Lady of mature (c. 80) years old to man of equal age.
"So he took me out on his boat. It was very small. Didn't even have a bathroom. I had to use the bait bucket."
The old West Bradford cemetery, which is carved out of our land, is peopled by the Worthleys, Hacketts, Kidders, and Sleepers who first settled this part of Vermont. Some were long lived, some passed through this thoroughfare of woe only briefly. There are o-so-many of those sad stone lozenges at the foot of a grave that signify infants who died too young to be christened.
Our most disturbing gravestone, in my opinion, is the the one for Stanley Franklin Dwinell, M.D. born in 1920 and who died along with James Scott Dwinell (age 7), Peter Dewey Dwinell (age 6), and Jonathan Dwinell (age 2) all on the same day, December 11, 1952. What a horror, I thought -- a man and his three young sons all at once. A tragedy. But what sort? A plane crash? A boating accident? House fire? Perhaps even an infectious disease.
An internet search came up empty-handed, so I enquired of our longer-tenured neighbors. And here's the local legend. "Oh yes, the vet," I was told (although the tombstone distinctly says M. D., rather than D. V. M). "He was driving along Route 5 in Fairlee one winter morning and it was a icy road and foggy and he went out of control and all four of them died instantly. His wife was at home drinking a cup of coffee when she got the phone call. She left the coffee half-finished on the kitchen table, left the house without a word, and was never seen again. Didn't even take her clothes. Just disappeared."
It's a good story and it sounds like the plot of short story by Alice Munro, but I don't believe it.
The same gravestone reveals that Constance S. Dwinell, wife of Doctor Stanly Franklin Dwinnel, died January 25, 1985, at age 65.
I'm trying to imagine the remainder of poor Constance's life. It's hard to construct a scenario that isn't completely dreadful. Most likely, Constance returned, shattered, to the small town in New Hampshire, let us say, where she must have been born. She moved back into her parents' house and took a job as a town librarian, her life blighted by the tragedy. She never remarried. But I prefer to imagine that she moved to Paris (she had majored in French at Wellesley, I'm guessing,) and never told a soul about her first family. There she was wooed and won by Guy de Condorcet de Noialles but could never conceive a child. It was a long happy marriage. After Guy died, crashing his motorcycle, she returned to the States a rich woman and lived out her life in a Park Aveue apartment in New York. Friends and neighbors who had no idea of her first life were shocked when they read the will which specified that she be buried, along with Stanley and the children, right here in West Bradford.
That's my story and I'm sticking with it though I would very much like to know the truth.
I'm reading Middlemarch again. It's either my fourth or fifth time through the best novel ever written in the English language. If you want to know about the nineteenth century, start with George Eliot.
I had the oddest feelings fifty pages in. (Actually, "pages" is an anachronism because I am reading on the kindle.) Lydgate is flirting with beautiful, empty-headed Rosamund Vincy. I thought "this time let him be smart; let him not marry Rosamund." I must have been in an unusally plastic frame of mind, or in some sort of reading reverie. I know that novels are immutable, but I was hoping against hope that Lydgate had learned something since the last time I read the novel. Even though he made a fool of himself with that actress in Paris.. And then last night, just before I turned out the lights, Lydgate did it again -- fell for the blonde curls and the glistening eye. He's learned nothing, not a thing, in the last ten years. And now I have to live through the saga as this crush turns into crushing disappointment and bitterness. Marry in haste, repent at leisure. Poor Lydgate.
The kindle changes the input but not the outcome.
Netherlands-Argentina was exciting and rather beautiful until it went to penalty kicks. What a foolish way to find a winner! It's as if, in basketball, tie games led to a foul-shooting contest, or if, in baseball, instead of extra innings they started hitting fungoes for distance. Soccer travesties itself by resorting to penalty kicks. A better solution: play until someone scores. Sudden death. I mean, sudden victory. I would hope the game (the match) would end before midfielders start to collapse from exhaustion.
Brazil-Germany offers a second opportunity for improvement. Is it not time to institute a mercy rule. When there's a mismatch in junior high girls softball and one team gets ahead by ten runs, the game is called off. It's over. It should be the same in soccer. Team A, let us say, runs up a five goal lead -- stop the game, everyone goes home. Why should a team (Brazil, for example) suffer interminable humiliation.
And a bonus recommendation: no biting. Recidivist biters should be banned for life.
Here are some career paths that it's just as well I didn't tread. Opportunities for failure and misery.
1. Taxi driver in a large city (especially a city that's not on a grid, such as Boston or London. Even the DC-diagonals drive me nuts). I've earlier written about my incapacitating directional disability, but I neglected to mention that I tend to get into a bit of a panic when I'm lost -- I start driving much too fast and far too waywardly. So, dear friends, imagine me a befuddled cabbie, sweating super-profusely, while the fares in back scream bloody murder when I take the exact wrong turn for the fourth consecutive time. It would be a freakin' nightmare. Related occupations that won't work: tour guide, wilderness guide, tracker.
2. Dog-groomer. I've hinted at my lack of affection for doggies before. I just don't think I'd do a good job blow-drying Fido or brushing Fifi's teeth. (Incidentally, I'm joined in my prejudice against curs by gentle Will himself, whose references to canines are uniformly unfriendly: the superbly wicked sisters in King Lear, for example, are "dog-hearted daughters.")
3. Trapeze artist. I'm terrified of heights and I have absolutely no sense of rhythm. Imagine me launching myself at just the right moment to catch my partner by the ankles. Related opportunity for ignominious disgrace: dance instructor.
4. Surgeon. I'm far too squeamish to be poking around in someone's innards. Even channel surfing has become a dangerous pastime since we accidentally acquired the live surgery channel. Motto: "all gore, all the time." I have to keep clicking that remote lest I accidentally pause at an open-heart moment. The FCC should mandate a warning and a five-second delay: "Caution: palpitating inner organs on view shortly." Related non-opportunity: veterinary surgeon.
