Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Love is the jewel that wins the world": Inspiration for a birthday, for every day

Today is my birthday.  There is one card that has arrived without fail for the last twenty-two years that will not arrive today. It was from my friend Barbara, who died in August. I offer some of her story today because it is so extraordinary and so inspirational.

It is an epistolary story of a woman who suffered a catastrophic stroke following surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor that would have killed her. The surgery saved her life but cruelly took away the ordinary life she had and replaced it with, well, keep reading.

Barbara befriended me when I first walked into the alto section of Church of Notre Dame near Columbia University.  She is a big reason that I have had the pleasure of singing in polyphony workshops throughout Europe. She was also the first intellectual Catholic I ever met.

Barbara was paralyzed after the surgery, which was in 1992. She needed a trach tube to breath and feeding tubes for nourishment. She had lost the ability to speak, much of her hearing was gone, and her vision was damaged and would continue to degenerate.  And yet, her mind was entirely intact.

Locked-In Syndrome and Literary Letters
 I never heard the diagnosis "locked-in syndrome" but her situation amounted to a very similar condition. One difference was that Barbara could move her hand, which meant she could finger-spell letters into someone's hand to a communicate.  Locked-in people generally can only move their eyes.  And that is how the magazine Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby was able to write the stunning, haunting memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, detailing his experience. He blinked it. Letter. By. Letter. I highly recommend it.

Through friends I learned that Barbara was asking to receive mail to keep her connected with her old life. She could only answer by finger-spelling every letter. to every word. into a caregiver's hand, who would transcribe the words, first in snail mail, and later email. Here is more about Finger Spelling communication from the American Sign Language association.

This lead to the most rich, poignant, inspiring correspondence of my life. I'm sorry to say that it took me three years to actually start sending Barbara letters. I didn't know what to say to a dear friend who was suffering such catastrophic circumstances. Thank God I didn't let my initial slowness to act keep me from starting, a lesson I have applied elsewhere.

And since I wrote my first letter back in 1996, I have received a chestful of letters, including a birthday card, every year.

Barbara died on August 3, 2014, twenty-two years after the surgery. I know at least the last five years of which were in extreme physical distress, because I visited with her in England.  The duration of her suffering is part of what makes her writing so extraordinary. For some context, the Elle editor only lived eighteen months in his "diving bell body with the butterfly mind." Not 22 years.

I offer excerpts from Barbara's letters to me because I want to share her spirit, wit, faith, philosophy, and ability to love and care for her friends from the confines of her bed, in hellish circumstances.  Her concern about my own frequent, romantic heartaches is particularly poignant.

I want Barbara to live on in everyone who reads this little blog as an example of the staggering courage of life. During her lifetime whenever I felt down or distressed I would think about Barbara and her strength, and I still find inspiration in the letters she left. I hope you will too.

Do you know your purple dress is what the French call demi dueil?

Right now God is asking me to take a lot, but, I keep saying to myself, this can’t last. I look forward to it being over, and maybe to take my place in the back row of the altos.  Please give everyone my love and keep lots for yourself.

I was surprised that you polished your nails blue. I’m sure it’s very modern, but I liked ‘Fire and Ice.’  It was bright red.

I’m afraid I’m jaundiced about John John [Kennedy's] wedding, but not so much I didn’t wonder where it happened and who he married.

I never watch TV because I can't hear or see much. I did read Vile Bodies. I agree Evelyn Waugh is interesting, but I understand a bit of a bastard. He said he'd be even worse if he weren't a Catholic. What a guy!

I have my computer back again but my tinnitus and cold are so bad that I haven't worked on it in a while. I'm really cowardly about my ataxia too. It's silly because if my number is up it's up. I do have these fears and I'm terrified to work alone. As it is I think people are more impressed than they should be by it [a computer]. It is just an aid to writing and arithmetic, after all. People act like it will solve all problems. It won't. Our Lord is the only one who'll do that.

I am learning to lip-read. You see I rather like learning new things.

Teaching me is a race against time anyway, because I'm going blind slowly but surely.

I'm supposed to have a new trach because my current one is too small. I will have to have plastic surgery because my stoma has closed up and got too small, but when God knows.

2/23/1997 [Five years since the surgery]

What a hoot seeing the wreck I am now! I wouldn't have aged gracefully so maybe it's as well I won't have a chance.

How the hell do I convince the bureaucracy that I need a new trach that fits. And how do I cope in the mean time? How do I manage increasing deafness and blindness?

I voted ‘cos I think the franchise is important, and I may be disabled but I don’t want to lose the vote as well as everything else.

I will face new problems 'cos I think Labour won't want us cripples. I bet they want us just to kill ourselves. Well, we are willing to support abortion, and why not pick on somebody else that's defenseless? I don't mind dying, but not 'cos they say so.

I am very depressed and quite willing to die. I was told this was selfish and selfpitying, but five years is a long time and I spend time thinking what good I’ve done, and I think the world would be a better place without me. Of course I may be useful in the future, but I’ve lost my powers, to say the least, and feel I can go. I wonder if you know how galling it is to be me? They want me to take antidepressants, but the happy pill doesn’t exist which can make up for all my losses. Anyhow, they make my stupid, and I need what little intelligence I have left.

