Unbrave New World

Posted November 15, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

It was like a scene from a dystopian science fiction film. A police state, with 24-hour surveillance of its citizens. No safe place to go. No private time by the sea. Every movement catalogued. Every quiet time observed.

And I was in the middle of it. Not just in the middle, but was the primary focus of it.

I was under surveillance by a drone. It just hovered there, about 10 yards away from me and 20 feet off the ground.

It happened to me this afternoon at Lighthouse Point. I had gone to the sea for the reasons I always go to the sea: to be quiet, to watch and to listen to the tide, to watch the gulls and the oyster boats, to sit under the black cherry tree — now leafless for the season — and to watch the sun glitter off the waves and the tugboats guide the ships into port.

But mostly I go to be alone, to go inside myself by letting the world of the sea keep me intimate company, and by letting the world of noise and the anxieties of my city life drift away into silence.

I had come this afternoon adjusted for mid-autumn. No longer bringing my Pico folding armchair, which I sit in for an hour or two each visit during the summer and late-spring under the flowering black cherry tree, I now arrived today with my 3-legged folding artist’s stool, which I folded into my large backpack, along with my camera and notebook.

It’s too cold nowadays to sit for longer than 20 minutes at a time, under a leafless tree, especially with the temperature in the low-40s and the wind out of the ESE at 7 mph. The artist’s stool is perfect for a quick setting up and a quick closing down and a simple move to another location.

I was walking along the path that borders the embankment that overlooks the shore on the western side of the point. I glanced up to watch an oyster boat on the far side of the bay move slowly through the water on its way home.

That’s when I saw the drone. I did a double-take. “What the hell?! Is that what I think it is?”

I stared at the drone, as the drone stared at me. It was motionless, hovering in the air, as if it were a creature from another planet taking its first look at a human. I stopped and reached for my camera and got off a quick shot.

I photographed the drone while apparently it was photographing me. It was what is called a Mexican stand-off. But in that brief time, that hovering spy intruder, appearing out of nowhere, knew more about me than I knew about it. We were strangers, and it had caught me unawares and off-balance.

After a minute of observing me, the drone then sped away along the coastline. I saw two men at the base of the lighthouse with metal suitcases at their feet. The drone flew to them.

It was very creepy and deeply unsettling. It reminded me of certain books I’ve read and films I’ve seen, where citizens are kept under 24-hour surveillance. Not just criminals, but the population-at-large. So the government can maintain absolute control, and easily eliminate troublemakers. How easy it would be to control the masses. Especially with drones that could both take photos and fire weapons.

Like the drones currently being used by the U.S. in Afghanistan. Now I hear that ISIS is also using drones.

Drones are the wave of the future, the simple little machines that can change — and undoubtedly will change — how we define “privacy” in our lives.

People get drones for gifts at Christmas and go out and play with them in the backyard. How innocent. How technologically exciting. What fun !

“Look. I can see what’s happening in people’s yards a half-mile away. How ‘cool!’ “

Does it occur to such people that drones are perfect and inexpensive little machines that are ideal for controlling the masses by stripping them of their solitude, their intimacy, their secrets, their seclusion?

Once upon a time, a person could get away from prying eyes. But now with drones and Smart Phones and body cameras, we’re all subject to intrusive surveillance, whether we know it or not or like it or not.

Orwell’s “1984” foresaw it. So did Huxley’s “Brave New World.” So did Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” And those books were written more than half a century ago. A lot more novels with even more dire plots about the future consequences of such technological breakthroughs have been written since then.

But my experience today was not a novel, not make-believe. It was a compelling glimpse into the future, by way of a small, hovering flying machine that took its measure of me . . . and then swallowed it.

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Remembering What I’ve Neglected

Posted November 9, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

One of the advantages of reading The Writer’s Almanac online each morning on my laptop is that it often reminds me of what I’ve let fall by the wayside. It reacquaints me with writers I have long admired but have carelessly put aside. The site helps me bring those writers back into my life.

The Almanac is the creation of the writer and TV host Garrison Keillor. You can either read each day’s edition quietly to yourself or you can hear Keillor speak it. I always listen to Keillor speak it.

This morning, he spoke about the American poet, Anne Sexton. Sexton was born in Massachusetts in 1928. Her father was alcoholic and abusive. Her mother was cold and remote. Sexton’s great-aunt, who the young girl adored, went crazy and died in a nursing home.

