The Flattening, or Remoteness of the Seasons?

Tags

, , , ,

I have not written anything here in a while. There is a certain irony in the reason. I began writing this blog in support of my work on a book, which I call The Varied God, and which I have been working on for more years than I care to count. Over the past several years, there have been periods of time when I have written more blog posts than pages of the book. Writing a blog is more fun and more gratifying. I can count the number of people who read my posts, and carry on conversations with people who respond to them. That doesn’t happen with chapters of an unpublished book.

In the past few months I have been working on the book more, and it has been going well. I am working on Chapter 5, and since there are seven proposed chapters, that feels like real progress, especially since much of the research, and some of the actual writing for Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 is done.

Chapter 5 is about the influence of the seasons on art—music, painting, literature. There is a lot of it, because the four-season motif has been very popular for most of history. There are some outright masterpieces, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Haydn’s Seasons oratorio, and some really schlocky pop stuff, like Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations.

A book I was reading about seasonal art used the phrase ‘flattening of the seasons,’ which I found interesting. It is the same phenomenon which I have observed but labeled the ‘remoteness of the seasons.’ What I mean, and what the other author meant, is that at one time most people lived an agrarian, largely rural existence. Their lives were necessarily ordered by the procession of the seasons. But as industrialization proceeded and more people migrated to cities and suburbs, we paid less attention to seasonal change. We didn’t have to. Throughout the 19th century, and even up until about the middle of the 20th century, we experienced a great nostalgia for nature and the seasons. Many people made careers of writing books, articles, even newspaper columns about the seasons—Edwin Way Teale, Hal Borland, Rachel Carson, Henry Beston, to name just a few.

But now, most people, and I fear it is predominantly younger people, don’t even have that nostalgia. The seasons are remote from their lives, so remote that they don’t even dress warmly in winter, they just dash from one heated indoor environment to the next. We eat pretty much the same foods all year, do the same things all year. That’s why I use the phrase ‘remoteness of the seasons,’ and while I don’t want to argue the appropriateness of the phrase ‘flattening of the seasons,’ I think it has come to mean something else.

Last week I put up a Christmas tree. It was very warm out, and did not feel ‘Christmas-y’ at all. Autumn was slow to come this year, the trees holding onto their leaves for so long. At the Botanical Garden the other day I noticed a ginkgo tree had dropped all its leaves, but they weren’t the usual golden brown. They were just a tired shade of green. Once the days got chilly enough to feel like autumn, we had another week of temperatures in the 70s. Many people have noted that we are losing our autumn and our spring. We just jump from winter to summer and back again. This is, I fear, an effect of the climate change that isn’t happening. This is, to me, what should be called the flattening of the seasons.

There need to be two terms with separate meanings. Remoteness of the seasons means the phenomenon of people experiencing the seasons less fully because modern amenities have made them irrelevant in day to day existence. Flattening of the seasons means the gradual loss of a full four-season climate règime.

Both scare me.

Advertisements

Buying back Your Life

Tags

, ,

How do you buy back your life? What does it cost? Time? Effort? Treasure? After making so many mistakes, and after not standing up to the wrongs done against you, how do you make your life sound again, make yourself whole again, imagine a future of worth and accomplishment?

There is a mental game I have often played with myself. In times when I had a lot of work to do, too many chores ahead of me, more perhaps than I felt I could manage, I have imagined myself a prisoner, a convict who is being made to do this work in expiation for heinous crimes. It is work I must do to gain my freedom, to pay for my crimes. What crimes? I don’t know, it’s never thought out that deeply. I don’t imagine that I have stolen money or injured someone or done anything specific. Just the same it makes me feel better as I go about one unending task after another.

I also know this: we all have done things we regret. One of the few tenets of Christian dogma that I agree with is that we are all sinners, and I don’t care how you define the word, whether sin to you is the obvious, like betraying someone you love, or the oddly arcane, like dancing to rock n roll music. Nobody is perfect, and I think the nature of virtue is such that a virtuous person is not someone who never does anything wrong—that person does not exist—but the person who realizes they have done wrong and does something about it.

We do not get imprisoned for our moral indiscretions, our casual betrayals, our personal failings. They are things we must expiate ourselves, reconcile with those affected, and gain a sense of having done the right thing. How do we do this?

