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Who was Cassandra?
In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.

the cassandra pages
words, pictures, and a life
Wednesday, May 11, 2005  


Tired of the unreliability and slow loading times at Blogger, and wanting to make some changes and add some new functionality, I'm jumping ship to TypePad. The new address is:

I'm not entirely happy with the TypePad solution, because ultimately I want to incorporate my blog into a larger website and to have complete control over all of it. In the next few months I'm going to be investigating WordPress as another option, but the new address will stay the same. Please update your blogrolls, and please let me know how the new site works for you. I'm also anxious to hear of other readers' experiences with WordPress and other open source solutions.

A link to all the CassandraPages archives will also remain available via the new site.

Thank you to all my wonderful readers! I look forward to welcoming you at my new home.

7:44 PM |

Monday, May 09, 2005  
It's almost hot in Vermont this evening, after days and days of raw rainy weather. This afternoon I took a break from computer work to go outside and work in the garden, raking leaves off the perennials, inspecting plants, and then standing, hands on hips, considering possibilites for the coming growing season. Compared to last year, when we were a week into that fateful month of renting a Montreal apartment, I haven't abandoned my garden, nor do I have the same illusions about what I can handle. This current week here/week there schedule does allow for some maintenance, but I'm much more realistic now, and I know I can't keep up the way I used to with perennials, a few roses, a vegetable and herb garden, planters full of foliage and flowering annuals, and a couple of shrub borders. So today I made a decision - most of the vegetable garden is going to get mown. And that's surprisingly OK with me.

Like the decision to get rid of a lot of our books, I find the relinquishment of this once-important part of my life to be something long in coming, but fine once it actually happens. And of course it's not necessarily permanent. I've always grown some of our food, as much out of principle as pleasure. But if it's too much - and it is right now - then it's time to let go.

Tonight we had some friends over for dinner, a couple who are twelve or fourteen years younger than we are. They're recently married, and they're nesting: working hard on their old house, making a garden, making plans. It was fun to listen to their excitement - I remember feeling exactly the same way - and it was also interesting to note how much I don't feel like that now.

We've been replacing the bathroom floor during this stay in Vermont, and it's the second time around - we're taking up a floor we ourselves installed a long time ago. When we paint, it will be the second time over the surfaces. We like doing this kind of work, but it's lost the excitement it once had. At this point in my life I'm simply not into settling down, putting my imprint on things and tucking the corners around me. I'm after lightness of being, freedom of movement, a loosening of weighty responsibility so that the things that are the real priorities have more space.

Flowers, need to stay.

10:06 PM |

Friday, May 06, 2005  
This afternoon we're heading down to Boston, through the tremulous barely-green hills, to rendezvous with some blogger friends and pay a visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Sounds like we're also heading toward a nor-easter, coming up the coast bringing gale-force winds, rain, and possibly sleet - times when one is glad for the metro). Right now, though, it's a beautiful spring day in Vermont, the trees poised on that chartreuse cusp between bud and leaf.


I've been thinking a lot this week about the Bibliotheque Nationale, the new national library of Quebec, which opened last weekend and is located just a short bike ride from our apartment. Over 18,000 people visited the library during its two-day, grand opening weekend; we were two of them and to say that we were thrilled would be putting it mildly. Not only is the building an architectural marvel - beautiful, original, light-filled, huge and yet intimate - it is up-to-the moment technologically, and houses a vast collection of books, journals, music, films, nearly all of which are availble for circulation. There's a language lab, a software-tryout lab, a whole floor for children, exhibition spaces, an auditorium, a cafe, and innumerable different places for reading, studying, using the library's terminals or your own, listening to music or watching films and videos, or even creating music in the innovative electronic music studio. In our brief initial tour of the building we couldn't begin to see everything, but along with the thousands of other wide-eyed, delighted visitors of every possible ethnicity, we cannot wait to return.