As a child, Sexton was sent to boarding school. She suffered mental problems throughout her life and was probably bipolar. She married at 19, had two children, and tried very hard to live a conventional life and to be what her husband wanted her to be.

“But,” she wrote, “one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.”

She wrote brilliant, incisive, aggressive, probing poetry, that was vivid and emotionally complex. She became famous and was especially popular during the 1960s.

I loved her work and bought her Complete Poems 25 years ago, and still have that volume. I read her work regularly back then. It is so savvy and touching and sadly ironical.

But then other things entered my life — other interests, other dramas, other literary passions — and I drifted away from Sexton’s work.

And then this morning’s Writer’s Almanac brought her back into my life. Today is her 89th birthday.

But Sexton never made it to 89. She never made it to 50. She committed suicide in 1974, a month before turning 46. She put on her mother’s old fur coat, sat in her car in her garage, turned on the engine, and just sat there until the fumes finally killed her.

Neither the picket fences nor her celebrity as a brilliant poet could keep the nightmares out.

The poem below was published in Sexton’s second collection, “All My Pretty Ones,” published in 1962.

The Truth the Dead Know
by Anne Sexton

For my Mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my Father, born February 1900, died June 1959

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.
We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.
My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

“The Truth the Dead Know” by Anne Sexton from The Complete Poems. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.

America the Lunatic

Posted November 7, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

After the latest assault-weapons slaughter inside the small church in the tiny Texas town, Connecticut Senator Christopher Murphy said that “We have to find a way to talk about this issue outside of the epic scale of mass shootings.”

He meant the issue of too many guns — especially assault weapons — in too many American hands.

‘There are mass shootings every single night in America,” said Murphy.

What Senator Murphy did not say — could not say, as Senator — is that America is crazy. There’s no other way to put it.

When it comes to violence and the broad use of guns in America, we Americans are lunatics. We are irrational, obsessive-compulsive and generally nuts about hurting people.

We love violence. We can’t get enough of it. It fills our movies, our television shows, our advertising, our entertainment, and our sports. It’s no accident that football is America’s favorite sport. Football is filled with violence. Every tackle, every smack down, every pounding, every concussion makes America’s TV audience swoon. The more “physical,” the better.

Players limp off the field all the time. And the crowds love it. That’s why the seats are filled and the numbers of TV audiences soar in the tens of millions.

The move from the love of violence to the use of guns is just a half-step. I love westerns. They are almost Ancient Greek-like in their motivations and heroics. But the use of guns in those westerns have shaped generations of males, especially, in the justified use of guns to settle issues.

But westerns didn’t create the love of the gun. They gave the gun an everyday legitimacy. They made the gun a pragmatic problem-solver. Westerns put on the screen what audiences felt in their heart: that the use of a gun is a short cut to resolving conflict.

When westerns fell out of favor, war movies took their place. And today, space ships and alien invasions and galactic convulsions appeal to the inner needs of American men and women to feel the thrill of death by gunshot or death ray.

As a culture, America never grew up. We’re still trapped in the violent fantasies of adolescent Boom and Bang.

We believe that having more guns is safer than having fewer guns. And not just more guns, but more powerful guns. Power and violence go hand-in-hand. That’s why gun owners want to feel the manly caress of machine-gun action and pulsating power.

And what good is power if you can’t kill something with it? Kill animals or kill people. The only difference is that killing animals is legal and usually killing people isn’t, unless it’s wartime and then all rules are null and void.

Other than that, the thrill of pulling a trigger and watching your target hit the ground is like having sex, no matter whether you’re killing a two-legged or four-legged animal. Pull a trigger. Someone falls. You win.

America is the most dangerous of all the industrialized nations, when it comes to killing. We shoot and kill more people over a weekend than most countries kill in a year.

And there’s no way we will ever stop the killing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s adults or children. We kill at random and indiscriminately. A one-and-a-half year old baby was shot to death in the Texas church. All those helpless children were shot point-blank in Newtown, Connecticut.

And on and on it goes. And on and on it will always go. We are crazy.

We love to kill and we love to fire weapons. No senator is going to stop that. No president is going to stop that, although Barack Obama tried.

And to reinforce our craziness, we will say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.”

No, they’re not. If our thoughts and feelings really were with the victims, we’d find a way to stop the daily slaughter. But we don’t find a way to stop it and we never will. We would have to change our whole national impulse for violence and guns, and there’s no way that will happen. We are wired for violence and guns.