Well done for moving to a one bedroom apartment. Seriously, have you any needs? I am an old apartment dweller from way back, and remember being quite pleased with house gifts, so don’t hesitate to ask if you need something.

[When I misquoted Browning !]
My brother, who comes nearly every day, says I should phrase this differently, but I’m shameless and haven’t changed it. You misquoted “Oh! To be in England!” It’s Browning and one of my brothers gave it to me for Christmas so I’m sure. My sister takes a dim view of Browning, but I rather like him.

You don’t say anything about your love. I had a moment’s hope that he’d gone away.

I hope I do cheer you up. ‘cos frankly you worry me. Marriage ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just think, you could end up like me.  A junked wife is a junked wife, and believe me, dumping isn’t any fun for the dumpee.

Did you know I was a State Scholar? It’s all meaningless now of course, but I thought I was the cat’s pajamas at the time. I’m glad you are rereading Lord Peter Whimsey. I like whodunits myself. Lately I’ve been on a jag with Margery Allingham. She isn’t quite as literary as Sayers, but she is a good read.

I was please that your brother got a new job. I rather narcissistically attribute it to my prayers.

In our language it would be o.t.t. if we had to worship the Virgin, which many Protestants think we do. Calling her co-redemptorix is surely just a way of formalizing her status, but I believe that expression has been specifically condemned so fuck Newsweek. Christ died for us and great as she is Our Lady didn't.

I am struck over and over again by how boring life is. Of course it is for me, but I mean generally. I think people sin 'cos they are bored, though of course sin is pretty dull. Actually virtue is much more interesting, but people won't know that. Their minds are darkened by the devil.

I don't think we celebrate St. Patrick's day much because it's an Irish feast.  Did you drink green beer? Did you have real shamrocks? I hear it is a big religious deal but not as big as the feast of St. Joseph that occurs two days later.

One of the priests in the Dominican community here says it is a providential thing that St. Patrick's day never falls in Holy Week 'cos otherwise the Irish would forget about celebrating Easter! I might be English but I do honor him. I think people often forget about the doctrine of the Trinity or take it for granted. I know St. Patrick's Breastplate so I have no excuse.

You'd think I'd care but in fact I often allow worldly concerns to drive it right out of my head. I suppose I'm like others in that way.

Sorry for the delay in answering your letter which I did like. I went to Lourdes in the time since I last wrote.

Now I have one eye sewn shut I guess I'm not attractive and am perhaps frightening. But my niece copes and says I don't scare her. [Note: The Elle editor JB Dauby had the same thing happen. He explained that when the lid ceases to function to close and keep the eye clean there is danger of cornea burn, so the doctors sew the lid shut to prevent that.]

The memory banks got stirred up when yo spoke of what you were singing. I recall singing Palestrina's Missa Brevis with you in Brooklyn. Come to think of it we never had a crash in over two years.

You'd soon stop writing if I complained so I don't on the whole, but since you  ask about my tinnitus I must tell you it is so loud now that I can't hear much else.

This is a good home and I'm glad I'm here. I have been in some bad nursing homes, and this isn't. Of course nothing in this life is perfect but I am much loved here, which I know doesn't always happen. I have a nurse and an aid interested in me and if I didn't have so many problems life would be perfect. But hey, who has a problem-free life?

I'm sad at the moment 'cos a resident is leaving and I want to leave and can't. On the bright side I am hearing more in my left ear and the machines are even detecting some hearing in my right ear. The trouble is I depend on my vision a lot and it is slowly going.

I'm not at all offended by your participating in a Schola at St. Barts. Just don't become an Episcopalian!

You must think I fell off the edge of the earth.

I rather liked thinking of you in the Dordogne. You said you had seen the place where Poulenc wrote the Black Madonna Vespers. I remember those very well, though I have to sing them in my head, as I do for many things.

I'm sending you a note to tide you over 'til I can write properly. The letters keep on piling up and I'm very glad to get them. Also I'm glad to hear your news and I really mean it 'cos I'm very cut
off, as if I went to prison. Given all my sins that wouldn't be too surprising.

[Amidst a letter of extreme sorrow and sadness within her family . . .]

Today I had clothes put on me that I chose. You'd think this wouldn't matter. It does.

Are you still the pretty blonde I recall? As far as I can tell my mind is OK but my body is a mess. Specifically my time sense is off.

I did hear about the World Trade Center by the way. We are remote but somebody showed me newspaper pics of the plane in the second case. Also another friend wrote from Brooklyn that the stench was noticeable for months and the wind blew burned letters into people's backyards for a while, so I guess these events will not be forgotten.

5/24/2003  [I love this extremely poetic thought]
I'm glad you had a good time in Italy and enjoyed singing in Spain. Now you have planned your summer. Where will it take you this time? I'm quite tied down but I love hearing about other people's travels. I gather this was common in Soviet countries when people weren't free in body and their minds roamed.

I must stop 'cos it is late, but I think of you often.

I recall you said my letters meant a lot to you. I feel pretty futile so I was touched. I have to go, but am I nuts? Help!

Thank you for the card. Amalfi is quite beautiful and I envied you your trip. I was especially taken by the bougainvillas.  A priest came to see me today and gave me a tract about Marthe Robin. I'm not very like her. For openers she was a peasant and I'm middle class.

