"Green grow the lilacs, all sparkling with dew." Haunting, evocative, elegiac, the lilacs return to Brattle St... Cambridge, May 7, 2011.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
I was out early today. Even before dawn's first light, I was up and about and soon on my mission... to find the first bunches of lilac, and drink in their unmistakable scent with the pristine dew.
What passersby (not too numerous so early) must have thought to see the flowers held against my face, though gently so as not to crush them, I cannot say. I did not care. The lilacs that I love to excess have returned to Cambridge... and with them every memory of this most evocative of flowers and their flagrant, haunting fragrance.
Beloved of Russian empresses...
One day the great Empress Catherine of all the Russias (1762-1796) went walking in her garden of Tsarskoe Selo and found a branch of lilacs, so perfect she was sure it would be picked to amplify the bouquet of some lovelorn lad to his much desired lady... so she stationed a soldier next to this lovely branch. In 1917, a soldier was still stationed where the plant no longer flowered or even existed. But then Tsar Nicholas II wasn't surprised... for his wife Alexandra, called "Sunny", loved lilacs to distraction, too... and created a room in the most palatial of palaces where everything was in a shade of lilac. It became, in due course, the most famous room of the empire...
My grandmother Victoria had this same tendresse for her much loved and coddled lilacs. She craved their scent and their colors, too, in every shade of purple... heliotrope, mauve, violet, lavender, puce, and all the other variations. Even my grandmother's perfume, Muguet de Bois by Coty (launched 1941) featured lilac... and lily-of-the valley. Proust-like, that scent brings her back... as does my mother's Chanel. Lilac is like that. It will not be denied and can never be resisted.
And now the lilacs are in rampant bloom along Tory Row on Brattle Street, breathtaking, sensual, glorious. The Loyalists would have remembered them for all the rest of their long lives; the merest hint of their scent would trigger the painful memories that come with unending exile.
A few facts about lilacs.
You may be surprised to learn (I was) that syringa (lilac) is a genus of about 20 to 25 species of flowering woody plants in the olive family (Oleaceae) native to woodland and scrub from southeastern Europe to eastern Asia.
They are deciduous shrubs or small trees, ranging in size from 2 to 10 meters (6 feet 7 inches to 32 feet 10 inches) tall, with stems up to 20 to 30 centimeters (7.9 to 12 inches) in diameter.
The leaves are opposite (occasionally in whorls of three) in arrangement, and their shape is simple and heart-shaped.
The flowers are produced in spring and are bisexual, with fertile stamens and stigma in each flower. The usual flower color is a shade of purple (generally a light purple or lilac), but white, pale yellow and pink, even a dark burgundy color are known. Flowering varies between mid spring to early summer, depending on the species.
The fruit is a dry, brown capsule, splitting in two at maturity to release the two winged seeds that have within them everything that produces the lustrous magnanimity of the lilac and commands your eye and reverence.
The poets irresistible attraction to and understanding of lilacs.
Poets, including many notable poets, saw lilacs and wished, in words, to produce the lyric quality of their scent. The scent, the unforgettable scent, swept them away. It was exuberant, excessive, a warning to the dangers of immersion in a thing so powerful, so rich, so cloying; a thing that draws you away from the little duties and miseries of life and whispers of pleasures you want beyond reason. Too much of this unalloyed richness gives way to madness... and exultation.
Amy Lowell (1874-1925) knew the potency of lilacs. She wrote
"Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England...
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom...."
"You are everywhere.
You were everywhere."
Lilacs know their power and seduce you with it, every wind wafting the scent into your brain and memory. They offer you the same terms that a beautiful woman offers the man distracted by her -- none at all, just surrender. Lilacs are the sorceress of blooms, enchanting, elusive, sharing their magic for an instant... leaving you longing for what you fear you will never have again.
The flower of elegy, mourning, decay, death.