5. Hostage. Chained to a bed somewhere in the 'stans wouldn't work for me. I must have my oatmeal every morning at 7 a.m., and I need to move my bowels shortly afterward. Moreover, if I don't eat lunch right on time, I get wicked headaches. Not to mention that I don't function well in rooms that are either too hot or too cold or not well ventilated, and I can't stand tobacco. On the whole, I'd be a mighty cranky hostage.
6. Monk. Poverty I could manage, I suppose. Chastity would be a struggle but with plain fare, isolation, and cold showers I might succeed (but why?). Obedience? Never. Not a freakin' chance. Nope. Not for me.
I'm late as usual getting in the vegetable garden. After many years of adding manure and compost and leaves, the soil is soft and fluffy. But every year, rocks and more rocks. When I first started this garden in 1978, I was pulling out boulders; then large stones, then small stones, now one-inch stones and pebbles. Why do I continue to do so?
Because my father took the rocks out of his garden. I remember once, as a small child, saying to him, "Dad, you'll never get all the rocks out of your garden." "True enough, he replied, "but I'll have fewer rocks" From which response I realized that he was not an idealist but a meliorist, as I am. So every year, a new crop of rocks. I put the rocks on the driveway, in the low spots where puddles accumulate after a rainstorm. It's ridiculous, I know; we order seven cubic yards of crushed stone for the driveway every few years, so a bucket of rocks makes very little difference. But if feels good to perform two useful services at once: rocks out of the garden, rocks on the road.
Fuffa is a "cosa inutile, ciarpame" [a useless thing, trash] according to Federico Roncoroni in Sillabario della Memoria (Milano, 2010). It's a dialectical (probably Milanese) word not found in most Italian dictionaries. Roncoroni tells us that his aunt Evelina called the tiny balls of material that sometimes form on the surface of socks "fuffa." She likened them to "furuncoli" [pimples]. The etymology of fuffa is obscure. Roncoroni proposes that it might be merely onomatopoeic, related to English fluff which signifies, as he says, "lanugine o peluria" [fuzz or nap]. But fluff, fuzzy stuff in English, derives from Latin vellus [fleece] or "villus" [hair]. It's most commonly used as a verb ("to fluff a pillow'). In theatrical jargon, a person can fluff or flub his lines. Fluff is also a horrid marshmallow-like confection that appeared in my childhood (though it dates to the 1920) and put me off sweets for years. As far as I can tell, the meaning "a light woman" as in "a bit of fluff" is not present in the Italian "fuffa." I doubt whether "fuffa" and "fluff" are linked, unless "fuffa" also descends from "vellus."
In Breaking Bad, Walter White disappears for a few days when he is kidnapped -- he escapes only by murdering his meth-addled drug dealer. In order to cover his tracks and account to his family for the missing days, he feigns amnesia. And he's persuasive, possibly because everyone has seen so many amnesia movies. He's so persuasive, in fact, that the doctors think that the amnesia might recur. In order to get himself released from the hospital, he confesses to the state shrink that he was only pretending. "There was no 'fugue state,'" he admits. That's a kind of theatrical amnesia in which I can believe -- phony from start to finish.
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 lays 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 --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?
There's Sir Charles Barkley, of course, leading the way, and all those Kings (Bernard, the king of Kings, but also Albert, Stacy and a score more). Dozens of Earls, including the diminutive Boykins, and my favorite, nomenclature-wise, Acie Earl. Also Brevin and many other Knights. Nor can we forget Marques Johnson or Marquis Teague. And Mel Counts, the 7' guard. Baron Davis, Walter Dukes, Tayshaun Prince. Royal Ivey. Let's not forget Mike "The Czar" Fratello.
While the big dipper was only a chamberlain, there's a notable double-dipper: Earl Barron.
There must be many more. Help me, metablogians. Surely I've just scratched the royal surface.
March 29: I can't believe that I forgot King James, who may be better than KD, but certainly less fun to watch.
I'm not a good sleeper -- never have been. While I'm very accomplished at going to sleep, I'm deficient at staying there for the full eight hours. By two o'clock in the morning, I'm awake -- reading, watching a previously-recorded basketball or baseball game, or, more often, lying there with the body dormant but the mind in a frenzy about our doomed civilization and about whether my newest skin thingy has already metastasized.
So I decided that it was time for divine intervention.
Surprisingly, there's no patron saint of sleep. The closest is St. Dymphna, but she's more properly, at least according to her website, the saint of "mental and nervous disorders." Insomnia a nervous disorder? I don't think so, but on the other hand, she works cheap. To light a seven-day votive candle at her shrine in Massillon, Ohio costs only $3.00 -- so what the heck. And it can be done online, via Paypal. it's a bargain; why not give it a try?
Then there's St. Vitus, the patron saint of oversleeping, also not exactly my problem. But St. Vitus is a busy fellow, inasmuch as he's also the patron saint of actors, comedians, dancers, and epileptics when he's not busy warding off lightning strikes and fending off attacks by wild animals. He's kind of the go-to saint for all manner of things, but as far as i can tell, simple insomnia is not in his portfolio.
Inasmch as I'm even-handed about religions, I think I'll try Hypnos. who is billed as a genuine sleep god. Hypnos is the father of Morpheus (the god of dreams), brother of Thanatos (yes, that Thanatos) and the son of Nyx (night) and Erebus (the deity of darkness). Quite the family tree. In order to placate the entire group. a three-buck candle would be clearly insufficient, even insulting. I figured better to go whole-hog and sacrifice a lamb. However, there are no lambs in my condo unit, and I was, frankly, afraid of making a mess, so I thought that perhaps a lamb chop would do just as well. I mean, how would Hypnos know. So I checked the freezer and would you know it not a lamb chop to be found. However, I did manage to locate a couple of pork chops which I think will serve just as well. Tonight, I will eat them in honor of Hypnos. By the way, I make a nice sauce out of orange juice, soy sauce, and garam masala. I'm hoping that honoring the diety will earn me a couple of good nights' sleeps.
And as a backup, I'll have 5 mg of ambien at hand.
