Friday, May 31, 2019

Saturday, May 25, 2019

ON MEMORIAL DAY: PEGASUS




Santa Barbara News-Press
Front Page




From the time he was a little boy, in the 1920s, he collected postage stamps.

And when he grew older and went off to war, along with most others of his generation, he continued to collect stamps wherever in the world he happened to be, and mailed them home to his parents and sister for adding to his collection.

My uncle’s other passion was flying.

On the night of 29 February 1944, at the tender age of 21, my uncle flew a B-24 Liberator on a mission over Burma.

His plane got hit by anti-aircraft fire.

My uncle ordered the crew to bail out, and most of them did, sailing by parachute to the ground. They were captured by Japanese soldiers and held as POWs for the duration of World War II.

Because two of his crewmen were wounded, Flight Lieutenant Edward James Douglas Stanley chose to stay at the controls of his plane, hoping to crash-land them to safety.

But the plane disappeared and was believed to have crashed near Rangoon.

My mother was only eighteen when her brother was reported missing in action.  Every week she wrote letters to The War Office and the Royal Air Force begging for information.      

They never answered her, and she resolved that none of her three sons would ever go to war if she had anything to say about it.

Refusing to give up hope, my grandmother kept my uncle’s possessions—including the skin of a python that he discovered slithering inside his tent when based in India—lest her son return.   

In the mid-1990s, a decade after my grandmother died, someone who had extensively researched my uncle’s doomed flight, contacted me.  He primarily wanted to know what had become of my uncle’s family but also wanted to share his findings, which, while detailed, did not pinpoint the remains of my missing uncle though confirmed that he had most certainly perished.

What this fellow really wanted most, he told me after we became acquainted, was to organize a memorial service at St. Clement Danes, the RAF church. I assisted with both moral and financial support and the result was a poignant Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving attended by my mother (and father), for whom, after more than half-a-century, it was a kind of closure.         

Later that day, my mother gifted me with her brother’s stamp collection.
            
Three years ago, I visited London as part of a mystical journey I’ve been on and I asked a muse who guided me during part of that trip to take me on an adventure by subway, ideally to some part of the British capital I’d never been before.
            
At Green Park tube station, our starting point, she led me to an eastbound platform, onto a train, off a train, onto another, and joked about going to the end of the line and getting lost in Epping Forest, which would have been fine by me.

But that’s not what happened.

She chose for us to alight at Chancery Lane—not two hundred yards from St. Clement Danes, the RAF church—and ascend to Lincoln’s Inn, where the law was born six centuries ago.


Two symbols (messages from the universe) immediately caught my attention: A prominent old clock set into bricks and mortar (now’s the time, it said to me) and a prominent weathervane (follow the wind), and soon—at the muse’s invitation—I was inside the round Temple Church, a place of worship built in 1195 by the Knights Templar, a medieval order created to protect Christian pilgrims and which also invented the West’s first banking system.

Prominently engraved upon Temple Church’s marble floor: 



Climbing the spiral stairs to an upper gallery I noticed they were decorated with ornate tiles depicting Pegasus, the mythical winged “horse of muses” that symbolizes the harnessing of magic in the material world.  



And then, outside Temple Church, this mythical horse was everywhere around us:  a bar relief on a wall, a medallion on a gate, a metal sculpture, even a café called Pegasus—the running theme of a neighborhood chosen by the muse.

Pegasus was the “nose-art” nickname of the B-24 Liberator my uncle flew.

My mother also gave me my uncle’s python skin, which I took to a master bookbinder for crafting into journals I’ve been saving for the cross-country road trip I’ve forever intended to take.

Snakes, because they shed and grow a new skin, symbolize renewal.

Renewal is what happens after wars end, the dead are counted, and people try to move forward with their lives, as painful as that may be if a loved one has been lost.

My muse walked me to the Golden Jubilee Bridge.

“I’m leaving you now,” she said.  “Cross the bridge.” 

And I did, leaving me to muse about the symbolism of bridges: progress, unity—and a spiritual “crossing over” to the other side.

And so, on this Memorial Day, I’m thinking of the uncle I never met, and saying a prayer for those who, in the service of their country, crossed over so that others could renew their lives in freedom.


(Adapted from a nonfiction book-in-progess.)





Wednesday, May 15, 2019

ST. DYMPHNA DAY







Today is the Feast Day of St. Dymphna, patron saint of lunatics.

She was born in Ireland, very early in the seventh century, the daughter of a pagan king named Damon and a mother who converted to Christianity to ensure Dymphna would be educated by a priest named Gerebern.

Dymphna's beautiful mother met a sudden, young death.

Her father, inconsolable in the aftermath, fell into a deep and very dark depression.