It’s not in our character as Americans to be peace-loving. You don’t get to be the most powerful nation on earth by being peace-loving. You get to be No.1 by being bigger and having more powerful weapons than anyone else. You don’t win thorough brotherly love. You win through brotherly intimidation.

That’s what makes the conflict with North Korea so dangerous. North Korea is trying to bully the most powerful nation on earth with weapons America respects and fears. This will not have a happy ending for either side.

So what to do about America’s obsessive craziness? First, we should admit it. We should tell ourselves that our love of violence and of the gun is unhealthy. It’s not healthy — or sane — for us or for other people. It’s not just a few crazy people in love with guns and violence. It’s American culture in general. That’s number one. What we see as healthy is really sick.

Number two, we really should take as many guns as possible off the market. Our Constitution does not say that we are entitled to own assault weapons, or silencers, or that we are allowed to wear our guns on our belts when we go to school or to church or to the shopping mall.

As another Connecticut Senator, Richard Blumenthal, recently said, “We simply cannot allow these massacres to become the new normal. We cannot allow ourselves to become desensitized. . . Until more Americans make gun violence prevention a priority and demand accountability from their elected leaders, there will be more and more horrific mass shooting incidents, everyday gun violence and gun suicides in all our communities.”

Of course, he’s right about that. What’s he’s wrong about is expecting America to change its personality. America was born with the gun, prospered with the gun, and will go down fighting with the gun.

And all the thoughts and prayers in the world won’t make any difference. It’s virtually too late for us to save ourselves.

Crazy is as crazy does. And we’re as crazy as it gets.

Our Neighborhood

Posted November 2, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

I live in a moderate-size city, about a 15-minute walk from the downtown center of the Green. As with every city, we have different sections with different personalities and different economic status.

I live close to Yale University on one side, and a middleclass black community on the other side. Many of the wooden houses on the opposite side of my street are owned by Yale to house their graduate students.

The houses on my side of the street are owned mainly by full-time New Haven residents, many of whom live in the houses themselves. The other houses are owned by absentee landlords. Most of the owners are white and many of them rent apartments to Yale students and to older non-Yale students like me.

A block or two to the west is primarily a black section of town, inhabited by middleclass African-American families.

My street is a kind of cross-over street, a melting-pot street. Members of all the nearby neighborhood communities walk and drive up and down our street at all the hours of the day and night. We come and go in each other’s lives, black and white, young and old.

Sometimes we stop and speak to each other. Other times — and this is true especially of the Yale students — we just walk on by.

We have a good number of dogs in the neighborhood, and people walk them in the morning and throughout the day and evening. Sometimes I stop and engage the human and feed a few treats to the canine. The dogs get to know me and become all excited when I show up.

That’s the sometimes small-town nature of our street. We live in a city, but we often act as if we live in a small town. Our street is like a small town unto itself.

When Halloween comes, I always load up a huge bowl with all kinds and brands of candy, and wait for my bell to buzz. I’m one of the few people on my street who welcomes the trick-or-treaters, and the kids know it and pass the word.

I enjoy doing it. The young kids are great. So excited and yet so polite. Their mother — and sometimes a father or older brother or sister — stands on the sidewalk, while their kids mount the steps and approach my bell.

Ninety-nine percent of the kids who come to my door are African-American. This year, there were no white kinds. Last year, there may have been one white person. The costumes are usually homemade, though the masks usually come from a store.

These are not kids from affluent families, who have a lot of disposable income to spend on one-night costumes. Sometimes they barely have a costume at all. But they always have some kind of bag in their hands to load up with candy. And I encourage them to take two and three and four pieces. And they always say thank you. Sometimes I tell them to take a handful.

Yes, the candy is terrible for their teeth. But come on: It’s Halloween. They can eat apples next week. Tonight is the night of the Sweet Tooth.

One small couple came to my door Tuesday night all dressed up. I asked the boy who he was. He said he was Captain Roger, or some such name.

I asked the girl at his side — probably his sister — who was wearing an orange mask similar to Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream.’

“And who are you?” I asked.

She kept her mask on as she dug her fingers into the candy bowl. Then she stopped, looked at me and said simply, “a criminal.”

‘God Is Not Great’

Posted October 31, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

It was a sunny day today in my part of the country and in New York City, which is about 90 minutes from where I live.