My 75th, my diamond jubilee, is coming up in a few days, and it's about time that family and friends gave serious thought to the celebration.
When Queen Elizabeth II had her jubilee just two years ago, there was a specially-commissioned anthem, a service for two thousand folks at St. Paul's, an equestrian extravaganza (550 horses), a flotilla of schooners on the Thames, and something that involved the lighting of 4000 beacons world-wide.
Frankly, a bit much. A little over-the-top, if you know what I mean. Although who can fail to admire the hat.
Last year, I suggested that a good choice for my birthday might be an Irish "starter" castle. The year before that, I hinted at one or two ancient sculptures. But, disappointingly, there were no takers. Birthdays number 73 and 74 were left unacknowledged -- to the shame of my fans.
But here is an opportunity for redemption. Diamonds for the diamond jubilee. I would greatly appreciate a pair -- a singleton is tacky -- of those big hunking earrings that the professional athletes wear. They can be easily purchased, I understand, in the $900,000 to $1.100,000 range, depending on size and color.
My only reluctance is that piercing the ears would violate the integrity of my body. Also, I'm afraid of the pain. So it's either pressure clips or ear-piercing under general anesthesia.
I wouldn't want to drop so precious an ornament and then lose it forever when I vacuum the rug.
Gosh, now I'm worried if I can afford the insurance.
Charlie Dressen (manager, Brooklyn Dodgers,1951-53): "You know something? I never read a book in my whole life.... I can read newspapers and magazines. But I never read a book. You think I should?"
Jean Harlow (actress, on her birthday wishes): "Don't get me a book. I already got a book."
Anatole Broyard (critic): "If it hadn't been for books, we'd have been entirely at the mercy of sex."
I've written before about occupations that are not for me. Among them are tour guide (because of my directional dyslexia), trapeze artist (i'm terrified of heights), surgeon (frightened of gore), and dog groomer. I've also discussed possible options for future employment, such as my plan to become a power forward in the NBA. However, I'm now starting to think that, what with my back acting up again, and the NBA plagued with salary cap problems and an influx of 7-foot tall Europeans, that professional basketball might not be a realistic possibility.
But I have two new ideas. The first is to become a leader of a religious cult. I think I have what it takes: charisma, creativity, and ruthlessness. I haven't exactly come up with a theology yet, but if that Scientology guy could get away with Thetans and the "clear," I feel that I could come up with something. I'm aiming for a system of belief in which participants deed over all their worldly goods to their leader, i.e. me. And also I'd like a harem of willing maidens. I admit that some recent cult leaders have given the profession a black eye (David Koresh, Jim Jones, Charles Manson) but I have in mind something milder, something paternal or even grandpaternal. Less Kool-Aid, more chocolate milkshake.
A second idea: hedge-fund billionaire. I admit that I don't know much about hedge-funds, but I plan to get started right away by reading the Wikipedia article. How hard can it be? It's not as though they manufacture something or invent anything. And then, after you collect a couple of billions, you get to have "dark money," off-shore accounts, and your very own Super-Pac. This is a career with no discernible downside.
I tried the first three installments -- a netflix diskful of episodes -- of House of Cards. I plan to watch a few more, but I'm deep into negative enthusiasm, not at all sure that I'm going to continue. Cards certainly grabs you, and it's startling and theatrical, but it's also far too cynical and depraved for my rose-colored tastes. I just don't believe in it. I know that it's all the rage to assume that politicians are horrid and power-obsessed -- but every one of them, all the time, without a moment of relaxation or redemption? And so I'm skeptical of every character, every twist in the plot, every nasty turn of phrase. And because I'm skeptical, I just can't, as they say, "get into it." Or at least, not all the way in. (Full disclosure: during episode three I fell into a 'deep rest,' sometimes denominated a minor nap.)
The character who dominates House of Cards is Kevin Spacey's Frank Underbelly -- I mean Underwood -- who is fascinating but not credible. Or rather, he is not designed to be credible, because he regularly violates the fourth wall and converses intimately with viewers. Underwood is ruthless, implacable, ambitious, vengeful, depraved, vicious, malignant, and amusing. He turns his audience into his co-conspirators.
And where have we seen this curious concatenation of traits before? Think back, fit audience though few, to your college class in the History of English Drama. There you encountered the vice and his crossbred friend, the machiavel,who were ubiquitous in medieval drama. Shakespeare brought this semi-supernatural hybrid to perfection two separate times -- once in the person of Richard of Gloucester in Richard III and then again as Iago in Othello.
Richard of Gloucester winks to his audience that he "can smile, and murder whiles I smile,/And cry 'Content' to that which grieves my heart, /And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,/ And frame my face to all occasions." Now if that isn't Frank Underhill to a T, first spotted killing a puppy and a few scenes later baldly and straightfacedly lying to his President. Richard can "set the murderous Machiavel to school" in order to gain a crown; our unFrank friend Frank once wanted to be secretary of state, but now he just wants revenge. Richard and Iago are capable not only of falsity but even of murder to get what they want. Both of them kill their own wives. "I'll have her, but I wlll not keep her long," says Richard of Queen Anne.
And therefore If I were to offer advice to Zoe Barnes, the reckless young reporter for the Washington Herald, I would suggest that she steer mighty clear of Frank Underwood. I would tell her to read Othello post-post-haste and take careful note of what happens to Desdemona's lady-in-waiting Emilia. Hint: "Fie, your knife upon a woman."
Zoe, please, please, get out of there while the going is good!
In Shakespeare's plays, Richard and Iago both overreach and come to grief. Richard is left to die on the battlefield and Iago is subjected to the rigors of Venetian justice ("Torture will ope his lips.") And that's what is supposed to happen to machiavels.
I'm curious as to what will happen to Frank Underhill. By rights he should be publicly humiliated and die a ghastly death. But inasmuch as we live in an exceedingly cynical age, we can guess that Frank will only die when Kevin Spacey is offered better work, or when ratings plunge, or when the series jumps its inherent shark.
