Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Spirit of Nora
A Novel

by Lyle Scott Lee

Stretched across a backdrop of bustling New York, romantic Paris, and rural Russia in the early twentieth century, The Spirit of Nora vividly portrays the emergence of a young Minnesota woman into a fiercely independent spirit. Leaving her home on the farm with her childhood friend Ella for nursing training in New York, Nora enters a changing world. After befriending two doctors on the train east, Nora and Ella spend many evenings with Tristan and Soren. But a terrible tragedy pulls Ella from Nora, who eventually travels farther east, searching for redemption for failing her friend.

Nora becomes wrapped up in the permissive lifestyle of French artists, embracing relationships with the lively Cassandra and talented Auguste. While in France, she is confronted with physical temptations and spiritual uncertainty until she learns of the communal setting established on the estate of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. The Spirit of Nora needs further nourishment for her wavering faith, and she continues yet farther east to Yasnaya Polyana to work with Tolstoy’s translator. Through the following years Nora learns of hardship, love, war, and the difficulties in finding balance between right and wrong. Ultimately, she must come face to face with the legacy of her lost friend.


Finally. A new study has just come out declaring that consuming water does not prevent dehydration. And any producer of bottled water claiming otherwise will be subject to legal repercussions, according to a new European Union law scheduled to take effect next month, starting in the U.K.

As potentially damaging as these sorts of studies and laws can be to our collective understanding of things, it’s also entertaining to observe such pronounced absurdity in action. I can’t wait for the decision deeming the air we breathe as a non-source for sustaining life on Earth. Of course, I jest, as there is no such study (I’m pretty sure), at least not yet.

I remember the days when water was just water, flowing from the tap and regulated by the government to ensure the supply was not subject to contamination from runoff and ground seepage from agriculture and industry. But once the idea to bottle, market and sell water came about, all bets were off as far as its maintaining its status as merely the nectar of the gods. A mix of free enterprise and government oversite has muddied the waters.

The government has long suggested the consumption of eight glasses of water a day to maintain a safe level of hydration. But now, at least in the case of Europe, we’re supposed to believe that it does no such thing.

There are silly semantics at work here, such that I’m reminded of George Orwell’s definition of the term Doublethink in his novel 1984 in which the meaning of a word takes on two contrary definitions, depending on what the ruling party is attempting to convey to the general population. It would appear the new EU legislation is an attempt to jump the gun, expecting us little people to accept their contrary notion of what it means, biologically, to consume water. Ridicule should be their reward.

We tend to roll our eyes when the latest study over the health benefits from, e.g., eggs, is first positive, and then negative followed again by positive. Winston Smith, the protagonist in 1984, under physical duress, succumbs to the belief that 2 + 2 = 5, and, in the end, willingly agrees that it was always so. Thankfully, as well as unfortunately, the reach of government can be both blinded and positively inept. In other words, most of us are able to see through the wasted tax dollars and pervasive contradictions in policy.

This doesn’t mean our worries should be dismissed or it’s okay to get up and walk out during the middle of the show because we find the performance of our political elites exhausting. We all need to remain cognitive of the erosion of our sense of what is considered common sense and spring to action, mocking those who would attempt to make our thoughts either regressive or contrary. This should not require a great deal of effort. However, you’ll probably know when your efforts to do just that have lapsed into critical mode when one day you find a cage with a hungry rat strapped to your head.

When someone asked me how old I was turning this past weekend, I said “Forty-nine,” while noting the nine is German for ‘no’, as in, “No! Please don’t drag me into the next decade.”

Revolution 9 from The Beatles’ White Album holds sway with modern-day prophets, particularly one Charles Manson. The significance of that track’s lyrics was not lost on him. Number 9…Number 9…Number 9. He and he alone understood the transition about to take place, as Revelations 9, the Locust, would lead to Revelations 10, the arrival of the Mighty Angel with the Little Book. (Of course, Manson is insane, so it’s hard to give him much leeway regarding scriptural interpretation.)

More to the point, it’s hard to find favor with such an ominous number as 9. Sure, it’s a kick to watch a row of them tick and click their way to a fresh set of zeroes on the odometer, pretending that a new model of car has just taken the place of the old one, with that new car smell and all the latest bells and whistles. But such are the delusions that will turn positive thinkers into the defeated, on their knees and the gnashing of teeth.