After lengthy legal proceedings, I am now a single person again. I owe much money. I have a somewhat uncertain future. Am I happier? I hope this does not sound too glibly philosophical, but I believe that ‘happiness’ is an artificial construct, and one of fairly recent vintage in our culture. (For more on the subject, read Happiness: A History, by Darrin McMahon.) There are things that please me on a day-to-day basis, fulfill certain needs, satisfy specific urges, but happy? It’s so hard to tell.

Am I working toward a goal of expiating for sins? Have I done wrong? Of course, every day, in large things and small, I have done wrong, and continue to do so. But I feel like my life is much more my own now, and I have the latitude and the time to get back part of who I was in a better time. Sometimes our mistakes are not about doing wrong to others, but allowing wrong to be done to ourselves.

Autumn is coming on. As I sit writing this in my little flophouse apartment, I am watching leaves cascade off the large tree outside my window. A friend told me yesterday that this is not the autumn, that it’s the effects of a drought-stricken summer. But the day is cool, and I feel autumn in the air: I am entering the seventh season since the life I had known for over twenty years fell apart and left me to think about what sort of a future is in store.

Autumn is the season of reminiscence, of watching earth surrender its beauty to a time of contemplation, stripping away its ephemeral and showy trappings to leave you standing alone thinking. We fight it: we fill autumn with more activities than any other season, and yet the time will come when we must take stock. The tree outside my window will soon be bare.

How do you buy back your life? What does it cost?

 

Appetite, or Hunger

Tags

, ,

I recently read a book called What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories, by Laura Shapiro. It was capsule biographies of six women, three British, two American, and one German, and how their lives were defined to some degree by what they ate, cooked, or served to other people. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a sucker for any sort of food history, and this one was a particularly interesting take on culinary culture.

One of the women is Eleanor Roosevelt who, for all her other accomplishments, was famous for lacking any palate, not caring at all what she ate, and for serving—or causing to be served—the worst food on the history of the White House. At some point she became enamored of the newly forming discipline of Home Economics, and its practitioners at Cornell University. They were much more concerned about nutrition than about how food tasted; that they were feeding hunger, not appetite, seems to have been a motto with them.

Hunger, not appetite. We pretty much use the words synonymously. Are you hungry? Sure, I have an appetite. But there is a distinction, and I have known it many times first hand.

This morning was pretty cool for my run, cool enough that I pondered whether I should put on long pants rather than shorts. As I set out in the unusually crisp air of a mid-August morning, I thought about autumn and all that, and I felt some pangs of hunger. This happens frequently when I run. I thought about what I would make for breakfast. Last night I poached two peaches that had gotten a little old in simple syrup and baking spices. They are in the refrigerator now, cool and steeped in sweet syrup. Those, with a warm bowl of cream of wheat, would make a nice breakfast for a cool morning.

But when I got home and sat down to take off my running shoes, I had the most vivid flash of a plate full of bacon and eggs. I think my mouth watered at the thought. Probably because the run in the cool air left me hungry enough that it seemed like only a big hit of protein would suffice. But was I really hungrier? Or did I just have a different appetite?

Cool weather, warm weather. We have different appetites at different temperatures. How many times have we heard someone say, ‘It’s too hot to eat?’ Or how often have we come home on a cold day and wanted nothing more than to eat a whole bag of cookies? No, we’re not hungrier at that time, we simply have different appetites.

Our ancient ancestors, when they felt winter coming on, would stockpile food and eat all day, hoping to pack on as many extra pounds as they could to endure the lean months ahead. We no longer need to pack on the pounds—Shop n Save won’t run out of frozen dinners just because it’s snowing—but I think we still feel this primordial appetite, this urge to bulk up against the cold weather.

There is hunger in America: it’s a daily reality for too many of our fellow citizens. Given the current régime in Washington, and the simple fact that too many Americans claim to be Christian but misunderstand that being a Christian should include practicing Christian charity, hunger is likely to get worse in the years ahead. But most of us have never known real hunger. We know the appetite that develops between meals. We don’t wonder where our next meal will come from: we spend too much time deciding whether it will be Chinese, Italian, or that great new Indian place that just went in where that great old taco joint used to be.

As I finish writing this I am also finishing the cream of wheat and the poached peaches. I don’t even have bacon and eggs in the house. By tomorrow, I will.

 

When is It Best to Die?

