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TOPIC R: The Power & Magic of READING

Topic R:  The Power & Magic of Reading in 3 Parts

 Part 1:  Reading Is a Way of Life

“We read to know we are not alone.”   C. S. Lewis

“When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life.”  Christopher Morley

“When I get a little money, I buy books.  And if there is any left over, I buy food.”  Erasmus

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read.”  Mark Twain

“A man is known by the books he reads.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Let us read and let us dance—two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.”  Voltaire

Flight Behavior book coverI love reading.  Most days, I am working on reading several books.  Right now, my bed stand holds Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.  She is one of my favorite authors.  The next book up is The Book Thief by Zusak.  I have recently purchased a Kindle and have downloaded several free or cheap murder mysteries, just in case.  I would never want to be anywhere without a book to read! Right now, on Kindle, I am reading Higashida’s The Reason I Jump to learn about autism from an inside perspective.

I also follow hundreds of WordPress blogs, reading some every day.  One—The Classroom as Microcosm—has recently been discussing the role of reading fiction in the development of creative and critical thinking.  Most comments are praising reading—fact or fiction—because it expands what is possible and explores different perspectives; these skills carryover to all over facets of life.  Two other blogs—Autism Speaks: Blog and Daily Good: News That Inspires—often lead me to entertaining and educational articles about many aspects of life.  I just always have to be reading something!  Heck, doesn’t everyone read the back of cereal boxes if nothing else is at hand to read?

Part 2:  Reading Is an Essential Skill

“You’re the same today as you’ll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read.”  Charlie Jones

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”  Frederick Douglass

“A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance.”  Lyndon Baines Johnson

“Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of our citizens.”  President Clinton on International Literacy Day, September 8, 1994

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture.  Just get people to stop reading them.”  Ray Bradbury

“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”  Malcolm X

Given my love of reading, it is difficult for me to imagine that others not only do not read vociferously but that many cannot read well enough to see reading as a friend, an escape, a path to new learning, simply a fun activity.  I know reading is taking place since millions seem to be scouring social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to read and often loudly respond to so many silly messages. But real reading—reading for learning and understanding, for expanding perspectives and seeking new ideas, even for fun and escape—might not be that prevalent.  I do not have any real statistics to support my worry.

Heck, general reports indicate that CIA’s World Factbook gives the literacy rate in the United States of America as close to 99%.  But I am not really convinced.  Back in 1985, Jonathon Kozol wrote Illiterate America, calling into question some of the methodology used by the Census Bureau when it determines literacy rates.  Back then, the U.S. literacy rate was reportedly 86%.  Some of the methodology used to generate that number were simply asking people if they were literate and assuming if someone had been in school through the fifth grade that they must be literate.  Well, at least functionally literate. But functional literacy means meeting the bare basics of reading; it says a person can read basic instructions, know what a stop sign says, stuff like that.  Maybe the methodology has improved, but I am doubtful.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a study called NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy).  Since then, some follow-up studies have completed research on smaller groups, noting minor shifts in the initial numbers reported.  The NAAL study looked at prose, document, and quantitative literacy, and it used various measures to test literacy levels.  Some of the factors this study used to assess literacy included being able to locate information in text, making low-level inferences using printed materials, and integrating easily identifiable pieces of information into communication.

These factors seem to basically assess if a person can complete such activities as deciphering a train or bus schedule, determining a politician’s stance from reading a speech or editorial, or pulling information from sources to use in support of his/her own arguments.  I am not certain that these low-level factors would even assess if a person can judge whether an internet source is credible or not—that is a higher level skill.  Using these factors, NAAL concluded that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not literate.  On the flip side, only about 25% of American adults reach the highest levels of literacy.  I am not certain which statistic is sadder.

Earlier this year, Cinthia Coletti published Blueprint for a Literate Nation:  How You Can Help.  Her work sounds intriguing, and I am definitely adding her book to my list of must-reads. One news article about her publication shares this detail:  Apparently, 67% of American children are struggling with attaining literacy.  That statistic does not surprise me.  As a teacher, I have always been aware that if students do not master reading by about third grade, then school becomes a greater challenge.  It is that year that more text than pictures fill the pages and that students are expected to read on their own for directions and basics of the assignment.  If they are not reading well, then everything else starts getting harder too.

Donald J. Hernandez, sociology professor at Hunter College, shared this conclusion in his 2011 research:  “Third grade is a kind of pivot point.  We teach reading for the first three grades and then after that children are not so much learning to read but using their reading skills to learn other topics. In that sense if you haven’t succeeded by 3rd grade it’s more difficult to [remediate] than it would have been if you started before then.” His study predicts that students who are not reading on grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school by age 19.

But what does reading well for a young student mean?  Well, for one thing, it means much more than the ability to sound out words touted by teaching phonetics.  Yes, students need to be able to sight read or sound out words.  Those are important skills.  But mastering them does not make little Janey or Johnny a reader.  Doug Adams, Institute of Reading Development, offers this analogy to explain the connection between reading speed and comprehension:  “A film is made up of still images flashed in rapid succession to simulate movement.  Slow down the film, and the movement and meaning slows and the film’s impact is diminished.  Viewers won’t learn as much about the film as if it were shown at normal speed. With reading the same thing can happen. When a person reads word by word, like frame by frame, they are not reading at the level of ideas. You need to read on some level that’s more conversational and allows things to coalesce into ideas themselves.”

To be a reader, then, students must have a certain proficiency with knowing the words, so they can move on to comprehension and reflection.  Reading well means liking to read, reading fast enough to capture meaning, and reading frequently to improve skills.  Think of when you first learned to drive a stick shift.  In the beginning, you had to focus intently on releasing the clutch, just so, to move forward without grinding gears—that was not driving.  When you could finally stop focusing on those details and just do them, then you could really say you were driving and eventually enjoying the ride.  But to be a good driver, you need to keep driving.  It is the same process for young readers as they develop their reading skills.

Part 3:  Reading Is the Best Gift Ever

 “The more you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”  Dr. Seuss

“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”  Emillie Buchwald

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”  Jacqueline Kennedy

“Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read.”  Marilyn Japer Adams

“There is no substitute for books in the life of a child.”  May Ellen Chase

“So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookshelf on the wall.”  Roald Dahl, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory

“One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years.  To read is to voyage through time.”  Carl Sagan

The question then becomes, “How can we help?”  How can caring adults help the special children in their lives develop reading skills, master a love of reading that will help them throughout life?  Fortunately, helping kids learn to love reading is not that hard. Coletti’s book promises to share ideas that will help foster literacy in local neighborhoods, but I’ve not read her work yet.  It just makes common sense to me that the adults simply need to share their love of reading with the special children in their lives.

Me about 5 Reading in My Favorite Chair--Still A Great Place for Reading

Me about 5 Reading in My Favorite Chair–Still A Great Place for Reading

Here are some basics that typically help encourage a love of reading:

animaliaStart reading to your kids when they are very young, infants even.  There are the classics like Good Night Moon and any book from Dr. Seuss.  It is the storytelling and the time together that are the draw.  One of my favorite books to give as a gift is Animalia.  It is as much for the parents as for the kids—they need to explore its pages together. And browsing the pages encourages observational skills and creativity.  As the book jacket explains, “Animalia is much more than A is for Apple.  The letters of the alphabet explode into images that delight the eye and words that thrill the ear: A is for An Armoured Armadillo Avoiding An Angry Alligator. [This book provides] an incredible imaginary world. . . . “

Establish a set time to read with your kids on a regular basis.  Every day is best such as at bedtime.  But any schedule works:  after dinner, every Sunday after church, Friday nights to start the weekend, after school.  Set and keep a schedule.  I am not meaning tell the kid to go read by herself.  The time together is part of the process!  My favorite class in sixth grade was Reading.  Every day after lunch the teacher read us a chapter of the class book, and then we moved into the class assignments.  My favorite book that year was Flowers for Algernon.  My adult nephews have fond memories of reading the Wizard of Oz series together as kids with their mom.  And now, even as adults, there are some Christmas stories they like to re-read together—it’s tradition!  A friend’s older grandkids are going to start reading the Harry Potter series with younger siblings, now that the younger kids are old enough.

Have books and magazines around the house, okay kindles and nooks too.  Maybe even a collection of books that is special for those who are good readers or old enough to understand—a goal to reach for!  Something forbidden always attracts attention.

Read on your own time to demonstrate reading is a skill you practice and value—and encourage kids to read on their own with you!  Telling each other what you are reading or reading a book together is great time for adult and child.  If you encourage reading, at some point you will share the delight of your young child demanding to be read a story, as presented by a great blog Slouching towards Thatcham.

Photo from Clip Art Photos

Photo from Clip Art Photos

Take trips together to the library and check out books together.  This gives you a great opportunity to explore areas of interest with your kids:  dinosaurs, princesses, trucks, space exploration, elephants or other favorite animals, whatever—there are books with great pictures and words to entice the child into reading.  Comic books are often a great place to start as well.

Give gifts that encourage reading or at least of love of words.  Of course, this includes books.  There is something about owning your own book!  But also consider games such as Scrabble or Boggle, even download Words with Friends—then actually play with the kids.  Even a set of magnetic alphabet letters for the refrigerator is good. New words can magically appear on the refrigerator every morning!  Or get one of those magnetic poetry sets for more extensive sharing of words and ideas.  Cookbooks might be a fun read that produces good eats as well and builds living skills and confidence in kids, when they are allowed to do the cooking.


The holidays are just around the corner.  Get creative and figure out a way to share a love of reading with those you love.  WHAT DO YOU THINK?  What are your ideas for helping kids develop their reading skills?  What are some books you would recommend as gifts for kids or adults?  What books are you reading right now?