It's funny - I had sort of given up on libraries. Well, not given up, but resigned them to a place in the past. That's mostly because the libraries I know - even ones tat are supposedly state-of-the-art - still seem like they dont' get it, either in terms of the ambience that will draw readers to use them as destinations and refuges, or in terms of service and integration with new realities fo information-gatheirng. But here, as I walked from space to space, I saw so many me. Book lovers, curled in the deep black armchairs,;bent over the honey-colored yellow-birch reading desks; deep in study at ergonomically-designed computer stations; sprawed in sofa-like chairs, eyes shut, listening to music; wrapped in afternoon sunlight in a western window, slowly turning the pages of an artbook. It was a brand-new building, and it felt like home.

A line of people waiting to sign up for their free library subscription stretched from the front door to the back wall. People walked wonderingly up and down the wide stairs in the central atrium, and spilled out of the glass elevators onto different floors: a punk couple, studded and tatooed; an African family; a distinguished set of octagenarians; even an Orthodox bishop in his black robes and silver cross, came sweeping out of the subway. And from the fourth floor balcony, I watched a young Asian mother, all in white, running back and forth below me, carrying her baby, stopping now and then to excitedly show and tell him everything she was seeing, everything he might find in his future - a future sure to be filled with many many books.

12:54 PM |

Thursday, May 05, 2005  
HIGH (part 3 of 3)

Well, they said that fraternity stuff was pretty revolting, but they didn’t really know anything about it. Neither one of them had ever been a drinker. B. started grinning and said his mother had been a teetotaler, but his father had drunk just a little now and then, which drove his mother crazy. If she found a bottle, she’d make a big show out of pouring it out. Toward the end of her life she had loosened up a bit, and at a party for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary he remembered her drinking a little glass of wine. “I only got drunk once,” he said. “I hadn’t drunk at all in high school, and not even when I was in the Navy, which was…well…let’s just say it wasn’t the usual thing!” But on V-J Day, the navy guys had a huge celebration, and he decided he could have one drink, and after that he thought he’d have another…

“I got really drunk and really sick, of course,” he said. “And apparently I made quite a fool of myself – or so they told me. I don’t’ remember any of it. But I decided I didn’t like that feeling, so I’ve never drunk much at all since.”

He sat back and shrugged. “It all depends on how you get your jollies, and that’s different for different people. I get my jollies from up here…” – he tapped the side of his head – “from using the brain…well, the brain God gave me. Why should I want to mess that up with drugs or alcohol, when I have a perfectly good time without them? But that’s me. Other people feel differently, don’t they?”

He turned to his friend, my father-in-law, who nodded solemnly. Both of my in-laws disapproved of alcohol and the people who drank it; so far as I know there was rarely any in their house, although my mother-in-law occasionally offered a tiny glass of sherry if there were “cocktail drinkers” coming for dinner, making sure we knew it was with disdain. My father-in-law would occasionally accept a drink at a wedding reception or some other formal event, and then brag that he had poured it out in a plant pot. I always thought this was a superiority thing – drinkers were weak people who lacked self-control, or something like that – but when I finally became friends with Muslims I realized that my in-laws’ attitudes were cultural; that being Christian had far less to do with it than the fact that they had grown up in conservative Muslim/Arab culture and had absorbed the prevailing values (alcohol is forbidden in the Qu'ran). Upstanding people simply didn’t drink – - and that was the end of it.

So when my father-in-law said he’d gotten drunk once, we both raised our eyebrows. “Oh, I never told you that story?” he said. We shook our heads. “Oh yes. It was in Nabataea. Three people, himself included, were scheduled to present remarks after a dinner. He had decided, on the spur of the moment, to have some wine. “I liked it,” he admitted. ‘And then I got up to talk, and realized I’d lost my cool.” He glanced at B., who nodded solemnly, and looked affectionately and knowingly at his friend.

“Yep,” he said. “That’s it. You'd lost your cool.”

“I was really worried! So I persuaded the others to go first, and by the time they were done I managed to give my remarks. It was the first and only time in my life that happened to me, and I decided I couldn’t afford to have it happen again. I didn’t want to lose my cool.”

