These last few weeks have given us a long parade of extremes. If we weren’t so busy trying to figure out how to keep a solid footing and secure future without scaring ourselves senseless, it would be an intriguing display of improbable circumstance. Some might call this condition in extremis, which literally means “in the farthest reaches” and indicates a dire situation, sometimes unto death. The Cambridge dictionary describes it as an adverb meaning “in an extremely difficult situation.” I think few of us would argue that point.
Mercury retrogrades have a reputation for slowing us down for a closer scan of our problem, like looky-loos crawling past an accident scene on the freeway. This week we’ve been peering into the wreckage of our inability to come to terms with climate change and the remnants of a Cold War consigned to history but still lingering in near-memory. We’re also being given a review of our societal growing pains in the passing of iconic entertainment figures close to our hearts. Because nothing is for nothing in this remarkable universe of ours, it’s upon us to be paying close attention to what presents for review.
The dismaying weather reports, for instance, sucking up most of the oxygen on cable news, should give us necessary information on this most pressing challenge of our age. Olympic coverage, interrupting the normal cadence of prime-time programming, has provided us a Petrie dish of both iconic gamesmanship and international goodwill, as well as a clear view of the mentality that has promoted nationalism and hindered the development of global community. Nancy Pelosi, responding to the early problems with the Russian Olympics village, remarked that Sochi should never have been selected. Me, I think our last Olympic endeavor in China and this one in Russia is spot-on to bring our own national behaviors into perspective alongside those of former despots and foreign ideologies.
Just in terms of ecological challenge, the headlines are daunting. While catastrophic ice storms, cold and snow hit Georgia for the second time in weeks, toppling iconic trees and destroying fragile historical sites, Obama is promising to free up $100 million to help California with its record-breaking drought and potential fire emergencies. On the other side of the planet, Indonesian volcano Mount Kelud, on the main island of Java, has erupted, forcing 200,000 souls to relocate, while another member of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Sumatra’s Mount Sinabung, has been spewing rock and ash almost daily since September, killing 16 just this month. Meanwhile, it’s so warm at the Winter Olympics (59 degrees Fahrenheit) that the cross-country skiers are showing up in shirtsleeves and shorts. The Australians have had to develop a new color code to indicate the extreme heat that has them by the throat. And — causing a sharp pain to the heart — our iconic Monarch butterflies are all but gone, dwindling in number and territory to an alarming degree (find out how you can help here.)
It’s pretty hard to miss the dots connecting weather emergency to climate change, but deniers — dwindling in numbers themselves, now — continue to beat that drum, citing the alarming cold as proof there is no warming. Science would explain the simple context of additional moisture caused by warming creating a more humid and volatile weather pattern, expressing itself in extremes, but that would assume we all believe science to be credible. Unfortunately half of our elected legislators favor religious belief over science. They favor creationism over evolution as well, making them look so backward and uninformed that even uber-evangelist Pat Robertson begged young-earth creationists to stop making Christian fundamentalists look like a joke, calling their position “nonsense.” Bristling under chiding from one of their own beloved icon, the unyielding religious-right threw Pat to the wolves, accusing him of committing “blasphemy.”
This was also the week that the Church of England threw down on “the damage being done to the planet through the burning of fossil fuels.” This announcement came with a pledge to reconsider their investment policies, saying, “Climate Change is a moral issue because the rich world has disproportionately contributed to it and the poor world is disproportionately suffering.” Calling the threat of climate change “a giant evil, a great demon of our day,” the Right Reverend Stephen Croft declared, “The damage this great demon will do to this beautiful earth if unchecked, is unimaginable.” Britain, unlike the United States, has a state religion — rather delicately referenced as “the established church” — represented by the Church of England. There is simply no way to think this statement by a British representative of religion anything but a rebuke of rampant plutocracy, echoing the position taken recently by Pope Francis. No doubt the highest seasonal rainfall in 250 years, severe flooding and damage, as well as outbreaks of bacterial diseases have contributed to this renewal of moral concern. Ain’t that the way? On the other hand, the church’s financial consultants are not quite so high-minded about fracking, which seems a necessary evil, accent on the “necessary.” They’ll also keep their investments in BP and other oil companies while urging them to be responsible eco-stewards (I’m tempted to snort derisively, but I’ll honor their intent and affirm the possibility). Quite obviously, there appears to be a split between the Church commissioners who manage the funds, and the clergy, defining collective morality. And ain’t that the way, as well.
