According to his biographer (Peter Ackroyd), Alfred Hitchcock "feared and hated the body." When he was a student at St. Ignatius in London, whenever he used the lavatory, he scrubbed it "so that it seemed as though no one had been there." At maturity, Hitchcock stood 5' 5" and weighed approximately 300 pounds. His marriage to Alma Reville (4'11") was mostly "white." He claimed that it was "sexless" and that he was a "celibated" director, and that his daughter, Patricia, was some sort of error. "If he was not the center of conversation or attention at a dinner table, he would often doze off." He made a bet that a property man would not be able to spend the night chained to a camera in a dark studio, then sabotaged him with a bottle of brandy laced with a strong laxative. He referred to his audience as the "moron millions." He was fond of the great painters but had no interest in any "symbolic significance or inner meaning." The actress Ann Todd reported that he had a schoolboy's obsession with sex and "an endless supply of very nasty and vulgar stories and jokes. He was a very sad person." He "had a fetish about women wearing glasses." One of his secretaries reported that he bought her five or six pairs but if she appeared without wearing one, "it irritated the devil out of him." During the making of Psycho, Hitchcock would place one or more grotesque models of Norman Bates' mummified mother in Janet Leigh's dressing room, just to hear her scream. "He would also regale her with his fund of dirty stories just before she went on camera." When asked, "what is the deep logic of your films," he replied, "to make the spectator suffer." When an actor was dissatisfied with a performance, Hitchcock refused another take, saying, "They'll never know in Peoria." While "The Birds" was being filmed, he harassed Tippi Hedren mercilessly, sending her flowers, specifying what clothes she could wear, keeping her from her daughter, trying to convince co-workers that they were having an affair. He gave Hedren's young daughter (Melanie Griffith) an image of her mother lying in a coffin. Hitchcock's recurrent dream was that his penis was made of crystal.
Is it possible that so stunted a human being might become a great artist? Or is it rather that his obsessions, distortions and failures of human empathy constitute a permanent barrier to greatness and that time will reveal that even his best films are shallow, brittle -- all surface glitter?
The twins and their older brother came to visit and were playing their favorite new game, "hide the goose." The goose? a two foot tall hollow plastic replica perhaps originally a lawn ornament, now an excellent child's toy. Easy to find. After the hiding game had gone on long enough, and was just starting to become a trifle rambunctious, I tried to signal to my fellow student of Italian that the time had come for the goose to retire for the day -- but try as I might, I couldn't come up with a translation for the word goose. Later, after the lads had left, I looked in the Italian dictionary for "goose." Oca, it said. A strange, unanticipated word.
I tried to recall the Latin word for goose. Nothing. But after several hours (and here comes the point of the story) a word suddenly floated to the surface -- anser. Let me tell you now, fans of Dr. Metablog, that I was exceedingly proud of myself. Fifty-five years or so after my last course in Latin, out popped anser. Self-celebration knew no bounds.
After I had stopped crowing about my triumph, I started to marvel at the brain -- not just my brain, but any brain. In what corner of the brain, in what concatenation of synapses, had the word anser been lurking lo these many decades. And what sort of ingenious search program needed only a few hours to ferret it out? Glaciers have melted, rivers have changed their course, and yet anser remained unchanged, permanently embedded somewhere in my brain. It's kind of miraculous, isn't it?
So how did Italian acquire oca rather than a word descended from anser. Why not *asse, for example. My dictionary of classical Latin offers no alternative to anser, but the Italian etymological dictionary explains that the late Latin word for goose was auca, derived from a diminutive aucellus of avis (bird) and it cites as cognates old French oue and Occitan auca. No doubt demotic auca replaced the "book word" anser sometime in late antiquity.
The result of this investigation: next time, I will be able to say, with great authority, "nascondi l'oca."
Years ago, I read, in translation of course, a few of Leonardo Sciascia's Sicilian mysteries. Excellent books: The Day of the Owl (Il giorno della civetta -- 1961)), Equal Danger (Uguale pericolo --1973), The Challenge (Il contesto--1971). Last week I tried to read one of Sciascia's short stories in its native Italian. A good idea, but quite a struggle. Too taxing for my present fluency. Sciascia's vocabulary is enormous, mine is puny. Not to mention Sicilian expressions that would be stumpers and require footnoting even for mainland Italians.
The story I tackled is Il lungo viaggio, (The Long Voyage). Some impoverished Sicilian peasants pay a man whom we would call a coyote to smuggle them into America; he takes their entire savings, takes them on board his ship, and then after ten excruciating days sets them right back down in Sicily. A sad tale of exploitation, not, alas, irrelevant today.
Sciascian geography: the Sicilians think they are headed for the middle Atlantic coast of North America, where they will find Nugioirsi, Nuovaiorche, and my very favorite, Brucchilin.
On the whole, Italian is a mighty regular language. Of course it has its irregularities, but many fewer than, say, English. Plurals, for example, are largely predictable, but with some curious exceptions. The masculine noun bue (ox or sometimes, by extension, a dolt) seems to call for the plural form *bui, but it's not so; it's buoi. Dio (god), becomes dei rather than *dii. The very ordinary word uomo (man), yields the extraordinary plural uomini -- which is strange indeed except to oldsters who remember homo, hominis from their high school Latin class. The word for wing is ala and, if Italian were law-abiding, its plural should be *ale but instead it's ali. Similarly, arma should yield *arme, but doesn't; it's armi. Eco has the plural echi, which seems normal, except that the singular is feminine and the plural masculine, so la eco but gli echi. Some words, conversely, have masculine singulars but feminine plurals: most notably, uovo (egg) which becomes uova rather than *uovi, while dito (finger) becomes the odd masculine dita. Paio (pair) is similar; its plural is paia. Il riso (a laugh) has the plural le risa. There's the same gender switch with the truly curious word for ear -- orrechio becomes orecchie. There are a few words with two slightly different plural forms, many of them words for parts of the body, such as braccio (arm) which can become bracci or braccia; ciglio (eyebrow) , which has plurals in cigli and ciglia; ginocchio (knee) which can be either ginocchi or ginocchia, and osso (bone) which can be ossi or ossa. I'm fond of muro (wall) the regular plural of which is muri (the walls of a house) but also yields the irregular plural mura, which refers to the fortifications or walls of a city.