The first (the most ordinary, the least wild): I'm sitting in a basketball stadium watching a game (it's close to the end of the first half) when a fire drill is announced. Everyone, including me and my "date," a mysterious unknown woman whom my dreamatorium has conveniently supplied, leaves their seats. I'm now outside but I'm cold and I remember that I've left behind my denim jacket. I return to my place in the now-deserted arena but no jacket. Then I'm outside again. I locate my date and tell her about the missing denim. She serenely rises from her squat to reveal that she's been sitting on the jacket. I wonder: did she try to steal it? 2) The scene shifts abruptly. I'm now back fifty years, in graduate school, and I've been informed that a new requirement for the degree has been instituted. Each semester, every student will have to drink a 20 oz. paper cup of a pink liquid (looks like Pepto-Bismol but is decidedly more mucilaginous and nasty). 3) All of a sudden i'm being pursued by a huge scary rhinoceros with an ovesize horn. I run, of course, terrified. Fortunately, I come upon a cottage size stack of carrots (large, grated, carefully arranged). I'm able to climb the pile, rather gracefully I think, but the rhino can't get any traction and I easily outdistance him. I was scared for a while but the carrots saved my life. Then I woke up.
Are there any interpreters of dreams out there? Clearly, Dr. M. needs your help. (Do not bother using words like "nutso" or "loco," please. Serious interpretations only.)
Setting aside the possibility that The First Part of Henry the Sixth is a collaboration or perhaps even a "prequel" to Parts Two and Three, the play can be read as if its first few lines were the earliest example of Shakespeare's playwriting. If so, then, what can be learned, right there at the very beginning, by looking closely at Act one, scene one, line one?
Here's the first considerable speech in the play -- just about the very moment, let us say, in which Mr. W. S.'s rough and all-unable pen touches paper. Thirty-seven or thirty-eight astonishing plays lie in the future.
The adventure begins as Gloucester eulogizes the recently-deceased Henry V. The speech is not brilliant, not accomplished; in fact, it's just plain ordinary. But it's a seed, a kernel.
Gloucester: England ne'er had a king until his time.
Virtue he had, deserving to command:
His brandish'd sword did blind men with his beams:
His arms spread wider that a dragon's wings;
His sparking eyes, replete with wrathful fire
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? his deeds exceed all speech:
He ne'er lift up his hand but conquered.
A reader or playgoer would have to be superbly insightful to predict that this Shakespeare would become the Shakespeare. This opening speech is a a mighty flat piece of rhetoric.
It's formulaic -- simply a litany or list. First comes an item, a noun (virtue, sword, arms, eyes, deeds) which is then amplified by a hyperbolic qualifier (beams, wings, fire, sun). It's open-ended; it could go on indefinitely. But because it's so much a formula, there's no surprise -- there's no mystery or excitment about where Gloucester is heading.
Moreover, for each element in the list, there's a congruence between the unit of thought and the unit of verse. The sentiment of each of the first four items on the list is exactly contained in a five-beat, ten-syllable line of verse -- a pedestrian procedure which Shakespeare would soon abandon. And finally, there's an excess of old-fashioned, traditional alliteration: "His Brandish'd sward did Blind me with his Beams" "affects the letter" and beats the reader on the brain with the letter B. It goes almost without saying that there's nothing in this speech that is particular (Elizabethans would say peculiar) to either Gloucester or Henry. This is Anyduke reciting sentencess about Anyking.
But then something truly interesting happens. Although it looks as though Gloucester is gathering his breath for a speech that might go on for forty lines and which would celebrate many more of the late kings's amazing attributes, he suddenly breaks it off: "What should I say? his deeds exceed all speech."
Gloucester seems to have run out of rhetorical gas. He is frustrated because he simply doesn't have the words. He throws in the rhetorical towel, so to speak. He surrenders. And he's right to do so, because at this early moment neither he nor Shakespeare has the power to generate a language that is equal to Henry's deeds. Better to stop speaking if you are utterly unable to say what you want to say.
Yet what is the task of such a playwright as Shakespeare?
It is not to do exactly what Gloucester admits that he cannot do? -- to find the words that are commensurate with the deed -- as Shakespeare certainly will do when he returns to Henry in the 1598 play which concludes and climaxes this sequence of eight history plays. In a decade, Shakespeare will move from the pathos of "What shall I say?" to an rich eloquence that is up to the task.
"What shall I say? is therefore an important question -- the most important question of all, in fact -- and the playwright asks it right here at the outset. Readers can watch and learn as Shakespeare little by little, in play after play, gradually invents a rhetorical style in which speech not only equals but eventually comes to exceed all deeds.
i've been following the Bridgegate scandal -- the vindictive sabotaging of traffic entering the George Washington Bridge by Governor Christie's staff with the connivance and wink-wink approval of the governor hmself. I'm appalled -- is this the kind of man to whom we should offer the bully pulpit?
I've even gone so far as to read the internet comments to columns in the New York Times. While some people who take the trouble to contribute have a reasonable point to make, there's a refrain that distresses me, all the more so because it's a sentiment that no one bothers to refute. Here are three representative examples.
"Like most politicians, the man [i.e. Governor Christie] is a classic sociopath."
"Politicians have a truth gene missing in their DNA."
"All, and I mean all. politicians are dishonest, deceitful, untruthful and corrupt."
It's a common enough sentiment. We've all heard it.
One of our local school board members once said this to me: "When did I become untrustworthy, a liar? When I was citizen with kids in the school, I was an honest well-meaning citizen. But as soon as I was elected to the school board, something must have happened to me, because I began to be accused of all kinds of chicanery and corruption. I went from 'citizen' to 'politician.'"
Or, you could say it this way: the stereotype kicked in.
I've never held public office myself, but I've known many "politicians" pretty damn well-- members of school boards, members of our city council, county officials and commissioners, many members of our state legislature, a couple of state office-holders and at least two of our representatives to Congress. And here's what I know: they're honest and talented people who sacrifice time and money to serve the public. They work very hard and they absorb a tremendous amount of abuse for little reward.