Damon's courtiers worried that their king's mental health would further deteriorate unless he found a new bride, and they urged him to do so.

Thus, Damon dispatched envoys throughout Ireland to find a woman as beautiful as the wife he'd lost.

When they returned without a new woman, a deranged notion struck the king.

My daughter, Dymphna, looks almost identical to her mother...


Dymphna was horrified by her fathers proposal. 

Each time she refused his advances, the kings rage grew worse.  

Gerebern, the priest, was also perplexed by this situation, and he plotted an escape.

With assistance from the court jester, Dymphna and Gerebern crossed the English Channel by boat and sailed up the River Schelde to Antwerp in what is now Belgium.

Feeling unsafe near a waterway, they made their way inland to Zammel, a small settlement of about fifteen houses, six miles from what would later become Gheel.

When King Damon realized his daughter and the pesky priest had duped him and fled, he went nuts.  (Also, he no longer had a court jester to help him see the humor in this.)

With a small army of warriors in three boats, Damon set sail in search of Dymphna.  

How did he know where to go?  

For two months Damon followed the money.  

Dymphna and Gerebern recklessly left a trail of their native coins as payment for services rendered en route to a new life abroad.  

The final tip came from a woman at an inn called The Kettle, in a village called Westerlo.  She pointed out the direction Dymphna had taken. (Legend suggests arthritis cut in immediately; the woman’s arm remained rigidly outstretched the rest of her life.)

When Dymphna and Gerebern learned the king and his warriors were near, they fled Zammel.  

But not fast enough.  

The king caught up with them six miles away.

Blaming the couples misadventure on Gerebern, Damon slew the priest without further ado (no trial necessary).  

Then he asked his daughter one last time:  “Will you marry me?”

Dymphna declined.                                                     

Damon commanded his warriors to execute his daughter.  

Not one stepped forward. 

So the crazed king raised his mighty sword and severed Dymphnas head with one blow. 


(No one knows what happened to the court jester.)  

Adding insult to murder and mayhem, Damon and his warriors left the scene without bothering to bury their victims.

Zammels citizens were greatly distressed by the carnage they found at the scene.  

They interred Dymphna and Gerebern at the very spot they were slain.

Word of what happened that tragic day in 621 A.D. traveled around Europe.  

Within a few hundred years (word traveled slow back then), the burial site became a shrine for mentally disordered pilgrims.  

They discovered that if they prayed at Dymphna’s burial site, to her relics (bones), their mental illnesses gave way to sanity. 

(It sure beat an Abilify/Zoloft cocktail.)  

After notching up a few such miracles, Dymphna qualified for sainthood

A whole town grew up around it.  

The town of Gheel.

Gheel evolved into a thriving, open-air loony bin.

Belgium's mentally-disordered and sanity-challenged citizens are fostered into local families as part of a program called Family Care System of Mental Patients, and is considered to be the world's most humane way of looking after the insane.


Dymphna Church, Gheel
Thomas Van Stein


Friday, May 10, 2019

FARMERS MARKET






TRASHY





What my old stomping grounds (La Cienega & Beverly) in toddler-hood have become.




Beverly Park, otherwise known as Kiddieland and Ponyland, was replaced by Beverly Center, which could easily win grand prize for ugliest shopping center ever built.



Friday, May 3, 2019

MACHIAVELLI: 550 YEARS-OLD TODAY





When he was twenty-five years old in 1494, two years after Columbus discovered America, Niccolo Machiavelli—or "Machia," to his friends—entered government service, as a clerk, in Florence.

Florence was then a well fortified and bustling city-state and its autocratic Medici rulers had just been overthrown and expelled, allowing Florence to be transformed into a republic.

This suited Machia just fine since he was a republican at heart and a non-religious humanist in conscience.

But, although a republican, Machia came to believe that only an autocratic royal ruler, a prince, could defend a city-state from hostile foreign powers. 

One such hostile foreign power was the Pope and his papal army, along with neighboring city-states, such as Pisa.

Machia kept his republican thoughts to himself while rising to the position of Second Chancellor and undertaking diplomatic missions to other city-states.

In addition, for three years Machia took charge of the Florentine militia, whose job it was to defend the city.

It all turned sour for Machia in August 1512 when the republic was scrapped and a new Pope helped the autocratic Medici family—specifically, Cardinal Giovanni Medici—restore Medici rule. 

The Medici family returned with a vengeance.  

On November 7th, Machia was fired from his job.

A couple of months later, Machia was arrested and accused of conspiring to overthrow the new Medici regime.

Machia was thrown into the clink and interrogated.

His interrogators tortured him.  

They used a form of torture called Strappado.


Machia was hoisted from his hands, which were tied behind his back, to the ceiling—and dropped, stopping just short of hitting the floor. 

Six times.  