Our new president has an extraordinary ability to believe what he wants to believe, no matter the fact. He mocks a disabled reporter, we all see it with our own eyes, and yet he denies that he did so. He claims that his inauguration was the best attended in history, and then we look at the pictures, and see with our own eyes, no so. It is hard to know exactly how to interpret such effrontery, such a remarkable disregard of facts.
I fear that he is actually pulling the wool over his own eyes. He's certainly not pulling it over ours.
He is marooned in an absurd farcical world. He is drowning in duck soup.
Mrs. Teasdale: Your Excellency! I thought you'd left.
Cihicolini: Oh, no, I no leave.
Mrs. Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes!
Chicolini: Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?
Unfortunately, what in fiction is farce becomes tragedy in real life. Nonsense, assimilated as truth in the mind of a person in power, cannot be anything but incendiary.
If it happened in Brooklyn, it must have happened in metaphorical or mythological rather than real Brooklyn, because it's not the Brooklyn of my memory. It Happened in Brooklyn is a 1947 musical, I guess you'd have to call it, featuring still skinny Frank Sinatra and womanly Kathryn Grayson, and also Jimmie Durante, who steals the show. And also the ever-luminous Gloria Grahame in a very small role as an Army nurse in England. Brooklyn is evoked as a fairy tale land where everyone is nice to everyone and jobs and money fall from the trees -- kind of an urban big rock candy mountain. Not the case -- though nowadays Brooklyn, which used to be mocked, is every Twenty-Something's land of putative milk and theoretical honey. In truth there's nothing much that is recognizably Brooklynian, even in geography, to my jaded old eyes except a rather beautiful sequence of Frank Sinatra singing and "dancing" on Brooklyn Bridge. Most of the action takes place in the basement of New Utrecht High School, but it's only a Hollywood sound stage.
Sinatra, a returned soldier, thinks he's in love with Kathryn Grayson but she prefers Peter Lawford, playing the shy grandson of an English Dook. The film is worth seeing if only because Sinatra and Grayson sing, believe it or not, "La ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni -- as far as I know Sinatra's only foray into grand opera. If I had been the screenwriter, I would have had Gloria Grahame jump on a luxury liner and return to Brooklyn for the climactic concluding scene, rather than remaining, as she does, merely a sweet overseas memory of Frankie's.
|It Happened in Brooklyn|
On successive nights, we watched Out of the Past (1947) and Angel Face (1953). Both are, as they say, "gripping" films. In my present situation, "gripping" means that even though the nominal curtain rose on these movies after 9:00 pm, and I was in bed, comfortable, with a full stomach, I was sufficiently gripped that I didn't waver or snooze or nap, even for a second. Such criteria of excellence may not seem significant to younger folk, but trust me, loyal readers, in these latter years, staying awake and engaged is a crucial critical yardstick.
Both Out of the Past and Angel Face are superior noirs. In both films the central character is played by Robert Mitchum. I couldn't detect a the least tad of difference between the two parts he plays. You could lift his Jeff Bailey from Out of the Past and plunk him down in Angel Face as Frank Jessup and no one would notice, except that civilian Frank would lack private-eye Jeff's semi-official trench coat and fedora. In both films, Mitchum's character is expressionless and sleepy-eyed and smart but, once his testosterone kicks in, falls prey to a clever, ruthless bad bad bad girl. Both characters know that they're being framed for murder and yet can't just pack up and move to Nebraska or Mexico or somewhere sensible -- as any human being outside of the world of noir would do. You, the spectator, want to raise yourself from your soft pillow and shout at the TV and at the guys Mitchum plays, "Hey you big lug, what the heck are you doing. Use your noodle." But lunkhead Mitchum makes mistake after mistake. I hope everyone who's reading this post has seen the movies, because I don't want to spoil their pleasure in the endings, but let me just say this -- Jeff, or Frank, or Bob, please next time don't get into an automobile with a homicidal femme fatale in the last few frames of a murder mystery and expect to escape alive. And if you must do so, at least check your so-called girlfriend's purse for a silver-handled Beretta. And under no circumstances surrender to her the keys to the vehicle. Do the driving yourself.
These films have everything one would want in a classic film noir: a relentless wicked ambitious beautiful dame who entraps an honest but naif and helpless ingenu, and also snappy dialogue, a gloomy claustrophobic atmosphere, multiple plot twists and turns, and the valueless atomistic society that Hobbes feared would follow from curtailed authority. And much yearning for cash, which is never in adequate supply. Lots of shadows and odd-angled photography. Some good, complicated characters but a few who are merely melodramatically evil.
Mitchum's acting is much praised of late but I don't buy it: he's effective in a way but monochromatic to a fault. A better actor is Kirk Douglas, who projects gleeful menace as a corrupt, criminal businessman. But to me both movies are carried by their female leads. Dazzling Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat is equally adept at innocence and villainy, often in the same scene, sometimes from moment to moment. At the end of the film, when she's killing people left and right, she wears a nun-like snood that only an accomplished actress could transform into a brilliant metaphor. Equally splendid is Jean Simmons as the angel-faced Diane Tremayne, who conveys innocence, ambition, obsession, and intermittent but genuine madness with the raise of an eyebrow (and the help of excellent lighting). And good girl Mona Freeman shines in a restaurant scene in which she sees right through Tremayne's beauty to the dangerous craziness beneath.
