Monday, July 30, 2007

Picture it: Tucson, Arizona, 1955. A very sophomoronic sophomore attending the sun-baked U of A longs for a dash of sophistication. But where to find it? Fashion? Forget it! Sexual panache? Puh-leeze! Global travels? Not for another five years.

So what's available? Foreign films, of course. A small theater near campus specializes in the flicks from afar. The tiny lobby boasts serious art posters on the wall (Van Gogh--even a freshman can identify Van Gogh and feel safe); and after the late showing, offers free cigarettes and tiny cups of CPR-certified black coffee to the movie buffs, who stand around exuding smoke and hilarious baloney-cum-critiques of what they've just seen.

The sophomore (that's me) doesn't take advantage of the cigarettes or coffee,
and, being alone, lacks an audience for any baloney she might serve up. But, boy, does she soak up the atmosphere of the films. It doesn't get any more sophisticated than black and white cinema in French, Italian, German--and most high-falutin' of all--Swedish.

The great Swedish director Ingemar Bergman died today. And I'm here to say that I never really got a grasp on any film he made. Even the later masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander, which earned the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, left me somewhat mystified. Even the first film of his that I saw, that 1955 movie that had my classmates buzzing over their coffee cups, Smiles of a Summer Night, floated just over my head like a tantalizing balloon.

Doesn't matter, though. The bits and pieces I did understand, the scenes that did leave a lasting impression on my "inward eye," were more than enough to let me see a new vision of cinema, give me to understand that things would never be the same after this man had done his work. If nothing else, Bergman set me up for the countless ways Woody Allen would spoof and salute his acknowledged
hero. Smiles of a Summer Night would spawn Woody's own film, Midsummer
Night's Sex Comedy; Allen's Love and War is filled with parodies of a dozen Bergman films--well, that list goes on. But a dozen dozen directors did things differently because of Ingemar Bergman.

It doesn't matter if I understood only glimpses of what the Swedish genius tried to show us. Seeing his art drew me out of the sophomore playground and a bit further into the wider world. So rest in peace, Mr. Bergman, and thank you.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


We all know that three-year olds ask "WHY?" roughly as often as two-year olds say "NO!" My problem is that I never got over the Why's. And many of my "why's"are about as weighty as the three-year olds'.

For example, this week I 've been wondering why, in our vintage years, so many of us become enchanted with birds.

Take JD (retired Texas cowboy, age eighty-something). He shouldn't even be maneuvering without his walker, but last year he came perilously close to breaking his saddle-bones because he insisted on toting a 50-pound bag of birdseed out to the back yard over icy ground. The Bird Man of Ageless Acres, that's JD.

Nobody in my family ever tossed a crumb to birds, or knew a sparrow from a seagull. But now, as I thrash my way deeper and deeper through the tall grass of cronedom, I find myself spending long minutes staring out the kitchen window watching the birds at our feeder while my oat bran withers in the milk. I still can't tell a grackle from a cowbird (though I'm a whiz at spotting the cardinal couple). So my question is Why?

What's so fascinating about the birds?

I don't know. But last Tuesday, as I watched, four or five sparrows flittered down to peck at scattered sunflower seeds in the patio. It was the flittering that got to me. The way they drifted down from nearby trees, or from the rooftops where they hang out. Now, a variety of things sift down from the skies, at various times--the leaves of the great cottonwood that presides over the yard, each leaf on its own flight path, unhurried, floating. And snowflakes, of course, magical and forgiving, turning unsightly into spectacular in about twenty minutes. Sunlight sifts through the branches of the massive tree.

But the birds are best of all. Especially when they drift down, flittering. Sometimes, yes, they zoom in, hungry and intent. Or they dart, shooting down as though aimed.
But when they flitter, two, three, four at a time, gently, trustingly, as though they know they are welcome and wanted, and each so very alive, self-contained, they seem like a gift from the skies, separate small messages orbiting our anchored, earth-bound lives.