Lilacs are the flower of remembrance. After the fall of Tsar Nicholas II and the entire structure of tsardom, the ex-emperor and his wife Alexandra found themselves prisoners of the new regime, forbidden even to walk in the magnificent park at Tsarskoe Selo. Alexandra looked out upon an ocean of lilac, once hers, now as distant as the moon. Her haunted look, beyond mere dismay, touched the heart of a simple soldier. He gave her a sprig. His officer saw this as "fraternizing with the enemy" and had him shot.
Amy Lowell, too, saw lilac as an accoutrement of death.
"The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
and let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems."
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) also knew the immemorial association between lilacs and death, and he gave us the simple words that bespoke the greatest tragedy:
"When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring."
He picked a sprig of lilac and thought of the passing into eternity of Abraham Lincoln, "Night and day journeys a coffin." It is unbearably painful for him, only the simple words – and the lilac -- with its promise to return -- giving solace, for that is within the power of the lilac, too, which Whitman knew and relied on:
"Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death."
But this cannot be the last word on lilacs, not this.
Think instead of Lynn Riggs' 1931 play "Green Grow the Lilacs", the basis for the libretto of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma," a musical about real people and their real concerns. They brought lilac seeds with them to beautiful their often difficult lives because they couldn't bear the thought of life without its beauty, comfort and serenity. And I cannot either.
The first, the last, the epic journey of RMS Titanic, and you are there. Some centennial observations.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. You know Titanic. She is the most famous ship that ever sailed... and the most famous ship that foundered, listed, and sank. It is this ship I ask you to board with me now, having cleared your mind of everything you know, every thought and impression you have ever had about this great ship, and so recapture the state of mind you would have had when you boarded her at Southampton, England 10 April, 1912. For you are weighing anchor towards destiny... but do not know it, no one does.
The Ritz afloat.
The White Star Line was an enterprise that dreamed dreams of magnitude, dreams of floating palaces, of luxury that made you catch your breath and hurry back to record what you saw in your diary, which your grandchildren would savor, a treasured heirloom forever. They brought the very idea of awe to their work... and it was nothing but the very truth, a source of pride to an empire that existed solely because of its command of the seas.
Born in Belfast.
The idea for Titanic and her sister ships RMS Olympic and RMS Britannic commenced in mid-1907 when White Star Line's chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, met with American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, the man who controlled White Star Line's parent corporation, the International Mercantile Marine Co. These men had everything... and so, of course, they wanted more. And they had the means to get it.
They insisted, they were adamant, Titanic must be the ultimate in every single element, every feature, every component, the dernier cri, the ship for which even the word acme was not good enough.
Thus they hired the renowned firm of Harland and Wolff, giving them carte blanche, with but a single command: the result must be the best, unrivalled, unexampled; colossus in the age of colossi, the incontrovertible symbol of this greatest age of man and his wondrous works.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, was stinted for Titanic, and if six men were killed constructing her, with 246 injuries overall, 28 of them "severe" (meaning loss of limb), why, what did that signify... great enterprises have great costs.
Launched 31 May, 1911.
Of the many proud days in Belfast, this was amongst the proudest for this was a day when the intricate skills of the men of this turbulent city were on best display. Project supervisor Lord Pirrie, J. Pierpont Morgan and J. Bruce Ismay were joined by over 100,000 jubilant, God-fearing people who cheered to the very echo the ship, its sublime grace, the officials who dreamed, the designers who imagined, and the small army of workers who constructed this masterpiece.
So you who read of these happenings longed to be part of Titanic and her gilded future... rather impulsively buying two tickets, a present (rather expensive to be sure) for your wife, for an event you would never forget, of that you were sure.
Thus you found yourself in Southampton... head high, walking up the gangway... where you heard the unmistakable sound of a fashionable waltz, "Songe d'Automne"... it was exquisite... if a trifle sad for such a glad occasion. Yes, haunting, beautiful... mentally noting you would ask the band to play it en route when you wanted just the right sound for a perfect evening...
