it across the room and didn’t touch it again except to take it back to the library. I wondered what had made the Bronte sisters so intense and, at times, so maddening. Thanks to Catherine Reef’s The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, I now know.

The Bronte Sisters illuminates the personalities and the family dynamics that influenced the authors’ works. Death, abuse, isolation, and the prevailing misogyny of 1800s England led these intelligent women to deep introspection and a burning desire to create.

Oddly enough, Branwell Bronte (their brother) was neither abused at school nor faced with limited career options as his sisters were, yet he was the only one of the siblings who completely despaired and led a dissolute life.* The authors had inspiration for their more horrible male characters living right in their home.

The one difference I saw between he and his sisters was the women’s deep and constant faith in their God and the life to come. Of the many quotes in the biography, my favorite was Charlotte Bronte’s on Darwin’s theories and the rejection of God:

“The strangest thing is that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank, to welcome this unutterable desolation as pleasant state of freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do it if he could?”

Now I’m curious to find their poetry too since that seems to be the most reflective of their worldview.

Expect commentaries on Bronte novels in the coming month. Well, excepting Wuthering Heights. Y’all don’t need a four-page post detailing the repulsive traits of every character described therein.

*Every time Branwell was mentioned, this song popped into my head.  Ugh.

My Cup Runneth Over…

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

-Psalm 23

still waters

This psalm has always been one of my favorites–when I was young my parents, my siblings, and I would recite it together before we were put to bed (we kids, that is). Filled with beautiful imagery, I knew it was a wonderful psalm then, yet as I’ve grown I’ve come to appreciate it even more.

This psalm speaks of superabundant blessings–pictured as a cup that is so full of drink that the liquid is spilling out over the brim. These blessings are not dependent on a person’s good works but are simply a gift from God.

Every day I am astonished by these blessings. Sometimes it is noticeable in large ways–fun with friends, success in classes, etc., yet at other times God’s grace is less evident, but present all the same. Every restful night, every pleasant moment (however brief), even every breath, is a gift from God, something I could never earn or possibly deserve.

Surely there are dark days–days when we are so depressed that the world seems empty and every friend a stranger, days when we are exhausted beyond the ability to think, days when tragedy strikes like a hammer-blow and breaks our hearts, days when we discover that the hydra of sin we thought we beheaded has returned with greater power. These dark days are real, and no, they won’t be easy.

Yet all the while, ‘my cup runneth over.’

This is the great comfort that the Christian recognizes: despite everything, God has blessed me, is blessing me, and will bless me. Notice the last verse of the psalm–‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ There is no equivocation in this verse–nothing conditional such as, ‘If I’m perfectly obedient to God, then surely goodness and mercy will follow me…’ Instead, the psalmist expresses the promise of God’s blessing as fact. God has blessed us–we deserved nothing, yet we were given eternal life. God is blessing us now–even in difficult times we can still see his mercy. And finally, God will bless us. God has already written the end of the story for the Christian, and it is a beautiful, joyful ending. Living in the knowledge of this promise, let us remember at all times:

‘My cup runneth over.’

Duck on the Twilit Lake

Silver reflections on the silent lake,

Rippling and writhing in a quiet wake.

Majestic in simplicity; beautiful in grace,

You are a silver reflection on the sapphire lake.

An elegant arch of silvery-white;

Orderly feathers of silvery-gray,

Oh, wonder and behold the sight!

A reflection at the end of the day.

Gliding on a pool of silver,

Swimming on drops of dew.

Slowly in haste; fast in speed,

That reflection of silvery hue.

Thoughts on Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire is an iconic movie with its memorable opening sequence, lifelike characters, intense races, and unique score by Vangelis. I have watched the movie many times throughout my life, but after a recent viewing with my family the most interesting fact about it was its very human comparison of worldview between the two main protagonists: Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.