Here's Mitchum and Greer together.
I wrote the following long ago, republished it once. Here it is, relevant again.
What Doesn't Dick Cheney Commit Suicide?
Why doesn't Dick Cheney put a bullet in his brain? It would do him (and his reputation) a world of good. What could possibly stand in his way? Once he sprinkles the ratsbane on his porridge -- and, of course, leaves behind a detailed and humble letter of apology -- he will begin to free his soul of sin and to enjoy some peace of mind. When he has fallen on his sword, his lackeys and toadies will be able to claim that although he was a black-hearted knave, at least he wasn't a shameless black-hearted knave. They can try to persuade us that although he was egregiously and dangerously wrong, he was, like another suicide, Othello, "great of heart." But if Cheney continues in his surly, obstinate, unapologetic lip-curling silence -- why then, he'll go down in the books as an unrepentant demi-devil like Iago ("From this time forth I never will speak word").
Cheney has brought disgrace upon our beloved nation and upon himself. Using faked spy data, he suckered the ignorant, feckless Decider and almost the entire Congress into invading Iraq. His war has been a monumental disaster. "Full of scorpions [should be] his brain." At this moment of writing, Cheney is guilty of killing 3260 American soldiers and maiming (by official count -- who can possibly guess at the truth?) 24,314 others. If Cheney has even the most rudimentary of consciences, on it lies the heavy burden of 60,000 to 100,000 Iraqi souls. The Dickster has cost America $414 billion dollars, loss of prestige and the squandering of oceans of good will. Like Anthony, he "has lived in such dishonor/That the gods detest [his] baseness." But Antony took the proper course. When Cheney dispatches himself -- "after the high Roman fashion," let's hope -- he'll have taken the first step toward rehabilitating himself and the nation. For him not to do the deed would be ignoble.
Dick: I know that you're hunkering in your bomb-proof shelter. I know that you're up late at night, sleepless with guilt. You're cruising the internet, perchance googling "Cheney + suicide," and you're wavering in your purpose. Dick -- take my considered advice. I'm thinking of your place in history. At this point, "you have no friend,/ But resolution and the briefest end." You'll immediately feel better. It's a no-brainer. Go for it.
April 10. Spike Schapiro comments: "Dr. M. -- I've read your exhortation to suicide. You are, as usual, falsely optimistic. Cheney can't off himself because a) he's shameless and b) he's a total coward, and c) he has no self-knowledge and d) he can't point a shotgun. You cite the precedents of Othello and Anthony but they're both great spirits and therefore irrelevant. Cheney is a slug. Moreover, Cheney can't be "great of heart" -- he has no heart of his own --it's either a transplant or some mechanical contraption."
April 4, 2014 Why is this man still alive? Allowed to give interviews? Is there no justice in our sublunary world?
December 22, 2016 Only a silver stake in his heart is going to do it. Mirrors, garlic. Too late for prayers.
I'm marvelously fond of the Italian word "fango," which translates into English as "mud." "Fango" is expressive of the matter which it describes. To my ear, the word fango sounds slimy and disreputable, perhaps even repulsive, while its English counterpart "mud" is bland and lacks character. And "fangoso" is so much more dramatic than "muddy." But why fango? How did fango infiltrate the Italian language? The Latin word for mud is "lutum," which would naturally yield Italian "luto", which, as it happens, is a word that does exist, but, so far, one that I've encountered only in dictionaries. Fango it is, and gladly. Let us revel in fango.
Fango, according to my bank of etymological resources, appears to be of Germanic origin and a distant cousin to the English word "fen," "a low land covered in whole or part by water." Lots of fango in that there fen, obviously. There's also a rare (my dictionary says 'poetical') French word "fange," for mud, but the more common word is boue. Boue is one of a handful of French words (other than toponyms) that are of Gaulish origin. So that when it came to mud, both the Italian and French languages adopted indigenous rather than Latin words. And for good reason: if there's any substance that is common rather than learned, it's mud.
"Fango" bears no relation to English "fang." Fang is an oversized tooth, but not in its earliest appearances. Old English fang denoted plunder or booty, "a seizing or taking." The root meaning of grasp or capture is present in the name of Good Master Fang, an ineffectual officer of the law in Shakespeare's The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth. Yet fang as unquestionably tooth or toothy in Duke Senior's metaphor in As You Like it, where "the icy fang/ And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,... bites and blows upon my body."
One of the most joyful of nursery rhymes, and a personal favorite, is this brilliant piece of poetry:
Draw the latch.
Sit by the fire and spin.
Take a cup,
And drink it up.
Then call the neighbors in.
The clicky rhymes and jaunty meter are undeniably beautiful -- and there's much more complexity than first meets the eye.
In the first triad, a "crosspatch," -- a "cross or ill-tempered person, usually a girl or woman"-- is at work, spinning; in the second triad, she's exhorted to drink and also to invite her neighbors "in" -- presumably into the room, or just as likely, the tiny cottage-- where she lives alone. In the first strophe, the theme is isolation, but in the second, isolation is challenged by the calls of society and by the hope of a more satisfactory and convivial life.
What can we know about the surly individual addressed by the evocative designation, "crosspatch?" The first element in the name --"cross"-- implies not only sourness, but also resistance, as in "cross-grained." The second element--"patch"-- suggests that the crosspatch's discontent is not without cause. We can infer that she's poor because she's a person whose garments are either assembled from various rescued materials, as in "patchwork," or that her clothes are, in another sense of the word patch, repaired. In addition, it's possible that ill health has caused her skin to become "patchy." But "patch" also signals a degree of mental stress, as in Shakespeare's "patched fool." In this signification, patch derives from Italian pazzo, crazy. The crosspatch is therefore disabled physically, socially and psychologically.