Tags

, ,

When I first started working on a book about the seasons, I talked to people about their impressions of the seasons. As a youngster I was heavily influenced by a bulletin board in my first grade classroom, which showed the seasons spinning by throughout the year in a big circle, divided by the 12 months. The image of the year as a circle, and the seasons as a kind of merry-go-round spinning through the months has always stayed with me, so much so that I was surprised to find that other people didn’t see them that way. Some people don’t carry with them any sort of graphic representation. The seasons just happen abstractly, and there is no abiding image that can represent their flow.

One friend I spoke with said that he sees the seasons as a series of doors that he passes through as the months go by. I think this is a striking image, especially, as I wrote at the time, the thought of approaching that final door. Would it refuse to yield? Would one knock in vain, asking to pass through? As I reread this passage in the introduction to The Varied God this morning, it occurred to me that I have never wondered what season I would die in.

Some people think about death a lot, but most never do. We are all going to die, but few of us spend time pondering it. And when we do we tend to think about the age when we’ll die, or what will kill us—disease, infirmity, our own hand? I have never had a conversation with anyone, and as far as I can recall never had a conscious thought about the season in which I’ll draw my last breath.

Does it matter?

Is this something that horoscopes, with all their prognostications, ever deal with? Scorpios tend to die in autumn, Sagittarians in winter? I don’t think I’ve heard any such thing, and I have known some people who take these things seriously.

In art since time immemorial, autumn and winter represent decline and death. Indeed, more old people die in winter than in other seasons, largely due to illnesses like cold and influenza that have their own seasons in the colder months. But nature also dies back, goes into hiding, awaiting the sun and the warmth of spring. But you can die in spring, and you can die in summer. People do it all the time, and for a huge variety of reasons.

I just don’t know. Would I prefer to die when flowers are blooming, when I can hear one last bird singing? Would it be better for those around me (I can only hope there will be ‘those around me’) if they can see me close my eyes and then look to a sunny window and think, Life goes on? Or would it be better in the dead of winter, when it’s easier to accept that everything dies?

The 12th century Japanese poet Saigyō once wrote:

Let me die in spring under the blossoming trees, let it be around that full moon of Kisaragi month. (Kisaragi is February)

But past that it’s hard to find notable citations from art and literature about what season is best to die in. I wonder if anyone else has given this any thought?

Montana

Tags

, , ,

I visited Montana in early June, mostly the town of Kalispell, and Glacier National Park, and places with great names like Hungry Horse and Spotted Bear. It is a beautiful state, dead in the midst of the Rocky Mountains. It also has the distinction of being hugely under-populated. A state of well over 147,000 square miles, it just this year passed one million in population. By comparison, my home state of Missouri, only the 18th most populous state, is a little less than half that size and has more than 6 million residents. Montanans are proud and protective of this fact. I saw a bumper sticker that read, ‘Montana is full, I hear South Dakota is nice!’

But they also have a fierce winter. Anyone you speak with can tell stories of shoveling deep snow off their roof to keep it from collapsing. And the winter, at least its effects, lasts a long time. This was June, and when I was visiting Glacier National Park, I found that it was not completely open yet. There is a road called the Going to the Sun Road, which leads from the Lake McDonald area up into the mountains and glaciers. One takes the famous Red Buses to make the trip up this notoriously circuitous road. But the snow was not quite melted enough, and people were hiking and biking up the portion of the road that was navigable.

Perhaps this long winter is why people in Montana (at least from what I observed in the town of Kalispell) love their flower gardens. Everywhere are brilliant early summer displays of iris, poppies, roses, and many other flowers. They favor flowering shrubs—lilac abounds—and even trees that take on gaudy displays, like flowering chestnut, mountain ash, crabapple, and linden.

But perhaps nothing else is more emblematic of their desire to prolong the summer than the fact that their kids don’t start school until after Labor Day. This used to be the tradition throughout much of the United States. It is said that it was because rural communities needed to plan their agricultural activities around the school year, and a beginning date after September 1 was important for that. But it likely originates in other considerations, particularly the problem of asking young students to sit and pay attention for several hours a day in stifling, un-air conditioned schoolrooms. In Missouri, the law says that any district wanting to start the school year before September 1 must hold a public hearing declaring that. Almost all districts now do so, and start as early as mid-August, mostly because they want students to have as much ‘catch-up’ time as possible in the classroom before they take standardized assessment tests (just another idiocy forced on our educational system by ill-advised standardized tests, but I’ll let that go for now).