chariots of fire harold abrahamsThe movie opens with Harold Abrahams. Harold is a man of Jewish ancestry who keenly feels the prejudice that many in England carry towards his race. Abrahams has a very pragmatic view of his running -he runs to prove himself to others and to defeat his enemies. For him, running is a weapon to be used against those who belittle his ancestry, and thereby him. Abrahams approaches life from a personal, man-centered perspective. In his mind, he must justify his existence, prove his worth, and personally attain victory over his enemies. At one point in the movie he tells his friend Aubrey Montague, “And now in one hour’s time, I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?” Although it is never explicitly stated in the movie, Abrahams has a very post-modern/Nietzsche-an view of life. His need to create his own meaning leaves him constantly straining after something ethereal he knows that he wants, but cannot find. He says, “You, Aubrey are my most complete man. You’re brave, compassionate, kind: a content man. That is your secret, contentment; I am 24 and I’ve never known it. I’m forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what I am chasing.” Even at the end of the movie, after victory has been won, Abrahams is still empty, and the joy that should have been present at his triumph is silently missing.

top-10-inspirational-sporting-movies--chariots-of-fire-11912314While Abrahams ran seeking to find contentment and peace with the world, Eric Liddell’s character follows a very different route. Unlike Abrahams’ approach trying to justify his own existence, Eric runs for one purpose, and one purpose only. He says to his sister, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” This quote demonstrates two key differences between Eric and Harold: 1) Eric has his purpose (it was given to him by God) and 2) he is running not to justify himself in some way, but because when he runs he “feel[s] [God’s] pleasure.” Because of Eric’s beliefs and faith, he does not struggle with the loneliness and grasping that characterizes Abraham’s character throughout the movie. Although the movie probably spends more time fleshing out Abraham’s character than Liddell’s, Liddell is the one in the end who comes across as the most content and happy.

More than anything, I found the contrasting portrayal of world view in Chariots of Fire to be the most interesting aspect of the film. The differing approaches to life followed by Abrahams and Liddell accurately (though probably unintentionally) displays the approach of fallen man with the path that God has provided. It is a movie that everyone should watch, and even if worldview comparisons aren’t a convincing reason to watch a movie, the film provides plenty of action and drama to satisfy any moviegoer.

References

“Chariots of Fire.” – Wikiquote. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2013.

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Chariots_of_Fire

A Dystopia Discussion

Dystopia originated as a literary genre in the early 1900s and continues to grow today.  Despite this genre’s gloomy outlook on life, and the problems that dystopian books often possess, this type of literature has value although many people may not realize it.

To start with, dystopia allows readers to step back from the story, the setting, the entire world that a dystopian novel has created and judge decisions and society more objectively than would be possible in a more realistic novel.  This chance to judge more objectively is a rare opportunity.

The GiverIn addition, dystopia experiments with how decisions affect parts of life.  The genre deals with questions like, “What would happen if…?”  The Giver by Lois Lowry delves into what happens when the government takes over every part of life, choosing one’s family, food, clothes, hair style, job, spouse.  As a result of this all-pervasive way in which the government treats its citizens, people lose their uniqueness, their ability to make decisions.  They are weak, emotionless, and heartless.  The Giver also shows how creating total equality and sameness turns out for this world.  The world of The Giver loses animals, colors, memories, hills, snow.  Anything that disrupts a peaceful and orderly life or brings pain and heartbreak is sucked from the world.  Lois Lowry shows that quiet, peaceable lives are nothing without self-made choices, love, real family, real friendship, or honesty.

Dystopia has another benefit as well, though, for it often acts as a warning: take heed of what this made-up story has shown you and keep this story from becoming true.  Once again, The Giver provides a good example.  One of the warnings it voices is, “Don’t let the small freedoms one has be taken, or one will lose all of one’s freedoms.”

Dystopia is not a perfect genre, and a diet of any one type of book is unhealthy.  However, one should not pass by dystopian books just because they are dystopia, for even this dark genre has its benefits and can be thought-provoking and instructive.

Wasteland Ethics: Part 1

Piotr took a deep breath as he sat down underneath a dying oak tree. The cool autumn breeze whipped past his skin and through what little hair he allowed himself to keep. His pack felt very heavy, but this was a good thing. A heavy pack would lead to a heavy wallet once he got back to the trader in the Cordon. Piotr was what residents of the zone called a “stalker:” someone who made their living from selling anomalous artifacts from dangerous places in the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. It was an acronym, really. Scavengers, trackers, adventurers, loners, killers, explorers and robbers…all could be found here.