[Marthe became bedridden when she was 21 years old, and remained so until her death 60 years later.]

How are YOU doing? I'm worried about you saying you are depressed. My reaction was to say "Bloody men!" Don't let the bastards get you down. I must go now, but you have my prayers.

p.s. I now have e-mail fully, and a busy person like you may find my address useful.

[I broke my ankle running for a subway]

I’m very sorry your foot is being so slow. I hope the rest of you is ok and you have lots of books to while away the time.  It’s a drag but later you may see the reason.

Your recent email about your trip to Chicago reminded me that I never answered your last one.  Most remiss.  Mea culpa.  I read a few articles by Peter Phillips in the Spectator and assumed wrongly that some hack had written them.  I think there was something about the Tallis Singers as well.  I didn’t pay much attention.  I was able to read then, and skimmed through a lot of things. 

If you can manage a Sunday visit that would be very nice.  I see nothing wrong with Sunday July 12th.  I often get no visitors on Sunday so the day yawns like a chasm.  As I recall, you do not know alphabetic sign.  It’s not hard and there is a one for one match with ordinary English letters.  I never went further than finger spelling.  So if you can pick up a bit before you come that will be a big help.

7/13/2009  AFTER MY VISIT

I dunno when you will get this but I did want to thank you for your visit.  The signing was probably too fast for you.  I am forced to use gaps in communication like the phone company does.  It is very hard to follow my sign and it’s my fault not yours I fear.  I go fast cos people get so cross with me when I go slow, but they can’t follow me when I am fast, so I can’t win.  To make things worse, I have developed a stammer in my signing.  This doesn’t help. 

I'm moving. The name of the home is ironic cos I feel really desperate.  I do not enjoy it when nobody can talk alphabetic sign.  It’s what I use to communicate, but not everyone has good friends like you.  This makes up for a lot.  I hope to hear from some of you soon.  All the emails are a lifesaver.  Be well.

I know what you mean about the Russian language.  Years ago I learned a little Russian cos when I was a schoolgirl invasion seemed inevitable.  As you know, it didn’t happen, but I still have a few words and I once freaked out a Latvian carer by thanking her in Russian.  I believe Stalin didn’t allow Latvian to be taught.  A whole generation of Latvians don’t know their own language.  This is what conquest is like.

I want to be sure to wish you a very happy Christmas.  I dunno if you will join your mother in her condominium?  I’m finding Christmas cards a struggle.  The constant weariness I feel is taking its toll.  It also makes my letters shorter than I would like and now I must stop.

I had an old Irish woman as a patient who paid me a great compliment.  She said my friends must be all Irish.  Then and now this is not true, but I do have you of course.  I used to own a disc called The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  Goodness knows where it is now.  I wonder if it’s the same Clancy Brothers as the ones you mention.  Of course the name Clancy is quite common in Ireland.  Do you think they need and extra voice?  I was once told by a woman outside a store named Clancy that I had saved her from going to The Grange.  This was the local loony bin.  It was a lovely moment which I cherish.  I have to go now but I hope you are well.

I wonder how you are doing?  One thinks one knows a person but you may be doing something new and my former ideas are silly.  My brother takes me to Mass here in the chapel every Sunday.  The poor man can’t speak to me so he simply rubs my hands a bit.  Otherwise my Sundays would be very dull and they are often bad anyway.  I keep hoping for some breakthrough that will change my life.  As Auden says, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. 

I use these times to find out how badly I am doing.  There is a big black cross on the wall and this time it was a little fuzzy for the first time.  People come up and shake my hand at the Kiss of Peace I often don’t know who it was.  The chaplain is a nun called Sister Margaret.  She always squeezes my hand so I know it’s her.  Touch becomes very important when you are nearly blind.  In the summer months maybe there is no singing but are you going away?  Do tell me where to.  Now I must run.

I do not think there will be a breakthrough for me, but I always was a pessimist. I hope you had a good time in Italy and that your birthday is very nice. I'm the same as ever, only weaker, which is very annoying. When I get to heaven I will shout at God like Saint Teresa of Avila. I think I might have been her friend. Be well. Many happy returns.

Lovely to hear from you.  I can remember picking an apartment cos its bathtub had claw feet.  I think bathroom fittings are very much a matter of fashion, and it was surprising that you found a tub like that.  You said your niece went skydiving. I should also have been impressed. I haven’t the nerve for that.  What it is to be young!

I meant to ask you if there were a clan system in Ireland as there is in Scotland.  If so, I wanted to know if there were an O’Neill clan.  I have a dim memory of being told that some one who asked where the head of the table was being told, “Where the O’Neill sits is the head of the table!” 

You asked me how I felt about the monarchy.  It is rather complicated cos I don’t approve of the current house.  At the same time I was very pleased to hear from you that the [Irish] state visit had gone so well.  I don’t think I am a monarchist but one has to open buildings and name ships.  On the whole I am against them cos I don’t think kings are very good for nations.  Human beings are odd cos we are not very happy with no king as in the USA.  I think many presidents secretly think they are monarchs.  Being a republic does not seem any protection.  Some of them have been pretty bad.  Remember Nixon.  I think people were glad when he fell.  I hope you are well.