At the outset of the poem, our "crosspatch" sits glowering, impoverished, perhaps muttering indistinctly, friendless, without family, her youth blighted by poverty, huddled against the last embers of her dying fire. What is it that she is spinning? No doubt she ekes out a meagre living in the impersonal mercantilist "putting-out" system. Some exploitative proto-capitalist venturer has delivered to her lonely door a quantity of unspun wool or cotton; her job is to return the material to him in the processed form that will then be passed on to an equally poor weaver, then to a tailor, etc. She works alone and never sees the fruits of her labor except for the occasional, paltry farthing that allows her a bare subsistence. No wonder she is slightly barmy and has "drawn the latch" -- closed herself off from her fellows. But then, suddenly, comes the antistrophe, and in a series of importunate injunctives the crosspatch is solicited to rejoin the company of humanity. "Take a cup,/ And drink it up,/ Then call the neighbors in." What's in the cup? Spiritous liquors, no doubt, which, though designed to dull the pain of wage-slavery, also act to augment the revelry with which the poem climaxes. The wine is not sipped, but it is drained to the lees. And once the door is unlatched, and the neighbors -- neighbors of both sexes, no doubt,-- are called "in," why then, let the libations and the wild rumpus begin! Alienated labor is suddenly set aside and replaced by the natural bonds of one human being to another, and the stasis of the opening lines of the poem transforms in a flash into a wildly kinetic bacchanal. Emotional weakness transmutes into healthy liberated pleasure. Dour Puritanism, with its punishing work ethic, yields to the spirit of holiday and to pagan, perhaps even dionysian, excess. Here, in miniature, is the essence of the comic vision. In a few powerful lines, freedom, good humor, and natural appetite triumph over bondage, artificiality, social constriction and repression; the justifiably sullen crosspatch, in a burst of energy, reintegrates herself into the social nexus from which she has been banished.
Whether or not the crosspatch can permanently liberate herself from the oppressions of industrial capitalism, or whether the anodyne and spurious relief of alcohol is a merely transient solution is left unresolved. To ask a short poem, however dense with meaning, to answer so difficult a question would, just possibly, be to ask too much of it and, perhaps, to push the evidence the merest tad too far.
Carinate, which sounds vaguely dental, actually describes the shape of a particular kind of ceramic or metal vessel. An object which has a rounded base and inward sloping sides is "carinated." Hypogea, which is drawn directly from Greek under (hypo) and earth (gaia) means, obviously, underground, but in the world of archaeology generally refers to an underground temple or tomb. Catacombs and crypts, therefore, are both hypogea. A megaron was the great hall of a Grecian palace but archaeologists use the word to describe the large entrance room of any substantial structure. An exedra is a semicircular recess set into a building's facade. It think of it, perhaps incorrectly, as a half of a rotunda. A plinth is the base or platform on which a column or statue rests. Ashlar is finely dressed stones, generally in the shape of a cube or a rectangular solid. Ashlar construction is therefore different from rubble masonry, in which walls are made of irregularly shaped or found stones. A tophet is a burial place for children either sacrificed or dead of natural causes; it's a word of Hebrew origin and recalls the valley near Jerusalem n which ancient Canaanites sacrificed children to Moloch or Baal. I'm embarrassed that I apparently never encountered the word annona, which characterizes the grain supply of the city of Rome in ancient times. Annona, the common noun, is also personified or deified as "a theophany of the emperor's power to care for his people through the provision of staples." Annona, the goddess, is sometimes assimilated to her compatriot Ceres. Acephalous" means headless, and describes "clerics not under a bishop" or lines of verse missing a first foot. In archaeology, it's a decapitated statue. A cist is simply a stone-lined grave or shaft.
These splendid words are drawn from Shepherds, Sailors & Conquerors, Archaeology and History in Sardinia from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages by Stephen Dyson and Robert Rowland, 2007, which I read with great care, enjoying especially the middle chapters on Sardinia's fascinating nurghagic civilizations.
"Orts" is a rare but tasty word. Orts are the bits of bones, gristle, stems, skins, pits and other inedibles that are left on the plate after one finishes eating -- the stuff that is scraped directly into the garbage can. Orts are to be distinguished from "leftovers" which are the uneaten remains of the meal that are carefully sequestered for tomorrow's breakfast. Leftovers good, orts bad.
Shakespeare uses "orts" twice in the plays, both times metaphorically. The first instance is in Julius Caesar, when Anthony tells Octavius how little he values his colleague Lepidus. According to Anthony, Lepidus is "A barren-spirited fellow; one that feeds/ On abjects, orts and imitations." In this instance, orts seems to be prompted by the word "feed." A second appearance of orts is in Troilus and Cressida. Troilus has discovered that his beloved Cressida has been playing at fast and loose with Diomedes: "The bonds of heaven are slipp'd, dissolved, and loosed/ And with another knot, five-finger-tied,/ The fractions of her faith, orts of her love,/ The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics/ Of her o'er-eaten faith, are bound to Diomed." It's a strong speech and "orts of her love" is a powerful phrase, though rather obscure nowadays to audiences for whom the "ort" is a mystery, which is certainly all audiences.
Whether Shakespeare's first audiences would have required a footnote for orts I do not know. It was never a frequently used word, though the OED attests its presence in the language from 1440 to 1880. I don't know of any recent usages, but once, when I was at lunch with a group of professional Shakespeareans, I asked at the close of the meal, "What do we do with the orts" and everyone at the table knew exactly what I meant. Rather a specialized audience.