In Montana, the summer comes on later, and is not as long, and families want the time to appreciate it. They are a hunting, fishing, camping, boating, climbing, hiking-crazy people. They like to be out in it, and they want as much summertime as possible to do that. I don’t suppose Montanans are any less concerned than folks from other states about their children doing well on tests (though there is a strong streak of libertarian-style distrust of federal mandates), I just think that the priority of living the whole summer trumps that concern.

This is just another example of my basic and abiding thesis, that nothing influences our lives more than the seasons. In Missouri, and many other states, we have a long summer that often grows tedious in its heat and humidity, so part of it is ‘negotiable.’ In Montana—nuh-uh. We’re living for the summer while we’ve got it.

Donald Duck

Tags

, , ,

When I was little, I never understood a word that Donald Duck said. It was all squawks to me, sometimes angry, sometimes happy, but just squawks. I’m not sure I even understood that we were supposed to comprehend that he was saying words. It wasn’t much better with Mickey Mouse, whom I rarely understood—that high-pitched squeaking just didn’t register for me. I know that he and Donald were out on adventures, they were in peril or under dire circumstances, but I really didn’t know what it was they had to say about that. This is emblematic of my whole childhood.

I usually didn’t understand much. What was going on around me, why people were doing this or that, where we were going when we got in the car, I just didn’t pay attention, or want to know. Maybe I was just not that bright.

We liked to play Monopoly—or to put it more truthfully, kids I knew liked to play Monopoly and I was often drafted to take a hand in the game. I liked the playing pieces, the cannon, the hat, the battleship, and the board with all the play money, but I never understood what was supposed to happen. We moved pieces around the board, bought things, went to jail, got out of jail, until people started fighting and others drifted away to do something else. I honestly never saw a game of Monopoly end with someone ‘winning,’ so to this day I do not know what it means to win at Monopoly. Maybe that’s just me, but there were a lot of things I never understood in any real sense.

Granted, much of what you do as a kid is reduced to its most basic elements. We played army a lot, which meant shooting at each other and claiming to have killed each other, because that’s what armies do. There was none of the sense that we are hoping to gain territory or chase the opposing army out of the territory they have gained, no sense of mission aside from killing each other. What most people see when they look at war is people killing other people, so that’s what child’s play becomes. But my sense of detachment from the world went beyond that.

I had parents who fought a lot. I think it’s pretty standard for kids not to know what their parents are fighting about, and I certainly never knew, even when I was a teenager and right up to the time of their divorce. And this brings to light one reason I was so detached from life: I avoided what was unpleasant. It was no fun hearing my mom and dad arguing, so I got as far from the action as I could and pretended it was not happening. But my sense of detachment runs deeper than that.

One of the things they fought over was church. My mom was raised Church of Christ, and my dad was raised Baptist. If you don’t know, these are two Christian sects that are so completely similar that they can’t stand one another. The only differences, as far as I can tell, is that one lets you drink a little grape juice and eat a bite of cracker during church, and one has a piano playing along with the hymns on Sunday morning. Aside from that they believe all the same things—mostly that anything even mildly enjoyable is a sin. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Baptist minister, and I spent most of my summers in Vacation Bible School memorizing Psalms and making crosses out of burnt matchsticks, or pieces of dry macaroni, or little bits of gravel and feathers, or whatever else seemed to be lying around the church basement. Both of these religions stress that you do not get baptized until you make the personal decision to do so, you decide to ‘bring Jesus into your life,’ as I recall Granddaddy saying over and over again. But I really did not understand until pretty late in life that this is supposed to be real, that there were people who actually believed that Jesus was magic and came back to life and went to live up in heaven with his magic father. It made me wonder, it still makes me wonder, what else I don’t understand about life.

I think that once I got a little older and started looking back on life I began to reexamine much of what had gone before. Maybe it’s trying to understand things that led me to the most basic work of understanding—thinking about the seasons we live in. When you’re a kid the seasons mean so much. For one thing, you live for summer, when there’s no school and, as I recently heard a child put it, every day is a Saturday. Fall, when I was a kid, meant creating huge piles of fallen leaves, lighting them afire, and roasting wieners or marshmallows in the flames. Winter meant snow and sledding. I remember all of these things, the smells, sounds, and temperatures of the seasons, but I don’t think I ever thought much about the seasons. When do the seasons change? Why do they change? These were just not questions I asked.