Thus did the great ship sail on... with no one imagining that she would soon become renowned not for every aspect of nautical expertise, but for hubris, arrogance, ineptitude and for an end that would rival the very essence of Hell itself.
11:40 pm 14 April, 1912. The end begins.
At 11:39 pm of its final night afloat, the magnificent Titanic was a glorious vision, lighting heaven itself, steaming to a ceremonial entrance in New York City, the happy berth of 2,223 people, including the creme de la creme of European and American Society, names you knew, admired, envied.
Just one minute later, suffering a glancing blow from an iceberg whilst maneuvering to avoid it, Titanic began its transformation into a metaphor, not for man's greatness and technical abilities but for his littleness in the face of unkind and unrelenting Nature, becoming a matter of myth, not merely history.
"No, 't is not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but 't is enough, 't will serve." ("Romeo and Juliet").
And so it did... a mere gash in the pristine hull an invitation for the gelid waters of the ice-flecked Atlantic to rush in, mocking the high works of man, drowning them without any effort at all, their merest motion enough for the gravest consequences.
In such times, the very best and the very worst of man's behaviors are evidenced... how one demands that half-filled life boats be lowered into the calm sea, the only chance to live, while another, unbidden, gives up a place of safety in that very boat, to ensure the life of a total stranger. The remaining moments on doomed Titanic evince all, telling evidence of who we are and what we may do at anytime, to anyone, for good or ill.
Then came the moment you had to decide...a single moment that shows who you are... and determines what you must do. The moment is charged with importance; it is a life or death decision... and you must make it now, decisively, without regret or recrimination, and absolutely no opportunity to alter it, even if you could.
"Darling, get in the life boat."
And so you, like every other passenger traveling with a loved one, must act. Must do the right thing, although that thing may cost you your life. And this action must be prompt, for the great thing that was once astonishing Titanic is sinking faster now, its frightful end apparent, and with it your fate.
Thus, you look into your beloved's eyes and realize that your lives are now separating forever... and the pain is more than you can bear. Then, as her life boat is lowered, you remember a token, sacred now, in your pocket. A locket... with pictures of you both and the single line, "Remember, 14 April, 1912", the happy day you meant, a lifetime ago, to memorialize... Giving this is the last time you touch her hand... a fact she will never forget and will cherish forever.
Now trapped on the sloping deck, you search your soul for whatever comfort you can derive... and resolve not to die here, passive, but to jump to your fate. As you do, you hear the band still playing; the song you first heard upon boarding, the "Songe d'Automne", now not merely a waltz... but a hymn for a ship, an era... and now... for you.
Author's note: Of all the people who sailed on Titanic's only voyage, just 710 survived. The remainder heard the valiant band play on, until it reached its final arrangement. There is good reason to suppose that was the "Songe d'Automne". It was composed by Archibald Joyce, the "English Waltz King". We shall never know for sure, because the entire band went down with the ship.
Click here to listen and think on its pathetic history and its final performance on the fateful ship Titanic.
'My name is Friday. I'm a cop.' What we must do to ensure our safety in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombers and other manifestations of ruthless terrorism. Some thoughts.
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. We Americans are at our best when we have identified a pressing problem, then set about the task of solving it, no matter how difficult. Right now, the problem is terrorism... what it is, how it works, the people who perpetrate the outrages... and what we as a nation and as individuals and potential victims must do to ensure that they are stopped dead... and never be allowed to practice their malicious craft ever again, against anyone, anywhere.
You might think such a high and strenuous goal is just too difficult, indeed that it is beyond the capacities of mere mortals. But you'd be wrong. Terrorism is manmade and as such it can be minimized, curtailed, and through assiduous, unflagging effort wiped out by man. A man like Joe Friday.
"Just the facts, ma'am."