The first time it appears in one’s life, at age 9, obviously, it has a freshness, easily ode to a Sesame Street lesson – “Let’s sing a song about nine. How many is nine?” Sometimes it’s nine cookies for Cookie Monster. Other times its nine ugly bats dangling, not so menacingly, from prop wire. Yes, very cute.

Yet each time it shows up, thereafter, coincidentally enough, every ten years, it takes on a new meaning. Turning 19 might appear as carefree, as simple and quaint as tapping the keg. Some might even say more a rite of passage than a privilege while taking flight from the safety of the nest. While 29 might be seen as an eye opener, with looming questions left unanswered. “Am I in business?” “Am I settled?” Chances are you’re on your way. But if you’re like Biff Loman, the answer is, “No. I’m like a boy.”

Thirty-nine is the age when some people decide to no longer age. Jack Benny, entertainer and violin virtuoso, mastered the art of stopping time in its tracks, holding at 39 for the next 41 years and managing to avoid the burden of contemplating 49, 59, 69 and 79. Or did he?

As the number preceding the 9 increases, the screaming of the German ‘nine’ grows louder. I now see a photograph with the scowling face of philosopher Bertrand Russell, who is old as time, smarter than most, yet unable to boil a pot of water for a cup of tea. Not because he is becoming senile, but because he has been pre-occupied for too many years pondering his own mortality.

Thankfully, and in spite of myself, I can still boil a pot of water.

So far this fall I’ve yet to leave for work in the early mornings wearing a jacket or coat. I figure as long as the day’s temp starts out above freezing and there’s still no snow on the ground, I’m good to go. But this is just me pushing back against Old Man Winter and his suffocating ways, with frost-covered windows and the narrowing of the driveway from maturing snowbanks on either side. It’s bad enough the darkness hangs around from the night before, crowding the wee hours until the sun is ready to play its second-fiddle tune, the short part of the day, made up of either bright-frigid notes or else a cloud-covered, blustery tempo.

I wasn’t always averse to winter. I remember the days of my youth when my brothers and I were dropped off Saturday mornings at the mid-town outdoor ice rink, where I would clumsily stumble on seemingly dull blades that felt as though they were made of lead, with wobbly aching ankles, begging for some sense of coordination. Yeah. A guy born and raised in a hockey town sucked at skating. It happens.

We played street football as well. Of course, it was nice when there was some fluff on the pavement from a recent snowfall. But even after a good packing down from traffic or sleet, there was still a fearlessness in our games. We played with intensity, never seeming to tire. And always, the game called on account of darkness. We’re all nearly fifty, but we actually had a rousing game a couple of Christmases ago. There’s just an awareness now to play within ourselves, i.e., not allowing the mind to run faster than the legs.

I remember signing up for ski trips to Spirit Mountain in Duluth during my junior-high years. They were after-school trips and we’d bus the twenty miles right around dusk. Everyone would break off into their little groups, skiing those short runs till nearly closing time. On the way back in the darkness, broken only by an occasional passing set of headlights, you could feel the spent energy and the closeness of a bunch of adolescents, engaged in silly flirtation, made up of non-sensical chattering or serenading, singing along to the latest pop song on the radio.

Back in the day my family snowmobiled through the streets of town and on the outskirts. Three Arctic Cats, all early-70s models. After spraying the heck out of the carburetors with WD-40, they’d fire up, and then we were off, chugging along, a convoy, both passive and casual. No daredevil stunts. No racing. Just out enjoying the small-town scenery, while little sister changes colors from inhaling gas fumes.

Now-a-years, I hunker down for the long, insufferable agony that awaits those of us who live in that place where most of us would not otherwise live had we not been born there. I have a stack of books to read and a bright lamp that serves as a piece of a pretend tropical getaway. It’s a setting that helps me maintain my sanity. But only until one of the housecats, looking for warmth beyond its own coat, jumps into my lap, its purr reminding me of the outdoor brrr.

“Credit-default swaps – where you insure your neighbor’s house just to destroy it and make money from it…” – German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Remember in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life how Old Man Potter was ready and willing to give all the other banking heads 50 cents on the dollar for their depositors’ shares during a bank run? George Bailey, you’ll recall, declined Old Man Potter’s offer. Over the course of the Great Depression, Old Man Potter did his best to buy up all the land and businesses in Bedford Falls, but he could never get his bony fingers around the Bailey Building and Loan.