My first grade teacher had a bulletin board on which she displayed the months of the year in a big circle. They were divided by the seasons, three months per season, in the neat way we think about them. December, January, and February were winter, and you came down off winter into March, April and May, lolling along the bottom for the summer months and then climbing back up the circle to autumn. It wasn’t until I began work on The Varied God that I realized this bulletin board had been one of the most powerful images in my life. All those decades gone by and I still see the months rolling by in a big circle. I still see summer as a time spent lolling along the bottom, autumn as a climb into winter. I have discussed this image in the book a few times, since there are so many cultures that view the seasons as a circle, an endless cycle of time. This was one thing I understood, even as a child, and it came via a good lesson from a good teacher.

Maybe somebody should create graphics to help us understand Donald Duck, or Mickey Mouse. Maybe we should just keep the closed captioning on when our kids watch cartoons, so they can read what is being said (at least they’d be reading something, right?) It’s not easy to have elemental discussions with children, but it might be worth it sometime to ask if they understand the most basic things about life, like what are winter and summer. You may be amused by the answers.

 

Hello, I’m Tom Cooper

Tags

, ,

My name is Tom Cooper. I am the director of a library in suburban St. Louis County. I have been writing for a long time. My publications to date include many book reviews in newspapers and magazines, chapters in books on library subjects, articles in library journals, and a book which I co-authored on the history of the town where I work. For most of my life I concentrated on writing fiction. Then it came to me several years ago that the only things I had ever published were works on non-fiction. I am not a fiction writer, I am a non-fiction writer.

I tell you all of this as a way of reintroducing myself, both to you and to me. For people who have read this blog regularly the arc of my life over the past several years is well-known. In 2012 I moved with my family from the suburbs, where we had long lived, to an 18-acre plot of land in rural Jefferson County. We had a barn and pastures for horses, large gardens, many fruit trees, and bee hives. It was a completely different lifestyle, one in which I spent most of my time working on one thing or another. When I wasn’t at my actual job I could be found cleaning horse stalls, mowing fields, weeding a garden, turning compost piles, or one of the thousand other jobs it takes to run a place like that. I learned as I went, I had triumphs and reverses. I found that the time one actually has to experience nature in that sort of environment is extremely limited. I found that I was right in my thesis that living on a farm, or a ranch, or whatever you want to call it, is not ‘getting back to nature’ in any real sense. Farming is a technology, it is not nature. That’s why the Garden of Eden, the oxymoronic garden with no effort, is a fantasy.

Then, beginning in early 2016, I experienced a crisis in my personal life. That is still ongoing, although one hopes for resolution soon. I now live in a small apartment in the city of St. Louis. I like the city, I like its vibrancy and the easy availability of interesting things. I have often said that I like city life and I like country life—it’s suburban life that  I find distasteful. But my appreciation for city life does little to ameliorate the stress of awaiting a settlement.

Amid all of this, both the endless round of work at the ranch and the anxiety of extreme life changes, I have lost my way in my writing. Many years ago, perhaps fifteen years or more, I conceived the idea for a book about the seasons. There were a variety of reasons I found the subject appealing. Finally, somewhere between 2010 to 2011, I started working in earnest on that book. I was making good progress on the research and the writing until we moved to High Ridge. At that time I was in the middle of the third chapter, the chapter about seasonal mythology. I spent the entire time I was there, nearly 3 ½ years, working on that chapter without finishing it. I made repeated attempts to revise the chapter into something manageable, I moved on to other chapters for a while, but the feeling grew that the entire work was stalled.

In the first several months after I moved from the ranch, I dithered and got nothing written. I could not concentrate, especially not on something that needed intense revision and good authorial insight. For a while I had been thinking about another project which grew out of my research on the seasons, namely a history of the New Year. I think it is a very interesting subject, drawing in more cultures and changes over time than many people know. I spoke with one of the co-authors I had worked with on the above-mentioned history book, and she was amenable to the idea of creating a book proposal. Both of us, I think, did good work on that proposal, but after most of a year, it is still not submitted.

Then I started working on a fiction project. I told myself nearly a decade ago that I am a non-fiction writer and began to focus on that, so why was I writing fiction again? Not only fiction, but a young adult novel with a science fiction theme. I don’t like and don’t read science fiction, so what’s the idea? This is when I knew that I was lost in my own work. Even my blog posts for a few years have been spotty, both in frequency and interest.