I have never been to Portugal so I was very pleased to get your email.  Actually you rang several bells.  About Portugal I thought you would be amused to hear there was a bureaucratic directive in World War Two which said it is strictly forbidden to call our gallant allies the Portuguese the “pork-and-beans”.  Somebody with no sense of humour wrote that.  I have a vague idea that the people of Portugal are great sailors and that they found a lot of the known world.

Have you ever read poems by a woman called Moira O’Neill?  I ask cos I was trying to find a student by that name.  It turns out that there are a few women named for this poet, but I had never heard of her let alone read her.  There are probably lots of O’Neills.

[I sent B. opening lines to O'Neill's poem "Beauty's a Flower"

Youth's for an hour,
Beauty's a flower,
But love is the jewel that wins the world.]

Mainly I want to say Merry Christmas.  We say Happy Christmas.  It’s a small shibboleth.  I try to remember to talk American.   I have not heard either piece you mention; so do say how you liked them.   As it happens, I have read a few poems by Wilfred Owen, but I did not know he was set in the requiem.  I do think WWI was a terrible waste of young men.  I gather WWII was a bit less wasteful.

A while ago you said you had enjoyed some P.D. James stories.  I have been meaning to tell you I like her too.  I specially like her detective, named Adam Dalgliesh.  I enjoyed the fact that he was a poet as well as a cop.  Did you read the one set in Sussex marshes?  I liked the idea of a house that was somehow set apart.  Of course he does order a criminal shot in that one, but I don’t think he has a choice.  I also read The Dark Tower.  I don’t think Dalgliesh is in that one.  I think he does improve a story.  I am not sure why.  Anyhow I wanted to say I had asked my friend in Canada if she had ever heard of Moira O’Neill.  She hadn’t.  So much for fame!  I have to stop but I hope you have a very nice St Patrick’s Day.  Do you have something lined up for that day?

I have thought some more about what you wrote about the poet Moira O’Neill.  I dunno if it still exists, but there used to be a publishing house that specialized in the works of women.  The place was called “Virago”.  I think the stuff you have sent by her is quite good and if it is typical of her, she maybe should be read by others.  Think what a gas it would be if an O’Neill got her republished in a special new edition!

 I am very blind now and I can’t read my own emails, which is a big drag.  I haven’t been able to read anybody for months, so the days are long.  I hope you are well.

I had hoped to write to you before Easter, but that was vain and so I do now what I intended then and wish you a very happy Easter period.  You have been out of touch for a few months and I wondered if you were busy or if I had lost you.  I do notice when I stop hearing from a friend.

I had made up my mind you were in the midst of various labours with Virago Press getting Moira O’Neill, better known in the present.  It can take lots of time to work with publishers.  I didn’t have nearly such an important job as you and I still found that.

I guess you all know there has been a delay.  I went far too blind to read even my own emails a year ago.  I thought this was just temporary so I did not say much about it.  You have gone on sending fairly long emails and they have mounded up.  So I thought you deserved to know I am still around and not dead yet.  To make matters harder I have great trouble in processing information and any speech and I seem to have developed a stammer.  So it is very hard to reach me.  My brother has been slogging away and he has coped with my emails.  All I can say is thank heaven for his assistance.  I send you all my best wishes.


I believe you sent a line or two of poems by Moira O’Neill.  I want to thank you for one in particular.  It said, “Love is the jewel that wins the world”.  I say it over and over to myself and find it very nourishing.  Maybe you could use a bit of that nourishment right now, cos I have not heard a peep from you in a little while.  So what ‘s the story?   I believe in my last I asked about your nephew particularly, since I have one too, and I gather that Tom is having a bad time with college.  Gosh, it does seem to be hard to get over this first hurdle and start on one’s life.   I don’t remember it was so bad for me.  Getting old is another matter.


That was the last letter, a month before she died.

I have never prayed for this sentiment more deeply: Rest in peace, Barbara.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sexy Beast, I Mean Bing: Happy Birthday, and Goodbye

Bing Crosby died today, October 14, 1977. It was notable in that year because Elvis had died on August 16. More shocking of course, because he was only 42. But Crosby still had enough cultural resonance back then for it to register that two towering legends of American music had died two months apart.

The decades have not been kind to Crosby's musical memory, and American Masters has stepped in to do something about that. Bing Crosby, Rediscovered will air in December.  It is not to be missed.

From the press release:
 Thirty-seven years after his death, Bing Crosby remains the most recorded performer in history with nearly 400 hit singles, an achievement no one — not Sinatra, Elvis or the Beatles — has come close to matching. A brilliant entrepreneur, Crosby played an important role in the development of the postwar recording industry. As one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, he won the Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way and starred in the iconic “Road” films with Bob Hope.

Narrated by Stanley Tucci, the film features new interviews with all surviving members of Crosby’s immediate family — wife Kathryn, daughter Mary and sons Harry and Nathaniel. The film reveals Crosby’s struggles with his first wife, Dixie Lee, and their sons Gary, Dennis, Phillip and Lindsay. Mary addresses accusations of abuse first published in Gary’s 1983 memoir, which tarnished their father’s legacy. Gary speaks candidly about both his and his mother’s alcoholism as well as his difficulties with his father in a never-before-seen 1987 interview. Other new interviews include singers Tony Bennett and Michael Feinstein, record producer Ken Barnes, biographer Gary Giddins, and writers Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman, who both share the story behind Crosby’s Christmas special duet with David Bowie.