Orts should not be confused with Oorts. The Oort cloud is the presumed boundary of the solar system, way out there, ten times further than Neptune, where the comets are thought to reside until they are dislodged from their proper home and come hurtling toward the inner planets. Orts are Oorts are both leftovers, in the sense that they are the remains of an original creation, in the one case chicken pot pie and in the other the universe. Orts are much smaller but more palpable than Oorts. Makes a guy wonder what could possibly be denoted by ooorts. Or oooorts.
A textbook example of the unthinkable actually happening:
"It's good to be the king," says Mel Brooks (as Louis XVI) in The History of the World, Part I, lifting the skirt of one of his lovely courtieresses in order to dry-hump her. It's make-believe Hollywood pseudo-licentiousness. It's outrageous, beyond the pale, and hilarious as long as it stays in the movie.
"It's good to be star," says Trump, bragging about his license to kiss women and grab them by their "pussies."
What in comedy is amusing is in real life simply grotesque -- as is the perpetrator of the atrocity, the maniacal Republican candidate for the most powerful office on earth.
Elsa Morante, the distinguished Italian novelist, spent the war years in what might be called internal exile, holed up, hungry, with her friend and later husband Alberto Moravia in a one-room hut in Sant'Agata (both Morante and Moravia were half Jewish). After Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were arrested and shot, hung upside down for all to see, Morante wrote about her countrymen that "all of Mussolini's faults were either tolerated or encouraged and applauded. Thus a people who tolerate the faults of their head of state are complicit with these faults. But if they encourage and applaud them as well, it is worse than being an accomplice, it makes them an accessory to these faults." Mussolini was, according to Morante, a mediocre man, a crude man, a man outside the culture. But Mussolini was also a perfect exemplar of the Italian people who, she claimed, were such that they would rather given their vote to a strong man than to a just man, and if they had to choose between their duty and heir profit -- even if they knew what their duty was -- they would choose their profit.
It is difficult not to see an analogy to our beloved country at this election season.
She: "I want to go outside to see the stars." (Note perfect blank verse).
He. "I want to go to the bathroom."
I'm most fond of the gasplant, also called fraxinella or dittany or, when formality is called for, dictamnus albus. It's a beautiful plant. In flower it's an ornament to the perennial garden, and even when it's done blooming, it's neat and orderly and retains a lovely shade of green throughout the summer. Smells good too. It's a long-lived perennial, very hardy, but it takes a number of years to establish itself, but then lives almost indefinitely. If you have one, you treasure it. I have two, both of which I took from the garden of my late sister Phyllis when she died in 1998. Or should I say I had two, because over the winter one of them went missing.
In the location where there should have been and always has been a fully-mature gasplant, there was nothing -- not a leaf, not a twig, not a root. If the plant had died, it would have left some evidence behind. It's a woody plant which dies back to the ground each year, so every springs there is a bundle of dry hollow stalks or kexes. But this year nothing. Not a shred.
What happened to Mr. Dittany. Here's a possibility. I transplanted him, put him somewhere else, and then forgot that I had done so. An unlikely possibility. I searched my brain but can't' recall moving it. I searched the grounds -- no luck. If it wasn't me, was it someone else? Did some malefactor steal the gasplant? I have never heard of a gang of perennial thieves. Is it possible to believe that a nefarious individual entered the garden while I was away and heisted an out-of-season gasplant, roots and all? Not an hypothesis I can much credit. Did the plant have enemies? If it's being held for ransom, I have yet to receive the note. "We have your fraxinella. Either fork over $14.99 or we'll mow it."
Another possibility: there never was a dittany. It was always a hallucination of my decaying brain. Nope no go. It's been in the same place for years. Many people have seen it. I show it off -- it's so dramatic, so striking.
Or perhaps, it's a plot against me. Am I being gaslighted? With a gasplant?
The granddaughter, Lola, age 6 and a bit, has been reading to me -- a child's version of Romeo and Juliet. The feud between the Montagues and the Capulets distresses her. "Why do they have to fight. Why can't they just talk about it? Why don't they use their words?"
1) "My husband's niece, his sister's daughter, has been staying with us. She's nineteen just about to turn twenty. For a couple of months now. She's working on her English --the family is Finnish. She's also enjoying the local social scene; she's out a lot a night, but that's not a problem. She's old enough to be on her own. She's a nice girl, I thought, a good girl, kind of pretty in a northern way. She helps out with the kids if I ask her. I had no complaint until I started to notice that money was disappearing. At first, I thought I was crazy, but I did a couple of experiments to make sure. I left my purse with the wallet inside it in a place where only Anniki could access it. I counted the money carefully. Sure enough, when I came back a $20 was missing. I calculate she must have taken about $300 so far. What should I do? I can't ignore it. I could hide my purse, hide the money, but either she'd find it or she'd know that I knew. I have to tell my husband. I mean, it's his responsibility, isn't it? I don't care so much about the money, but I think, yes, she should reimburse me. And she needs to know that she's on a wrong path. She's too old for this. I think we should sent her back to Finland, tail between her legs. She needs to learn a lesson."
2) "I went back to South Dakota, haven't been there in a number of years, maybe three or four. I have second cousin, he's in his sixties. A decent guy, runs a wrecking service. Hard worker, no employees. Up all night sometimes. Twenty years ago, his son, Jake Leath Percy married this lady from Oregon. She got pregnant, had a baby, then skipped. No one ever saw her again. Returned to Oregon, we speculate Left the baby with Jake Leath. Well, Jake Leath proved to be as incapable as his wife. On the road a lot. So my cousin Herb Percy kind of adopted the child. He was a big kid for his age, didn't do particularly well in school, but not a real trouble-maker. Herb did right by him. But then, and here I'm unclear about the details, they did some sort of DNA testing, I don't know why exactly, and it turns out the kid isn't a Percy at all. Not biologically related to Herb's son. She was pregnant by someone else. Not a surprise, if you think about it. A cowbird kind of situation. But Herb brought him up, feels responsible. Doesn't really like him so much, I think. He's six-four, takes up a lot of room in the trailer. Drinks beer. And now it turns out he likes to start fires."