Sunday, July 1, 2007


(I first published this little piece years ago in a magazine called network. Later it appeared in a collection of my stuff titled Only When I Laugh (Signature Books). So it's hardly new. But, the state of things being what it is, I felt like putting it on the blog this month. So here it is. )

July is, of course, the stellar month for displaying the flag, setting the porch on fire with firecrackers, and otherwise celebrating our nation's birth. But during my childhood, February always headed the hit parade as the most patriotic month of the year. In school, we seemed to spend forever cutting out black paper silhouettes of Lincoln and smearing brown Crayolas over our wobbly drawings of log cabins; no sooner had the library paste dried than it was time for cherry trees, hatchets, and pictures of George Washington with his funny pony tail and grim smile. (Both birthdays were celebrated in those bygone, less hurried days. "Presidents Day" came later.) July couldn't touch February for patriotism, mainly because we weren't in school and thus didn't get so worked up with arts, crafts, and classroom pageantry.

All this nostalgia got me thinking about whether I am really patriotic. And that's when I decided we needed a new word; so I coined one.


Think about it. "Patriotic," of course, comes from the Latin pater, meaning father; a patriot is one "who loves and loyally or zealously supports his own country," his fatherland. A perfectly good word for a perfectly good feeling.

"Matriotic," by analogy, comes from the Latin mater; a matriot is then one who loves and loyally or zealously supports her motherland, her own planet--Mother Earth.

The two words are not perfectly analogous, fortunately, otherwise people might see conflict of interest where there is none. Patriotism, as we use the word, is about the flag and the history of a nation; in our case, it's about the Bill of Rights, free elections, and the peaceful transfer of power, even after a national trauma like the assassination of John Kennedy or the Watergate scandal.

Matriotism, on the other hand, is yin to patriotism's yang. It's about the Earth, not the world. It's about what those fortunate few have seen from spaceship portals, not what we see on a map or a globe with regularly updated borderlines and political color-coding. Matriotism is about one sun by day and one moon by night, a moon that waxes and wanes and marks months and menses whether you live in Moscow, Idaho, or the other Moscow. It's about what human beings have felt since the dawn of time when we lay on our backs on the ground and looked up at floating clouds or winking, wondrous stars.

Patriotism has always had a lot of the zest of competition in it--rival teams, us and them, Britain's battles being won on the playing fields of Eton, and all that. My country, right or wrong. My country over other countries.

Matriotism, by contrast, recognizes that while there may be six- or seven-score fatherlands, there is only one motherland. Untold political divisions have risen, prospered, and utterly vanished, myriad civilizations and great cities that are no more--too many to count or name. But while we have her, there is only one Mother Earth. And every person alive knows her intimately.

Standing on a grassy meadow in England once, I was told that the same huge old trees I was seeing, the same pitted boulders, the same streambed, had been seen and touched by Normans, by Anglo-Saxons, by Romans, by Stone Age Brits. They had been patriots of many cultures, many states, but children of one earth.

So it's not either-or; it's not a matter of matriotism vs. patriotism. But perhaps it is a matter of bringing our matriotism a little more to the forefront. For instance, we could start with a holiday. A matriotic holiday, a worldwide day of celebration, gratitude, and rededication to the planet. We'd need a flag, of course. There is that Olympic flag with the colored rings, but frankly I can't get very stirred up about what looks like beer-mug rings on a table. But that would do for a starter, until we got something better. And we'd need a song--an anthem, really. Wouldn't it be something to have an international anthem (no, no, not the Internationale) that little kids all over the world would learn to sing, a hymn about the oceans and the mountains and the sands and the snows of Earth? We could certainly work up a pledge of allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the soil, and to the air we breathe, to every species beneath the sun. . . ." Well, you get the idea.

We'd certainly need a Matriots' Hall of Fame someplace--maybe aboard a ship that would sail from country to country, celebrating the great matriots who toiled to defend Mother Earth, whether by saving the whales and the gorillas and the snail darters, or by engineering new strains of seed that would feed more people per acre, or by finding the keys to practical mass use of solar energy instead of fossil fuels.

Some people might not get too excited about being matriotic, seeing that it lacks that old competitive edge. On the other hand, remember what Pogo said: "We have met the enemy, and they is us." This fight to save Mother Earth could end up being the most glorious battle of all.

And besides: just think what first- and second-graders could do in the way of decorations!