Machia admitted nothing, denied everything, maybe grew an inch or two.

The Medici interrogators eventually released Machia.

They booted Machia’s butt to the Machiavelli family estate in San Casciano, about twenty miles from Florence, and told him not to come back.

Politics and statecraft was all that Machia truly cared about. 

Machia tried to talk his way back into Florence, pledging support for the Medici rule, anything that would keep him engaged in statecraft.

To no avail.    

For a political junkie like Machia, exile was almost as bad as the Strappado.

To take his mind off the political intrigue he was missing in Florence, Machia toiled by day in the fields of his family estate, supervising the cutting of trees to be sold as firewood.

Back then, firewood was the prime energy source.

Kind of like oil is today.

After work, Machia played backgammon in the local tavern.    

Evenings he reserved for solitude and madness.  

This is what Machia wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori on December 10th, 1513:

When evening comes, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I strip naked, taking off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on the regal robes of court and palace; and re-clothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which is only mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them and I pass indeed into their world.

Machia believed that he interacted directly with Dante, Plutarch, and Plato.  

This was Machia’s art, upon which he became totally focused.

It provided Machia therapeutic escape from his fears and depression and led, ultimately, to Machia penning The Prince–-a work produced by what today’s New Agers would call trance-channel, as told to Machia by Dante, Plutarch, and Plato.

No doubt Machia suffered depression from his banishment. 

But did torture push him over the edge of sanity, into the realm of hallucination?  

Talking to the dead qualifies as an idea of reference.

Hallucination is criterion for schizophrenic disorder. 

Machia’s words also imply fears of poverty and death-delusions, which are symptoms of psychosis.
  
Simply put, Machia had gone nuts. 

The Medici family and their interrogators drove Machia to depression and madness, first with the Strappado, and then exile.

Machia’s dialog with the great philosophers, which morphed into The Prince, was published posthumously thirty years after he wrote it.  

Like Vincent van Gogh, Machia died feeling a failure.  

Machia tried to use his unpublished treatise, The Prince, to tease the Medici family into bringing him back to Florence and help them govern their prized city-state. 

Machia’s manuscript was duly hand-delivered to Cardinal Giovanni de Medici.

But Giovanni did not even bother to read it.

Truth was, the Medici family had Machia pegged: 

Machiavelli was a mediocre statesman who took no risks for fear of compromising himself.  

Machia was good at two things:  

One, playing all sides.

Two, writing treatises, for which his name endures.  

When the Medici family crashed and burned in 1527, giving way to a new republican government, Machia rushed to Florence to lobby for high position. 

But he got sick along the way, and died.

(Talk about bad luck.)

A few centuries later, Merriam-Webster would define Machiavellian as cunning or devious

This would have surprised Machia.

It would also have surprised him that his well-known smirk would captivate the world’s attention for centuries to come.  

How so?

This is where we crack the real Da Vinci code. 

Forget Dan Brown and his novel of that name.

The real story is that Machia and Leonardo da Vinci knew one another in Florence during the first decade of the 1500s. 



Machia and Leonardo even worked together, from 1503 until 1506.



They worked together on a bold and very secret engineering project to re-route the River Arno away from the city-state of Pisa.

Why did those charged with the defense of Florence want to re-route the River Arno away from Pisa?

Because Florence and Pisa were constantly at war, and Florence desired to deprive the Pisans of a fresh water supply.  


This bold engineering project failed.

In those days, if a project failed, those who committed the failure were often rounded up and executed.

Fearing that arrest and execution might be imminent, Leonardo fled Florence and exiled himself to Milan.

Leonardo did this not just because he feared reprisal, but also because of a broken heart.

Why was Leonardo’s heart broken?

Not from a failed engineering project.

From from unreturned love.

Leonardo was homosexual.  

And Leonardo was in love with Machiavelli.  

Leonardo demonstrated his love by painting Machia as a woman.  

The Mona Lisa.

These are the facts:

Mona Lisa was painted between 1503 and 1506, the same years Machia and Leonardo worked together on their bold engineering project.

Mona’s “mysterious smile” is Machia’s "enigmatic smirk."

Machia’s biographer described Machia’s enigmatic smirk as “neither a grin nor a sneer; a shield to protect against prying eyes.”   

Mona’s lash-less, almond-shaped eyes and manly hands also match Machia’s lash-less, almond-shaped eyes and manly hands.


But there is more.

The valley behind Mona Lisa is where the Arno River diversion was projected to take place.





Leonardo first sketched this valley as part of his engineering project with Machia, and he used those sketches as the background when he painted Mona Lisa.

Leonardo always refused to sell Mona Lisa.

Instead, he kept Mona Lisa near him, as a remembrance of Machia, the man who broke his heart.