Remembering my son

Guest Scrogue Kaye Lynne Booth is a Colorado-based book reviewer and writer. Her son Michael took his own life in 2008.

I’ve always been drawn to amethyst, perhaps because of the vibrant purple coloring. Purple has always been my favorite color. Although it is associated with Pisces, my March 3rd birthday falls three days after the date for me to have the February birthstone as my own. Instead I’m stuck with the stagnant blue-green of aquamarine that is the birthstone for March. I sit looking at the amethyst crystal that I found tucked in a box in storage a few days ago, pondering these things. It is oblong, tapering from a deep wine purple fat end that fades to a lighter violet, down into two thin jutting white tips. Its smooth, flat planes where other pieces have been separated from it intersect at sharp angles that catch and refract the light, making it sparkle and shine. It is clear, in that you can see through to where the stone has been shattered within, as if it encases shards of crushed glass, tiny imperfections that only add to the beauty of the gem.

My son, Michael, who took his own life at the age of nineteen, gave me this crystal although I can’t remember the occasion. He always put thought into the gifts he gave me. He knew purple is my favorite color and he knew I like amethyst, but his reasons would have gone deeper than that. He might have chosen amethyst because according to Chinese lore, amethyst is a psychic protector, warding off nightmares and supersensory attack, aiding in remembering and interpreting dreams as well. Amethyst is supposed to increase focus and transfer negative energy, creating a meditative, calming effect and balancing moods. Michael was into oriental teachings and would have known this. The idea would have been appealing to him.

Michael was also into natural healing, so perhaps he gave it to me because of the beneficial properties attributed to amethyst, which are many. Depending on the source you use, amethyst is associated with healing in the endocrine, immune and respiratory systems. It is reputed to help with headaches, mental illness, skin conditions, anxiety, depression, cellular disorders and maladies of the digestive tract.

Michael didn’t like the fact that I smoke, so perhaps he chose to give me this crystal because amethyst is said to ward off excesses and protect against addictions. In fact, the word amethyst has roots coming from the Greek words a-, meaning not, and methustos, meaning intoxicated. There is some irony to this if you look at Greek mythology concerning how the amethyst got its purple coloring. It seems Dionysus, god of wine and mischief, was irritated by Artemis, virgin hunter and lunar goddess, and her followers, so he set a sacred tiger against a maiden attending Artemis’ shrine. To save the maiden, Artemis petrified her, turning her to quartz so that the tiger could cause her no harm. Dionysus then tipped his goblet, pouring wine over the crystal maiden, infusing the color of the grape from which the wine was made into the stone. Michael would have found humor in the fact that an alcoholic beverage created the color of the gemstone said to be the “sobriety stone.”

Gazing at this amethyst, I recall wanting to make a necklace out of it. The thin rough end would be perfect mounted with a metal clasp, but I’d prefer a more natural hanger, such as a thin strip of leather wrapped around the two small, jutting tips. Somehow that just feels right. I hold the crystal against the soft hollow of my throat, moving the hard smooth surfaces of it gently back and forth as if it were a pendulum hanging there. Although it was cold when I first picked it up, now it feels warm and I can almost feel the energy radiating from it. I don’t know how many healing powers this crystal has. I’m not sure if it will ease my headache, clear up my skin or cure my ailments. What I do know is that rubbing my thumb over the smooth surfaces and edges has a calming effect that soothes me and makes me feel at peace. But even if it didn’t have this effect, I would be drawn to it, because the way the purple shades gleam and glisten in the sun is pleasing to my eye.

Children, baseball bats, and foreign policy

The boy, bigger than the rest, strode into the schoolyard, carrying a shiny, new, 34-inch Louisville slugger. He saw groups, some large, some small, of other boys. In darker, shady corners, lone boys lingered. The big boy looked around, here, there, everywhere. Everyone noticed that. Some of the other boys had bats, too, but none were as bright, shiny, and heavy as that of the big boy.