Dr. M. "How long have you been a guard here?"
Guard: "Seventeen years. You can't stand still. You have to change your position, move around."
Dr. M. "Has anything ever happened. Someone try to steal a painting>\?
Guard. "No nothing. Nothing has ever happened."
Dr. M. "No one descending on ropes from the ceiling, try to snatch a sculpture."
Guard. "Nothing has ever happened. Wait, I forgot. Something did happen. Two or three years ago, there was a woman, she had a can of soda in her bag. She leaned over to look at one of the bronze sculptures, and the soda fell out of her bag. It broke and sprayed some soda on the statue. They called a special crew in to clean the sculpture. We closed down the entire wing."
Dr. M. "Must have been exciting."
Guard. "No, not really."
I worked for Ethiopian Airlines in Ethiopia.I have a degree in business. One time my wife came to America and she says she wants to stay here. I had so much paperwork and investigation but now I am a legal immigrant. America is the land of opportunity. I believe that one hundred per cent. I bought a house, it is my house. In Ethiopia, I would have to bribe many big shots and one day they could take the house anyway if someone wanted it. Here, no trouble. I had to leave Ethiopia because I was opposed to the government. We had an election and 100% of the people voted for the government, hah! We do not like Obama so much because he visited Ethiopia and said it was a democracy. Our government is fighting the terrorists in the Sudan so he pretends not to know the facts. I have two children, they speak English but also Amharic. My wife is a nurse. It is good here. I am an accountant at LAX but I drive for Uber on weekends and sometimes at nights, extra money. Los Angeles is very expensive to live.
Our sun is halfway through its life cycle. Its luminosity increases 1% every 110 million years. Therefore the Earth ineluctably grows hotter and hotter. In a billion years, life on its surface will be impossible. Global surface temperatures will reach 117F and the oceans will evaporate. Water molecules in the atmosphere will be broken apart by solar radiation and hydrogen molecules will escape the planet. Eventually the sun will exhaust the hydrogen fuel in its core. When it begins to exploit other material, its luminosity will increase a thousandfold until it stabilizes with a radius about 250 times its present size. It will consume Mercury and Venus but probably not the Earth which will become locked into an orbit with only one side facing the sun (as the moon does to the earth). This will mean impossibly hot temperatures on one side, impossibly cold on the other. The moon's orbit will reduce to 11,000 miles causing it to fracture, raining pieces of itself onto the Earth. Eventually the sun will lose mass and gravitational pull and the earth will drift away into a remote orbit -- dark, cold, and lifeless.
(Adapted from Douglas Palmer, Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries (Firefly Books, 2011.)
I am a bad sleeper. I don't know if I'm technically an insomniac but I can say in all honestly that for me, the nighttime is the hardest part of the day. It's been this way for a long time. I''m good at going to sleep and I enjoy the "first sleep" of two or three hours, but after that, say from 2 am on, it's an adventure. Nightmares, tossing and turning, "fluff in the lung and a feverish tongue," and mostly what I think of as "airplane sleep" -- that is, the kind of semi-sleep, semi-awake borderline limbo which you're in when you're sitting up in a crowded plane.
Moreover, things start to look mighty bleak in the 2-5 part of the morning. Is that pain in my toe a bruise, or is it the beginning phase of gout or neuropathy? Cancer of the instep? Will they want to amputate my leg at the knee?
Not so in the 1950s. Return we now to those days of yesteryear and recall the most glorious sleepings of my life. I'm in my teens, and it's spring. A weekend. I spend the morning at the PS 217 schoolyard, playing basketball. I'm tireless once I get my second wind. After four or five hours, I drag myself home for a roast beef dinner, stuff myself. Then I lie down, turn on the radio and listen to Red Barber and Connie Desmond broadcast the Dodgers game (if it's Sunday, perhaps a double-header). By the second inning, I'm deep in the arms of Morpheus. Profound, incomparable. A sleep beyond ordinary sleep. When I wake, it's the seventh inning. I've been in sleepotopia for two hours.
Where are the sleeps of old time? Ah that I could recapture them.
When I saw Junebug for the first time shortly after it appeared in 2005, I enjoyed its gentle, affecting comedy. It's yet another "stranger comes to town" enactment, although this time, for once, the stranger is a woman. Madeleine Johnsen is a fortyish, worldly, sophisticated Chicago-based art-dealer. She arrives in a small North Carolina Christian-saturated community accompanied by her brand-new twenty-something husband, who is a native of the place. If they're not deeply in love, they're certainly enjoying a time of sexual satisfaction, perhaps even frenzy. As the film proceeds, a series of exquisite culture-clash misunderstandings illuminate both city and country.
On last night's viewing, however, the film was far less amusing and more painful than I remembered. Did I see it the first time with rose-colored glasses?
In the film's loveliest scene, the young husband George Johnsen, played gracefully by Alessandro Nivola, is prevailed on at a church-basement social to "give us a hymn," which he does rather beautifully, offering Will Lamartine Thompson's ""Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling" which is an extremely melodic but theologically naive piece of sentimentality. As he sings, obviously very comfortable with the milieu and with the surroundings, the director's camera focuses on his wife Madeleine's (i.e. Embeth Davidtz's) expressive face.