I wrote this post for Bing's birthday back in May. But no real need to bother reading the words, just play the clips!

Bing Crosby’s birthday is today, May 2, as he cites in his autobiography Call Me Lucky: "Uncle George kept my father company, diverted him with his best stories and raised a comforting glass with him when I was born on May 2, 1904."

OR it's tomorrow May 3, the date all the biographies site for him, including the Gary Giddens. And those bios cite 1903 as his birth year, not 1904. Turns out Bing celebrated May 2 because of a complicated family thing & then Paramount used that in their materials, but he was born on May 3. Unfortunately, this confusion about the simplest of a man’s details is the least of the problems with his legacy.

Like the Olympian gods, Bing Crosby is largely forgotten and unloved today, except for the descendents of some loyal fans. Gary Giddins made a valiant attempt to focus attention on this Mozart of the popular song with his very ample 2001 biography Pocketful of Dream. And for a brief moment, pop culture glanced at “the first white hip guy born in America” (as Artie Shaw called him). But the attention has not been sustained. And yet . . . when people discover his work in the 1930s, new fans are born.

"Please" . . . A Real Heartthrob
In the beginning, Crosby was sexy and compelling. He had a distinct, astonishing voice and a way of singing that was unlike any other on the landscape.

He was a genuine heartthrob, best seen in a movie that is almost impossible to get now, the original Big Broadcast (1931, but before they started assigning years to them. Top & left photo from this great site). Crosby plays himself, and the scenes of the women stampeding to kiss him are funny but entirely believable. Women fell in love with his voice on the radio, and the early shorts and movies use that as a story line.

Here he is, in The Big Broadcast, singing Dinah looking like a male model for Banana Republic, and  Please accompanied by the legendary Eddie Lang.

The tragedy of Eddie Lang. Lang met Crosby when they were both in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and Eddie followed when Bing left the band. They were very close, and Giddins writes how devastated Crosby was when Lang died, hemorrhaging after a tonsillectomy. It was Crosby who had recommended that Lang have his tonsils out to help with chronic hoarseness and so be able to take on speaking parts in future Crosby films. It was an enormous burden for Crosby to bear that Lang died at age 30 from this operation that he recommended.

Important Beatles notes: John Lennon sites Crosby's Please as an influence for his writing Please Please Me: "I was always intrigued by the words of ‘Please, lend me your little ears to my pleas’ – a Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word ‘please’."

And in Scorsese's Living in a Material World documentary, Olivia Harrison says of George: "He liked the moon, you know. If the wind was blowing and the full moon was up, he’d put on Bing Crosby singing "Sweet Leilani" and just make the moment even better. And then he might hand you a gardenia."

The First Music Video?
In 1932 Marion Davies insisted on Crosby as her leading man in Going Hollywood, a wild pastiche of a musical. It’s maybe best known for the Grand Central extravaganza number, while the Make Hay While the Sunshine number is almost too hard to watch.

But there is one scene that deserves a place in film history: a drunk, disheveled Crosby singing Temptation intercut with close-ups of the smoldering Fifi D’Orsay. It’s dark and evocative, with other cuts to blurry, tightly-packed bodies, swaying to the pulsating rhythms of the song. It looks like an early music video. The comments on YouTube tell it all: “how young he is” and “how sexy he is” and “Crosby has more talent in his little finger than Sinatra has in his whole body” [okay, that one is just a nice swipe at the other guy].

Yeah. That’s what propelled Crosby into the hearts and imagination of an entire generation, three quarters of a century ago.

Stardust, 1931
One more (audio) clip: Crosby in 1931 singing Star Dust (first published as two words, and then one). It’s nothing like the standard Nat King Cole. He sings it with a wild abandon, always pushing on the tempo. Pure passion. Pure despair. Pure, natural talent.

This Crosby of the 1930s is the guy who fired my father's imagination to be a life-long fan.  As well as a guy from Hoboken, named Frank. And that's a pretty good legacy in itself.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October 7, 1914 & 2014: "A ritual act of remembrance" Connecting Across 100 Years

On 7th October 1914, some 8,000 soldiers of the Imperial German Army proudly marched into Ypres, Belgium. They represented the vanguard of a nation hell-bent on claiming its share of empire, and although the Great War was still in its infancy, the notorious Schlieffen Plan appeared to be working as intended. The following day, they promptly left the city’s walled enclave to continue on their great march westwards. It was to be the last time that the German army would set foot in Ypres during the war, something that would ultimately lead to the deaths of almost 600,000 people and the annihilation of the city [as they tried for 4 bloody years to re-take the city]. [Text from an open educational resource website on the Great War.]

On 7th October 2014, Peter Sellars brings his staging of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion to the Park Avenue Armory, with Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. From the Armory website: "Sellars ritualizes this magnificent masterpiece to create a communal grieving process while illuminating Bach’s unmatched gift for presenting both deep hardship and the possibility of transcendence." The Guardian reviewer described the London performance like this: "Sellars presents the work not as a dramatisation of the Passion, but as a ritual act of remembrance."