While he was fishing out some canned food from his pack, Piotr heard a yelp coming from the shallow valley in front of him. He dropped the can and reached for his rifle. He flipped the safety off, and scanned the horizon. His pupils widened and he breathed deeper, trying to catch even a scent of what was out there. He spotted the offender thirty yards away: one of the many blind dogs who made the Exclusion Zone their home. He watched for a few minutes as the dog sauntered on, sniffing the wind. Piotr flipped the safety back to the “Safe” marker, and went back to opening his breakfast. He kept his eyes on the dog though. There was no telling whether or not he had a pack nearby.

The food was far from tasty, but it was certainly filling. He had decided he was happier not knowing what the actual source of protein was that these cans were filled with as he scooped another cracker into the thick paste. “Tourist’s Delight,” the local stalkers called it. Perhaps I could convince Sidorovich to barter for more palatable provisions, he thought as he took a swig out of his canteen. The water around here was still highly irradiated, but a few purification tablets went a long way. So did vodka. A quick chaser would finish off most of the microbes that the purification tabs didn’t kill.

He felt that this was a rare moment of peace in a very volatile area. The Ukraine had been through so much: the nuclear disaster in 1986, and the strange eruptions that happened in 2005 had brought much notoriety to the area. He was happy with the state of things though. Chaos always led to opportunity. It was that philosophy which had brought him here. The opportunity to escape his servitude to the Russian mob was far too enticing. There was nothing left for him in Kiev…his wife and child had been killed in a train wreck, and his skill set granted by the military focused on the application of violence. This made him a poor fit for what most people considered to be normal society. The chance for a peaceful meal brought him solace on more than one level.

As Piotr rose to his feet, he checked the radiation indicator on his left sleeve. It was still mostly white, with a few spots of charcoal black. Thankful that meant he was still in good shape, the man slung his rifle in front of him and trundled down the small hill in the direction of the Cordon – the entrance to the Zone.

The stalker’s Geiger counter ticked quietly and sporadically as Piotr made his way through an open field. More worrisome was the beeping sound emitting from his anomaly detector. Piotr had no idea how these devices were made, but he was incredibly grateful they had been. An audible beep would begin once the user was within 5 meters of any type of anomaly – a space in reality that defied the laws of physics. Lifting the meter in front of him, Piotr rummaged in one of his vest pockets for a spare bolt. He peered forward, and saw a slight shimmer above the tall grass in front of him. He nodded, and threw the bolt. As it started to fly over the strange area, it was pulled very forcefully to the ground – a gravity anomaly. If anything living got caught in there, they were usually crushed beyond recognition. He kept pulling bolts out and tossing them around, finding the edge of the anomaly. Moving around the first, he found himself in a field of the things. He barely dared to breathe as he tossed the bolts in front of him, making his way through the area.

Once on the other side of the field, Piotr let out a sigh of relief. There had been quite a few anomalies, but he was at last back on the road south out of what most called “the Garbage,” huge mounds of irradiated trash which acted like incubators for artifacts. He heard barking behind him, and turned. The blind dog was back, and had brought friends! As the pack made a bee-line for him, he shouldered his rifle. It wasn’t needed though, as the first two dogs ran into an anomaly and were crushed into a paste. The other dogs stopped short, and yelping and snarling as they backed up. It’s nice to know, Piotr thought, that even the animals have to think twice about their steps! Piotr knew he shouldn’t linger, these dogs had a funny knack for finding their way around or through such things. He turned and started jogging south, past the vehicle graveyard he had seen on his way in. As he passed a burned out troop transport, he felt the butt of a gun connect with the side of his head. He collapsed in pain.

“Guys, we got another one! Get out here!”

His head was spinning. He tried to get to his feet, but a firm boot came down in the middle of his chest to discourage the idea. Reinforcing the boot was the twin barrel of a shotgun.

“Good haul, stalker?” The man staring down at Piotr was wearing a dark leather coat and a balaclava over his face. Doubtless, these were some of the bandits that Sidorovich had warned him about setting up in the area.

“I’ve had better,” Piotr lied. The fact of the matter was he needed this haul to pay off. He had tracked a number of rare artifacts through a sewer and had to use a lot of his anti-radiation meds to do it, and replacing those wouldn’t be cheap — impossible if these clowns stole what he had rightfully found.