In the past week I have been rereading my early chapters on the seasons book, which bears the working title The Varied God, same as this blog. It comes from a poem by the 19th century Scottish poet James Thomson, in which he says the seasons are ‘the varied god,’ different manifestations of god throughout the year. I have a clearer idea of what I originally meant to do with the work, and I mean to get back to it. It will take deep cuts, deep revisions, and concentrated creativity. It is the kind of work that I think brings the work to life as well as the person doing the work. I think it is exactly what I need, and I only hope that I can do it.

 

Blaming the Victim

Tags

I wonder if we’ll ever get two seasons back to back with no threatening weather. In the past few years we have had blizzard-like snow and dangerous freezes, windstorms that took the roofs off of houses, and persistent rains that took every local creek and river past the flood stage. These were interspersed with mild winters and mild summers, which seems wicked, like lulling us into a sense of comfort before another calamity strikes.

There is flooding again now in much of Missouri. Every time this happens you see the news footage of people packing up their homes to get to higher ground, or of families sitting in high school gyms wrapped in Red Cross issue blankets. Inevitably someone will ask, why don’t they just move? How many times do they need to be flooded out before they realize they need to get out of the flood plain?

A friend of mine explained this to me a while back in stark terms. Okay, let’s move everyone who resides along a flood plain. That’s pretty much everybody along the Mississippi River system, the Missouri River system, the Tennessee River system, and perhaps dozens of others. But then what about tornadoes? Shouldn’t people in Tornado Alley also move? So let’s clear out everybody in north Texas, most of Oklahoma, portions of Kansas and of Missouri. And hurricanes? Okay, everyone along the east coast, from Florida to New York needs to move inland a hundred miles, and everybody along the Gulf Coast as well. Earthquakes? Let’s move everyone in southern California, and everyone in southeastern Missouri away from major fault lines. Wildfires? Again, we’re clearing out much of southern California and large stretches of other western states. Doesn’t leave much of the continental US, does it?

Yes, this is a kind of reductio ad absurdum, but it is an absurdity easily arrived at. There are many natural disasters, and given the climate change that is not happening, they are getting worse all the time. Everybody can’t move to the upper-central states. For now we are just lucky we have professional first responders, excellent relief agencies, and are resilient enough to recover again and again. Insisting that people affected by natural disasters should move is a blame the victim mentality.

Then again, there is another oft-noticed phenomenon. Whenever there is a flood or hurricane threatening, and evacuation of the area has commenced, you see interviews on the news with some old character who says something like, ‘I done lived here all my life, and ain’t no (flood, hurricane, etc.) done got me yet. I ain’t goin nowhere!’ Then, at the height of the disaster, emergency personnel risk life and limb to sweep in and rescue the idiot. This is the proper time to blame the victim.

Spring and Influenza

Tags

, , , ,

I have been sick for several days now. My doctor says it’s a flu. On Wednesday she prescribed some medications—mostly ameliorative—and said that if I was not feeling better by Monday I should call her again. I laughed inwardly at that. Of course I’ll be better by Monday! Now it’s Saturday, and I’m not sure. I missed most of the week of work, the most I’ve ever missed work in my whole life.

Outside today is beautiful. The sun shines, the birds sing, the leaves on trees shiver in a light breeze. It is so unfair, after waiting so long for spring, to feel this poorly when it arrives. I hear again and again that this flu is ‘going around.’ This is something people always say. I swear that I could tell someone I had broken out in green boils that explode at random, and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s going around.’

I don’t think the CDC had very good luck with its flu vaccine this year. It’s always largely guesswork on their part exactly what flu virus they’ll be fighting. There are many flu viruses, and due to something in their mitochondria, which I can’t remember well enough to explain and I’m too groggy with fever right now to research, they are fast-mutating. So the doctors at the CDC make an educated guess, produce several million doses, and then, as often as not, a different virus hits the population.

The added problem this year has been this very late emergence of a new flu virus. The causes for that are probably complex, bringing many factors into play, and will probably never be fully understood. So we blame the weather. That’s right. This second emergence of influenza is due to the fact that the weather has been so wonky. Cold one day, hot the next, et cetera, et cetera. Ascribing illness to the weather is as old as the study of medicine itself.

Hippocrates is known in history as the father of medicine. He was unique in his time for trying to discern the causes of illness, removed from common myth-making. Your cancer was not a curse from Hera, your leprosy was not the wrath of Poseidon made manifest. But Hippocrates did not have the benefit of the scientific method to work with. His ‘science’ was mostly what they used to call inductive philosophy: look at the symptom and think about it and try to figure out what causes it. This was a huge step in the right direction, but his conclusions were often little better than the traditional explanations of illness.