When I saw the film in 2005 or thereabouts, I thought Madelieine shone with wonderment and appreciation. O, I thought, she sees and appreciates a new dimension in her husband. This will lead to understanding between them and help her to navigate the gulf between her and her new family. How could I have been so undiscerning. This time, it was entirely clear that her reaction was exactly the opposite of what I had attributed to her. Madeleine doesn't get it at all. It's not appreciation, it's incomprehension, perhaps even condescension. Madeleine, I'm sorry to say, doesn't understand her husband, his culture, his religion, or his family. And indeed,subsequent events in the plot confirmed my new pessimism, for every time Madeleine has to make a choice, she does so with no accommodation to her husband's upbringing or values
She's glad to leave the place, she says at the end, but it's clear to me that she's learned nothing and that there's trouble brewing.
Most of the attention that the film has garnered is owing to Amy Adams' performance as George's pregnant child-like sister, which is indeed a remarkable piece of acting. But for my money, it's the visiting husband and wife who steal the show (along with the intelligence and art of the director (Phil Morrison) and the writer (Angus MacLachlan).
On February 11, an "intruder" was discovered in the parking garage of the downtown condo where I now live. Actually, I found him myself. I had to run a late night errand, unusual for me, and there he was, scruffy and dirty, hanging out near the elevator. I said to him, "are you lost?" and he answered that he was staying with a friend who lived in the building. It seemed fishy, but I was in too much of a hurry to concern myself with him. But when I returned two hours later I found him curled up in a stairwell, apparently sleeping. I notified the police but I didn't stay around for the outcome because it was 2:30 in the morning and I was exhausted from the night's events. It turned out that he had stolen a bicycle and also entered a number of unlocked cars, including mine. We know he was in my car because the police found my Volvo S70 owner's manual where he had been sleeping. Whether he used it as reading material or as a makeshift pillow I don't know.
Yesterday I was called by the police and told that perpetrator had been arrested. It seems that he was recorded on a surveillance camera (I didn't know we had one in the garage) and that his image was shown to the police who specialize in dealing with our city's population of transients. ("Transient" is the current term of art for people who have at various times called "homeless," "hobos," "bums," or "vagrants.") He was well known to the authorities and was picked up; he readily confessed to the crimes. I asked what was going to happen to him and whether there was any chance that he could rehabilitated. The police lady with whom I spoke said that he would be sent to jail for a few months and then be back on the street. "Sometimes we have someone who turns his life around, but this guy has a history and he's not going to change. He's been in the system for years. He had a place to live a while ago but preferred (her word) to be out on the street. Drugs and alcohol. The shelters require that the inhabitants be drug free and he can't stay clean."
Our fair city is popularly thought of as a mecca for transients. I don't know if it's so, but I know that we have a very visible population of transients. All the downtown public institutions, such as the library, are dense with them. When I walk the four blocks of the downtown mall, I'll be approached by 3-5 beggars. And there will also be knot of five or six scruffy people with backpacks and blankets on two or three different benches. The local merchants complain, and the transients are moved on, but they return.
I don't like the situation. I find it morally challenging. Do I give a man a dollar, even though I know that the city and the churches provide adequate food, and the money will go for contraband, or do I avert my eyes? If I avert my eyes, am I treating the guy or gal as a non-person But if I engage in even the slightest conversation, I feel that I am condoning a way of life of which I thoroughly disapprove. If it is my obligation to support the poor, am I obligated to support the liquor and drug habits of the transient population. How do I deaul with my occasional, inconstant, but sometimes very strong feeling of repulsion that I feel for the "houseless heads and unfed sides." Are we not all members of the human population, of the family of man? If I ignore these people, have I turned into a complacent, unsympathetic, hardened, unfeeling old bourgeois, a scrooge, mouthing, "are there no prisons are there no workhouses?"
I asked the police person, who has been dealing with the transient population for many years, if she had any ideas about what to do. She knew of a number of experiments in various cities which had some success, but all had ultimately failed.
She said, "Lock your car door. Lock your apartment."
I never "got" T. S. Eliot. When I first became serious about poetry and "intellectual" stuff, in the 50s, Eliot was the presiding grand khan of English literature. Because Eliot liked Donne, my teachers liked Donne. Because Eliot was down on Milton, my teachers were down on Milton. Eliot had pronounced that "a dissociation of thought and feeling" occurred in the later seventeenth century, and we all tried to interpret literature in the light of that putative, imaginary divorce. Eliot discovered that Shakespeare's Hamlet was a failure because it lacked an 'objective correlative." We were enjoined to wonder exactly where that OC had gone. I thought Hamlet was an exciting success and still do. So do many discerning readers.
To me, Eliot's criticism was mysterious and his poetry was incomprehensible, unmusical and occasionally repellent. "The Waste Land," his masterpiece, was to me obscurantist, pretentious, show-offy and shallow. And yet I was unquestionably an outlier. I studied the "Four Quartets" for weeks under the able direction of a serious teacher and scholar, Arthur Mizener, but in the end there was nothing there for me. My own insufficiency? Perhaps.
I could not get around Eliot's public positions ("I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in religion and a royalist in politics"). To me, these views were absurd, reactionary, borderline fascist. Eliot was puritanical about sex, looked down his Brahmin nose at people not of his class (see the Sweeney poems) and couldn't abide Jews.
When I taught a course called "History of Poetry in English," which I did for many years, I would skip from the undeniably great poets of the World War I generation (Brooke, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Thomas, Owen, Graves, Hardy) right to Yeats and Frost, leaving Eliot in the deep lurch, possibly to the consternation of my more sophisticated students.
So it gives me great pleasure to say that I've finally found a poem by the old pretender that tickles me. it celebrates his second wife, whom he married in 1957 when he was sixty-eight and she was thirty, and remained unpublished until it just now appeared in the second volume of the new Johns Hopkins edition. It's not exactly juicy, but it seems to be honest and forthright:
I love a tall girl.
When we lie in bed
She on her back and I stretched upon her,
And our middle parts are busy with each other,
My toes play with her toes and my tongue with her tongue,
And all the parts are happy.
Because she is a tall girl.