It was sunny but cool. The temperature was in the mid-to-upper-50s.

I drove to the family cottage at Leetes Island to check on how things looked after the fierce rain and wind storm we had Saturday night and early Sunday morning.

Things on the island looked ok.

Some people in New York City decided to spend the day riding their bicycles along the West Side Highway. A special bike lane runs alongside the highway. They’ve ridden it before. It’s a nice ride, You ride parallel to the Hudson River.

A nice, sunny autumn afternoon. Cool the way autumn is supposed to be.

It was around three o’clock. They figured they’d have a nice ride, enjoy the air, watch the boats sail along the Hudson. A good way to work off some pounds and still work up an appetite. It was one of their favorite things to do.

Afterwards, they’d go back home, see their friends, be with their spouses or lovers or dog or cat, and then spend a quiet evening, maybe watch the World Series on TV.

And then suddenly, they were dead.

Eight of them. Six died on the bike path, two died a short time later at a hospital. Twelve other bikers were seriously injured and lay bleeding on the ground.

Just like that. Out of the blue.

They were run down by a man from Uzbekistan by way of western Florida, who drove a pick-up truck he rented from Home Depot. He mowed down those bicyclists as if they were bowling pins. Just ran right over them. Then he aimed his truck and rammed a school bus and injured three disabled students inside the bus.

Then he got out of the truck and shouted — in Arabic — “God is great!”

That’s some god. Is he a mafia boss, who orders “hits” on innocent bicycle riders? Do you call him Godfather?

Writer Christopher Hitchens saw through this murderous charade years ago when he published his famous book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

Hitchens died of cancer in 2011. But the God-Who-Is-Not-Great lives on. And his killer lieutenants continue their dirty work.

Those dead eight bicyclists had friends and relatives who loved them, but are now grief-stricken.

Apparently, the God-Who-Is-Not-Great couldn’t be happier.

The Daring Young Man

Posted October 25, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

His name was Ronnie Sandella. He was a good-looking kid and he knew it. But he laughed a lot, sometimes at himself. So he wasn’t obnoxious about his good looks. He was just confident, except when it came to school.

Ronnie had not done well in school. He was 16 years old and still in the 8th grade at St. John the Baptist. Usually you’re 13 or 14, when you’re in the 8th grade. So Ronnie had stayed back a couple of years. He just didn’t have the mind for academics.

But he didn’t act as if he was ashamed of being so old in 8th grade. He was good-natured, active, made comments in class — often beside the point but with a laugh attached. He wasn’t much of an athlete but he went out for the teams.

And he was forever combing his thick, black hair into a handsome pompadour. He stuck a comb in his waistband and would whip it out numerous times during the day to give his hair a quick once-over.

We were taught by nuns. For years, the nuns at St. John the Baptist were Sisters of Mercy. But then a change came over the school and a new order of nuns was brought in: Sisters of Notre Dame. Like the Sisters of Mercy, they wore black habits that covered their bodies from head to foot. But what was different about the new nuns was that their habit soared into a peak over their heads. We’d never seen anything like that before. It looked weird.

Our 8th grade teacher was Mother St. Laura. She was young and beautiful and smiled a lot and was bright and kind.

So, of course, Ronnie fell in love with her. I mean “love” in the real sense of a 16-year-old boy having a crush on a young woman who is not only older and in authority over him, but is also married to the Church.

But for Ronnie, none of that made any difference. He kept smiling at her and talking to her in class and going up to her after class just to be near her.

One day, as I was sitting at my desk, I looked down and there was Ronnie, flat on his stomach, inching his way along the floor, like a guerilla fighter, heading for Mother St. Laura’s desk. Her back was to the class, as she wrote on the black board.

Ronnie reached the desk, lifted himself just high enough to put a note on top of the desk, and then slunk down again and crawled back along the floor to his seat.

God knows what the note said. But it probably had romantic undertones.

And that’s how the year went.

After graduation, we all said goodbye to one another and headed to different high schools. But Ronnie just seemed to disappear. He didn’t say goodbye. He just vanished. We never knew what high school he went to, if he went to any.

And years passed.

My life got complicated and I pretty much lost touch with my old classmates. But one day, I did meet one of them in the city as I was waiting for a bus.