“Too bad for you, then,” Piotr’s attacker said as two more bandits joined him. “We could use a resupply. You look like a man who keeps food on him. Drop your pack, your gun, empty your pockets and get out of here. You’ve got 10 seconds.”

Chyort! Goblin, we’ve got company!” The other bandit’s warning sounded frantic. The sound of rustling grass and baying howls was unnervingly close, and a pack of five dogs burst out upon them. As the bandits turned to deal with the charging monsters, the stalker took the opportunity to free his knife and stab viciously up into his attacker’s gut. The bandit who had attacked him fell over, clutching his wounded belly as Piotr kicked the shotgun away and landed more strikes to finish him off. He turned to face the other bandits. One was on the ground, flailing wildly as he was bitten by the dogs. The other was firing madly into the pack, downing several of them. As the bandit leveled his rifle to rescue his friend, Piotr saw his opportunity and opened fire with his Kalashnikov. He clambered up on a deserted car, gaining distance between himself and the last two dogs of the pack. He quickly realized he needn’t have bothered. Both of the canines seemed too preoccupied with getting a good meal. “Man’s best friend indeed,” he thought to himself, backing up slowly from the maddened beasts with his rifle at the ready. This haul had better be worth the trouble.

*****************************************************

“Not bad,” Sidorovich the trader remarked from behind the safety cage of his underground bunker. “Not bad at all. I’ve actually got a client on the outside who’s looking for this particular artifact. That one alone will be worth 3,000 rubles…it looks like all told you’re sitting on a stash worth 9000 rubles. That’s the good news.”

“What’s the bad news?” Piotr asked. He got the feeling he wasn’t going to like this.

“The bad news is that one of my connections stiffed me. He’s behind on his debt, so I can’t pay you immediately.” Sidorovich took a long draw from his cigarette, and some ashes came to rest atop his rotund midsection. “So here’s the deal. We can start doing things the bloated way, like on the outside, where we have a whole bunch of credit for things changing hands but no one actually handles the cash. The problem with that is that doesn’t get us supplies into the Zone as a general rule. The security teams can’t be bribed on credit. Or we can take the second option, and demand that gentlemen’s agreements be honored even if it means the use of force.” Sidorovich set his cigarette down in an ash tray and took a hard look at Piotr. “Do you think you’re up for such a thing, or do you simply want me to buy what I can afford right now?”

The stalker rubbed his chin as he weighed his options. “What other sort of negative implications would there be to letting this guy off the hook?”

Sidorovich fixed Piotr with a sour look. “What do you think? People start stiffing me, they’ll never stop! I’m one of the only independent traders in here, and I’m the only one with good contacts on the outside. If I go under, we all go under. If you take care of this little problem for me, you’ll not just be helping out yourself, you’ll be helping out all those greenhorns in the village who are trying to scrape together some sort of life here. I’m telling you, Fox, it’s a win-win.”

It still took some getting used to having a code-name like Fox. It seems everyone in here did though. Piotr wasn’t interested in having some mob crony recognize his name and try to end his life — he had enough of that as it was. Coming back out of his distracted thoughts, Piotr asked, “Ok. Where is he?”

A smile crept over Sidorovich’s frog-like face. “I knew I could count on you, Fox! This slime ball was last seen out near the car park here in the Cordon, but I’d imagine he has several different hiding spots and stashes scattered about. Here, since you’re helping me, I’ll help you.” The aging trader got up, and grabbed some cans of food and two doses of anti-radiation medicine from a shelf, placed them in a secure drawer in front of him, and then pushed the drawer to the other side so Piotr could retrieve them.

“Consider this to be a sign of good faith on my part. I won’t take the cost out of your total haul once you come back victorious. But there’s one thing I need from you as proof. He has a flash drive on him. I need it. Plus, bring back all the money you find on him and after my accounts with him have been settled, we’ll settle the one between us. You can keep any useful equipment he had other than that flash drive. Deal?”

The stalker was hesitant at first. Killing a man for a debt seemed like a step back into a life that he tried to leave behind, but he reminded himself of what brought him here in the first place. Chaos breeds opportunity. 

Piotr reached forward to take Sidorovich’s gifts. “Deal,” he said. “I’ll see you once the job’s done.”

To be continued