Althea Goss Pearlman, 76, of Boulder, died February 10, 2016 at AltaVita Memory Care Centre in Longmont where she had resided for the last two and a half years.
Althea was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1939 to Daniel Goss and Anne Krull Goss, both teachers of mathematics. She was raised in Utica, New York and graduated as valedictorian from Utica Free Academy in 1956. She held degrees in mathematics from Cornell University (where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa) and Harvard University. She married Elihu Hessel Pearlman in June, 1960. She met him in a first semester chemistry class.
Althea had many interests but her life revolved around her two passions: teaching and family. Althea taught mathematics at Ithaca High School in Ithaca, New York, at Warren Junior High School and Newton South High School in Newton, Massachusetts, at the City College, CUNY, in New York City, at Platt Junior High School in Boulder and, for twenty years, at Boulder High School. In 1991-92, she was an Einstein Congressional Fellow in Washington, D.C, serving as an advisor to the House of Representatives on mathematics teaching. She also spent four years as a Clinical Professor in the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she acted as a mentor and coach to prospective teachers. For Althea, teaching was not a job or a profession, but a calling. She was an artist whose medium was chalk and blackboard. She accumulated a wall full of teaching awards, including, most notably, the Presidential Award for the Teaching of Science and Mathematics (1987), but was most gratified not by certificates but by appreciative letters from students whose lives she had influenced.
Althea was an excellent and loving wife, mother, and grandmother. She is survived by her husband, with whom she enjoyed a deep, spirited, and ever-evolving love for more than half a century, by her children Nathaniel, Benjamin and Eve, by their spouses Connie Chang, Kyla Holcomb Pearlman, and Jonathan Soglin, by her seven grandchildren: Talia and Oliver Soglin of Alameda, California, Ella and Lola Pearlman-Chang of Washington DC, Luke, Caleb and Asher Pearlman of Boulder; and by her sister Paula Goss Gombas and her husband Allen Gombas of Lyman, New Hampshire. Althea's sister Phyllis Goss Murray died in 1998.
Althea's ashes will be buried in the family cemetery in West Bradford, Vermont. A memorial event in her honor will take place in the auditorium of Casey Mddle School, 1401 High Street, on Saturday, March 5, at 3:00 P. M.
The family would like to thank the skilled and sympathetic caregivers at AltaVita and at New Century Hospice who made Althea's last years as comfortable as possible.
Should anyone wish to make a gift in Althea's honor, the family recommends the Althea Pearlman Memorial Fund at Boulder High School. Checks should be made out to Treasurer, Boulder High School (at 1604 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, Colorado 80302) and designated "Pearlman Memorial." A scholarship will be awarded annually to an outstanding student of mathematics.
At a restaurant at the corner of Jena and Freret, the over-tattooed waitress, acknowledging our appreciation of the greens, fennel and kumquat salad, said, memorably, "People do not understand the beauty of the kumquat." An excellent instance of found poetry. And all the more brilliant in context, because I myself once asserted that "kumquat" is the most obscene-sounding word in the English language.
Cheerful, lively 70ish woman: "I was alone for thirty years. I didn't even have a date. He (man in a Mardi Gras green bowler hat) grew up in a French-speaking family in Rhode Island, We shacked up for a couple of years. Then he wanted to get married. At our age it's all about finances, so I said, why not? He's funny. He's very good to me. He likes to do things. We live six months of the year in Arizona and six months in Alaska, fifty miles south of Fairbanks. There's good fishing. We're just here for a couple of days. We're going on a cruise in the Caribbean. Now we're on our way to find a restaurant that has the best hamburger in the entire south, he says."
Folks who know me know that I'm not an imaginative or inventive human being. I'm kind of dull, actually -- predictable, routinized, even humdrum. what most people don't know is that I have an extremely vivid and creative nighttime life. I dream big and I dream weird.
Take last night for example (an ordinary night by my standards). I was on my way by NYC subway to Ebbets Field to see a 7:30 pm Brooklyn Dodgers night game. I was accompanied by my elderly, arthritic father (in the dream I was in my 20s or 30s). For some reason the train took a wrong turn and instead of proceeding from DeKalb to Atlantic, took me and pop to Pacific Avenue. I couldn't figure how to find a train going back to DeKalb so we went out on the street to catch a cab. No cab would stop but a few people who were also lost decided to rent a limousine. I was told that it would cost $50 apiece but I agreed because my father was having trouble walking. However, when the limousine came, he and I had lost our way and the car pulled away without us. The next thing I knew pop and I were in a railroad car (it seemed like a compartment in a European railroad and he was stretched out asleep and I had in my arms a very pretty baby, whom I identified as my sister Susan who died at age 9 months in 1937. She was sweet and gurgling until she let loose with a tremendous flood of shit which covered my pants and even flooded over to contaminate my father. "Who diapered this baby," I shouted. I had no equipment to clean the child or myself. The conductor came over to help and offered to stop the train but then the baby girl started to spew a huge quantity of vomit all over me. I looked in her mouth and found a Band-Aid, which I removed, and then, looking once again, found a roll of gauze, which I also removed. And then, all of a sudden, I was no longer on the train but instead was visiting the home of George Bush (the elder, not W) in Houston. I had been invited for dinner, but before dinner was to be served I had to coach a grandson or great-nephew of the former president in basketball, teaching him how to dunk. Afterward we all sat down to dinner and I felt extremely awkward, wondering what would have caused Mr. Bush to invite me, a Democrat. One of the guests asked me if I ever shopped at Hill's In Bradford, Vermont and I had to report that Hill's had closed. Then I was asked if I had ever eaten at the salad bar in the old Greyhound station in White River Junction. I said that I had (it's true!!) and then I woke up.
Man o' man that was something else. Several novels worth of material for someone with a daytime imagination, I should think.