Some Final Quotes on the Power & Magic of Reading

“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.”   Vera Nazarian

“Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary things that happens to the human brain and if you don’t believe that, watch an illiterate adult try to do it.”  John Steinbeck

“When writing the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, John Adams wrote:  “I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading.”

 “Just a thought.  What sets us above all other life on this planet is our ability to read.  What we read can determine our relationship with all other life on this planet.”  M. J. Croan

“All that mankind has done, thought, gained, or been; it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.”   Thomas Carlyle

Topic Q: Quigley Down Under

QuigleyHave you seen the movie Quigley Down Under?  It came out in 1990, the same year as Dances with Wolves, so it may have been overlooked by viewers and critics.  It fact, it received mixed reviews, only earning 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  It recouped its production costs, but did not earn lots of dollars for its producers.

Still, I really liked it.  The hero Matthew Quigley (Tom Selleck) travels to Australia to take a job requiring his sharp shooter skills, especially accuracy at a distance.  Along the way, he meets Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo), and they become an unwitting couple as they eventually battle the obvious bad guy Marston (Alan Rickman), who just happens to be his new boss.  The movie combines wide open vistas, rugged action, and a humane realistic treatment of Aborigines with humor and a bit of romance. My only fault is that the pacing drags in a few spots.  The acting is phenomenal, especially by San Giacomo.  All in all, I give it 4.5 stars out of 5. 

4 and a half stars

Quigley Down Under is a darn good little western!  Of course, to really understand that such a label is high praise, you need to have a sense of what that phrase means to me.  You see, I really like westerns. A lot.   I watched tons of them as a kid growing up, and they helped shape my view of the world, my sense of right and wrong.  Of course, westerns were shown at the movies too, such as the classic Shane (1953). But that movie came out before I was born, and as a family we did not go to the movies much.  No, my love of westerns comes from watching them on TV—and there were a lot of shows to watch!

How many of these shows do you remember?

  • Lone Ranger (1949-1957)
  • The Roy Rogers Show (1951-1957)
  • Broken Arrow (1956-1958, then reruns summer 1960)
  • Gunsmoke (1955-1975)
  • Maverick (1957-1962)
  • Zorro (1957-1959; Walt Disney Anthology TV movie 1960-1961)
  • Wagon Train (1957-1962; 1962-1965)
  • The Rifleman (1958-1963)
  • Bonanza (1959-1973)
  • Law of the Plainsman (1959-1960)
  • The Virginian (1962-1971)
  • F Troop (1965-1967)
  • The Wild Wild West (1965-1969, TV movies 1979, 1980)
  • (Star Trek: The Original Series, 1966-1969—come on, isn’t it a western in the stars!?)
  • Hondo (1967)
  • Lonesome Dove (mini-series, 1989)
  • Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1996)
  • Into the West (mini-series, 2005)
  • Longmire (calls itself a crime drama there are cowboys & Indians, since 2012)

Well, I saw them all or at least most—and I loved them, or at least the ideas in them.  That’s probably why—even today—I like a good western.  My favorite shows back then were Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Rifleman.  Watching these westerns over the years helped me develop a 4-Point Test to judge any western as good or not.

4-Point Goodness Test for Westerns

Point 1:  There must be an identifiable hero, the proverbial good guy.  Although often a lawman, he does not need to be.  What he needs to be is one who will take a stance to protect those who are misfortunate or being wronged. Even when faced with moral ambiguity, the hero makes the right choice. This hero is sociable, often even a family man, but he does not hesitate to take a solitary stance as needed.  He knows what is right and does it, even if it goes against the law. This hero does not hesitate to kill as needed, but only when necessary and if no other action will solve the problem.  Others often look to him for guidance or assistance.  The moral center of the main character is the mark of a truly good western. 

Point 2:  There must be strong women.  The hero is not typically married, but there are strong women on the scene.  Sometimes they are the past loves of the hero’s life who live on through children.  [Ben Cartwright has three dead wives?!  On my, who would ever marry him again?] Sometimes they are in a subtle relationship with the hero, but she is strong and takes care of herself and also knows the right thing to do, no matter what, ala Miss Kitty.  In the television series, some of these women are regulars, but often they are guest stars with only a fleeting connection to the hero. Unfortunately, if these women get too close to the hero, they often disappear (move on, die of a mysterious disease, are killed righting a wrong, stuff like that). [I am not sure how I managed to not worry that being a strong woman would kill me off, but thankfully I did!]  

Point 3:  Setting and Action are as important as characters in telling the story.  Most westerns are grounded to a town of some sort, but the real setting is the wild open spaces of the old west.  There are farm and ranch houses, of course, but also the wide open spaces as well as cattle drives and wagon trains and hideouts and campsites.  The beauty and grandeur of the country is mesmerizing and somehow matches the integrity and morality of the hero.  Actions are also crucial:  fist fights and gunfights, shoot outs and ambushes, horses racing across the plains and knowledgeable scouts tracking through canyons and over rocks.  These two elements—setting and action—are what place westerns apart from our current reality; they help show a different time, if not a better time. 

Point 4: Native Indians or Aborigines are treated as people. Sometimes like in The Lone Ranger, Indians were primary characters, although that status often made them outcasts or at least separate from their tribes. But even as secondary characters, the Indians were presented as people, good and bad, worthy of respect and honesty at least by the hero. Sometimes women and children as well as tribal life were shone.  This glimpse into the humanity of the Indians, rather than making them caricatures of the automatic bad guy, marks a western as good, as having a heart or conscience about the important values of life like fairness and tolerance.

Back to Quigley Down Under:  As I already stated, Quigley is a Good Western.  Quigley is the hero who stands up for what is right, even against his boss and the local military. Crazy Cora manages to take care of herself and—in some ways—helps the hero survive.  The hero’s ability with the rifle is an integral part of the plot, and there are numerous fist fights, ambushes and quick draw gunfights to keep the audience focused and alert. The Australian Outback is the setting that is shown in great detail as Quigley first arrives in the country, then travels for days to get to the ranch, and is forced to survive against the elements when lost in the Outback.  Finally, the Aborigines are shown as real people. Their communal life is shown as well as their strength and understanding of the natural world. They also help the hero survive!  For me, Quigley Down Under meets all four criteria of my Goodness Test.  If you have not seen Quigley yet, I would suggest you rent it, make some popcorn, and enjoy the show.   

Of course, this rating system cannot be used in isolation.  Along with these four points, there must be good acting, a well-developed story line, and it helps if there is a little romance and humor. [Quigley meets these other characteristics as well!]  Still, this 4-Point Goodness Test for Westerns can be used to assess the quality of all westerns, either television shows or movies.  Sometimes one of the four criteria is only minimally represented, but it must be there is some way.  Shane certainly fits the bill as does True Grit (original and remake) and Hondo.  More recent films also meet the criteria:  Dances with Wolves, Silverado, Open Range, and 3:10 to Yuma. I would not include The Quick and the Dead or Wild Wild West (the movie).  Sharing a more detailed review of some of these movies, as well as some quirkier ones like Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Frisco Kid, and Blazing Saddles, will have to wait for a future post.

Do you like Westerns?  Did you watch them as a kid as I did?  What are your favorites on either television or the big screen? What films should be avoided?   

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


“People love westerns worldwide.  There’s something fantasy-like about an individual fighting the elements. Or even bad guys and the elements. It’s a simpler time. There’s no organized laws and stuff.”   Clint Eastwood

“Samurai films, like westerns, need not be familiar genre stories. They can expand to contain stories of ethical challenges and human tragedy.”   Roger Ebert

“In all good westerns, the good guy is always a little bit questionable because he kind-of has to make moral judgments.”   Daniel Craig

“3:10 to Yuma’ was one that I just kept on talking and thinking about after reading it. And I think the reason is because, like in most Westerns, you have the very clear-cut bad guy/good-guy, however, as the movie progresses, you kind of see that it’s a very fine line that divides these two.”   Christian Bale

“I think they are very important because westerns have a code and a symbolism.”   Aaron Eckhart

 A little note of explanation:  At the start of the year, I committed to writing more frequently on my blog.  One way to do that was to address my own version of Topics A to Z.  I started with Topic A: Arboretum in January, but wrote the most recent Topic P: Poppies back in June.  I am getting back on schedule, with hopes plans to complete Topic Z before the end of the year.


I do realize that it is officially autumn for about a week now, and the holidays are storming down on us.  But for the last several weeks, I have been engaged in a mega-spring-cleaning session.  Go figure.

What prompted my activity was that my sister has moved.  Thus, the glass-doored bookcase that she was storing for me since Mom died finally needed to get transported up to me.  Now, to make room for the bookcase I had to move out an existing bookcase.  Oh, I have enough books stacked on floors and shelves to warrant just accommodating a new bookcase or two—or three or four.  But I have no more wall space to accommodate any additional bookcases.

Thus I started sorting, and sorting, and sorting.  I finally adjusted to my decision to give away books from my first stint in graduate school—that’s over 30 years ago.  Then I started looking at all the other books.  Even though they were my books, did I need to store them if I were not reading them or even remembering they were there after so long?  When I emptied one book case with deep shelves I was surprised to find a second row of books skulking behind the visible first row.  Enough. I do not need to keep all my books.  So now my Riverside edition of the complete works of Shakespeare is in a box waiting to go to a new owner! As are old composition texts and many, many novels and copies of classics.  I just hope that in this world of Kindles and Nooks that some folks out there will welcome taking home some actual books.

Since I was boxing up the books and getting over the guilt about moving those friends on to other potential owners, I decided I would expand my review and sort through everything: jewelry, clothes, kitchen supplies, bedding, knick-knacks, more books of course, and even do-dads and what-nots.  Thank goodness the Salvation Army will come pick up whatever I finally pull together.  There are also a couple local shelters where I will share some of my things.