Hippocrates believed there were four substances, or ‘humors’ in the body, which contributed to a person’s physical well-being: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Imbalances in these humors, which were controlled by the seasons, led to illness and disease. Perhaps the idea of seasonal influence on health did not originate with Hippocrates. His contemporary, the somewhat older historian Herodotus, wrote of the Egyptians that they were the healthiest of people because they did not experience the seasonal influence. ‘For illnesses fall upon people when they experience changes of all kinds,’ he wrote in his Histories, ‘but especially changes of weather.’ The Christian scholar The Venerable Bede, writing over a thousand years later in The Reckoning of Time, still references these humors, calling man a microcosm, a small universe in himself and thus subject to seasonal variations in health.

And in case you think that we have lost this kind of fascination with the seasons as the cause of illness, let’s not forget there are still many people who believe that you can catch a cold by being cold. I mean, how many screwball comedies of the mid-twentieth century hung on the assumption that two people who get caught in the rain will be sneezing and coming down with colds in the next scene? (Oh dear, let’s get you out of those wet things!)

I guess when people are miserable it’s nice to be able to attach blame to something. Rather blame the weather than the co-worker who showed up to work with a cold and spread germs everywhere. Spring is supposed to be the season of blood, the humor which controls youth, vigor, and vitality. It’s not the season of phlegm, which is associated with common cold, allergy, and influenza. But when the seasons criss-cross, and you don’t know if it’s winter or spring, all the phlegmy humor gets mixed in with the bloody humor and watch out!

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony

Tags

, ,

I have listened to classical music my whole life. Even in high school and college, when we were all listening to rock music, I also found time to play the occasional classical recording. I credit this taste to a few early teachers and also to my older brother, who likewise has long enjoyed classical music. I have a distinct memory of being at a party at his house when he was in college, and late in the evening a Led Zeppelin album coming off the turntable to be replaced by a recording of the William Tell Overture.

People will occasionally ask me for listening recommendations, often with the added clarification that they want to start learning about classical music. It’s a big order. How do you ‘start to learn?’ My first suggestion is usually not to recommend ten or twelve pieces people should be familiar with, because once you start down that road, where does it end? I always recommend that you become familiar with the various forms of classical music, and see which ones you prefer. Are you drawn to violin concertos? How about string quartets? Piano sonatas are often beautiful and restful, as are most sonatas. What about larger chamber pieces, like serenades for strings, or sextets or octets? Most composers who have written a lot of music have composed pieces in most, if not all of these forms. I think it is a more productive way to learn about music than to say, ‘Listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.’

But when I am recommending this course of action, the last form I suggest listening to is symphonies. I know this sounds strange. Symphonies are what comes to mind when anyone says classical music. Beethoven’s Fifth: dadadadaaaa . . . . But symphonies are long, complex, and often intimidating. As with any style of music you’re not familiar with, it all begins to run together in a kind of sonic sameness. Starting a person off on symphonies is like handing someone unfamiliar with great literature a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Just too much there. And indeed, you can listen to classical music all day every day and never hear a symphony. Of course symphonies are wonderful. It’s just a matter of developing the taste, the understanding, the appreciation of them. And Americans are notoriously short of the kind of patience that requires.

My patience has been severely tried the past several weeks while waiting for spring. The weather has been variable and unpredictable, unseasonably warm then dangerously cold. And once things started to warm up we had many days back to back of rainfall. One day last week we set the record rainfall amount for that day. Gloomy days, I’ll say. But yesterday and today have begun to feel very much like spring has arrived. You can delay the blessed season, but you can’t stop it. While we may know this, we become impatient with waiting. This is why there are so many springtime rituals in human culture—one of which we’ll be celebrating next weekend, though that one has gotten somewhat unmoored from its roots.

Spring has arrived. Perhaps that’s why, as I sat down this morning to think about what I might write, I was happy when the announcer on the radio said the next piece would be Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in E minor. This is a large, grand classical-romantic symphony, full of joy and bombast and one exquisite Brahmsian theme after another, and I was calm and happy and ready to hear it all. Yay, spring!

And in case you think I am being facile in moving this little essay from a discussion of symphonies to the beginning of spring, get this: Today is the birthday of famed conductor Antal Dorati. It was him conducting the Brahms piece, and when it ended a few minutes ago, they started another piece conducted by Dorati: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Can you say synchronicity?