That was a time when banks were backed by more than just the good faith of its depositors. The bank actually had assets consisting of real property and precious metals, and the art of fractional reserve banking was less far-reaching than it is in today’s non-gold backed, electronic web of deception.

Imagine if George Bailey had secretly funneled funds to Violet Bicks to finance an exorbitant lifestyle in New York City. The risk to the Bailey Building and Loan would have been considered minuscule compared to the current global financial system, which allows for the opportunity of great reward while offering up almost nothing in the way of risk.

The analogy I tried to explain to a friend recently regarding Derivatives or Credit Default Swaps – the largest unregulated financial ‘insurance’ scam in history – is as follows: A bookie takes a $100 bet from a gambler but only expects a penny upfront with the balance to be paid should the gambler lose the wager. And what is the wager? That someone else will not make good on a previous similar wager. The bookie keeps taking these bets, assuring prospective gamblers of his solvency based on a ledger that shows future income from all the previous bets. The fact is he only has a penny from each of the previously-placed $100 bets. As bets are mostly won by the gamblers, the bookie tells everyone not to worry about getting their money as it’s safely accounted for in his ledger. He even encourages them to feel free to place yet another bet based on the same criteria as before. No one’s getting paid off, but the IOU’s are worth something, right?

In the end, neither gambler nor bookie can lay claim to anything of value to offset the losses incurred. Fortunately, in the example, its just gambling losses. But in the real world, the astronomical losses from these Credit Default Swaps fall on the shoulders of the taxpayers, wherever they reside, from Athens, Greece to Athens, Georgia.

That is why the Eurozone, and even the U.S., could use someone like Old Man Potter to step in and take over, using his genuine, real assets to keep them afloat in the face of a complete financial meltdown. After all, as nasty and greedy as Old Man Potter was, he still had the means and business acumen to grow his empire. He may have taken advantage of malingerers and deadbeats, but isn’t that the way of the world? Back then, “No free lunch” eventually led to “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” But nowadays, it’s a case of “Government, can you pay off my mortgage, my student loan and my cable service so I can continue watching TMZ?”

I can’t imagine Old Man Potter and George Bailey ever having gotten to the point where either one expected, let alone demanded, a government bailout. Why should they have? They both understood the point behind the use of a balance sheet while practicing simple mathematics.

Even though Sparkling Falls is located in a parallel time continuum, there’s still a sense of modernity, if not in automation, at least in language. Laura, the misplaced protagonist in J.S. Bailey’s “The Land Beyond the Portal”, is quickly at ease with the village’s habitants, speaking the same language and, at times, trading one-liners common in today’s youthful vocabulary. It’s the sort of banter that gives the story’s setting a realistic feel in spite of the shroud of eeriness the citizens reside under.

Since Laura is not the first lost person to travel through one of the portals found in the nearby woods, the citizens quickly accept her into the fold. Laura’s loss of memory helps her adapt, blending into this new culture. And dreams and recollections of who she may be eventually become secondary during her stay, as there are plenty of mysteries in her new world to keep her occupied.

A high infant mortality rate, lost children, and rumors of birthing quotas mar an otherwise small and peaceful enclave, presumably surrounded by endless forests. A deity named Litchfield, visible in Oz-ian form, has long since set the rules governing the citizens, and an annual celebration in his name is considered sacred. The story invokes images of Jonestown and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, as there’s this sense of a more than progressive society that has somehow been both hijacked and stymied by superstition and belief in a false god.

Sensing something sinister at hand, and mindful of her own Christian background, Laura is unable to abide by the required rituals and solemnity demanded by Litchfield and his cronies. The missing of one of her host family’s siblings spurs Laura into action, as she and two of her new friends venture into the ominous wilderness. Their discovery answers many questions while compelling them to consider organizing and rising against their benefactor.

The oft-introductions of so many characters may not be presented in a so-and-so-begat-so-and-so format, but their inclusion does tend to stall things early on, as a number of them are injected with little or no background of consequence. However, the discerning reader should be able to steam ahead while remaining focused on Laura and the building suspense surrounding the missing child, the story behind her new world, and the answers surrounding her identity, the conclusions of all of which will not disappoint.