Category Archives: Peace

Don Quixote of the Modern College Campus

I took this picture while stopped in traffic on Nassau Street, right in front of Princeton University’s main gate.

The bus caught my eye.  (How could it not?)  It’s the type of NQR that makes me, at least fleetingly, rather happy, warmed-inside, representing a sort of harmless and hopeful craziness which, if it were to increase individually or collectively, would surely benefit our often cruel and callous world.

Some of the lovely, hopeful slogans borne by this Rocinante:  “Spread kindness to everyone every chance you get” . . . “Overcome bullying through love” . . . “One guy (Bob) and his dog (Gocart) traveling to campuses across the country to promote kindness” . . . “Kids need role models” . . . “Let’s all stop hurtin’ each other” . . . “Don’t Hit Don’t Hurt Do Help Do Heal” . . . “You Have Such a Big Heart Share It With Everyone” . . . “The Greatest of These Is Love”

The bus also provides an opportunity to show to people overseas who aren’t familiar with America one of the last vestiges of our vaunted hippie culture, a dream and an anti-capitalist fervor that once thrived on certain (more liberal) college campuses but has now disappeared, aging and mellowing, to suburban pacification or to isolation in certain marginalized movements or locations. (Though the ‘Occupy’ events of last summer still had force!)

I was happy to see this bus, here, in a place like Princeton where I wouldn’t ever have expected it.  I wonder how its owner fared, preaching or simply being among the scions of this elite, Ivy locale.  I imagine he found some folks to listen, others like me to look and think about his slogans and his message.  But, in the end, the thing that made me happiest of all was just to imagine him, a modern Quixote mounting his painted, slogan-covered Rocinante and driving, rescue-dog at his side, off into some romantic and futile sunset, tilting at so many noble windmills.

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Sleep Fishing

This image qualifies as the opposite of “Not Quite Right.”  It’s 100% right, what life should be like everyday.

Taken in the Boundary Waters, a canoe-only wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Canada.  My 12-year old had paddled 13 miles and then fished, almost non-stop, for the rest of the day.  Late afternoon, beautifully calm skies and waters, the fishing ‘action’ had drifted off and so, too, had he.  He’s completely asleep in this photo, though he’s holding his fishing pole cupped in both hands and though the bobber drifts on the mirror-flat surface of the lake.  A fish even bit at one point, pulling and jiggling the bobber beneath the surface.  He continued to sleep and then, at last, after about 20 minutes, startled awake, completely unaware of where he was!  How strange it must have been for him to wake from a dream into the very place of his dreams.

My 12-year old, in paradise.


Self-critique through Sudanese Art

While staying in Khartoum last year the lobby of my hotel was liberally sprinkled with very nice oil paintings, all floor-mounted like some sort of temporary bazaar, though without the artist there personally hawking his wares.

The particular piece below intrigued me more than any other and I stopped in front of it at least four or five separate times, contemplating it as a purchase — how to ship it back to Oman, whether the meagre price of $300 justified it (certainly, in retrospect, the price seems right!) — and contemplating also, at the same time, though more subliminally, the reasons I felt so drawn to it.  In the end I merely took a picture of it, wanting to look at it again in the future, like now.  Perhaps, during this coming summer, I’ll try my hand at painting a version of it myself (though in acrylics rather than the touchier, more drawn-out oils).  For now, I find it interesting to once more look at it and, having gained a bit of time and distance for self-study and for processing the experience of Sudan, I’d like to list the reasons (some of them NQR) that this particular image engrosses me.

Oil painting of a Sudanese market.

Reasons I like this painting:

1.  Color scheme — First, and most obvious from a distance, the color-scheme is a cooling one.  It contrasts markedly against the actual experience of Sudan, which is (or was for me) one of incredible bustle, dust, noise, and heat.  As such, this scene reveals the artist’s fantasy of what Sudan should be, not what it actually is.  Perhaps that is the primary attraction for me, a romanticized, Oriental idea of what Sudan might be.  On the other hand, just maybe on some perfect spring or winter evening with the light diminished, slanting through massed urbanity, a person might actually witness these shades.  Also, beneath the purples and blues and blacks, a latent heat remains, or I am reminded of this heat’s presence by the very fact of its absence, like a heart grown suddenly fond of what it would, when subjected to full and direct confrontation, undoubtedly consider a blinding and hurtful truth.

