Thursday, June 17, 2010

If you want to feel cheerful...

Some time ago I watched a delightful program on PBS, on the Balloon Fiesta at Albuquerque, New Mexico. Occurring every October, it's the largest hot air balloon festival in the world, with 600 balloons allowed (according to Wikipedia a cap of 750 was imposed in 2001, after an all-time high of over 1000 in 2000; in 2009 the cap was lowered to 600.)

Watching the program, I was reminded of the time I attended the Fiesta with my brother Jeremiah, who has lived an hour away from Albuquerque, in Santa Fe, for many years. My husband Micheal and I also went to a balloon festival at Lewiston, here in Maine, a few years back; and when I was staying with my sister Ellen in Colorado Springs, in 2005, we went to one there.

There is nothing like a bunch of hot air balloons to take your mind off your problems, and the problems of the world. You watch all these big, floppy, colorful pieces of fabric begin to bulge, wriggle on the ground, determinedly take shape, as the hot air is pumped into them. There are always a lot of people helping; it takes a team to get one of these things into the air, to track them once they are there, to retrieve them. And then finally the envelope, as, for some reason, they call the top part (why not call it the balloon?) is full, has risen majestically from lying on the ground to hovering in the air -- the people who will be riding are clamoring into the basket -- the other members of the team are holding onto the thing, to keep it from taking off before it's time -- and then they let go, it lifts off, and everyone who's standing nearby claps and cheers. Since there are lots of balloons there is lots of clapping and cheering. And then those of us left on the ground get to ooh and ahh as we watch the sky fill up with these huge, imaginative, often very playful, often quite beautiful examples of this, the oldest method human beings devised to satisfy their desire to fly. It's all just a totally positive experience.

I've ridden in a balloon once. When Jeremiah came to visit me when I was living in Alaska, I decided to treat him to a hot air balloon ride for his birthday. Mind you, this was something I had long wanted to do myself, but I was pretty sure he would dig it, too. Which he did, although given his height, and his thinning hair, he found the frequent blasts of hot air directly over his head a might uncomfor-table, and in fact came away with a slight "sunburn" on the top of his head.

For my part, I was surprised to find that traveling by balloon was not as exciting as I had expected it to be. I love to fly -- or did in the days before it became a major pain in the ass -- but I found balloon travel was more like walking at a stately pace through the sky, than like flying. It was pleasant, rather than exciting. But I'm glad I did it. I reckon it's something everyone should do, like riding a donkey up a cliff on a Greek island. Both, interesting experiences.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Minus the warts

On the other hand you can tell it's an authorized biography, because very little that's negative gets said about the Queen Mother (see Note of June 6, 2010). Most of the negative things are slipped in via letters or other writings of other people. For example, when there's concern over how long it's taking the Queen Mother to decide which of her ladies in waiting she's going to let go, now that she is no longer The Queen, a friend of hers writes to another friend: "The Queen, bless her heart, has cultivated procrastination to a degree which is really an art -- when one is vexed, as I fear I often am, one should recall that the Bowes Lyons [the Queen Mother's family] are the laziest family in the world. Against this reflection it becomes remarkable that she accomplishes so much."* He goes on to say, "I think it possible that this omission may be the reflection of what has been apparent from the first, a sturdy repudiation of any idea that HM has any intention, because she is widowed, of relinquishing all to which she has become accustomed."** And the author adds: She did not give up any of her ladies.

In other words, once a queen, always a queen.

It is just the very occasional, slight dig like this -- or the admission of her growing matronliness of form during the '40s -- that suggests Elizabeth Bowes Lyons Windsor was anything less than perfect. And there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the marriage of King George and Queen Elizabeth was anything less than ideally happy, though the times and the situation they lived through were very hard on them both, especially the king, who lacked physical resilience, and had to make up for it with strength of character (and isn't it inter-esting what a difference there was between him and his older brother, who was very briefly Edward VIII, in terms of character. It suggests the dangers of getting by on charm and good looks for too long.)

But come on, every grownup knows that all marriages have their problems, even the most loving, even the happiest. You have two individuals trying to live together day after day, year after year. There is bound to be some conflict, some disagreement over how things should be done. Arguments, upsets. I realize that the British tend to be much more reticent about personal matters than we let-it-all-hang-out Americans -- and of course this was even truer of earlier generations -- but my guess is Elizabeth did confess in a letter of two, to some close friend or family member, that she really wished "Bertie" did not require quite so much bolstering up, or, during the months preceding the abdication, that she thought the behavior of Bertie's older brother truly reprehensible.

The only "complaining" she does do -- and i'm glad to see it, because it does show that she's human -- is over how hard it was to visit the areas that had been bombed during the war, which she and her husband did religiously. In a letter to her sister she wrote, "It makes one furious seeing the wanton destruction. Sometimes it really makes me feel almost ill. I can't tell you how I loathe going round these bombed places. I am a beastly coward, and it breaks one's heart to see so much misery and sadness."^ She loathed doing it, but she did it. More character. We get lots of examples of character, precious little in the way of flaws.

Still, for all that the book may have left out, it continues to interest.

*Shawcross, William. The Queen Mother: The Official Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, p. 672
**Ibid, p. 673
^Ibid, p. 529

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Courage under pressure

I've been reading the authorized biography of Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (called, appropriately enough, The Queen Mother). It was moderately interesting, reading about her youth, her marriage to King George VI (when they were married he was Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, and throughout his life was called Bertie within the family, but when he became king in 1936 he used the last of his Christian names, to provide the country with a sense of continuity from his father, George V), the dreadful period when "Bertie's" older brother, Edward VIII, decided to abdicate so he could marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, which resulted in the shy, nervous Albert, inflicted with a stammer, and with no desire to be king, being forced to become exactly that.