Mary Engelbreit Attitude PrintI am comforted through this process because I know my memories will stay just as clear and fresh as they are now (for a little while anyway), even if the items are not tucked away in a closet somewhere.  I hope someone else will enjoy the many framed pictures and posters of windows that adorned every inch of the drab wall space of a former cubicle of an office that had no windows at all.  I trust someone new will actually use the various serving trays and platters and three-tiered stands that graced my table years ago when I had crowds over for parties. There’s a huge dolly that used to cart my folding tables, chairs and displays around when I worked street fairs selling my photo-art cards and prints.  It can help someone else lug things around now.  But all those memories are still in place.

Of course, I am still keeping many items even if I do not use them regularly.  About 20 years ago, an aunt gave me a plate she had received from her husband’s mother.  I still have Grandma Mau’s plate, safely packed away.  It holds good memories.  So does some jewelry, like Mom’s charm bracelet even though some charms are missing, the shalom pendant I received from Pastor Clark on my confirmation, and a nice peace symbol necklace that I might even start wearing again. I will even hang onto a small batch of card stock and supplies in case I want to make some photo-art cards again.  Of course, I cannot really get rid of very many of my elephant figurines.  I will give away the VHS tapes of the old TV show The Avengers, but I will keep the wooden spin top, the Lost in Space robot figurine, and the energy chime that used to adorn my desk to help keep students (and faculty) amused.

Of course, the best thing I am hanging onto are the memories that are tied to everything, whether I am keeping the treasured item or not.  There are the big memories of graduations and weddings and anniversaries and holidays and such.  But the best memories are the everyday ones of just a typical day.  Laughing with Mom over a charm she bought me for my charm bracelet or the good times taking pictures with Dad tied to my first 35 mm camera.  Playing baby dolls with my sister when we were little, and Mom’s love and patience that were stitched into the handmade overcoat for that Tiny Tears doll.  We lived in Chicago back then, so my baby doll really needed a warm coat!

Lots of travel memories have surfaced tied not only to photos from the various trips but also to the shells and rocks and other little pieces I picked up as I waded in the Colorado River, walked over the lava fields in Utah, or collected fossils on a biology field trip in Texas.  Even though I no longer have my own rose bushes, I still remember how Mom would cut roses to display in a vase on the coffee table.  I have not put up a full Christmas tree for years, but I still remember helping Dad pick out a tree and get the lights on it just so before we all started helping with placing the ornaments.  The old dented blackened pot Mom always used to make popcorn for Dad has been gone for years, but it comes to mind every time I make popcorn, even in a microwave.  There are some items I will keep no matter what.  But I do not really need the mementoes. I have the memories regardless of what I keep and what I give away.

One item I uncovered captures the sense of nostalgia and memory that is surfacing for me since I have been tackling this project.  It helps me remember that little everyday things are the best.  It reminds me to cherish the ordinary, to look for connections to others, to pause and enjoy nature, and to give time to people no matter what.  What I uncovered was a wall plague I vaguely remember really, really wanting when I was a teen.  It hung on my wall for years, so Mom and Dad must have gotten it for me.  It has been in a box for years—and will probably go back there, to be disposed of later. I like its message. What I unpacked is the poem “Normal Day” by Mary Jean Irion on a wooden plague.  It is a message I hope to keep close to my heart as I continue making memories—and collecting stuff to sort and give away later.

In conclusion, I simply wish each of you the treasure of a normal day!

normal day

TOPIC I: Invasion from Space: Reality, Movies & Hope


REALITY:  The Promising Prospect of Life in Space

“I want to believe!”  I uttered these words—if only to myself—long before they became famous by Mulder in the X-Files (1993-2002).  I grew up in the 1960s when space exploration was the hope and promise for the country.  I was three years old when NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) became operational in 1958.  Of course, I knew nothing about that at the time.  I do vividly remember watching with my dad as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969.

Star Trek Pilot Episode "The Cage"Before that historic event, I had been willingly accepting the possibility of life in space through my own “willing suspension of disbelief” as Coleridge labeled our ability to accept the premise of any work of fiction, no matter how fantastic the story.  For years I had been watching My Favorite Martian (1963-1966), Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Star Trek (1966-1969).  And I loved the possibilities inherent in those shows.

Voyager Golden RecordInvasion from space as well as our invasion into space was a possibility I certainly wanted to be a reality.  Still do, in fact.    The United States Space Program was showing us we could go into space.  Voyager 1 in 1977 even carried with it a message on a golden record to whatever life forms might eventually find it out there in space.  It basically said “Greetings from Earth” and gave snippets of music and languages from around the globe.  It included this explanation from President Jimmy Carter:  “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” Perhaps this was a futile gesture, but it is also a hopeful one.

Roswell NM UFO HeadlineThis hope, this possibility of life in space is what intrigues me.  And I am not alone.  Our culture has been fascinated—some would say obsessed—with the thought of invasions from space.  The War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 had people—for a short time anyway—really believing that we had been invaded by Martians. Then the UFO Story from Roswell, NM, was reported in 1947—and has many still believing there is a cover-up underway over this failed invasion.  Add to these stories reports about crop circles, alien abductions, sightings of UFOs, and Area 51, and it is easy to witness the growth of a cultural curiosity about invasions from space.

Milky Way Hubble Telescope

Milky Way
Hubble Telescope

In 1980, with the broadcast of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Carl Sagan joined the conversation, noting that the possibility of Earth being the only planet capable of supporting life was unlikely given the vastness of space. Many remember some variation of his words, often in a distorted exaltation about the “billions and billions of stars out there.”  But he did champion the possibility of there being life in the universe other than on Earth. As a character in Sagan’s novel Contact says, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” In 2008, NBC News reported that findings from space about the presence of water confirms the idea that life of some sort is possible out there, maybe even in our galaxy.  But such a report is far from saying little green men will be visiting any time soon.

On a Nova episode in 1996, Sagan reminded folks about this distinction:  just because life is possible out there does not mean that visitors from space will actually be dropping by. He goes further and cautions that any report of such an event—such as abductions and crop circles—needed to be held to the highest level of scrutiny and skepticism. As Sagan explained, “I’m frequently written to [to] say how could I search for extraterrestrial intelligence and disbelieve that we’re being visited. I don’t see any contradiction at all. It’s a wonderful prospect, but requires the most severe and rigorous standards of evidence.”

Obviously, such healthy skepticism must be the stance of scientists and leaders of the world. But the skepticism does not undermine all hope; as Sagan says the possibility of life out there is “a wonderful prospect.” The existence of S.E.T.I. (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is a hopeful sign; this organization looks for some tangible evidence out there in space that we have neighbors. SETI projects are run by such places as Harvard, UC Berkley, and the SETI Institute, and the projects use scientific methods to search for signs in the universe. The government funded SETI until 1995, and then private funds have been used to continue the work.  No verifiable evidence has been found yet; however, in 1977 a signal was recorded that has not yet been explained or re-found.  It is almost as if a distant radio were turned off.

Sagan supported SETI and used it as part of the story line in the book/film Contact (1997) that he wrote with his wife. The scenes in that movie of the giant telescopes that are poised to listen to the universe are magnificent. As the plot unfolds, a message is received that seems to be from a distant world giving instructions on how to build a ship to reach that world. By the end of the movie, there is confusion over whether the message received was real or a hoax. The role of faith and belief in God as well as the possibility of life out there in the universe is explored.  It is not a typical science fiction movie. It does seem to be a dramatic example of one of Sagan’s lines from his Cosmos series:  “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” The movie’s characters and basic plot offer viewers a lot of hope.

TV SHOWS & MOVIES:  Cultural Focus on the Nature of the Invaders

In my view, however, the possibility of some sort of life in the universe vs. actual sentient beings visiting Earth for a variety of reasons is not what fuels our cultural fascination with Invasions from Space.  No, this fascination, especially as exhibited in American TV shows and movies, assumes actual living beings are out there; the question is the nature of the invader.  Will these invaders be good guys or bad guys?  And we seem to want the answer to be bad guys.

This simplistic either-or distinction is clearly expressed in the movie Signs (2002). When his town seems to be being invaded, a little boy buys a book to be informed about aliens and their visits to earth. Although his dad—the main character—is dubious about the book’s credibility, the boy explains that aliens will visit for one of two reasons:  to visit and study us or to attack and take over the world.  One or the other.  Case closed. That either-or mentality seems a part of the cultural fascination with invasions from space.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951Most of the early science fiction movies portrayed the aliens as invaders, not visitors.  War of the Worlds (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) both had invaders intent to take over the world, and their actions were only thwarted by a small group of humans who saw the truth. An earlier film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) showed an alien who was himself peaceful, but his world’s concern about Earthlings’ stupidity and potential to destroy our world and hurt the universe meant he needed to destroy us.  The “humanity” of the few individuals he encountered helped give Earth a reprieve, so we could learn to be better stewards of our own world.

This need to be afraid of aliens is one of the main messages of most science fiction shows and films.  The 1962 Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” captures this message.  The alien visitors who seem so helpful and benign are really taking Earthlings away as food.  By the end of the episode, one character finally realizes that their book “To Serve Man” is a cookbook.  Oh no!  We better be wary of all aliens, perhaps even all foreigners.  The TV series V (1983-1985) expands this basic premise with much more advanced technology and offers Earthling heroes who recognize the truth and are fighting against the aliens who can disguise themselves to look like humans.  Block busters in the late 1980s include Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987).  Apparently, the only good alien is a dead alien.

Of course, not all presentations of aliens in entertainment media are negative.  Following in the spirit of My Favorite Martian, there were several TV comedies that presented aliens as friendly visitors who were confused by Earthlings.  I loved Mork & Mindy (1978-1982) much more than ALF (1986-1990), but both showed friendly aliens.  Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001) was a funny, loud sarcastic show that offered societal commentary on humanity as much as it showed the personality of the alien visitors.  The Coneheads (1977-1979) from Saturday Night Live were so fun and bizarre, it was hard to imagine anyone would not recognize them as strange or at least different. I have not yet watched The Neighbors (2012) in which a human family lives in a community populated with aliens posing as humans.  [At least I think I got the premise right.]   We seem to like aliens who look like us but need help assimilating—it helps if they are funny.