2.  Perspective — The thoroughfare in the foreground spreads horizontally while the maze of the market, the depths of the market, open with the single focus of a grade-schooler’s first attempts at perspective art, buildings getting smaller, smaller, as they recede toward a central vanishing point, people reduced in the crowd to heads and shoulders and shapes that subjectively might mean ‘human’ or ’emptiness’ or ‘wall’ depending on the way the eye sees each particular blotch of color, each shape and thrust of flattened object.  This again brings me toward the Orientalist fantasy of standing outside yet being permitted to gaze at the interior, to wander the maze, to drown oneself in the thriving exotica of a place ultimately foreign.  It is voyeurism taken to a second remove, the first being the situation of the canvas vis-a-vis the captured scene, outside the market; the second being the even more comfortable distance between viewing art and standing in actual living reality in such a scene, having that scene transformed, robbed of its grosser sounds and visions, simplified, idealized.

3.  Homogeneity / Anonymity — The people are faceless.  The buidlings largely nondescript.  And each of these, building or human, seems constructed on a theme, of one part, one mold, variation but only within defined parameters.  In truth, Sudan (and Khartoum especially) vibrate with advertising, with striving, with differentiation, everything from Bob Marley t-shirts to traditional dishdashas like those the people in this market painting wear.  Does such a market actually exist, still devoid (or ever devoid) of the capitalist slogan, the Coca-Cola sign, the Marlboro horseman, the vendor calling out to each pedestrian so that he might sell his kebabs, his falafel, his magazines, his boxes of cheap tissue?  With the self so foremost in every Western mind, the idea of this anonymity is yet another fantasy:  who am I to think myself different, unique, and better?

4.  Shadow — This might have been the first thing to draw me to the photo.  The short shadows at the feet of the marketgoers.  They speak to a noonday business, to heat, betraying heat despite the change of the color to purple and black.  The shadows quaver on the ground.  They seem to move, illusions, mirages.  And the dusty ground drinks each shadow into itself, not letting it spill further than a few feet, not letting it spread a black and definite edge to the height of the shadow-maker’s head.  A sense of comfort hides in these shadows, so different than the Western mentality, which wants nothing to be left mysterious, everything to be exposed to the glare of science.   The Arabic expression itself, which is — contrary to our version of “Shed some light on the subject” — usually rendered “In the shade of that . . .” speaks to this altered perception of shade=good, sun=bad; secrets=good, too-much-truth=bad, dangerous, and absent of the very stuff that makes life worth living — surprise, serendipity, mystery, awe, love, abode.

5.  Texture — The whole paiting has a smoothness to it, empty planes, empty shapes that slide one into another.  Yet there is another texture at work too, on the edges, the faces of the buildings.  This texture nods toward Klimt, enlivening while also reducing the buildings to abstractions, to canvasses themselves, to dreams.  These textures capture dirt, graffiti, mildew, and decay and turn them into art, which is, I believe, a higher purpose for the artist, to ennoble sight, to turn sight into a better seeing.  It makes me take a step back, when I recoil at an old and worn-out metropolitan’ filth, to see in it the marks of so many people, incessantly worrying, hurrying, to-ing and fro-ing, but in art made still and made to behave as if each mark of passage has become a hieroglyph, a telltale sign, a signature, a sweetness.  These textures occur on the edges of the painting, leaving the inside, the maze, pure and empty, an unwritten page for the mind’s eye.

I could look at this painting all day, which is a criterion for greatness in my book.  All its portions of NQR — the fantasy, the unreality, the untruth — add up to a whole for me far greater than any one individual lie.


13 Stares — No God

Here is the next in this series of NQR poems — all of which are based on photos and thoughts dredged from the year I spent in the town of Safwan, Iraq.  While this particular poem branches off in a different direction, speaking more about the smirk on this British soldier’s face as he stands on the far side of the wall of an all-girls’ school in Safwan . . . the oddest thing is the word ‘God’ written below Sadaam.  We might not remember it, or might view it through the haze of our own convoluted political justifications (or lack thereof) for having gone to war in Iraq, but the people, especially the Shi’a in southern Iraq, were very happy to be rid of Sadaam.  This graffiti provides a weird, mute testimony to that fact, a testimony underlined (as all things in Iraq seem to be) by the evocation of God.

These poems appear in my chapbook “13 Stares.”

A Squaddie stands guard outside an Iraqi girls' school. Graffiti captured by coincidence.

 

No God

The place to find God is not
never has been, in the set
of stacked Pentecostal folding chairs
where the organ dustcover
and orange jellybeans at Easter
or cleanliness, sidewalk router suburbia
clipped, fertilized lawns and sprinklers
conservative Oldsmobiles for gentle coffee
and the body of Christ flat
on the same tongue as adultery
Lo, beat the stolen hubcap
of the Minister of Agriculture’s Mercedes
into a birdbath, there He is, find
the Kuwaiti coin from the year of your anniversary
as if, striking in sunlight, the mold
fits the one thing that ever fit you
her
and grass seeded on the lee of the dune
swept, root bare, smiling outside
the girls’ school where accidentally the squaddie
hears them screaming at recess.