Yes, all quite interesting, but what has been most interesting is the section on the Second World War, and how the royal family, and all of Britain, coped. As was the case when I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Note of May 25, 2010), I've gotten a much better sense of just what the war meant to the British. I think I, perhaps like many Americans, have been more aware of happenings in the European war from D-Day, in June of '44, on. But the people in England had been enduring the ravages of war for four years by that time (they had officially entered into war with Germany in September of 1939, but there followed several months of what came to be known as the Phony War, when not much happened. Beginning in early 1940, things started happening.)

People in England suffered with the same food shortages that they did on Guernsey, but also had to contend with bombing raids. For four years. This was especially true in London, which was practically flattened. Reading about it reminded me of my first trip to London, in 1974, when I learned that so many of the historic sites I was looking at were not the originals, but had been rebuilt after the war. They had survived for many centuries, and then been wiped out by modern warfare within a four-year span.

And the British people as a whole really do seem to have been amazingly staunch, impressively resilient and determinedly cheerful through it all. And their king and queen were in there suffering with them, and being just as staunch, resilient and determinedly cheerful. One wonders if we Americans, as a people, would bear up so well, for so long. We all like to think so, of course, but selflessness and a disinclination to complain seem to be less in the way of American national traits.

We have been so lucky in this country. True, our ancestors lived through the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, both taking place on our soil, and producing the tragic losses that all wars produce. But except for the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was an attack on a military target (the ships within the harbor, and the harbor itself), and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, this country has been spared so many of the outrages and devastation of war.

The Queen Mother, by the way, is coming off almost as the Princess Diana of her era -- much loved by the masses of common people, charming everyone she met with her graciousness, her ability to seem to be genuinely interested in whomever she was talking to. Although by middle age she had become plump and somewhat dowdy -- especially by American standards -- when she was younger she was considered quite lovely, with gorgeous skin, beautiful eyes and smile, and her good humor and kindliness. And she appears to have been a true helpmeet to her husband (unlike Princess Diana).

But I can't help wondering: why was she the Queen, when she was married to King George, but Prince Philip has not been the King, while married to Elizabeth II?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Down in the 'hood

Just as I'm always a few years behind in my reading, I'm behind the rest of the country on television viewing. Some time ago my friend Mary out in California mentioned that she and her husband enjoyed watching The Wire. I had to admit that I'd never even heard of the show. This isn't quite so outrageous as it might seem, since there was only a brief period, after I moved to Maine, when I had cable T.V. (The Wire appeared on HBO, 2002-2008.) Except for that brief period my television viewing has been limited to what the rabbit ears on my T.V. can pick up, i.e., the local area PBS station, and (as I discovered only recently) the FOX station.

Someone donated to the library the first season of The Wire on DVD, so I decided to check it out. Despite the fact that I almost ODed on the F word during the first episode (no doubt there to emphasize how realistic the show was...I did notice that in later episodes while the word hardly disappeared, it was used a little more discriminately); and despite the fact that occasionally I could not understand either what the drug dealers or the police were saying, thanks to their respective jargons, there was no denying that the show was inter-esting. And gradually I had to admit it was damn good. Great characterizations, totally believable acting (were those real kids from the projects that they'd hired for the show?), intriguing, complex story line, sly, ironic humor.

But hey. Such a distressing, depressing world it illuminates. The world of the drug culture in inner city America. It is, indeed, a hideous picture of America; and you know, as you watch, that it is only too true. What especially breaks my heart is seeing all the kids, I mean little kids, caught up in this. It's bad enough, the 16 and 17-year olds, sitting on the couch out in the middle of the courtyard of the "low-rises" (which are right next door to the "towers", or high-rises), overseeing the nonstop trafficking of heroine, every direction you look. I think to myself, what a waste of human potential. But in one scene "D," the top overseer, breaks all the eggs a little girl who couldn't be more than ten just bought at the store, because he's figured out she's been "thievin,'" i.e. keeping some of the money that should have been turned over to him. That little girl, like too many real-life little girls, and boys, is involved in the drug trade. Damn.

In another scene, Wallace, one of the more appealing dealers, gets waked up by his...sister? cousin? he's taking care of about six little kids in a three-room apartment with electricity filched from a neighboring building...gets waked up because the girl needs help with her math problem, which involves the number of people getting on and off a bus. When she is unable to do the problem in her head, as he reads it to her, he gives her another example using a drug transaction, and she is able to do the calculating immediately. He demands to know how come she can do that, but can't keep track of the people getting on and off a bus, and she says, "You mess up on the stuff, they fuck you up."

Actually, this scene represents one of the strengths of the program: it shows the human side of all the characters. Wallace getting up when the clock radio goes on, walking around brushing his teeth while rousting the kids from their beds (mattresses on the floor), "Come on, get up, you're gonna be late for school -- what, you wanna go into foster care? You wanna go into foster care, you leave your black asses right where they are." One of the drug king's major shooters, a basically hang-loose guy who just does what he's told, having a roomful of gorgeous tropical fish that he dotes on. One of the girls who works in the "titty bar" run by the drug king, not being able to see much at all without her big glasses that she (naturally) rarely wears. Among the police, the complete jerk of a Deputy Commis-sioner for Operations at one point telling the major "hero," after a fellow police officer has been shot, that he is not responsible. Telling him in a rough, tough way, but telling him. And on and on. Life. For real.

So now I have to get hold of season 2.