Joe Friday is arguably the nation's best known cop. He was created and played by American actor, television producer, and writer Jack Webb (1920-1982) on "Dragnet". The series first ran on radio (1949-1956) and television (1951-1959) and again in 1967-1970. There was also a theatrical film (1954) and a TV-movie (1969).
Why was this show with its unmistakable opening of blunt words and blunter music so popular? Because it dealt with real people ("the names have been changed to protect the innocent") and solved real crimes. Jack Webb was so perfect in his role that when he died in 1982 he was buried with full police honors, a rarity for someone who was not a policeman.
Friday was all about getting down to business, identifying problems, brainstorming solutions and using the incomparable Yankee brain power to defeat the wicked. He was thorough, indefatigable, high minded, and honest. In other words, he had what was required for success, including the absolutely necessary skill of being willing to grow, listen to others, and work together for the common good. He was never a show-off with a "hey, look at me" mentality.
This is the kind of person we need at the front lines of our great war against terrorism, for this unadulterated cruelty knows no barriers, no limits, and absolutely no humanity at all. It is the very definition of evil and must be treated as such. Its perpetrators are pernicious vermin, and deserve neither charity nor forgiveness, for they give none to anyone. Sadly, we are not yet fully equipped to deal with this mobile menace of ingenuity and increasing expertise and sophistication. And the extent to which we are disorganized, inefficient and disarranged is the very measure of our danger and risk.
"Russia alerted US repeatedly about suspect...."
The headline in The Boston Globe of Wednesday April 24, 2013 was sickening, alarming, enraging. Here's why:
"Russian authorities contacted the US government with concerns about Tamerlan Tsarnaev not once but 'multiple times,' including an alert it sent after he was first investigated by FBI agents in Boston, raising new questions about whether the FBI should have paid more attention to the suspected Boston Marathon bomber..."
What's worse, this is just the tip of the ice-berg on intelligence and overall communications break-downs. The agencies on which we spend billions and billions of dollars are, day by day, shown to resemble the Keystone Cops, to the extent that with the Boston Marathon case we may be seeing the development of the greatest intelligence failure and scandal in the entire history of the Great Republic. And remember this; when intelligence agencies fail, people die... regular ordinary people, including a disproportionate number of children and young people. Indeed the word "scandal" is not remotely satisfactory to label this botched mess showcasing one problem after another that makes them anything other than intelligent. This is a crisis of the first magnitude.
You can bet your bottom dollar that the Solons of the capital are and will be tripping over each other to identify and solve such problems; that is until something easier and less demanding arises. Thus, Solon or not, I have something to say on these matters. And Joe-Friday-like I intend to make my comments and recommendations, terse, pointed, and do-able.
"C'est la guerre."
In 1953 a brilliant historian named Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote a brilliant book which ought to be required reading for anyone connected with the war business, which is a veritable army of people as General and President Dwight David Eisenhower once memorably reminded us. Its title is "The Reason Why" on the famous charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War (1853-1856) when the best cavalry on Earth rode directly into the unremitting and pitiless cannons of the Tsar. "C'est magnifique" said the French commander Pierre Bosquet, "mais c'est pas la guerre."
It was one of the greatest blunders ever and it was the result of one communications and strategic error after another, as the bleeding remnants of this foul-up confirmed. When you run your "intelligence" departments this way, I remind you: people die.
War must be treated accordingly and never regarded as merely a job. That ensures error.
2) To establish in the minds of service personnel and citizens, the significance of their work give it a name, a name like World War III. Right now terrorism is regarded as a tragedy, to be sure, but one which is episodic, occasional and random; something perpetrated by highly efficient but small cells, mostly fighting under the leadership of extreme (and therefore limited) religious leaders and zealots.