In case you haven’t noticed, that only leaves our recalcitrant congress-critters and the evangelicals, themselves in extremis, pacing the decks of the sinking ship “Denial,” tossing to and fro on a rapidly warming sea of reality-consciousness.
As for the Olympics, I am not much of a fan but I like the Winter version best, with its figure skaters and skiers trying to best themselves with each performance. This year, tradition gave way to more extreme sports. One high point occurred last night when Team USA won all three medals — gold, silver and bronze — in freestyle skiing. Perhaps “free” says it all. This sport is new, innovative, the stuff of rebels and risk-takers. The three who won were young, confident and appeared to be having fun. Their venue occurred, aptly, at a location called the Extreme Park. Gus Kenworthy, the free-style skier from Telluride who took silver, already had the hearts of animal lovers, having rescued puppies from Sochi’s extermination mandate on street dogs. In separate events, American women finished first, third and fourth in the snowboard halfpipe the day before the slopestyle competition. America swept this sport. Perhaps icons in the making.
As for the skaters, the worst of them is amazing, in my view. There was a moment of high drama last night when the premiere Russian skater, Evgeni Plushenko — at 31 a four-time Olympic medal winner — withdrew from the men’s short program due to injury earlier that day. He was a huge crowd favorite, and it was reported that over half of those in the stands left shortly after, sorely disappointed. He announced his retirement moments later. Turns out Plushenko was the only men’s skater for this event from Russia, having — supposedly — steamrolled his competition, a talented young 18-year old who beat Plushenko in the Russian national championships. His selection was controversial, due to spinal injury that required surgery, suggesting possible limitations. Making what was obviously a difficult decision not to compete, the iconic skater is now catching hell from his countrymen and more. Hailed as a hero four days ago for assisting Russia into its first gold medal — even hugged by a pleased Putin — his loyalty is now being questioned. One parliament member tweeted, “Perform through the pain for the honor of the country.” Plushenko didn’t. It seems obvious he will pay a heavy price in disapproval for his inability to pony up and will endure scrutiny for his selection in the first place.
That seems an uncomfortable amount of nationalism to rub against at so altruistic an event. We’re not saints in the US of A, but I like to think we don’t punish our athletes for being unable to perform. Add to the mix a kind of no-nonsense authoritarianism that is typical of this culture, and it’s hard not to think back to the days when women from the Eastern block were testosterone-heavy. Grainy black and white film still available shows not only their unusual muscular development but superior strength with few hints of womanly curves. Westerners wondered, but evidence didn’t turn up for decades. Rather than finger-point, gender identification testing was instituted so everyone was sure who was what.
Winning by any means was deemed acceptable back when the two major superpowers wrestled for dominance, and appearing to be the winner, rightfully or not, was the only game in town. There was little trust between our countries then, and it seems there’s little now. Our press has been full of criticism of the faulty housing, the matter-of-fact surveillance and the hard stance taken by government to transform Sochi into an international destination, with or without the consent of citizens. Seems we’ve made plenty of progress since Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table, but we haven’t let go of the Cold War mentality completely. We didn’t go to Sochi is enjoy the food and culture, we went to kick ass and hurry home.
We’d do better to be mindful that our own track record on housing, surveillance and government intrusion in the lives of citizens is none too clean. And one little piece of this — that we didn’t treat the Chinese with this much disdain and derision — shows that the U.S. has some remaining nationalistic warts and grudges that need attention. And yes, it would be easier to rise above it if Putin wasn’t such a homoerotic prick, but there it is, and our hands aren’t clean. Remember, we have Dubya to apologize for throughout history.