5:04 PM |

Wednesday, May 04, 2005  

Tulips in a Westmount garden

HIGH, part 2

Somehow, talking about prep schools and colleges in the 1960s, we got onto the subject of drugs. B. turned to my father-in-law, and asked him if he’d ever smoked dope…


“No, never. But I used to smoke corn – what do you call it?”

“Corn silk. Oh yes. Out in the field. Oh, you did that too?”

“Oh yes.” My father-in-law laughed.

“Did you ever make a corncob pipe? You know, where you hollow-out a piece of corncob and stick a hollow straw in there?”

M. raised his eyebrows in surprise. “No, I wasn’t that sophisticated.”

“What did you use to roll up the corn silk in?” B. asked.

“Toilet paper!”

“Did you ever smoke tobacco?”

“No! But I’ve got a story about tobacco. There was a playing field at the university in Beirut that the soldiers used to use for their practices, and we discovered that my older son, who was maybe six or seven, had been going around picking up the butts of their cigarettes and smoking them. So we confronted him and my wife said, “Those are dirty! If you want to smoke so much, we’ll do it at home.” So we took him home and had him sit down , and we gave him a cigarette – and he smoked the whole thing!”

The two old men laughed and laughed. By this time, J. and I were wide-eyed and pretty much speechless.

Unlike my father-in-law, who moves slowly, never fidgets, and, once settled, seems like a large heavy object that would just as soon stay in place calmly and indefinitely, B. is a wiry little man with twinkling eyes and is, in spite of countless physical difficulties, still bursting with energy. He’s animated and observant, and has an eager way of leaning forward toward you with interest, even mischievousness. My father-in-law still has a luxuriant head of flowing white hair, few wrinkles, and a calm, untroubled face; B. has only wisps of white hair on a nearly bald head and looks older than his years, but the two of them have similarly active minds.

B. went on to say that while he was a professor in California all the kids were trying dope, and he understood that, that was just the way kids are; what bothered him was the way some people got “hooked on it” and became lost, or got into harder drugs. He was a scientist, and he said he still felt there was some evidence that pot was just as bad for you as tobacco. It certainly distorted one’s sense of reality, he said, glancing across the table at the dubious looks on our faces.

He grinned: his son had been into pot for quite a while when he was young, he said, and the young man had been completely convinced that when he was high he had brilliant insights. So one day B. told him, “OK, I’ll smoke dope with you, and we’ll tape record our conversation.” His son said fine, so the two of them smoked – this was the one and only time B. had done it – and he made a tape, which he played back for his son the next day.

“When my son heard his ‘brilliant insights’ he was shocked, and he quit smoking then and there.”

M. shook his head, and said drugs had nearly ruined the prep school system in those days. “They’d send busloads of kids to a rock concert without any adult supervision at all!” he said, shaking his head. “I told the administration I felt this was totally irresponsible, but they didn’t pay any attention to me. I had one student, back then, who came to class the day of an exam totally stoned. He asked me for six of the examination booklets. When he turned in his exam he told me, “This is the best exam I have ever written! Please grade it right away!” When I got home I looked, and saw that he had filled all six of the books with ‘tra-la-tra-la-tra-la!’ That was it! Nothing but ‘tra-la’! All six! And when I told the headmaster about it, all he’d say was “what grade are you going to give him?” –meaning, ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re telling me so I am going to ignore it.’” He shook his head in disgust.

As former members of the generation they were discussing, with our own versions of those years, J. and I had been silent so far, listening to these unselfconscious recollections with a certain amount of amazement. It was like a time warp, listening to these familiar arguments, except that now there was no anger between us, and no need for either the old or the young to assert control; that felt strange but open, free, equal.

Now J. said, “Well, is it any different from the fraternity system and alcohol now? Are the colleges acting any more responsibily? A lot of students are alcoholics when they leave college, and that system has a great deal to do with it.”