My worlds collide. From invasion to singing. What are the odds that they would happen on the same day, 100 years apart?

* * * * * *

I returned from Belgium last week, visiting Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres as part of a singing holiday run by some very talented Brits.  The company arranges for a music director to meet up with singers in a European city, with a preselected repertoire that will be performed in a concert or service after a series of rehearsals, and then everyone goes their own way.

This outing was built around participating in the beginning of Europe's "ritual act of remembrance" for the World War One centenary: singing at a Mass in Ghent; the Faure Requiem in a church in Bruges; and at the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony in Ypres, along with a visit to the Flanders Field Museum and the Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient (my photo above). It is the largest cemetery in the area, but as you drive along the Zonnebeke road, you see signs for dozens upon dozens of others. 160 cemeteries in total, in the Ypres Salient alone.

I learned about Ypres from Paul Fussell, studying his highly acclaimed The Great War in Modern Memory with him back in the day, and so it was very special to be on the very ground I studied so many years ago.

It was also very moving to be with the grandchildren of the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) that entered on the side of France & Belgium to stop the German aggression.

And that leads us to the 100-year difference on this October 7.

J.S.Bach is considered to be one of the most brilliant composers who ever lived.

The Berlin Philharmoniker is one of the world's most talented orchestras. All positive, all artful.

But there is still the fact of Ypres. From a wall card in the Ypres Flanders Field Museum:

From October 1914 onwards, the German artillery began to shell Ypres and the Cathedral went up in flames. In May 1915 the last inhabitants had to leave their town and Ypres was completely delivered up to military violence. By the end of 1917 not a single house or tree was left standing.

The Menin Gate
The Menin Road was the main road to the front for the Commonwealth troops. It bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from the UK and Commonwealth (except New Zealand & Newfoundland) who died on the Salient and whose remains were never found for a proper burial.

From 11th November, 1929, the Last Post [the British version of Taps] has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time. [Text from a UK Great War website.]

The town that you see today is a complete reconstruction, following the war. They chose to rebuild the great medieval Cloth Hall--built in the 15th Century--exactly as it had looked. Our charming local guide kept saying, "everything you see is a copycat of the original."  It is an astonishing story.

I witnessed and participated in the "ritual act of remembrance" at the Menin Gate on September 22, 2014. Traffic is stopped, the Belgian buglers arrive to sound the Last Post. Sometimes there are extra elements, like our choir, and that day also a Scottish bagpipe contingent. Sometimes there are ceremonial wreath layings. On this day there were English children from a public school, and a highly decorated, active duty English soldier.  We sang the very haunting Douglas Guest setting of For the Fallen. It is remarkable that this ceremony has continued daily for almost 100 years.  It's hard to sustain anything, but this small, ritual remembrance connects the living through the decades to all those lives slaughered.

And tonight I am attending the Simon Rattle St. Matthew Passion, part of the Lincoln Center's White Lights Festival at the Park Avenue Armory. I will keep the memory of all those souls slaughtered on the Ypres Salient in my heart, whoever they fought for.

And those who have suffered the latest atrocities in the Middle East. Though it is very hard to think that 100 years from now, those foes will be singing a concert in NYC . . . .

[top and third Menin Gate photo by Nick Couchman]

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Happy 75th GWTW: You Reign Supreme Forever Because of the Love Story, and the Acting

Thank goodness for TCM. What a national treasure to help lovers of classic movies come together and celebrate great American classic films outside of individual living rooms.

Two years ago I was very grateful when they sponsored bringing Casablanca back into theaters for its 70 birthday.

That was an interesting experience because I was sitting near a group of 20something friends, who were chatting away and had come to mock the picture, but  from Bogart's first entrance, they got quieter and quieter. Great films have that effect, even on the current crop of jejunes.

Anniversary Screenings, Across the Country #GWTW75
I didn't know what to expect for the 2:00pm Sunday showing of GWTW in Times Square in conjunction with Fathom Events & Warner Home Video, one of only four total times this anniversary treat is showing. The actual premiere was on December 15, 1939, in Atlanta, an event to which Hattie McDaniel was not invited.

I'm happy to say that every age, race, and ethnicity you can think of was in attendance in Times Square.  Much applause in all the right places, much laughter in all the right places. And the weeping. Even the geeky/tech-looking young guy of Indian descent sitting next to me didn't make it through the crane shot of Scarlett going to the Atlanta depot without some very furtive tear wiping. But that's what it's all about, isn't it? 

Though I have not seen 12 Years a Slave, I appreciate in contrast the cultural damage that GWTW's sentimental depiction of slavery has had. But the film endures because, like the novel, it is not a story about slavery. It is a deeply resonant depiction of the battle of the sexes, with a most astonishing, strong, stunted, selfish female character in Scarlett. It's the relationships between all the characters that pulls you in for the fastest four hours in cinema history, even with the intermission.

And it will endure because of the acting. Vivian Leigh is absolutely compelling in every frame. She conveys a multitude of subtle yet complex emotions with every facial gesture, as does Clark Gable.  Their chemistry together is for the ages. Their talent simply radiates off the screen, it is dazzling in a way that no modern counterparts match. Their kind of Hollywood of 1939 is itself gone with the wind, and another reason why this  film will still be around in another 75 years.