Search for SpockFirst ContactThe Battlestar Galactica series (1978, 2003, 2004-2009) was reminiscent of Star TrekHuman voyagers were out in space encountering other beings, some were evil and some were not. The focus was on humanity and how we/they acted and reacted when faced with new situations, new beings, and new worlds.  In the Star Trek TV shows in all its iterations—Original (1966-1969), Next Generation (1987-1994), Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Voyager (1995-2001), and Enterprise (2001-2005)—humans are out to explore the universe, not conquer it.  And these human explorers treat all with dignity and respect.  There were bad guys, and humans would fight if they had to to protect themselves and to help others, but they were guided by the Federation’s Prime Directive to not interfere.  This same premise is evident in all the Star Trek movies.

Star WarsThe Star Wars trilogies also follow the same basic premise but with a much greater emphasis on the heroes in space fighting for survival against the evil Empire. We learn to trust “The Force” and its positive impact on life.  These shows and movies offered an optimistic view of space and the species that inhabit it.  The human qualities of courage, integrity, and selflessness will still be around in the future, and good will win over evil, even if there needs to be a struggle.  However, these shows are more about the future of humanity than they are about space invaders.  Of course, even if some aliens are allies, the bad guys are always aliens. 

Typically, as portrayed in films, most aliens are hostile and dangerous.

Flash Gordon 1950s TVIf humans meet them in space, an extreme battle for survival ensues.  Flash Gordon saved the world in movies in the 1930s and in TV shows in the 1950s. His job was to “keep the galaxy safe.” Kirk and Picard as well as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker had help, but they basically had the same job as Flash:  protecting the world/galaxy/universe from annihilation as needed. Think Khan, the Borg, Darth Vader, even irritating aliens like Q. We see this same message in the Alien movies, the best of which is Aliens (1986), when Ripley saves the day!  Even in comedies like Galaxy Quest (1999) with the nice aliens needing help, there are still evil bad guys out there that need to be destroyed.  Of course, there is also Avatar (2009), where the evil invaders tend to be us wanting to exploit another world.

Adventures of Buckaroo BanzaiWhen aliens actually come to Earth, they are rarely like Mork or ALF.  Some are friendly, but there are always some who are out to get us, ala the classics from the 1950s.  In fact, those classics were actually remade: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), War of the Worlds (2005), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).  The Men in Black series (1997, 2002, 2012) shows us secret government agents protecting the world as needed, although not all the aliens among us in those films are evil and sinister. Mars Attacks! (1996) is another comedy that lets us laugh as the aliens attack—and (spoiler alert!), mankind wins.  One of my favorites is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension! (1984). The annihilation of the universe is at stake, but Buckaroo—with the help of some good aliens and the Boy Scouts—saves the day from the bad aliens bent on destroying the world. These films confirm that aliens are dangerous and must be fought at all costs.  

In Signs (2002), the aliens are not on screen much, and fortunately people of the world find a way to fight them off, but they are still dangerous and offer a genuine threat worldwide.  Even the now classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) presents an alien invasion of sorts, confirming that people have been abducted over the years by creatures in space.  In this film, the aliens seem friendly, but they have been abducting humans over the years—who they are now  returning—but they are also taking more humans with them as volunteer visitors on their spaceship. The realistic nature of this science fiction film gives credence to alien abduction stories just as Signs offers an alien explanation for crop circles. The aliens are not always as scary as those fought by Ripley, Buckaroo, and Agents K & J, but they are different and suspicious. 

Independence Day Movie PosterA popular invasion movie is Independence Day (1996). From my view, the main reason this movie is so popular is that it combines so many of the cultural intrigues society holds about the possibility of invading space aliens.  The invasion is sudden and unexpected by dastardly beings out to take over the earth; these beings do not look like humans in anyway and have no redeeming characteristics. The entire world is threatened, and relative commoners take the lead in finding a way to beat the bad guys.  The heroic American President gives the orders and the whole world works together to save the day.

The back stories in Independence Day confirm that aliens have visited Earth in the past and that secret work is underway at Area 51. The budget for this secret research is even suggested with a line something like, “You don’t think they really spend $1000 on toilet seats, do you?”  Of course, what saves the day is human ingenuity and some useful technology rather than massive weapons.  The jerks in government are fired, faith is seen as a way to survive the trauma, heroes give their all, and two couples are together at the end.  Oh yeah, the aliens are also destroyed.  I love this movie!

These movies present aliens as real but not in the spirit of scientific reality ala Carl Sagan. No, these aliens are—for the most part—mean, dangerous, suspicious outsiders who are out to get us.  Even some of those who seem benign have a darker side. The approved reaction is to kill them or study them by capturing them or dissecting them.  These are not the aliens I am hoping for.  These are not Vulcans or trusted robots or Jedi Masters; they are not typically lost or misunderstood.  The bulk of these aliens either abduct us or try to kill us to take over our planet, or they are in disguise and cheat us in some way if we reach out to them in friendship.

The little girl in Aliens asks Ripley, “Why do parents tell little kids there are no monsters?”  Our cultural obsession with invaders from space is that they are the monsters, We take comfort, somehow, in being able to protect ourselves from them.  But for me, this is not the promise of space exploration or the hope of some sort of life out there.


But I still want to believe.  Not in the danger or the threat.  Not even in our ability to defend ourselves from scary alien beings.  I believe that it is a noble idea to explore our world, our galaxy, our universe.  I believe there is much out there to produce wonder and awe. I like the idea of sending a greeting out into the universe, hoping that maybe someone will hear our message and come by to say hello.   I hope that if we ever experience first contact that it will be a meeting of mutual respect and curiosity, a friendly gesture between two beings, two cultures regardless of appearances. Fortunately, a couple science fiction movies present encounters closer to what I hope might really happen someday:  E.T. (1982), Starman (1984), and Enemy Mine (1985).

These three films offer some of the cultural intrigue about space invasion, but they also showcase positive relationships between species, and they champion the qualities of friendship, curiosity, cooperation, and love of life over senseless violence and protection of self at all costs.  The hope in these films comes from the relationships.  In Enemy Mine, Humans and the Dracs are at war. But an individual from each side is left stranded in the wilderness on an inhospitable alien planet. Not surprisingly, they need to work together to survive—and they do.  Ultimately the Human cares for a Drac child as his own, and a new family connection is born.

ET the Extra TerrestrialE.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is probably the best known of these three films because it caught the heart of many when it was first released.  An alien who looks more like Yoda than like Luke Skywalker is stranded accidentally on Earth and needs to hide from those who come searching the site where the aircraft had landed.  The little guy seeks shelter in a shed and eventually meets Eliot, a 10-year old who entices E.T. into the house with Reeses Pieces. The two beings form an emotional bond and learn to communicate through friendship, trust and respect.  E.T. simply wants to be safe and to go home.

The government officials have been searching for the intruder and have invaded the home where E.T. is hiding at about the time he seems to be dying.  In their medical garb and insulated chambers the officials work to save E.T., but only so they can study him. The scientist leading the recovery efforts tells Eliot, “I’ve been waiting for him since I was 10 years old. . . .[but] I’m glad he met you first.” When the kids help E.T. escape and his ship arrives to take him home, there is hardly a dry eye in the audience.

StarmanStarman has the same theme, although the alien uses advanced cloning technology to take on the appearance of a specific human, so the woman he is asking for help will “not feel a little bit jumpy.”   As the woman gets over her fear of the alien, he expands his use of language and experiences life on earth through human senses. The government uses the military and the police to search for him and eventually to try to shoot him down and capture him before he gets back to a huge space ship that has arrived to take him home.

Throughout the film, it is discovered that the Starman is a mapmaker on his world, who came to visit because he found the golden record sent into space on Voyager I, a record that basically said “Greetings, come and visit sometime.”  He had to crash land when his ship was shot down. One government worker—a scientist from SETI—voices the irony of him being an invited visitor here and being tracked down like a criminal. This scientist breaks the rules—and probably loses his job—to help the Starman escape and return home.  At the end, the audience is relieved when he makes it aboard the ship that came to rescue him and is heading home. There is also sadness and hope (and a follow-up TV series), because the woman who helped him is now pregnant.

These three films—as well as some of the others—let me stay hopeful. The aliens are friendly caring individuals who are not out to kill us. They reach out in friendship and find some human to make a connection with.  They may be visiting in response to our greetings to the universe or have stopped by accidentally, but—once here—they are willing to be friendly and trusting. In these films, the stereotypical reaction of the government and military to shoot first and ask questions later is thwarted by individual humans who see the humanity in the alien and decide to make friends.  It is those actions collectively that give me hope in the possibilities inherent in our universe.

I do so still want to believe as I did when I was 12 years old watching Star Trek. Not in alien abductions and conspiracy theories about past invasions. Not in crop circles as landing strips and attacks from space to overtake our world. Oh, I am curious about those reports, and I like all the movies that build on those fears.  What I want to believe in is the possibility that the universe will awe and inspire me, that the golden record on Voyager I will be found by someone somewhere, and that first contact might be made by a Vulcan, E.T. or a Starman mapmaker.  As Sagan said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

I remain hopeful.

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

I am also curious:  Do you want to believe?  Do you worry about space invaders? Do you like science fiction movies?  What are your favorites and why?   Even, have you ever been abducted?