He stopped at one group of smaller boys. He held his gleaming white, hard-maple bat behind him. When he spoke, they smiled. They showed him their bats. He inspected the bats, nodding every now and then. One boy held out his bat and asked a question. The big boy took the bat and showed the smaller child a better way to hold it. He demonstrated to the child how to swing it. The smaller boy stepped away from the group and practiced swinging his bat. The others nodded approvingly.

The big boy walked to another group. He held his bat in front of him, barrel pointed at the biggest of these small boys with furtive eyes. They would not look directly at him. Most had no bats. A few did, but those bats had splintered. Tape held broken chips to the bats’ barrels. A few of the boys sidled up the big boy, smiling, their hands outstretched. The big boy poked sharply at their hands with his bat. The smaller boys slunk away.

The big boy left the group and returned to the entrance of the schoolyard. He looked toward those darker, shadowed corners intently. A few of the loners were hunched over, their backs turned toward him. The big boy could not see their hands.

The big boy reached into a bag he’d left with a trusted smaller boy. He took out two of his large bats — but not quite as large as his big maple bat — and walked to the first group of boys. He spoke to two of the boys. He asked questions. He liked the answers. He gave each boy a new bat, larger than either had ever possessed.

He walked toward a dark corner of the schoolyard, beckoning the two smaller boys to follow. They did, emboldened by their bright, shiny, new bats. They waved the bats, almost arrogantly, at other boys as they passed by.

As they approached the loner in the corner, the big boy waved the smaller boys to his side. The trio of bar wielders fanned around the loner. The big boy approached the loner, whose face was indistinct in shadow. The big boy poked at the dirt next to the lone boy, motioning him back.

As the loner stepped back, his foot kicked a small bag, moving it behind him. But the big boy could see some of its contents — pieces of wood, some small, some large; some were maple, some ironwood, some ash. Then the big boy saw the glue. The bottle was nearly empty; the big boy could tell the loner had been given — or stole — a used bottle from some other boy.

The big boy spoke to the one smaller boys, who scurried off to try to find who provided the glue. As the big boy turned back to the loner, he spotted another solitary boy sidling along the fence toward the loner. The big boy stepped between the loner and the other boy and waved his bright, shiny, new bat at the latter. The boy slunk away. As he did, the big boy saw the tip of a piece of wood and a container of glue poking out of the boy’s pockets.

The big boy turned to the loner and waggled his bat at him. No bat building, he warned. The loner glowered at the big boy, angered. The big boy walked away. He ordered one of the smaller boys to keep watch on the loner, albeit from a distance.

The big boy walked around the yard again, occasionally smacking his bat against his palm. All is order, he thought.

But he’d lost track of that solitary boy with the piece of wood and bottle of glue in his pocket. The big boy never saw that solitary boy approach another smaller boy, sprawled in the dirt after being pushed down by an arrogant, ambitious boy who hung with that first group of boys favored by the big boy.

The solitary boy glanced around the yard. The big boy was back with his bat-wielding friends. The big boy never saw the solitary boy quickly ease the piece of wood and bottle of glue from his pockets — and give them to the smaller boy bullied by a larger one.

That small boy hurriedly hid the wood and disguised the bottle. Come another day, as the big boy circumnavigated the schoolyard, he paid no attention to the bullied boy’s dirty water bottle.

Drones on their own at home and abroad

Drones are becoming simultaneously more fantastic and more ordinary at the same time.

At the Atlantic, Brian Fung writes:

Nothing is inevitable, but over the next few decades, it’ll be very hard to avoid the moment when autonomous drones make their way to the battlefield. … Such machines are worth worrying about not because of the prospect we’ll suffer some Terminator-style robot uprising, but because in the next few decades we’ll need to make some extremely difficult choices about when it’s okay for a computer to end a human life.

Domestic DroneNovelist Daniel Suarez treated this with frightening prescience in his thinking man’s (or woman’s — the protagonist is female) techno-thriller Kill Decision (Dutton Adult). Drones are programmed to make their own decisions about what — or whom — to attack.