The restoration is the most astonishing I have seen. It is the most vibrant Technicolor I have ever witnessed, and the overall acuity of the frames breathtaking. The aspect ration means that the picture goes top to bottom of the screen, but not side to side. By having the black letterbox effect only left and right, the figures look even more larger than life than they do when the image fills the screen, or in IMAX. It is a thrilling, "natural" looking movie experience like no other. The film is simply a sequence of superlatives for me.

Below is from a broader appreciation I wrote about the novel & the movie in 2007.

Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae

I don’t brook no literary snobs who dismiss Margaret Mitchell’s tale. Yes, I first found it in junior high school, like many other girls. But the serious reader does not hold that factoid against it.

What I could appreciate only later was how exquisitely, masterfully, Mitchell captures the painful zig and zag between ill-fated lovers. Scarlett’s constant fear and loathing of Rhett’s mocking of her (both real and imagined) matched point for point Rhett’s constant fear that Scarlett had only contempt for the men who worshipped her.

With these two, Mitchell captures that sickening, life-destroying panic you feel when you can't trust the one who’s next to you, no matter how well suited you are for each other. For Rhett and Scarlett, when one starts to trust just a little, the other answers with cruelty. It's a dark, dark tennis match.

Thus GWTW is a tragedy of the most human kind—-of two people who throw happiness away with both hands. Rhett is right that they are two of a kind, and Scarlett can't see it because of the fog of Ashley in her head, clouding her vision, until she finally "sees" that it's been Rhett all along, just as he is done, with a capital "D."

The storytelling overall is stellar, especially the early chapters about Scarlett’s mother Ellen (played by Barbara O'Neill, which always ticked me), and how she came to marry Gerald O’Hara.

The Civil War is there too. But that I have no personal experience of that . . . .

Margaret Mitchell is a unique figure in literary history. She wrote the novel while recuperating from ankle surgery, with no intention of anyone besides her husband reading it.

She had gone to Smith College in 1918, engaged to a Harvard man, Lt. Clifford Henry. He was killed in France, and shortly after her mother died of the pandemic flu, before MM got back to Atlanta to see her. She knew too well much of what she wrote for Scarlett, and her life hints at the theme of haunted love: the fiancé who died, then her first marriage ended in divorce, and the second was to her ex‘s friend. But Mitchell raised the idea of shadows in love to an art in Scarlett's attachment to Ashley.

Mitchell ultimately took her book title from a poem by Ernest Dowson, “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae,” which is from the opening of Horace’s Odes, Book 4.1: “I am not the same as I was in the days of Cynara.” (Well, she was a Smith girl, although she left when her mother died, before she graduated.) Dowson was an English poet of the Decadent Movement, which included Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. His poem is about a lover who is “desolate and sick of an old passion.” (Think Bob Dylan’s haunting “Visions of Johanna.”)

The third stanza, which begins “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,” touched Mitchell: it was the "far away, faintly sad sound I wanted."

And so we were given the words that scrolled majestically across the screen to Max Steiner’s superlative score. The film is one of the all-time great realizations of a novel, which for me is rooted in Vivian Leigh’s captivating energy and Clark Gable’s controlled, knowing, beautifully tailored passion.

MM said she wrote the last chapter of GWTW first. It is intriguing that she started with that bone weary, completely burnt-out feeling of her leading man, and then imagined the path and depth of a great love-—of his love—that had been so completely thwarted by a selfish, stunted woman.

I haven't re-read GWTW for quite a while. But in that personal way you have with certain stories, I hold out hope that whenever I do, Mammy will hear Scarlett when she calls out for Rhett after her miscarriage, and the star-crossed lovers can find some happiness. Isn't it pretty to think so.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Breathes There a Man with a Soul So Dead" The Last Certain Day of the UK As We Know It

The UK is on the eve of possibly coming apart at the seams, and so the Twitter feed is filled with all things Scottish. A CNN post declares Sir Walter Scott the first literary superstar, and Wiki agrees, saying he was the first English-language author to be celebrated internationally in his own lifetime. He was born in 1771, after the England/Scotland marriage. He manifested the oral tradition of Scottish lore into sweeping historical novels that gave flesh and blood and Tartans to a war-strewn history of his country in the Waverly novels, Ivanhoe Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermore, and so helped to create a national identity.

The famous canto from The Lay of the Last Minstrel is uniquely fitting for the day, although both sides have claimed the Great Scot for the WWSWD.

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
"This is my own, my native land"?
Whose heart hath n’er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned...?
If such there be, go mark him well...
The wretch, concentrated all in self,
...Doubly dying shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung. —


No politics here, but the CNN story reminded me of this post I wrote a few years ago when I learned some lovely tidbits about one of my favorite stories from childhood, Scott's Lady of the Lake.

My father bought me used books for many years to build a library of classics for me. One of them was a small book of Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, The Lady of the Lake (1810). As a child, I thought it was wonderful that the Lady is named, well, L.N (as M.A.’s alter ego is known to her RL friends).