Spock "LIve Long & Prosper"

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: A Review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy:  A Review

Some Background on the Trilogy:

the girl with the dragan tattooI never expected to like the book even with its intriguing title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (published 2005, in English 2008).  From what I had heard, the book focused on violence against women and the back story explored corporate level finances and corruption.  Even though a friend was recommending it, I was doubtful that I would find the book engaging.  As I started reading, I kept thinking my prediction was right—I was having trouble getting into the story.  But then, in a flash, I was hooked and voraciously read for hours and hours until I finished all 590 pages.

the girl who played with fireAnd not only did I enjoy the book, I immediately sought out the next two books in the trilogy:  The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006, in English in US January 2009) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007, in English in US May 2010).  Stieg Larsson is the author of this masterful trilogy. The novels were all translated from Swedish into English by Reg Keeland.  One source says that 40 million copies of the series sold internationally in 5 years.  Not all reviews were favorable, but that did not keep each book—as soon as it was published—from speeding to the top of various best seller lists.  The author won various awards for his efforts.  As noted in The Sunday Times (London), “The completion of the trilogy confirms Stieg Larsson as one of the great talents of contemporary crime fictiothe girl who kicked the hornet's nestn.”

Larsson lived in Sweden and worked as editor in chief of the magazine Expo and was a leading expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations.  He used this experience and expertise in creating one of his main characters and in building the complex back stories within the novels.  Unfortunately, these novels are Larsson’s only fictional contributions.  He died in 2004, after submitting the manuscripts for all three books. The novels were all published posthumously, first in Swedish and then later in English (first in the United Kingdom and then also in the United States) and in many other languages.  The books are being made into movies in both Sweden and the United States, but I have not yet seen any of these films.

Larsson’s three novels—often collectively called the Millennium Series—received widespread commercial and critical acclaim.  Wikipedia does a good job giving a detailed summary and general report on basic response for each book—see the links earlier in this review. Spoiler Alert:  If you are planning to read the novels, avoid the summaries—they give away all the mystery!  Two reviews—one by David Kamp, NY Times and the other by Kate Mosse, The Guardian—give a good overview on the novels as well.  I read these sources after I finished reading the novels and drawing my own conclusions on their merits.

The basic consensus about the trilogy is offered below though three review excerpts quoted on the third novel’s dust jacket:

“Larsson’s vivid characters, the depth of the details across the three books, the powerfully imaginative plot and the sheer verve of the writing make the trilogy a masterpiece of its genre.”  The Economist

“Larsson entertain[s] readers royally: creating characters who are complex, believable and appealing even when they act against their own best interest. . . Consistently enthralling.” The Washington Post

“Just when I was thinking there wasn’t anything new on the horizon, along comes Stieg Larsson with this wonderfully unique story. I was completely absorbed.”  Michael Connelly

My Review:

Each novel within Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is a good read.  But taken together, they become an even more carefully structured story.  The characters are memorable and the back stories offer social criticism that can transcend cultures.  The dominant lessons throughout the novels focus on friendship, loyalty and morality—important lessons for today’s society.

The characters in the novels are strong and believable.  The title character is Lisbeth Salander, but she is not a girl no matter how she looks. She is 24 at the start of the first novel. She is small and petite and looks and feels like an outcast of society.  She has numerous tattoos and body piercings and refuses to interact with most of those around her. She appears eccentric, sullen, mysterious.  She is also a computer genius with a photographic memory who can easily uncover useful research on almost any topic.

As soon as Lisbeth enters the first novel, the reader is hooked to see how her life will unfold.  In the first novel she is an indispensable researcher who saves the day; by the second novel she is part of the main action and eventually a murder suspect.  In the third, her defense and trial are underway. As the novels progress, Lisbeth shows her violent streak but also her own sense of fierce loyalty and morality—based on her own rules.  In the first novel, Larsson introduces the surface mystery of Lisbeth and then reveals some of the truths of her life and background in the second novel. By the third, this “girl” is maturing as she learns to accept friendship and help from others.

The protagonist of the novels is Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist and part owner of a magazine called Millennium.  The first novel opens when he is being convicted of libel for a story he wrote and published for which he did not provide proof.  This circumstance allows/forces him to take a special assignment, exploring a 30-year old case for an elderly corporate magnate.  Lisbeth becomes his researcher, and together they piece together the tale of a serial killer from the past that is still in action in the present.

As the story unfolds, we see that Mikael is driven and meticulous as a journalist, but he is friendly and engaging as a man.  He builds easy rapport with women that often turns into easy sexual encounters.  Although he does not readily commit to anyone, he honestly likes and respects the women in his life.  He is a handsome 40-something guy who may actually be contemplating commitment by the end of the third novel.  His growth is not as evident as Lisbeth’s.

There are many other characters in the novels. Several appear in all three because of their relationships with the two primary characters.  Erika Berger is Mikael’s business partner and sometime lover in the magazine they co-won, and his sister Annika Giovanni becomes Lisbeth’s lawyer in the third novel.  Two men are closely and positively associated with Lisbeth; they both see beyond her appearance and value her worth and abilities.  One is Holger Palmgren, her state-appointed guardian, and the other is Dragan Armansky, her sometime boss who hires her to conduct research for his security company.  These characters give the reader a way to view the different sides of the two main characters, adding depth to each characterization as new details unfold.

Other characters surface as needed, some appearing in several novels.  There are cops and doctors and friends of Lisbeth, including some unique computer hackers. There are tormentors of Lisbeth as well as we see her abused in the past and the present. Most of the characters are realistic and well-drawn.  A few seem one-dimensional, but their weak persona do not undermine the story’s action or the credibility of the primary characters. Several—Modig, Linder, Figuerola, even Mia and Harriett—are strong women!  The array of characters presented throughout the three novels help make the stories come to life.

The stories themselves are well crafted.  The overall story is told chronologically with the pacing moving faster and faster as the novels progress.  Between novel 1 and novel 2, several months have passed.  Between novel 2 and novel 3, barely an hour of time has passed.  Most of the action is bold, vivid, dramatic and compelling.  Some parts—typically the attempts to tie up loose ends—seem a bit sluggish.  Also, a few plot points seem almost too coincidental. At one point, Lisbeth just happens to see a name from her past in someone else’s email and that draws her further into the action.  Although a bit contrived, such coincidences do not undermine the story’s forward progress or the reader’s engagement with the story and characters.

In fact, Larsson is masterful in presenting each novel’s plot.  Once you have read all three, you can look back and see the breadcrumbs Larsson dropped, enticing the reader’s curiosity about characters, issues, and story line.  The reader wants more and more.  This expectancy is further heightened as Larsson moves at a fast pace back and forth between chapters devoted to each character and his/her part of the story.  The interplay is seductive and keeps the reader turning the page to see how things turn out.  What Entertainment Weekly noted about the second novel truly pertains to all three:  “A gripping, stay-up-all night read.”

Perhaps a comparison to television crime dramas would help place these novels in the crime genre.  The first novel could be seen as an episode of Cold Case, the TV show that explored past crimes that had never been solved. For Larsson, the crime is solved, but its outcome never quite gets turned over to the police.  The past events become as vivid and alive as the present-day details that get mired in their own mystery.  The second and third novels present the two classic sides of the original Law & Order series.  Crimes are committed, police (and journalists) investigate, and eventually there is a trial to bring things to some sense of closure.  Violence against women as a recurring concern brings Law & Order SVU into play, and the exploration of motives and compelling circumstances of the criminals is reminiscent of Law & Order CI.

Each novel also has at least one back story that explores a societal concern.  The first has Mikael concerned with financial fraud on a grand scale but also looks at crimes against women through the cold case being solved.  The second novel has two researchers telling the story of women being sold through sexual trafficking which ultimately has a subplot of espionage and misconduct by Sweden’s secret police.  The third novel looks at the secret police, the judicial system and its treatment of those who should be protected, and in a more limited way cyber bullying.  The journalists and researchers are the heroes who work to bring truth to light about these various back stories.

Finally, when Larsson presents these societal concerns together with his strong characters, he creates a moral core that is interwoven throughout all three novels.  Part of his message is the problems in society that need to be exposed and corrected.  But Larsson constantly looks at how these broad problems impact the individual.  For Larsson, his journalist characters—especially Mikael, the character most like himself—are the heroes, constantly looking for truth.  But the characters also demonstrate integrity and morality, even if their actions do not always serve them well.

Mikael actually defines friendship at one point, emphasizing the trust and respect that must be evident for there to be true friendship.  Lisbeth, who is often violent and reactive, is also very moral, even if she is following her own set of rules.  One lesson she learned well from her guardian Palmgren is the need to be mindful of consequences as she decides what action to take—and to be prepared to accept those consequences.  Through his quirky characters and the often salacious elements of his story—rape, fraud, conspiracy, murder, police cover-up, abuse of child labor, sexual trafficking—Larsson is actually championing a more moral society.

Overall, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is a good read.  But if you plan to give the first novel a shot, plan on reading all three.  And plan on having the other two available as soon as possible after you finish the first novel.  You’ll be hooked and will want to keep reading to see how things turn out for Libeth and Mikael.  As Time Out New York concludes, “Larsson’s novel[s] could serve as the definition of page-turner.”


TOPIC G: The Grand Canyon Is. . . Well, GRAND

mojave pt southI first visited the Grand Canyon over 25 years ago.  I hoped it would be as marvelous as I expected.  I was not disappointed.  No wonder Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is the one great wonder. . . every American should see.” It is a phenomenal awe-inspiring place.  Since then, I have been back many times—sometimes by myself, other times with friends.  I already talked about a couple of my favorite visits in an earlier post.  But the Grand Canyon deserves a fuller review.