Of course there are vile and corrupt politicians. But there are also very many public-spirited statesmen who rise to the challenge of governing this complicated nation of ours.
Let us be fair to our fellow citizens. And let us purge these ridiculous stereotypes.
And so we've come to the end of the "holiday season" once again.
Another Christmas, another winter solstice, another St. Lucy's day with its deepest of midnights. Even here in ever-sunny Colorado, things are a bit gloomy. However, I have every confidence that another spring is just around the corner. I don't need to bring greenery into the house in order to prevent the dragon from swallowing the sun. The days, now so abbreviated, will lengthen and in five weeks we'll see the first crocuses and a week later the daffodils and pussy-willows. It's going to happen. But as always, the last days of the year challenge me.
I'm relieved and happy that Christmas and the whole Christmas business is done and gone. No one wants to be a scrooge and I don't want to frown on carols and gift-giving and plum-puddings and good fellowship, but in my heart, let me confess, I don't like the holiday. I can't make sense of the virgin birth or the sacrifice of the only-begotten son. I don't even respect the story-- to me it's just dressed-up scapegoating. Nonesense. And then there's all that incongruous stuff that has accreted around Christmas -- the hype and the commercialism and the religious chauvinism and the tactless triumphalism. It's both Incomprehensible and offensive to me.
And I'm in good company. I have allies.
Let's go back to the beginning.
If the profoundly religious seventeenth-century founders of our country had a single favorite Biblical moment, it's when the Lord (speaking through His prophet Amos) severely condemned the vanity of holidays. "I hate," said the Lord, "I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies." The Lord of Hosts specifically enjoined against the attempt to placate him by sacrificing animals (a matter of topical concern in Amos' time). "Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts." Nor did He rest with these easy-to-follow injunctions, but He went on to condemn all musical tributes as well. Nor more chants, glees or carols: "Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols." Our Puritan forefathers recognized that the Lord opposed not only rituals and music but all formal observances and rote piety. The Ancient of Days was moved not by empty ceremony but right action and good behavior. Instead of squeaking timbrels and sounding brass, why, "let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream." Taking these uncompromising sentences as their guide, our founders dug in their heels against the ostentatious celebration of of all holidays, especially Christmas.
I applaud the old guy, the Father, and I revere Amos. His mantra bears repeating : "Let justice come down as the waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream."
The neglect of "righteousness" in favor of buying things makes me melancholy. I would be happy to see fewer purchases and more good deeds. It would help us through the dark months.
The winter solstice is a sensitive time for me because it's the anniversary of my father's birthday. He arrived to no poorer family on the planet on the darkest day of the year, the twenty-second of December, 1904. ‘And they called his named Emanuel, God with us,’ -- but whether by accident or design, I have no idea. He had many virtues -- one of them that he was the least materialistic person ever. He had no possessions and craved none. But he was righteous.
I don't know how anyone could write a biography of Emanuel, my father. There was so little plot, so little conflict in his life. He went about his business, raised his family, kept to the straight and narrow. His memory is a blessing to us.
At this time of the year I turn once again to one of the most challenging fathers in literature. The voluminous works of Sir Edmund Gosse are not much read nowadays except by specialists in Edwardian literature, but Father and Son (1907) still stands as one of the world's great autobiographies.
The father in Father and Son is the biologist Philip Henry Gosse, whom Charles Darwin once called "an honest hodcarrier of science." The older Gosse was a minister and a leader of the Plymouth Brethren, a very strict, very puritanical splinter of English Protestantism -- one that could easily have taken Amos as its prophet. According to his son Edmund, P. H. Gosse held that the celebration of Christmas was "nothing less than an act of idolatry. The very word is Popish,' [my father] used to exclaim, 'Christ's Mass!' Then he would adduce the antiquity of the so-called feast, adapted from horrible heathen rites, and itself a soiled relic of the abominable Yule-Tide. He would denounce the horrors of Christmas until it almost made me [that is, Philip Henry's son Edmund Gosse the autobiographer] blush to look at a hollyberry."
A passionate man, Philip Henry Gosse. A difficult father. Imagine Philip Henry Gosse having to endure the modern Christmas: muzaked "Silent Night" or --horror of horrors --the odious, saccharine "Little Drummer Boy" in a shopping mall! There's not a sappier song in all of creation.
Here's Sir Edmund's wonderful Christmas story. One boyish year he defied his father and secretly ate some Christmas plum-pudding that had been offered to him by 'rebellious' servants. Overcome with guilt and stomach-ache, he flew to his father, crying out "Oh! Papa, Papa, I have eaten of flesh offered to idols!" Philip Henry then "ran with me into the midst of the startled servants, seized what remained of the pudding,... and ran till we reached the dust-heap, when he flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the ashes, and then raked it deep down into the mass."
A frightening episode for a nine-year-old -- but beautifully told. Only an accomplished writer of comedy (and one who was steeped in Dickens) could have invented a phrase as marvelous as "idolatrous confectionery," where the triviality of the noun undermines the high seriousness of the adjective.
Compared to Amos and to the Plymouth Brethren, my own resistance to Christmas is trivial. I'm a dissenter, but a dissenter in moderation.
In fact, not a Puritan in the least, I observe a Christmas custom of my own devising. Every December 25, I reserve three hours to listen to Handel's Messiah -- not out of piety or reverence, but because the oratorio is so marvelous that it's almost -- almost -- sacred.
In our house, the performance of choice is of course the extremely intelligent Pearlman version of Messiah (Boston Baroque Orchestra and Chorus-- Martin Pearlman, Conductor [Telarc 80322]). Blessings and honor and glory and haleluljahs be unto George Frederick Handel and unto his unsurpassed oratorio.
So this year and evey year: rejoice greatly but appropriately, ye sons and daughters of Zion!
Foureen-year-old granddaughter (astounded): "Grandpa, you still get Netflix through the mail???"
Grandpa: "Yes, it's a tradition. We'e been doing it this way for hundreds of years."
I've been reading Trollope's Palliser novels again -- my third or fourth time through this series of six great big whoppers. It's a familiar tour -- but with enough forgettings and misrememberings on my part to keep me focussed and surprised.