First, fighter pilots have begun to be replaced by drone operators. Next, drone operators will begin to be replaced by robots. Also, many of the tasks of infantry will be offloaded to robots. Then, when infantry robots become autonomous, what becomes of individuals who, unable to find work in the civilian sector or pay for college, join the military for a job and a route to a college education? Not everyone can be employed in designing artificial intelligence and manufacturing robots. The obvious irony, of course, is that we wind up in the service of robots, which were designed to serve us.

At the other extreme, at Global Guerillas, John Robb continues his campaign for a “door to door, drone delivery system.” Sure, he foresees problems.

• The drones will be noisy.
• The payloads are going to be tiny (ounces) and the containers they are held in will be clunky.
• The  distance drones travel will be short (less than a mile).
• There will be frequent failures (drones in trees and on rooftops).
• Hassles will occur (problems with government regulators, police, and nutty neighbors).

On the one hand, it’s encouraging to think that drones can be turned to civilian uses — aside from citizen surveillance — especially since they might be of more benefit to the economy than military drones. But, count me as a “nutty neighbor.” The prospect of them buzzing around one’s community — replete with treetops draped with pizzas they’ve dropped while still in beta — is not an attractive one.

Conceivably, commercial drones will become autonomous. No doubt, that would help acclimatize us to autonomous drones in combat. Face it: between the everyday world and war, proponents of drones have got us in the grips of their pincer attack.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

The Rest is Noise (3)–Webern, Schoenberg, Mahler

So onward this week into the music of Schoenberg and Webern. And you know what? It’s not only interesting—it’s also fun. We expected to find the music challenging, and it is. We expected to learn something about why it’s considered important, and that we’ve done. What we didn’t expect was to actually, you know, like the music—but we do. Will wonders never cease? Schoenberg is great—in addition to everything else, he’s got a wicked sense of humor. Early Webern is incredibly melodic—they both are, in fact. It’s just that, especially with Schoenberg, you initially feel disoriented because there are no long themes to anchor you. It’s all bursts and loops. The kinds of temporal patterns that you normally use to ground the musical experience? They mess with it—in fact, they remove it almost entirely. And it’s great fun.

Let’s start with Wednesday’s concert, which was the London Philharmonic, under the direction of Mark Elder, doing Webern’s Im Sommerwind, followed by Five Orchestral Pieces (Opus 16) by Schoenberg, which was then followed by Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The Webern was quite lovely—a gentle, pastoral piece with little in the way of an overall theme, but an expressive mood punctuated by occasional burst of light. This was composed in 1904, before Webern became Schoenberg’s student, but while he was still incorporating his discovery of Mahler. This is not the short, abrupt Webern of his later career. This is an expansive, expressionistic, almost opulent piece that Webern, actually, never heard performed during his lifetime—it wasn’t premiered until the 1960s, when it was rediscovered. Webern seems to have described it as an “orchestral idyll,” and that’s about right. It’s a tone poem, characteristic of the period. It’s the lightness of touch and texture that I found beguiling, though—it’s expressionistic, but not even close to the kind of loud, brassy orchestration that characterizes much of the period, including Strauss and (particularly) Mahler.

This was followed by the Schoenberg, which was, I have to say, great. As I mentioned above, I went into this sort of resigned to learn something, but I had no feelings one way or the other about what I might find enjoyable. But Schoenberg has surprise me. I haven’t heard anything by him yet that I haven’t liked—in fact, I’ve ordered both pieces, the Chamber Symphony, and the Five Orchestral Pieces, from Amazon already. I hadn’t really expected to want to hear them again—but I do. Maybe they’re just programming Schoenberg for people who don’t like Schoenberg, that sort of thing—but it’s working. The Five Orchestral Pieces are just that—five short pieces, all short—the entire works takes about 16 minutes. These are extremely expressionistic—there’s virtually no structure, no architecture to the work. It’s all mood, short bursts of line, what Schoenberg called “total chromaticism.” We’re not technically interested here in tonality, but it emerges anyway—you take this music and mentally structure it somehow. That’s how it makes sense. This could only have been composed in Vienna, obviously—Schoenberg is deliberately delving into his own musical unconscious here, as he had earlier in some of his more radical piano pieces, capturing bits here and there. It’s the kind of work where memory seems to intrude constantly. It’s all musical thoughts, many of them apparently random, but that’s just the impression you take away. It’s clearly much more structured than that, and it works wonderfully.