The Hand of Sheikh Sabah

This is a truly fearless tattoo.

During my unit’s train-up to deploy to Iraq, one of the more interesting and culturally relevant events we underwent involved meeting with a mock group of Iraqi townsfolk to conduct negotiations.  This drill was supposed to be pressurized, a first taste of the difficulty in communicating through interpreters, with security elements posted around us, and discussions that incorporated senstivity to regional issues.  For me, this was an excellent foreshadowing of the real work I would do later in the year, work which involved almost daily meetings with the town council in Safwan. The drill employed real Iraqis and other Arabic-speaking persons (along with a few dozen local ‘extras’ from South Louisiana pretending to speak Arabic through their heavily Cajun drawl) to add realism.

One thing that I noticed during this drill, a thing that stuck with me and has popped back into my consciousness now, especially given the current elections in Egypt, was a crude tattoo on the very visible backside of the hand of the head “actor” in this group.  This guy was the lead Iraqi negotiator, the ‘Sheikh’ of the mock village.  He played hardball with us.  He came prepared with a list of demands and wouldn’t budge from his positions.  He stressed our little team of negotiators as far as he could, refusing all accomodation, all reconciliation, and he did his best to escalate the scenario that had been concocted into something dangerous, a riot or a protest.

This photo was taken just after the finish of the exercise, when the actor walked away from the scenario to take a phone call.  He slipped his red-checkered keffiyah from his head to let the sweat from the humid Louisiana air dry.  He paced back and forth along a razor-wire fence.  I was able to surreptitiously raise my camera, zoom in from afar, and take this photo of the tattoo I had seen during our practice negotiations.

The tattoo makes me wonder about the man’s history.  So, too, does it make me wonder — this is the NQR here — how many of us, in our comfortable American bourgeoisie lives, would be willing to visibly and permanently express this sort of hope (or protest) if we lived under a similarly suppresive and brutal regime?


A Beautiful Stillness

When we think of the Middle East, our stereotypical idea includes a lot of color, action, vibrancy.  Perhaps that is where the romance in the romantic notions of the region comes from:  the contrast against what we perceive to be our own staid, stable, sometimes dreary (certainly climactically chillier) versions of existence.

But this photo, which I choose to share mostly just because it is beautiful and I’m feeling, at this moment, still and quiet and happy with the world, should show a different, wetter, more stable and simple idea of life ‘over there.’

Maybe it’s not just life ‘over there.’  Maybe it is life as a whole . . . or the way we want to see it, to look at it.  Pulsing and full at times.  Quiet and contemplative at others. Always with the possibility to reveal, somewhere, a hidden gem of gracefulness.

I challenge you, dear readers, to probe your set ideas and to discard most of those that come with labels.  That’s what I’ve been tryingt to do here, at NQR. 

There’s always another story, another perspective.  There’s always a way to find beauty around you (or at least a good chuckle).  Either of those two things will dull the edge of the worst dangers in our world.

Rainy day view through an arch in the Frankincense Museum, Salalah, Oman.


Peace on Veteran’s Day

Yesterday I stumbled into the monastic quiet of Chancellor Green Hall on the Princeton campus, just to sit and think for awhile before the start of a seminar.  There, in the empty octagonal enclosure, with light streaming from all angles through gorgeous stained glass windows, I found a little item worthy of a Not Quite Right mention in honor of this Veteran’s Day, 11-11-11.

An image of peace in a window of Chancellor Green Hall, Princeton.

I’ve got two takes on the image of this Crusader-like figure, both of them worth mentioning in the context of NQR.

First, I wonder if the artist intended the image to embody the Pax Romana, the somewhat oxymoronic enforcement of peace through a monopoly on violence.  Does the horseman’s slumping posture hint at the failure inherent in such a doctrine?  Or is his head held high, looking foward to a horizon that must lead to a soldier’s self-sacrifice in the name of his ideals?

Second, and maybe simultaneously, I think that this figure represents the very opposite idea: a Don Quixote, piquant, holding aloft a banner embroidered with a single word for Peace despite the realities of the world around him.  I like this interpretation best.  It has warmth to it that matches the warmth of the light flooding through the colored baubles of glass — the lone soldier holding to an unreality, facing a corrupt world.  The invocation of Don Quixote touches also upon madness, a beautiful madness that sees things in their most wondrous light rather than in their most real and dismal actualities.  Unfortunately, such an idea is one for books, for literature, for poetry.  It intersects only in the realm of ideas with what life is really like for a soldier.

I think of the friends and comrades I have lost at war today and all those who have gone before us, sacrificing, unsure of what ideals they really represent.  All a little Quixotic.