I finished The Eustace Diamonds late last night. I know that I read this novel for the first time in 1961 because it was in the curriculum of a course taught by showman Professor Edgar Rosenberg. I haven't the siightest recollection of that early reading or of Rosenberg's lectures either, but then, sixty years have gone by and larger and larger cavities riddle my porous Swiss cheese brain.
The Eustace Diamonds is rich in both plot and character. In addition to the usual "who is going to marry whom" scenario (three separate instances here) and still another version of the handsome but weak hero who is going to the dogs but redeems himself in the last installment, there's a genuine cops-and-robbers mystery along with three separate detectives (none of them as competent as Mr. Bucket). And then there's also a riotous profusion of characters. Some, like Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Mealyus, products of Trollope's uncontrollable disgust with those nasty Semites, merely disfigure the page. Others are stock characters who appear in novel after novel, the name alone changed: in this case the the patient Griselda figure Lucy Morris. But then there's a glorious almost Dickensian abundance of highly-marked, genuinely individualized and extremely imaginative, credible inventions.
There's Lizzie Eustace, with her fibs, taradiddles and utterly conscienceless lies; George de Bruce Carruthers, who has an eye for the main chance but knows how to protect himself against pretty women; elderly Lady Linlithgow, who's all tart tongue and selfishness; Lord Fawn, a pitiful small-minded aristocrat; and the bustling opportunistic hypocrite Mrs. Carbuncle.
And then there's Lucinda Roanoke, who inhabits a corner of the novel but who is fascinatingly perverse. She's an American, very young and handsome, impecunious, who's being shopped around to snare a husband. Under pressure, and against all good sense, she accepts an offer from the brute Sir Griffin Tewett. Lucinda has no intention of becoming an obedient wife. The engagement becomes a war of attrition between the "lovers." Sir Griffin holds on only because, it appears, he doesn't like to lose and because he assumes that he'll be able to control Lucinda once he's married and has legal authority over her. He looks forward to the only sort of sex that might occur, which woud be nothing less than rape. Lucinda is sex-averse and finds even a kiss to be abhorrent. As the wedding day approaches, she announces that she will never be Sir Griffin's bride. She threatens both murder and suicide. On the morning of the long anticipated day, she simply refuses to leave her room. Trollope tells us that she has gone mad. And that's the end of the affair.
Lucinda doesn't quite fit into the space. On the surface, the episode makes the point that women were offered no place in society except obedient wife. But this is not comedy of manners; it's pathology. Sir Griffin is a sadistic monster. Lucinda does not want to submit, and therefore "chooses" insanity. Trollope does not follow Lucinda into her madness; instead, he dismisses her from his novel in exactly the same way that the English society dismisses such women. Trollope can't make a drop of sense out of the situation that he himself created. Lucinda deserves, and will earn, a novel of her own. But it won't be written by Anthony Trollope.
I should concentrate while shaving, but I fell into a reverie. The subject at hand --the beard. Why? Why do human males grow hair on their faces. What's the point? The beard is completely valueless except to Gillette and Schick.
If the beard kept a guy warm in winter, then why in the world would evolution deprive the gals of equivalent protection?
Do bearded males garner a larger share of the nubile maidens than the beardless? Or a disproportianate share of the wealth. I know of no evidence that they do so.
It's sexual dimorphism without purpose or logic. My guess --and it's only a guess --is that the beard-gene clung to a gene with a useful male purpose a couple of hundred thousand years ago and never let go.
I suppose that sexual dimorphism can sometimes be useful. Those magnificent manes sported by the lions of the Serengeti certainly make a formidable statement -- noli me tangere and by the way keep your paws off the the ladies in my harem. I can see that -- but then, the males of the extinct European lion did just as well without ruffs, and so do the Bengal tigers.
The gorgeous display of the male peacock is exuberant but inessential -- many birds manage to signal their gender and their availability without such a prodigious waste of resources.
I should be relieved that it's only the beard that I have to worry about. Imagine if by some quirk of evolution, males of our species grew a big rack of antlers. Way more inconvenient than a mere beard. I can see myself lodged in a doorway, or lying in bed trying to get comfortable while the antlers scratch the headboard or poke the beloved in the eye.
Perhaps civilization would demand that we disbud the antlers at birth? Or we might go the other route and decorate or color or polish the antlers. "How are you wearing your antlers this winter?" "Natural brown, I think, this year, but with golden highlights."
Better a beard than antlers. Definitely.
It had been a while since I last flew Frontier --the airline with the cute furry anthropomorphic talking mammals on their tails. There have been changes -- all of them for the worse. There's now an extra charge for each piece of luggage. Those free meals are a thing of the remote past. So are the days when you would get the entire can of ginger ale or tomato juice. It's now a splash of juice in a cup of ice. No free TV -- you swipe your card, they swipe your cash. The seats are smaller, too. More rows, less leg room. Wasn't there a time when air travel was glamorous? Now it's just a big Greyhound in the sky, a warehouse on wings.
Not only was my seat compressed, but the back didn't recline. Somehow I had been assigned a seat that backed onto the emergency exit row. In earlier planes, such seats used to recline, but I'm guessing that Frontier has gained a few inches by rendering the backs immobile -- at the cost of my comfort (but not at reduced cost).
Adding to the insult is an unapologetic sign on the back of the seat in front of me inscribed with the words NO RECLINE THIS ROW. I wonder what language the author of this sign thinks he is using. Not English, that's for sure. "No recline this row" does not even come close to parsing. What would it have cost Frontier to affix a sign that read "the seats in this row do not recline." Where do they outsource their signs -- to the writers of 1940s cowboy and faux-Indian movies? No recline this row! Come on, frontiersmen; you can do better than that. If you have no respect for me, at least have a little respect for the language. The talking animals speak better English.
To the chief of sign-makers at Frontier I say, "No hire this job."