That was the first half—then the Mahler. Schoenberg and Webern (and Berg) all worshiped Mahler, so it was fitting to include him in these programs. But I’m not sure that this is the Mahler piece I would have chosen for this sort of concert, although the rather depressing theme of the piece fit. Mahler started writing it in 1908, the year after the death of his daughter, his resignation from conducting in Vienna after years of dealing with Austria’s increasingly vocal anti-semitism, and his first year as a conductor in New York—and after learning that his own heart was irreparably damaged. (It would kill him three years later.) The somber tones of the work seem to fly in the face of what has gone before—the bonhomie of the drunkard (who sings twice) seems forced, and the final section—the Farewell (Das Abschied)—is one of the most desolate in music. It’s six songs strung together, and Mahler, who normally composed in a fury of activity, took his time here, knitting things together gradually. It’s a long piece, of course. Well, all of Mahler is long, but some pieces seem longer than others. Mahler at the time was apparently influenced by a volume of ancient Chinese poetry. Of all of Mahler’s symphonies, this is the work where he attempted to integrate voice and orchestra most completely.

So overall, a somber piece. Well performed, I must say, with perfectly capable solos by mezzo Lilli Paaskivi and tenor Paul Groves. If I were programming, I would have chosen the fourth symphony, which does have a quite lovely soprano accompaniment in its final movement. But the organizers and programmers here apparently decided that somber was the way to go, and it pretty much worked that way. By the end of Mahler’s life the music world was changing rapidly. The romanticism inherent in Mahler’s final years was rapidly making way to radically new musical style—that was already clear with Schoenberg’s work, including the Five Orchestral Pieces, which were first performed in 1909—the year after Mahler started work on Das Lied, and two years before Das Lied actually was performed. It’s not clear to me how much of a summing up Mahler considered this work to be—he did complete another symphony (the 9th) before his death, and started work on another one. But still, this has the feel of a valedictory piece, and the programmers obviously intended this to be perceived as the “end of an era” piece to be contrasted with what was coming along.

Just how radical was to have been demonstrated by Thursday’s concert, Air from Another Planet, featuring Schoenberg’s 4 Songs (Opus 2), Alma Mahler’s 4 Songs, and 7 Early Songs by Berg, all followed by Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, with soprano soloist Barbara Hannigan accompanying the Quatuor Diotima string quartet. Which we missed! Because we both had sudden drippy colds and didn’t feel like ruining everyone else’s evening by sneezing and honking throughout. But we already have a feel for this, because the pieces we’ve heard already by Schoenberg (including the piano pieces from the weekend concert) were all composed around this time as well—the Chamber Symphony (the first one, of two) in 1907, and the Five Orchestral Pieces, as said, in 1909, and the piano pieces in 1909 and 1911. Clearly a time of turbulence, for Mahler and Schoenberg to be composing what they were composing at around the same time. And it’s important to understand, I suppose, what Schoenberg was actually doing—he was trying to take the romanticism that he loved—from Strauss, from Brahms, from Mahler—and extend it as far as it could go. His later decision to pursue atonality—intimated throughout all the pieces we have heard thus far—resulted from his decision that he couldn’t take it further, there was nowhere else to go. Mahler clearly would not have agreed—nor, for that matter, would have Sibelius, who comes along next month—but you can see why Schoenberg made that decision. One wonders, though, what Schoenberg thought of Sibelius’s 6th Symphony?

And so we leave Vienna behind—but not really. Vienna pervades the century, as we’ll see. Next up—nationalism, starting with Elgar in England on Saturday, but then back to Webern next week to finish off the month. Well, I’ve been converted to Schoenberg—maybe I’ll be converted to Elgar as well. If not, it won’t be for lack of trying. I have to say that South Bank keeps putting together a bang-up set of events to surround the music—here’s the schedule of events for the February weekend. The days are just packed!