(to be continued)

3:56 PM |

Sunday, May 01, 2005  

Recently, I was honored to be asked by Melanie of Chandrasutra to be interviewed as a part of her 'Blogger's Blogger" series. The interview is up today and I hope you'll not only read it, but check out the entire series. Among the esteemed company are Natalie d'Arbeloff of Blaugustine, certainly a person on my "blogger's bloggers" list, and James Luckett of, whose blog was one of the first to attract me to the medium, and who was kind and encouraging to me when I was starting out, as well as a number of other bloggers whose work is new to me.

Mel is trying to give voice to vital but less-recognized parts of the blogosphere, especially women, and bloggers who are writing in different veins from those that seem to get featured (again and again) in Big Media stories. I'm appreciative of what she's doing; it's very much needed, and a gift to our whole medium. Thanks, Mel!

6:32 PM |

Friday, April 29, 2005  

I don't know if I've linked before to the blog of Karl Dubost, but if not, it's my sin of omission..mea culpa. The blog itself is in French, but, English readers, please don't let that deter you: Karl is a photographer and a traveler who goes often to Asia, and he has an extraordinary eye, especially for color. Visiting his often ravishing, always surprising site is a delight and almost a meditation in my day: here I encounter a world drenched in color, now pulsating with life, now quiet in the repose of objects and persons, populated with juxtapositions one senses only this camera has seen. There is usually a short poem, in French or English, at the beginning of the day's entry, usually well worth figuring out even if it is not in your usual language.

6:04 PM |


Just Spring...Vermont


On Wednesday, we had our usual lunch with my father-in-law, and toward the end of the meal we were joined by his friend B., another resident of the retirement home. B., a former professor, was in Beirut at the American University for a time with his wife, and they’re both very appreciative of the Middle East – his wife now takes Arabic lessons once a week from my father-in-law. We had gotten to know them prior to the whole retirement home deal, through Middle East peace work, and when they moved there we were pretty sure that they and J.’s father would become friends.

When he first moved in, my father-in-law had said all he wanted was to be left alone; he reluctantly went down to the dining room for meals and ate alone when he could. The other residents were “boring”, or they were “only interested in sports” or they “didn’t care about foreign affairs”. And besides, he said, he couldn’t hear anything. As had been usual throughout the time I’ve known him, he’d say so-and-so was “very decent” – which was a polite put-down, translated within the family as “they’re nice but not intellectual”. But gradually he began to make friends – or, more accurately, people began to make friends with him, despite his former intentions. Now, several years down the road, as we walk down the hall or go through the dining room, the affection and respect the other residents and staff have for him is very obvious, and his caring for them is genuine.

Not long ago he told me he had at least a dozen very good friends there, and admitted, without a single qualifier, that that was more than he’d ever had before in his life. His best friends are probably B. and his wife, and N., a woman who is a writer, an avid reader, and, God forbid, an Episcopalian. In fact, all three of these friends are pretty devout, practicing, liberal Christians – a humorous irony that isn’t lost on my "humanist" father-in-law.

After he retired, my father-in-law wrote three full-length books. They are fictional biographies of religious figures, set in the Middle East that he knows so well, but too creatively non-traditional to suit a religious market, and too religious to suit a publisher of fiction. They’re written in a flowery story-telling style, often veering off into the poetic and philosophical, that I’ve come to recognize as typically Arab, and although the English is grammatically perfect, the style seems very strange to a westerner. To my father-in-law, though, they are brilliant, and the greatest disappointment of his life has been his inability to find someone to publish them.

That is, until B. came along and decided to start a publishing company and bring out one of these books. This has been quite a saga, with some family involvement and help with the intricacies of digital on-demand publishing, but it’s happening, and both B. and my father-in-law are all excited, and hanging on to their own precarious health in order to see the project to completion. They were already good friends before this project, but they’ve gotten a lot closer, and on Wednesday it was great fun to see the two of them teasing each other and talking naturally together, almost as if “the children” weren’t listening.

Somehow, talking about prep schools and colleges in the 1960s, we got onto the subject of drugs. B. turned to my father-in-law, and asked him if he’d ever smoked dope…

(to be continued)

3:33 PM |

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