There was another sign for me to stare out while I sat there, miserably cramped, watching the clock. "LIFE VEST UNDER YOUR SEAT." Isn't Frontier banging the frugality drum a little too hard? The sentence might have read, "Life vest IS under your seat." How much could a trifling copulative verb cost? If Frontier wanted to be truly prodigal, it could even have raised the cash to provide an indefinite article: "A life vest is under your seat." Wow. A complete sentence!. What a concept!
(Orignally posted 2011: 2013 update: no free beverage at all nowadays; the cart is only for paying customers. I didn't bother to ask how much for the plastic cup of water. My prediction: next time, there will be a charge to use the bathroom.)
On the telephone, The Daughter (as she sometimes calls herself) was fussing about her teen and tween children. "I'm on the warpath (her metaphor) about the mess. I'm tired of cleaning up after them. Right now T. has left a pile of her homework on the kitchen floor. She's at ballet for two hours. What do I do? Walk around it or clean it up. Why does she do this? And O. has left half a sandwich and piece of apple on the table. I failed to train them when they were young and now it's hopeless."
Every parent in North America, and perhaps every parent in the known universe, might make the same complaint.
I tried to console The Daughter. "If you'd like to take ten minutes to vent, I'm here to listen."
She vented for thirty seconds, then fell silent. Frustrated.
I said, "Here's the way I think of it now. You lose every battle, but you win the war."
"Explain," she muttered.
"It's obvious. When you and your brothers were growing up, there was some sort of conflict every day. One of you didn't call and didn't show up for dinner. Whoever was supposed to take the garbage out, 'forgot' to do it. Someone would get into a screaming fit at someone else over nothing signficant. Quarters would be stolen out of pants pockets. Some inches of liquor would mysteriously disappear. Sassy words would be spoken to parents and parents would be devastated. Someone wasn't sleeping at the house where he or she said he or she was going to stay. Mileage on the car speedometer would increase without explanation. There were horrible scenes when someone was asked to do the most minimal chores.
And yet, despite it all, despite the fact that every day I lost the battle, I won the war. Each of you turned out to be what my own father used to call 'solid, taxpaying citizens.' You've all doing good works. All living upright, moral lives. All creating healthy, functioning families. All of you are excellent parents. The grandchildren are thriving.
So in the long run, I won. Lost every battle, won the war."
The Daughter said, "Blog it."
'The placement of the human male genitalia is ridiculous and ill-conceived. What in the living heck are such sensitive and vulnerable organs doing right out there -- in front, dramatically positioned to be bumped by furniture or careless hands, struck by flying objects, or pummelled by grandchildren. In any intelligently-designed universe, the penis would be entirely retractable, making its appearance only when summoned. (Nor would it be a dual-purpose organ. Every engineer knows that dedicated instruments always perform better than devices that combine functions.
Moreover, the testicles would be buried deep inside the body cavity, as, for example, the spleen or the ovaries -- not hanging loose, ungirded and swattable.
Freud once remarked that the male organs of generation have not evolved in the direction of beauty. And therefore not even the crassest male flaunts his stuff to attract a mate. Or never did, not until the coming of the internet. If the parts weren't intended to beautiful, then they might as well have been concealed and protected. But not so.
Why are they where they are? The culprit, obviously, is evolution -- specifically, the shift to upright posture. Four feet on the ground and the apparatus is tucked away behind the hind legs, way back there in the anterior. Protected, inconspicuous, and discreet. Stand up, and there they are just where they shouldn't be. A three-year-old child with a box of crayons could produce a better design than frontward-facing genitalia.
Instead, we're left with either another example of divine under-achievement, or further and supererogatory confirmation that the universe is disorderly, aleatory, and improvisational.
It was when women joined in standing upright that breasts came into prominence. There is no other mammalian species in which the organs of lactation are so clearly displayed. But female breasts had the good sense to evolve into an essential part of sexual display. "Hey, mister, look at these. Look how well I can nurse your babies."
Now there, at last, is an evolutionary outcome that makes sense.One that a guy can bring himself to endorse and admire.
I was thirteen years old when Eisenhower-Nixon defeated Adlai Stevenson. I was of course horrified. In what sort of nation, I thought, could a doddering simpleton with a dark mccarthyite machiavel at his ear defeat an intelligent, educated, humorous progressive. Ghastly, ghastly.
Mullling this over this morning, I remembered that while Truman was still in office, postage stamps would be cancelled (hand-cancelled in those days) with the inscription, "Twenty-five years of Social Security." But right after the Eisenhower inauguration, the slogan was altered to "Pray for Peace."
A message about a concrete program that actually helped people suddenly turned into a meaningless, faux-religious instruction. "Pray for Peace" did not seem then, nor now, like a viable political position. "Pray for Peace" did not speak to me.
Sixty years later and the Republicans are still beating the same meaningless drum, still going backwards.
Not only have the damn Republicans not caught up with the age of reason, but they're still embracing the dark ages. The hole into which they've inserted their collective heads is not only deeper but considerably more vacuous.
Friends of long standing know that Vivian de St. Vrain, alter ego and nom de blague, makes two boasts that go a long way toward the establishment of a substantial worldly identity: a) I've never eaten a McDonald's hamburger, and b) I've read all forty-seven of Anthony Trollope's novels. Old info for old friends, but for you internet pilgrims who've just stumbled upon this website, I know what you're thinking -- what a fascinating personality is Vivian de St. Vrain!! What a heady and disorienting combination of discipline and indulgence and whimsy!!!! What a guy!!
And not only all of Trollope's novels, but most of them multiple times. In facy, I've just now re-read Can You Forgive Her?, the first 800-pager of the six Palliser novels. This would be either my third or fourth reading -- and almost certainly, considering my "maturity," my ultimate passage. And what is my mature judgment, you ask?