Some Details:

If you have not yet seen the Grand Canyon, you might wonder what the big deal is.  After all, it is basically just a big hole in the ground.  In fact, in the early 1800s, Lt. Joseph Ives led an army survey party into the canyon and concluded it was “altogether valueless.”  I would argue with him!  The details of its size, variety and geography are impressive, even if you never see the place:

  • Located in Arizona, the Grand Canyon is a mile deep and close to 18 miles wide.
  • In total, this national park covers over 1,900 square miles—that is roughly 1.2 million acres.
  • The canyon is 277 miles long, so long that no vantage point offers a view of the entire expanse.
  • Still, on a good day in terms of air quality—most days!—visibility averages 90 to 110 miles.
  • The Colorado River runs through the canyon as the primary agent that cut this gorgeous gorge into existence.
  • The rocks at the bottom of the canyon are roughly 1.8 billion years old, but most geologists agree the gorge was created by erosion over the last 5 million years.
  • Visitors can access the canyon from both the South Rim and the North Rim, but each side varies in its vegetation, animals, weather and elevation.
  • Over 1,500 plant, 355 bird, 89 mammalian, 47 reptile, 9 amphibian, and 17 fish species are found in the park.

hopi overlook alligator rock south

This gorge offers spectacular colors and formations, awe-inspiring vistas, and wondrous evidence of geological actions at work.  Is it any wonder that John Muir offered the following conclusion when he visited the Grand Canyon?  “No matter how far you have wandered hitherto, or how many famous gorges and valleys you have seen, this one, the Grand Canyon of the Colorados, will seem as novel to you, as unearthly in the color and grandeur and quantity of its architecture, as if you had found it after death, on some other star…”

Some History:

The massive area today called the Grand Canyon has been and still is home to native cultures. Archaeological studies confirm that the oldest human artifacts in the area date back 12,000 years. The area has been in continuous use since then, inhabited by a range of tribes including Paleo-Indian, Ancestral Puebloan, Cohonina, Southern Paiute, Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo.  Some lived in the area while others visited annually for what seems to be religious reasons.  The Cohonina were ancestors of the Yuman, Havasupai, and Haulapai peoples who inhabit the area today.

To get an overview of the archaeological findings throughout the canyon, visit this link and scroll down a bit to find the national park service video titled “Archaeology Along the Colorado River.” Fortunately, some archaeological finds are available for public viewing.  Ruins are visible on both the North and South Rims, showing sites where some native peoples once lived.  On the North Rim, the Walhalla Glades Pueblo Ruins show remnants of buildings left from over 900 years ago.  This site was a summer home for families for over 100 years.  On the South Rim, the ruins are an old Pueblo Indian site that was occupied for about 20 years around 1185.  The area is called the Tusayan Ruins and includes a small museum open to the public.

walhalla ruins 1 northThe Walhalla Glades Pueblo Ruins (North Rim): 

walhalla ruins 2

walhalla ruins 3

tusayan ruins 3The Tusayan Ruins (South Rim): 

tusayan ruins 2

tusayan ruins south

handmade toysThe Tusayan Museum exhibits a full range of artifacts found throughout the area.  For me, the split-twig figurines typically crafted from single willow twigs that are folded into animal shapes are the most intriguing. They were found in remote caves, dating from 2,000 to 4,000 year ago.  Extensive pottery holdings are on exhibit as well, showing full vessels as well as broken remnants.  These exhibits make a tangible link between visitors of today and the inhabitants from so many years ago.  For me, the puzzle is engaging, whether pieces of the past or pieces of a broken pot are being put together.

pots in museum

pots on museum 2

pots in museum 3

bigger piece

smaller piece

The Two Pieces Fit Together! (about 2 inches total length)

The Two Pieces Fit Together!
(about 2 inches total length)

Early Visitors:

Sent by Coronado in 1540 to search for the fabled seven cities of gold, Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas led a group into the canyon with the aid of Hopi guides and became the first non-Native visitor to see the canyon.  More than 200 years passed before two Spanish priests led another non-Native expedition into the canyon. Most of the activity even then focused on access via the South Rim.  In 1776 Father Escalante became the first European to visit the North Rim.  Over the next hundred years, other groups—often hunters, trappers, and miners—made short targeted trips into the canyon.

John Wesley Powell led his first expedition along the Green and Colorado Rivers through the canyon in 1869.  Although others had visited the area before, Powell’s expedition was the first to traverse the entire canyon.  After this trip, he began publishing the term “Grand Canyon” to refer to the area, and the name has stuck.  In his journals, he was rather literal when he explained that “wherever we looked was a wilderness of rocks,” but he also added that this impressive chasm was “the most sublime spectacle on earth.”

In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt was enamored of the area, frequently hunting along both the north and south sides of the canyon. Given his concern for conservation, he initially named the Grand Canyon a Game Preserve and then upgraded it to National Monument status in 1908.  Those wishing to use the land especially for its mining and marketing potential opposed any further conservation efforts for many years.  Finally, in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed the papers making The Grand Canyon part of the recently formed national park service.  During that first year as a national park, roughly 44,000 visitors enjoyed its beauty and grandeur.

Visitors Today:

lodge area southToday, nearly 5 million visitors enjoy the Grand Canyon each year.  I suppose some are like the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation:  Looking out over the rim for maybe a minute and then running to the car to move on to the next attraction. But most visitors appreciate the wonder and sheer magnitude of the place.  I know whenever I visit, I make a point to find somewhere to sit in solitude and contemplate its majesty. At those times, I agree with John Muir when he said, “It seems a gigantic statement even for nature to make.”   I am not sure if he is referencing the Grand Canyon with those words, but he should be.

Similarly, the words of Gladys Taber seem appropriate as well, giving voice to one of the reasons I seek solitude there: “We need time to dream, time to remember, and time to reach the infinite. Time to be.”  For me, my favorite spot for just sitting and enjoying the canyon is at Desert View on the South Rim near the Desert View Watchtower.  Desert View is the easternmost end of the South Rim, 27 miles from the Grand Canyon Village.

The view from this area offers one of the few views of the Colorado River from the canyon edge; the river often looks brown or muddy because its swift current stirs up the sediment at the bottom of the riverbed. No matter its color, the river is a marvelous sculptor of this canyon.  It was Thoreau who noted, The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touch of air and water working at their leisure with the liberal allowance of time.”

colorado from south rim

desert view watch tower 4The Desert View Watchtower was built in 1932 by Mary Colter, the architect who built several other structures in the park.  That a woman was responsible for such an important undertaking was a feat in itself at that time. In building the 70 foot tower, Colter mimiced the design of Anasazi watchtowers from the past. She used materials that would help the tower blend in with its surroundings while still offering a heightened view of the canyon below.  The top of the tower is the highest point on the South Rim, sitting 7,522 feet above sea level.  The bottom level of the tower houses a museum and gift shop, while the top level offers a spectacular view of the Colorado winding through the canyon.

view from desert tower

desert view watch towerThe Desert View Watchtower is a popular site for visitors to the national park.  Amazingly, it is at this busy location that I can usually find some solitude along the rim of the canyon.  Most people who have made it to this end of the South Rim, visit the museum and gift shop and make use of the facilities, including a chance to buy a snack.  Instead of joining those lines, I slip through the bushes at the far end of the parking lot and find myself on the Rim Trail that runs the length of the South Rim.  If I go just a little ways down the trail, I can find some large boulders to sit on and watch the canyon; the noise and commotion of the parking lot and tourists fade away.  The birds and chipmunks get used to my presence and come out of hiding. Maybe a hiker or two wanders by within the hour.  Sometimes flowers are in bloom.  Otherwise, I am alone watching the clouds wander by or maybe a storm blow in.   It’s glorious!

Some Desert View Vistas:   

desert towr

desert view wide wide of watchtowr


chipmunk with cheeks


little chipmunk

Panoramic View from Desert View(3 photos together by hand)

Panoramic View from Desert View
(3 photos together by hand)


Ninety percent of the visitors to the Grand Canyon each year visit the South Rim.  Depending on the route taken, the Grand Canyon South Rim lies roughly 80-95 miles from Flagstaff, AZ.  It is an easy 2-hour drive to the main entrance and the Grand Canyon Village.  Since 1901, visitors can also enter the park on Grand Canyon Railroad out of Williams, AZ.

Once in the park, visitors can hike the trail along the rim as well as hike or ride mules down into the canyon. Each day offers different views, colors and nuances for the observant visitor.  As John Wesley Powell explained:  You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil. . .through its labyrinths.”  I have never sojourned down into the canyon, but I have enjoyed many views of this magnificent place.

South Rim Views:  

juniper pinyon forest

lone tree

lodge area walking tour rim south

mather point south

pima point south

near maricopa pt

deer up close

trail overlook rim hike south

Although most of my visits have been to the South Rim, on one trip I did trek to the North Rim for a glorious afternoon.  It was at the end of my two-week vacation, most of which was spent in the Flagstaff area.  I had spent several days on the South Rim. On my last day, I decided instead of sleeping in and driving leisurely to Las Vegas (about 250 miles) where I had hotel reservations, I would take a longer route and make a quick stop at the North Rim. From the North Rim to Vegas, the drive would be about 270 miles.  And I could get to the North Rim entrance in 200 miles.  It seemed like a good plan!

lees fairy colorado mile 0And actually, it was a good plan, except I really needed more time at the North Rim. About halfway to the day’s destination, I stopped at Lee’s Ferry at Marble Canyon to see the Colorado River close-up.  This site is Mile 0 for the Colorado River’s path through the canyon.  I waded in the river and collected a few rocks for souvenirs.

Marble Canyon Views:  

colorado river 2

colorado river

rafts down colorado

drive to north rimI arrived at the North Rim about noon on a day in late May, thankful that the roads were open at all.  The roads (and thus also the services) are typically closed for weather conditions from November to May. On that afternoon, after lunch, a storm started moving in blocking more and more of the remaining sunlight.  The temperatures were dropping and the wind gusts were increasing as well.  I saw few other visitors, but opted to stay outside and enjoy the weather—even the spattering of rain—for as long as the light held.  It was exhilarating to watch several storms blow across from the South Rim.