Instead, it needs to be recognized that each supra-national cell regards itself as a sovereign power, not just a faction. Thus, as with the Axis powers in World War II, people with quite different points of view and objectives band together for the sake of victory. Pseudo-sovereigns they may be, yet they ally as nations do, future problems to be resolved later. Thus, to find a single terrorist is to find a useful link to still others. Since these alliances are forever shifting due to constantly changing circumstances, when we discover such links and the people who create and profit from them, we must move swiftly to eradicate the menace, for to wait is to hand them an unnecessary advantage... and thus our people die.
3) Share intelligence, fully and promptly. A war, any war, is far more important than any of the hundreds of thousands of agencies, organizations and personnel it takes to gain victory. Sadly, you'd never know it from the unending "turf wars" waged by bureaucrats and officials who are supposed to be on the same side and work together for the common good.
The Boston Marathon case is a perfect example of what happens when information is hoarded, rather than shared. After having stolen two cars, the suspect Tsarnaev brothers seized the driver of one. They unaccountably let him go but kept his cell phone. When the police "pinged" that cell they got the direct bearings of one, and therefore inadvertently, the two get-away cars. Had this godsend not occurred the brothers might well have slipped out of Massachusetts. Authorities now believe that iconic Times Square in midtown Manhattan was their next target.
The consequences of an incident there defy imagination. It is now clear that lack of sharing information gave the brothers their opportunity to outrage... and that this failure might not have occurred had the sharing of pertinent details been the rule, rather than the exception. When that is the case, innocent people, in the wrong place at the wrong time, die.
4) Unified intelligence. Right now, when coherence, centralization and efficiency of intelligence should be the objective, there are at least five "watch" lists, competing, overlapping, duplicating. These five include Terrorism Identification Datamark Environment (TIDE); Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB); Selectee List; No-Fly List and Disposition Matrix. Each has its own criteria for getting on or getting off a given list. Thus the anomaly arises that a suspect may be on one list, but not on another.
This was the case with Tamerlan Tsarmaev... and as a result people died. Experts must find a way to solve this problem, but I can give them a suggestion to start. Don't allow self-interested bureaucrats to persuade you that their department is necessary and that their list and information should be kept for them. Instead come up with what should be on ONE list and arrange matters accordingly.
5) Test the system. Then re-test. Every human system and enterprise is subject to human error and so is this one. Only here there is this major difference: when errors occur, people die. That is why there must be constant, thorough and thoughtful testing of every aspect of this system. There must be no "sacred cows", but only people who need cutting-edge tools and intelligence and are willing to do the necessary to get them... for you see when our side offers responses which are sluggish, outmoded and inadequate, people die. Thus, we must test, review test results, and improve. There must be no question about this, and no one's interests must be allowed to trump the ongoing training and perfecting.
Last Words... for now.
As a citizen of Cambridge, Massachusetts I watched in horror and disbelief as these events took place in my very neighborhood. It is not too much to say that they changed me forever. Thus, I tell you this. In World War II and our other conventional wars, we could mark victories and defeats with pins on a map. "Roumania allies with Axis," then "Roumania surrenders." You knew where you were and what was happening.
That is not the case with terrorists.
When the discussion focuses on terrorism, the focus must be on what hasn't happened. It is not just that such silence is golden but that with each day that goes by we are successfully meeting the unending challenge of terrorism and the villains who use it to humiliate, humble, frighten, and cow us. To keep outrages to the absolute minimum we must understand that this war has no end, no boundaries, no flags flying marching garlanded through the streets of even the smallest hamlet. No indeed. This war demands constant, unflagging effort. Otherwise, good people will die and our great national purposes be obliterated and defeated by a few... to the lasting detriment of the many. That is why defeat in this war of stealth and subterfuge is unthinkable and why we must work together Joe Friday-like, for only therein is victory and the peaceful and harmonious life we all want so very much but can so easily lose in an instant, mayhem we might have stopped... but didn't.
Dr. Jeffrey Lant, Harvard educated, started writing for publication at age 5. Since then, he has published over 1,000 articles and 63 books, and counting.