So we’re reviewing climate, reviewing international competition, “friendly” and un, and even more. With the passing of Pete Seeger, Shirley Temple and — today’s sad news — Ralph Waite, we’re also taking a look back at the Great Depression. We’ve talked about Seeger at length, his dedication to workers’ rights and social change, his neighbors and his planet, setting all those concerns to a prodigious musical score that changed our culture and our lives.
Shirley Temple was an icon before she was five, with an infamously dimpled dolly of her own long before Mattel started molding pop stars into plastic (I played with my mom’s Shirley doll when I was a tot). Times were really hard then, they say, apples on the street corner and all that, and that cute little girly made it go down easier. So said FDR. So said my mom, as well. Watch Temple’s movies and you’ll say so too, even if your cynical side kicks you for it. Sometimes when times are really hard, it’s the little things that pull you through. In The Prophet, Gibran told us, “In the dew of little things, the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.” Shirley was one of those little — very human, very precious — things.
Ralph Waite, or Daddy Walton as he was best known, was 85 but he just kept truckin’, showing up lately as Gibb’s Dad in “NCIS,” as Booth’s grandpa in “Bones.” Like it or not, he was almost everybody’s fictional patriarch. “The Waltons” did a nine-year run, starting in the early ’70s, giving us a view of a big rural Southern family without any punch lines or derision; the script was a biographical remembrance of Earl Hamner, Jr. We grew to love them, even if a world so different from our own seemed corny and sentimental. We didn’t see them as hicks, like some of the dolts in “Smokey and the Bandit” or “The Dukes of Hazzard.” We saw them as a generation of the past, perhaps not so savvy but not so different from ourselves.
As with the Andy Griffith Show — another iconic figure we lost last year — there was enough heart in “The Waltons” to go around and then some. Ultimately, the kids grew up under our watchful eye, John Boy went off to war and life moved along. Waite was the one adult character who stayed on until the bitter end, surviving the passing of both parents (for real) and the removal of his wife for health reasons (fictional) to hold down the family homestead. The stories of Hamner’s family were stories of growing up in poverty, overcoming adversity, finding a way forward when times were tough while being held together by love and respect and common cause.
All of these that we mourn and whose memory we honor had something to tell us about the Great Depression, about hard times and strong hearts, about taking hope when it was difficult to find and — the obvious — how to love each other through it all. Each of them is an icon, representative of something bigger than themselves, something that resonates deep within us. With these, it’s easy to see why the word art completes the word heart.
One last mention, not of the Depression, but soon after. I was saddened to hear of Sid Caesar’s passing. He gave icons like Woody Allen (ugh!) and Mel Brooks (yay!) a start as writers, so that makes him an icon’s icon. His “Show of Shows” is still bright in my memory, when I was just a little kid sitting cross-legged in front of the black-‘n-white. Jon Stewart said that comedy had lost its grandfather. He was right.
I don’t know who the new icons will be but they’ll have, as we used to say, a hard row to hoe. Still, in these extreme times, I get a sense that they won’t be the bullies or the ego cases. Time gives us a picture of what lasts and who, and it’s always who and what lift us, who and what encourage and sustain us, who and what help us find a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world. Time itself puts our extreme challenges in perspective, as well. Pete rode the rails with Woody Guthrie. Shirley not only survived child stardom, but became a well-rounded international citizen and ambassador. Sid and Ralph both overcame addiction problems that marked their early lives, to survive well into old age as contributors to their culture.
There are remarkable things going on all around us, not just in spite of but because we find ourselves in extremis. Our “extremely difficult situation” presents us with opportunity to grow and share, contribute and serve. Perhaps, as when Gandhi told us to be the change, we must become the icons, as well. Perhaps our purpose can be found living our lives representing the best of ourselves, and encouraging the best in others. Then we can limp into Heaven, so they say, on the arms of those we’ve helped. Me, I’m counting on it.