North Rim Views: 

aspens north rim

driving in to north rim

deer north rim

bright angel point north

cape royal nrth

point impeial 3

point imperial 2

point imperial 4

walhalla overlook north storm

storm ends day north rim


I have not been back to this glorious hole in the ground for several years, but I know I will visit again. . . and again.  The Grand Canyon renews my spirit.  My goal is to spend several days on the North Rim as well as getting back to the South Rim.  I also want to visit The Skywalk, built in 2007 amid some controversy and now operated by the Hualapai Tribe.  The Skywalk can be reached from the tribe’s private Grand Canyon West entrance.  The view from the Skywalk has got to be terrific!


To put it simply:  If you have not yet visited the Grand Canyon, do so.  It is well worth being added to your Bucket List.  If you have visited before, think about going back.  I know for me, it renews my spirit just being there.  As August Fruge once noted, When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving water, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.”

If you need a final enticement about the wonder and history of the Grand Canyon, consider taking the “Grand Canyon Quiz” presented by National Geographic.  It presents an array of information about the canyon.  Here are two trivia facts not on the quiz:  Today—February 26, 2013—is the 94th anniversary of the naming of the Grand Canyon as a National Park.  In 1997, CNN rightly called the Grand Canyon one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.


“Experiencing the Grand Canyon” on the Gateway to Sedona website

“Grand Canyon” on Wikipedia

“Grand Canyon National Park” online article on the National Geographic Website

“Grand Canyon Skywalk” on Wikipedia

Grand Canyon Visual (1987) by John Hoffman, a souvenir booklet from one of my visits.

Hualapai Tourism, Grand Canyon West website

The National Park Service Grand Canyon Website

“Wonders of the World” on Wikipedia

NOTICE:  Photos and presentation copyrighted by Patricia A. Ross, 2013.

Christo’s Umbrellas: A Look Back

Living in Bakersfield, California, and having family in the Los Angeles area meant I drove south on Interstate 5 often.  That route runs through farmland and then heads over the Grapevine near the Tejon Pass.  It’s basically a 2-hour drive that I always enjoy:  catching an occasional sunset, spotting the wildflowers in the spring or the random dusting of snow throughout winter, slowing through the fog that can get so dense it closes the freeway, or watching hawks soar high above fields or the red-winged blackbirds darting among the foliage. This is a route I know well. Heck, in spring and summer of 1991, I earned three speeding tickets heading to LA more often than usual to help plan my parents’ 50th Anniversary Party.

By the end of summer 1991, I had relocated to Chatsworth, CA, meaning I would not need to drive the Grapevine route so regularly.  I would not mind saving the time the trip required, but I would miss the vistas and the colors.  Therefore, I was intrigued when that fall I read about Christo’s upcoming outdoor, temporary art project that would stretch along that very route.

I had heard of Christo before and his large artistic undertakings like wrapping buildings and surrounding islands with cloth, but I had not paid much attention.  Christo’s website provides an index and supplemental photos of all of his and his wife’s work. Before The Umbrellas, some of his art included The Pont Neuf Wrapped in Paris (September 1985); Surrounded Island, Biscayne Bay, FL (May 1983); and Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin Counties, CA (September 1976).  The Gates was erected in New York’s Central Park in February 2005.

But 20 years ago, in October 1991, the art was being planned for my back yard, so to speak.  I was enthralled.  In addition, I appreciated his perspective on art. For Christo, art was fleeting, temporary—but also massive.  After the art was displayed for a set period of time, it was dismantled, no longer available for first-hand viewing. What was left were his preparation notes and sketches and the photos, books, and murals that document the exhibit. The actual artwork was dissolved, much like the sand mandalas created and destroyed by Tibetan Buddhist monks in a symbolic gesture to the transitory nature of the material world.

Christo placed his art in the real world, taking over familiar spaces in order to confront anyone traveling through or visiting the area. As a spectator—or at times as a participant—you could seek out the experience or stumble upon it as you went about your day-to-day tasks. That unexpected—perhaps confrontational—aspect of his art forced a new perspective from the viewers, helped the viewers see their world anew. Kathleen Lang reports that Christo called his art “gentle disturbances” that insist the viewers see their environment differently. Just imagine:  People who would never plan a visit to a local museum could not miss the massive displays  littering a familiar landscape—highway or island, hills or bridge—and could not help but notice and wonder about the intruding  artwork even if they had never heard of Christo. Impressive.

Christo: The Umbrellas Japan and U.S.A

Christo’s Umbrellas was a massive undertaking that took five years of preparation, including nearly three years of collaboration with public and private agencies, to come into existence. According to the souvenir map provided for
those who sought out the exhibit, the umbrellas were indeed massive:  Each of the 3,100 octagonal umbrellas was 6 meters (19 feet 8 inches) high and 8.66 meters (28 feet 6 inches) across. They were engineered to withstand 104 kilometers per hour (65 mph) winds when open, and 177 kilometers per hour (110 mph) winds when closed.  Costing $26 million to construct, this temporary work of art would be on display for only three weeks, opening on 8 October 1991.  Today is the 20th Anniversary of the opening of this exhibit.

A more unique aspect of Christo’s Umbrellas was that it was a two-part series, being displayed simultaneously in Ibaraki, Japan, and California, U.S.A.  The promotional materials explained that the locations were selected as a way to reflect “the similarities and differences in the ways of life of the two inland valleys.” Japan’s 1,340 umbrellas were blue complementing the display’s watery route that followed the Sato River and crossed extensive rice paddies.

California’s 1,760 umbrellas were yellow and wandered across the farmlands of the central valley that needs ongoing irrigation to be fruitful; the yellow color mimicked the color of local flora found along the fields and roads. At each location, the umbrellas were “placed sometimes in clusters covering entire fields, or deployed in a line, or randomly spaced from each other, running alongside roads, villages, and river banks.”

The preliminary sketches of the exhibit, provided as postcards, demonstrated the symmetry and balance evident in the two halves of this exhibit. The exhibit’s official photographer was Wolfgang Volz—and here is one of his murals documenting the artwork once constructed:

The differences in terms of locations and route help emphasize the extensive scope of this project. The main details are noted in the following chart:


of Christo’s The Umbrellas Project

Opened 8 October 1991 for 3-Week Run

$26 Million Production Costs


Ibaraki, JAPAN


19 Kilometers (12 Miles) Long

29 Kilometers (18 Miles) Long

1,340 BLUE Umbrellas

1,760 YELLOW Umbrellas

120 Kilometers (75 Miles)

North of Tokyo

96 Kilometers (60 Miles)

North of Los Angeles

Around Route 349

Along Interstate 5

Farm Lands: Rice Paddies

Farm Lands: Grapes, Cotton

One Accidental Death:

Man, 51 years old

Power Line Accident When Dismantling
Display Early

One Accidental Death:

Woman, 33 years old

Unexpected Wind Toppled Umbrella
Causing Early Closure of Display

Tragedy Strikes Christo’s Umbrellas

As the above chart notes, Christo’s Umbrellas were struck by tragedy when the season’s first downpour accompanied by heavy winds uprooted several umbrellas at the California site.  The LA Times reported that one of the 488-pound umbrellas was uprooted and thrown by the high winds, trapping a young woman between the umbrella and a boulder killing her instantly. This tragedy struck on October 26th, just three days before the exhibit was set to close. Christo was in Japan viewing the exhibit there when he heard the news and immediately called for the display to be dismantled in both locations, out of respect for the deceased, Lori Keevil-Mathews.

The article also reported that the umbrellas had been constructed to withstand winds up to 65 mph when open and 110 when closed; as a planned precaution, the umbrellas were to be closed if the winds exceeded 35 mph. But that process involved using a hand crank to close each umbrella and took extensive time. During the storm’s wind bursts, over 100 umbrellas were damaged, including the one involved in the fatality.

The New York Times explained that the tragedy continued into the Japanese location.  When the umbrellas were dismantled in Ibaraki, a worker died when the crane he was working with came in contact with a 65,000 volt power line. This casualty of the art exhibit was named Masaaki Nakamura. When asked to comment on the tragedies now associated with The Umbrellas, Christo noted that the deaths emphasized that his art is a part of the reality of life: “There is no make-believe, no theatre, no spectacle. And for me, the real world involves everything: risk, danger, beauty, energy, all we meet with in the real world. This project demonstrated that everything is possible, because it is part of reality.”

My Trip to Christo’s Umbrellas

News of the woman’s death while she was viewing The Umbrellas was difficult to fathom. I had been out there myself, marveling at the display just weeks before. As I approached the area, the umbrellas were visible on the hills, standing sentry. Along the 18-mile route, there were places where visitors could view the umbrellas up  close.  Standing under one, I appreciated how all my senses were engaged as the canvas filtered the bright sun and the wind whipped through the area, causing incredible sounds. There were no guards saying, “Don’t touch!” That the umbrellas were literally part of the landscape meant that each day, each hour, the exhibit was a little different, making each viewing truly unique. For me, despite the tragedy, viewing the exhibit will always remain a remarkable experience. The whole experience reminds me that Art truly is beautiful and engaging, intrusive and confrontational, provocative and enticing, overwhelming and even dangerous. Isn’t that what art should be?

Now, living again in Bakersfield, I think of The Umbrellas often as I drive that familiar route several times each month.  To help you experience the exhibit as if you were there, here is a video that shows photos that place you along Interstate 5 seeing how easy it was to interact with the umbrellas. Enjoy.

[NOTE:  Once I discovered the video used in the original post was no longer available, I added a different video to keep the post complete. I also wrote a new post showing videos of the blue umbrellas along the Japanese route that comprised half of the Christo’s Umbrella display. PAR November 2013.]