We said the usual things that grammar school graduates to say to one another after a few years had passed. But then he asked, “Did you hear about Ronnie Sandella.”

I hadn’t.

“Ronnie left town after St. John’s,” he said, “and joined a circus.”

“What?”

“Yes. He went down to Florida and made contact with a circus, and became a trapeze artist.”

“Can you beat that?” I said. “I’m both surprised and not surprised. How did you find out?”

“He came back to New Haven for a visit. I guess the circus was playing someplace near, so he drove back to the old neighborhood. Bob Milici talked to him. Ronnie showed up in a big fancy car. Apparently, he’s become a big success on the trapeze. At least that’s what he told Bob. He’s making good money, he said, driving a fancy car, looking like a million dollars. Bob said he had a terrific tan.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “I always liked Ronnie. I wondered what would happen to him. Do you think he went to visit Mother St. Laura, while he was in town? ”

We laughed.

“He could have gone up to her and said, ‘Laura: you see what you missed? We could have had a good life together, you and me. You could have worn fancy clothes, ridden in fancy cars, watched me soar high in the air. You could have lived a circus life unlike anything you could imagine. It would have made you happier than religion.

“ ‘And you would have been proud of me, Laura. You would have said: ‘That Ronnie Sandella is some kind ‘a guy. ’ ”

Just Show Us Your Whole Face

Posted October 20, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

If women want to walk around with their bodies wrapped in religious clothes with only their eyes showing, that’s fine. Go live in a country where living like that is normal. And have a nice time.

But don’t live that way in my country. My country is, and was founded as, a secular country, guided by the intellect fashioned by reason. We are Enlightenment’s children. Religion plays a subsidiary role here, or should. The primary role in my country is played by reason and pragmatism, not by religious fiat or dogmatism.

Religious faith in my country is, more or less, a private affair. You go to your church, your synagogue, your mosque, and do what you do there. Nobody is going to stop you. You can kneel or stand, sing or be quiet, chant or prostrate yourself in front of an altar. That’s all fine. That’s your business.

But don’t push it on the rest of us. If we want that sort of thing, we’ll find it.

And don’t parade your religious flamboyance in the streets. Especially if it means you dress up in clothes that hide everything about you, except your eyes. That’s pushing your religion down our throats, and we tend to choke on it. And choking is bad for our disposition, as well as for our political appetite.

If you want to live in a country that places those values in reverse — dogmatism before rationalism — you can find all sorts of countries to live in, especially in the Middle East.

Of course, we do have a lot of excitable Christians in this country who want to impose their religious beliefs and fantasies on the rest of us. But we try to fight them off by pointing to our Constitution and dragging such overheated people into court and making it clear to them that our Constitution is more important than their religious, largely irrational, passions.

The point is: you don’t have to live here. You can always go to another country where you might feel more comfortable walking down the street covered head to foot in clothes that totally hide you and your face.

But if you want to live here, you have to give that up. We like to look at people’s faces. We like to see what manner of woman or man you are. And we can’t see that when you’re walking around in a portable tent or dressed as a mummy.

There’s also this: From our point of view, a woman is demeaned who is dressed in clothes that completely negates her individuality. For us, such a woman is treated as something less than a free human being. She is a specter, a mere shadow of a real person. She is singled out as somehow unworthy to walk around as a fully-functioning and self-confident individual. She is neutralized by a religious dictate that belittles her femaleness.

You don’t see Muslim men walking around fully hidden by shapeless drapes. That’s because they are first-class citizens in their culture, while women are notoriously second-class citizens.

We try not to play that game in my country, although we don’t often succeed at it. We still have women dress up as colorful ornaments, walking in uncomfortable spiky shoes and wearing make-up designed to make them look colorful and luscious, like fruit-loops.

Poor women. In Muslim countries, they’re hidden under drapes. In Western countries, they’re paraded around as Christmas ornaments.

Did I say “Christmas” in this secular culture?

But at least in the West, we can see their colorful faces. That’s important. It helps us decide whether they’re likely to throw a bomb or not. A woman dressed head to foot in drapes is impossible to read. And that makes us nervous.

The good thing is that we live in a world of choice. You can usually find a place that will accept you and perhaps even embrace you. If it’s not Quebec or Paris or Berlin or Brussels, it could be Saudi Arabia or Iran or Iraq or some other such country.

You don’t have to live here. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that if you do decide to live here, you have to take off your drape and let us see your face.