Interlude: Three ways of dealing with a madman

TERRY GILLIAM JONATHAN PRYCE
Actor Jonathan Pryce and Director Terry Gilliam during the filming of 2018’s long-awaited epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

When Don Quixote first sets out as an adventurer, sans Sancho Panza, his primary encounters before returning briefly home are with an innkeeper, farmer, and merchant. Each have a distinct reaction to Quixote’s presence as a “knight errant.” These reactions can roughly be equated with all further subsequent encounters Quixote has on the plains. And to critically extrapolate even further: there are 1 of 3 ways of dealing with any madman.

The innkeeper’s way

The innkeeper recognizes Q.’s madness, and knows enough about chivalric romances not to upset Quixote, and so, he is kindly, humors him (as do the prostitutes at the inn who are made into ladies) and with good-nature plays along and Q. is knighted, if only to help the innkeeper send him on his way. During his visit, two muleteers are hit on their heads who interpret Quixote’s watch over his armor as nothing but an act.

So, the innkeeper’s lesson is: There are harmful consequences in taking what seems to be fantasy to you for what is reality to another – and pleasantries if you entertain their fantasy.

The farmer’s way

The farmer recognizes no madness, but humors Q. as he would any figure that seems to be of authority – by agreeing with him outwardly, then ignoring his proscriptions. The farmer further abuses the boy who is being flogged, the injustice which first drew Q.’s attention. He gives him no wages, and implores him to go back to Quixote and tell him what was done, knowing nothing will come of it.

The farmer’s takeaway is: There are no consequences to not upholding a man’s word if you have no belief in their power (or madness).

The merchant’s way

The merchant (and gang of merchants) does not care whether Q. is mad or of authority. They see only an out-of-fashion boob, a man who takes himself seriously and so, can be taken advantage of. It’s during this third encounter which does the most harm to Q. – they demand to see an image of Dulcinea to prove to them her beauty. He rushes at the merchant, lance in hand, and Rocinante falters, he falls. He is beaten, his lance is shattered, and is left to ache in the dust, blaming his old nag.

And so, the merchant’s rebuttal is: Those who are weakened by their own fantasies will be crushed with the bleeding and bruised proof of the real.

From One Equinox to Another

Now that autumn has arrived (this very night full of the cool breezes and beads of soft rain that wash away the heat and bear away the humidity), I am posting a piece that I attempted to shop around to various local journals and magazines when the spring equinox was upon us here in upstate New York. It is entitled “The Swifts of Spring” and was finished in late May of this year:

The night sky begins to pale toward morning. There is a bright chatter that rises up before the sun. It wakes you in the still yellowy night, lit only by a few streetlights. In the alley below, an exhausted and tearful weeping sounds over a deep but impotent protest. It’s the playing out of a lover’s quarrel, the current theme set to birdsong above the village streets an hour before dawn. Their voices soon fade away as night diminishes and I roll back over into the short dream before coffee.

I’m no birdwatcher but as I acquaint myself with my new home of Catskill, I watch on Main Street the arcs and lines of birds with the daily trails made by my fellow residents below going into Catskill Grocery & News for coffee, smokes and scratch-its; strolling between the Greene County courthouse and the county offices; working out to Zumba music from the open door of the Community Center; heading into the Community Theater for the latest Captain America film or out of Kirwan’s Game Store for fresh air. Weekenders from the city also trounce the sidewalks, and a part of me feels as if my partner and I’s move is just as transitory as their visit. However, we both know this is now home and these residents, our community.

From creekside to the tombstones at the top of the hill, across the variously stormy and sunny skies, the village now has a rarer visitor. Since the first two weeks of May, twenty or more migratory Chimney swifts have been sighted. Swifts are exceptional creatures and commit their energy to an almost totally airborne life. They eat, mate, and do everything but sleep in the air, having no ability to perch like most common birds. In fact, they are in the same order as hummingbirds, Apodiformes, meaning “footless” in Greek. Since leaving their wintering homes in South America, their high-pitched squeaks and chirps have been lilting overhead.

How much envy has greened our race for ages while admiring the flight of birds. Whereas a bird would use a crease in the ripple of a wind to bank or roll its body further along its course of flight, we clumsily trip on the edge of a slightly upturned sidewalk block. Some of us drag our feet while walking – I myself have an odd ‘duck-footed’ gait that reveals itself slowly in the wearing down of the backside of my heels. We feel the rule of gravity’s kingdom on our shoulders and try our best to straighten the somewhat crooked sway of our travelings. It’s no wonder that birds were imitated for a good many centuries by would-be aviators before we had to figure out our own means of catching the air.

(As an interlude, I scribbled the following poem while musing on this phenomenal influence:

 

Aviators

 

You have to admire

The stapled wings of foolish inventors

As much as the quilled designs

Of Leonardo –

Both inspired by the grace of birds

As much as – or more than,

The mechanics of flight)

 

It’s now the breeding season. Chimney swifts make nests of twigs which are glued together using their own saliva, holding their clutches of 4 or 5 eggs. In the early morning the other birds of this village, the house sparrows, starlings, and purple finches, keep their nests in the slightly open cracks between cornice and gutter or among the now greening vines along the side of the old Oren’s building. The making of nests is in the nature of all birds, from the complexity of the bower to the simplicity of the penguin. For the benefit of the swifts, Catskill features many chimneys from the 19th century that no longer hold flames. It seems fitting with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s new studio and exhibit on the painter’s architectural designs that the swifts are making new use of our old brick. For local historians, this could be a point of pride in a town once known for its industrious brickyards.

I’m uncertain how long the swifts will be flying among us this spring. A brief bit of research shows that incubation and nesting takes a combined 40 days. And as much as I can glean from eBird.org, no sightings of Chimney swifts have been recorded in Catskill in the last decade. It makes one wonder at their being here, soot-dusted and gulping down great amounts of insects each day, to return at sunset to a few chimneys hanging in the air. If you live in this village or are visiting in the next few weeks, observe their grace while you can.

I hope more than a few of us took in the sight of their arching flights. There was ample time and number, as by the close of August more than 40 were in the undulating groups of parents and their brood before taking flight from Catskill, Hudson, Saugerties and number of other towns and villages in the area. Soon after they left, a legion of spiders soon filled the insect-eating vacuum left by the swifts and populated the streetlight, windows and facade of my building along Main St. to a creepy extant.