A Day at the Grand Canyon

It was a glorious day. One of those afternoons that captured a moment in time. Simultaneously, it was over too quickly but seemed to last forever. It was the end of several weeks of traveling.  I had been exploring the Grand Canyon’s South Rim for several days, but I was heading home.  I left early, deciding to take the long route to Las Vegas, my evening’s destination.  That route meant I could stop at the North Rim—for a quick look.  I wanted a bit of a preview for a future trip. Being May, there were not many tourists around yet, especially at the North Rim that typically has fewer visitors than the other side.

The differences from the South Rim to the North Rim were remarkable—foliage, temperature, even wildlife.  Of course, the overlooks were impressive. I even had a great lunch.  As I was getting ready to leave that afternoon, I noticed a storm brewing—across the canyon, at the South Rim.  It had been sunny there yesterday, but things change quickly in this climate. I decided to watch for a bit.  Then what seemed like 10 minutes turned into several hours.  The breeze was steady enough that I could follow the clouds being moved to the north, pulling the rain along. The storms were short-lived—and most initially seemed to be virga, the droplets that start their trip downward but never make it to the ground. The shadow-play across the canyon was mesmerizing.  At times, lightning would flash as the storm intensified.  The photo I snapped is not terrific, but it captures my memory of the day.

As the day darkened and the air chilled, I looked up and noticed I was alone—most others had sought refuge from the impending storm that was barreling across the 10-mile expanse between the two rims. I stood transfixed, watching the literal transformations going on around me: light to dark, calm to windy, sunny to cloudy to rainy.  It was glorious.  I have been aware of such transformations in nature before.  Haven’t we all wondered at the glories of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly?  It’s a powerful image.  As one proverb notes:  “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly.”

On a different trip through the Arizona desert, rain again was what I noticed. Rain was coming—that was obvious. You could sense it, see it, smell it, feel it . . . and those sensations built up a huge expectation. But the rain itself was again quick and short-lived.  I saw it ahead on the road—the black streaks indicating the rain was pouring down. It stayed stationary as I approached in the car.  There was a moment when I entered the storm, seeing and hearing the droplets at they hit the dusty windshield; the back of my car was still dry. As I kept moving forward, the car was quickly drenched with the torrent, and then within two or three minutes I had driven out of the storm and continued on my way.

Gary Paul Nabhan wrote a great book titled The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country that explains how this awareness of nature—especially rain—and its role in life is a key component of the Papago Tribe’s view of life, of its very survival.  Without the rain the short growing season doesn’t exist—the rain keeps the tribe alive. Much like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the transformation must take place—and it will whether we are cognizant of the change or not. It simply must.  My North Rim afternoon was unique in that it lasted long enough to be noticed and appreciated.


It was around Easter when I visited the Strange Bird website, hosted by PCAdams. The entry that caught my eye was titled Living in Liminality.  I knew the term, vaguely.  It was not part of my everyday lexicon.  It intrigued me, so I started exploring.  I was not surprised to realize that liminality is basically—as I expected—about change. But more than that.  It is about crossing a threshold, moving from the old to the new, from what is known to the unknown, from what is evident perhaps comfortable to the promise or possible dread of something else. It is a time of change or growth that often carries a religious connotation. Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest, talks about liminal space as being a period of displacement. It is that feeling of upheaval or displacement that makes change so hard to embrace at times, even if God seems to be calling the person forward on a new journey.

As I explored the concept of liminality more fully, I started to see its presence everywhere. It is not the mundane changes of life like wearing new shoes or putting on a hat to go to church.  It is the change that is all around us, that we cannot avoid. Liminality is standing at the threshold of a major life change, poised to cross through that door, but we are hesitant about what we are giving up and fearful of what’s to come even as we are excited about the adventure or hopeful for the future. Some of these major life changes are planned events:  weddings, births, graduations, adoptions, sometimes even surgeries or job changes. Others just happen, as we are displaced because of natural disasters, deaths, loss of a job, or some sort of accident.

Too often, in the face of such vast change, people find themselves frozen at the threshold, in the moment of transition.  I am reminded of Trudy, one of the characters in Lily Tomlin’s one woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.  Trudy is the bag lady who spends most of her day standing at the corner of Walk/Don’t Walk, worried that if she leaves or crosses the street, she will miss something important.  But we cannot afford to stand still.

I am not saying to move quickly through life, no matter what.  On the contrary, it is important to take time and reflect on each transition; the key is to keep moving forward. Zen teachers talk about experiencing the moment.  It is a principle they call mo chich ch’u or going ahead without hesitation. Laurence G. Boldt, author of Zen Soup, offers this advice:  “Just do what you are doing without thinking about it.  Just be where you are without holding on or running away. Give up judging and speculating and dive into this moment.”   The underlying point here is the awareness, the reflection on accepting what is being experienced—and on the implied intention to keep moving forward, to experience the next moment, and then the next.  That’s the power of liminality.

Some speculate that the sense of authenticity inherent in truly experiencing liminal spaces can help individuals see the value of what they have to offer, of what the change could mean.  Sue Monk Kidd, author of When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions, talks about how it took her some time to value her writing as an activity worthy to be engaged in, acceptable to acknowledge to others.  If we are to live in liminality, we need to be true to ourselves, just as the rain must fall and the butterfly must struggle to shed its cocoon. For Kidd, “The spiritual journey is one of becoming real. Waiting can offer us the gift of authenticity. It can help us give birth to a new way of being true to ourselves. As we wait, we discover that it’s okay—really okay—not only to imagine who we truly are inside but to say who we are, welcome who we are, and even be who we are.”

These thoughts about waiting, transformation, patience, hope, expectation, moving forward, all eventually helped me remember my wondrous afternoon in the rain on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Patience is not one of my virtues—as my frustration over incredibly long recovery periods from major surgeries can attest.  I am not always an easy patient. [Hmm, funny noun, I am realizing now.]  But that day on the North Rim, I was content to just be, to experience the rain as it moved forward.  I need to capture that sense of authenticity and expectancy as I stand at the threshold of major life changes if I am going to make the most of the liminality that is around me everyday.  Simone Weil says, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  For me, spirituality comes from an appreciation of the nature around us and the awareness of or reflection about who we are and what we are going through; it comes from being able to make sense of our existence, deciding how we address each threshold as we proceed through life. When thresholds become apparent, we must accept that we need to go through that door—no matter where it leads.

Of course, making that statement is fairly easy. I know I have lived a rather sheltered life.  I have experienced strife—several major life-threatening surgeries, problems with work and family.   I have experienced death, but not of a spouse or a child, not even of my parents who are both still relatively healthy at 90+ years of age. When I see people grieving, crossing that threshold of living without someone special in their day-to-day lives, I know that simply saying, “Be patient, experience the moment, move forward” is not enough. A couple books I’ve read lately suggest the message is the same no matter how traumatic the change; the crossing of the threshold and thus the recovery just take longer. Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces talks about her own grieving process as she worked her way across Wyoming:  “The tears came and lasted for two years.”  But it was her everyday actions in the desolation and community of sheep herding and rodeos that brought her through her grief.

Ann Voskamp in One Thousand Gifts talks about how as an adult she is finding her way back to God by developing an enhanced sense of gratitude. In the first chapter, she is an adult still grieving from the tragic death of her younger sister when they both were very young. A grieving friend, who maintains his belief in God even though death has claimed two young sons within two years, offers this simple explanation:  “Maybe. . . I guess . . . it’s accepting there are things we simply don’t understand.”  His confidence, his assurance gets her thinking. Liminality suggests that crossing that threshold even—maybe especially—when we do not understand is what we need to do to find solace, to embrace life no matter what the changes.

Keep Hope for the Future

These thoughts remind me of another day at the Grand Canyon, this time on the South Rim.  It was January—cold and snowy. I was driving back to California and the route would take me right by the Grand Canyon.  My choice was to get to a hotel sooner rather than later, or to detour to the national park for a few hours enjoying the view. I took the latter option.  But when I got there, many other visitors were disgruntled.  You see, there was fog.  Serious fog.  Fill the canyon and not be able to see the bottom or the other side kind of fog.  I was ecstatic—what a glorious event to witness. But then I knew what was there, and I trusted the sun would probably burn the fog off pretty quickly.  Some who were at the Grand Canyon on their very first visit were angry, demanding the return of their entrance fee.  They left in a huff, having a very bad day.  I stayed, hiked a bit, saw some deer—and then the sun came out and the glorious views were back!

Having hope about the unknown, cherishing the expectation of what is to come is a challenge, but it can lead to brilliant experiences. It’s not easy. But I hope—as I face the changes, the liminality in my life—that I move forward with anticipation and expectation, even if I do not know what is beyond the fog. It’s like the rain—a storm might bring problems, even destruction, but it’s needed for life and the only way we can see a rainbow. If we are going to live with the liminality that makes up life, we must embrace change—or at least keep moving forward, one small step at a time.

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

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”  Joseph Campbell

 “It’s a sad day when you find out it’s not accident or time or fortune but just yourself that kept things from you.”  Lillian Hellman

“The spirituality journey is one of continually falling on your face, getting up, brushing yourself off, looking sheepishly at God, and taking another step.”  Aurobindo

“Sorrow fully accepted brings its own gifts. For there is alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness.”  Pearl S. Buck

If you wish to adapt to life in the desert, “ancient knowledge can serve as a guide. Yet the best guide will tell you: there are certain things you must learn on your own. The desert is unpredictable, enigmatic. One minute you will be smelling dust. The next, the desert can smell just like rain.”  Gary Paul Nabham

“The best advice I received on this subject [others’ reactions to personal change] was from an older woman who’d been through many cocoons and many pairs of wings. I told her, ‘People won’t let me change.’ (As if people could really do that.) What I was actually saying was, ‘I’m afraid of people’s reactions to my changes.’ The woman touched my cheek with her hand and said, ‘Love your wings.’”   Sue Monk Kidd

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”  Alan Watts

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