I love Lady Glencora more and more. The poor dear was sandbagged into an arranged marriage but she has spunk and grit. She's attracted to the handsome sexy guy from the other side of the tracks and she's not going to let go easily. Trollope doesn't say so in so many words, and perhaps can't admit it even to himself, but she's locked in the classic D. H. Lawrence situation. She's married to a precious dry article in Planty Pall, a refrigerator of a man who can't be much fun in bed, no fun at all we think, and she has yearnings. If it were a Lawrence novel, Lady G. would leave the future Duke and run in the woods with Burgo, thread her mound with flowers, live on berries and celebrate her release in overblown purple prose. But because it's the middle of the nineteenth century, she is saved from disgrace -- narrowly -- and learns to renounce her proto-Lawrencian stirrings. Not without pain. If there's a miracle in the novel, it's that she gets herself pregnant, and by her husband. A deus ex machina last-minute rescue. But we readers wonder, how did that happen? Plodding Planty Pall doing his duty, meeting his sense of obligation to his forebears and descendants? We're surprised that the old stick had it in him, even though, we're repeatedly told, he's not yet thirty years old.
Trollope loves his rebellious women, as long as they don't rebel too much, and as long as they remember their subordinate places. And also, that they not do much reading or acquire learning.
And yet, at the same time, I can't help but think how George Eliot would have taken the same situation and turned it into more than a novel of manners. She would have transformed it into a critique of the entirety of Victorian culture. Trollope does not know enough or doesn't care enough to engage the larger issues But then, no one, except George Eliot, could do so. Well, there's also Tolstoi.
The novel has its dry spots, but the brilliant parts are absolutely brilliant. The conversation between Plantagenet and Glencora after the ball, after Lady G. doesn't run off with Burgo, is utterly scintillating. Trollope is a novelist's novelist.
He's also good with Alice Vavasor, who like Glencora, goes up to the line but never crosses it. I think Trollope overdoes it when he turns George into an out-and-out villain. It's unnecessary and melodramatic. He should have trusted Alice, and trusted his readership also. We knew that George was a rotter long before his resort to violence.
And what shall we say about John Grey, Alice's long suffering on-again, off-again fiance and patient Griseldo. He's just too good for words -- so good that he becomes otherwordly, allegorical. Can a man be so passive and still be admirable and marriageable, even in an era in which renunciation was the virtue of virtues. All in all, John Grey is not credible. Not as a character, not even as an ideal.
Question of the day for Dr. M? Should he go on with Phineas Finn and his Irish friends, or should he stop now?
I think I'll wait and see if I can get someone to tread this path with me. I don't know that I want to go it alone. Some pleasures should be shared.
How are we new-millenium readers supposed to grasp the social significance of nineteenth-century horsedrawn vehicles when even characters in nineteenth-century novels can be easily baffled? True enough that Miss Alice Vavasor and Lady Glencora are both very young ladies, and true also that they've lived marvelously protected lives, but still -- such appalling ignorance:
" [Alice Vavasor] saw a light stylish-looking cart which she would have called a Whitechapel had she been properly instructed in such matters, and a little low open carriage with two beautiful small horses....
"Dear Alice, I'm so glad you've come.... Your maid can go in the dog-cart with your things!" -- it wasn't a dog-cart, but Lady Glencora knew no better."
A dog-cart was not pulled by dogs. It was an informal vehicle with a recessed box or cage in which dogs were transported. Trollope lords it over his Lady Glencora for her ignorance of such plebian matters. And a Whitechapel? There's no footnote in my edition of Can You Forgive Her and neither google nor wikipedia hazards a guess (though Wik is well aware of a "deathcore" band of the same name), so I'll just go with "light stylish cart."
And now add "Whitechapel" to the list: barouche, basket carriage, berlin, britchka, brougham, buckboard, buggy, cabriolet, caleche, cariole, carryall, chaise, chariot, clarence, concord wagon, coupe, croydon, curricle, cutter, daumont, dearborn, dennet, diligence, dog-cart, fiacre, fly, fourgon, four-wheeler, gig, go-cart, governess cart, hansom, herdic, jaunty car, jersey-wagon, kibitka, landau, patache, phaeton, pill-box, post-chaise, rockaway, shandrydan, shay, sociable, spider-phaeton, spring-van, stanhope, sulky, surrey, T-cart, telyezhka, tilbury, tarantass, trap, troika, victoria, vis-a-vis, wagonette, and wurt.
I'm enchanted by a sentence in Othello that is spoken by Desdemona's lady-in-waiting, Emilia. She's helping Desdemona to undress and the two women are engaged in informal chat. Desdemona, perhaps wondering why she had the misfortune to fall in love with exotic Othello, allows her mind to wander. It comes to rest on a countryman of hers, a good-looking man named Ludovico. And then her interlocutor Emilia praises this newly-invented handsome Ludovico in words that should compel every sentient being to gasp in astonishment and admiration.
About Ludovico, Emilia makes a remarkable claim: "I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip."
All that needs to be said is, wow! But let me try to explain why the sentence so transfixes me.
It's hyperbole, but not the ordinary hyperbole of largest or smallest or coolest or most awesome. It's a hyperbole beyond hyperbole. A lesser writer might have said, "I know a lady who would have walked a long way to make love to him." Not Shakespeare. For "a long way," Shakespeare give us "barefoot to Palestine"; for "make love" he offers "a touch of his nether lip." It's extravagant and wheeling.
A hike, barefoot, to the holy land, would have been a long and exacting journey. The evocative word "Palestine" infuses religion and sanctity into a sentence about sex and desire -- and therefore generates a love-longing that is as powerful, as silly, and as ill-planned as a crusade. And for what aim? Not even, for this mythical lady hiker, a big, zonking, mouth-filling kiss; simply for the merest contact of lips. No, not even lips, just one lip -- the lower one. It's an hyperbole of minimalism.
In the poetry that Shakespeare knew from childhood, it was men who would make the vows and undergo the trials to court their beautiful ladies. But this lovely sentence reverses the convention. It is, so to speak, Sadie Hawkins day in Venice.
Emilia elsewhere asserts that women have desires as strong as lovers of the other sex; here she demonstrates that women's love-longing can be as ridiculous (and as powerful) as men's.
And everyone who knows Othello will hear in the word "Palestine" an intimation of the violent act that once, many years ago, shook Aleppo.