So, I developed a deep attachment to L.N. Douglas and Scott’s work.

Now, jump to almost any Catholic wake or wedding you’ve been to, or the first scene of the film Prizzi’s Honor. There you would have heard someone singing Schubert’s Ave Maria. It’s a beautiful, beautiful melody, which Schubert wrote around 1825, set to the Latin words of the prayer to the Virgin: “Áve María, grátia pléna, Dóminus técum. Benedícta tu in muliéribus, et benedíctus frúctus véntris túi, Iésus. Sáncta María, Máter Déi, óra pro nóbis peccatóribus, nunc et in hóra mórtis nóstrae. Ámen."

All of the 3 tenors have recordings of this, and Andrea Bocelli, and Celine Dion, and everyone and their aunts.

(This is not to be confused with the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, which is less often heard.)

Except, that Schubert did not set the words of the Catholic prayer. And if you listen closely, you will hear that the melody and the tune are not tightly in sync. Unlike the Bach/Goudnod, where the music moves perfectly with the words.

Schubert actually wrote his haunting, beautiful melody to a “song” from The Lady of the Lake. At one point in the action, Lady L.N. goes to a cave to pray to the Virgin for protection from being discovered by the enemy clan. Scott calls it a song in his text, and the first words are Ave Maria. The rest are English words that he wrote for his poem. Schubert was a fan of Scott, and so he set one of the songs of his great poem. In German, he called it “Ellens dritter Gesang,” “Ellen’s Third Song.”

It was some time later that an anonymous person, inspired by the opening words Ave Maria, squished the Latin prayer into the haunting melody. It was so successful to generations of listeners, that it became known as Schubert’s Ave Maria. Schubert died in 1828, three years after his “Ellens dritter Gesang,” so he never heard the permutation of his music that became so famous.

Here are the words to Scott’s song, and below is Barbara Bonney singing the German translation of Scott, which is what Shubert actually set to his melody (although from the comments, people don't seem to know it's not the religious text). This wikipedia page is very clear bout this strange twist of fate.

Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden's prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish'd, outcast and reviled -
Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! undefiled!
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem this down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern's heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled;
Then, Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, list a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! stainless styled!
Foul demons of the earth and air,
From this their wonted haunt exiled,
Shall flee before thy presence fair.
We bow us to our lot of care,
Beneath thy guidance reconciled;
Hear for a maid a maiden's prayer,
And for a father hear a child!
Ave Maria!

And,  here’s one more amazing thing about Scott’s Lady of the Lake. It is the origin of the song “Hail to the Chief.” Scott wrote it as the “Boat Song,” for the arrival of the clan’s chieftain.

It was set to music in 1810 by James Sanderson for a stage version of the epic poem. In 1812 the stage version opened in New York. By 1828 the piece was well known as popular music, and the Marine Corps. Band performed it at the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was attended by John Quincey Adams. The song was first played to announce the arrival of the president at James K. Polk's inauguration on March 4, 1845. It was Julia Tyler, wife of Polk's predecessor, John Tyler, who suggested that the song be played when a president made an appearance, and in 1954 the Department of Defense made it the official music to announce the president. (All from Wikipedia.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

If It's Tuesday, I Must Be Going "Over There"

I have had a cosmic connection with Belgium since childhood, and this week I am finally visiting the country, in connection with the 1914-2014 Centenary Anniversary of World War One. I'm almost giddy.

It started when I was in 6th grade. We had to do a major "country report" in the form of an extreme outline, to teach us how to outline ideas. We were assigned countries, and I got Belgium.

These were the day of having to get in the car and go to the local library to get books to do research. And it turned out the local library had almost nothing about the history or the culture of Belgium.  I was quite the little student at 11, and I started to panic that I would not be able to complete the assignment.

The teacher had suggested we might contact the Consulate General of our assigned country for information, and so with a heavy heart I wrote to the Belgian Consulate General in NYC, which today is near Bryant Park, telling them my tale of woe.  In a short two weeks, I received a large envelope from the Belgians with the most glorious gift: a huge sheet of images of paintings of Belgian history and photos of Belgian culture, all with generous explanatory text. It was astonishing. What wonderful people these Belgians must be.

A few years after that the delightful romantic comedy If This Is Tuesday It Must Be Belgium was on TV, and my family watched it together. It's seared into my brain how much we laughed out loud together. A wonderful memory.

The next touch points were in college, finding both Jacques Brel & Paul Fussell.

I memorized the Ne Me Quitte Pas album, including the lovely Marieke, the one song where Brel sings in both his native French & Flemish.

Ay Marieke, Marieke, je t'aimais tant
Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand

And with Paul Fussell I studied the literature & poetry of the First World War, where I first heard the words Passchendaele, the Ypres Salient.

Bruges and Ghent and the Last Post Ceremony in Ypres
And now I am going to "Bruges et Gand" and Ypres, with a group called Run by Singers, who gather in various cities to rehearse great choral music and then give a concert.

We will sing the Faure Requiem in Bruges, visit the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, and participate in the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres. That's a ceremony that the townspeople have been holding since November 1929, every day without fail to show their appreciation to those who died for Belgium's freedom. The Menin Gate Memorial commemorates the names of over 54,000 soldiers from the UK and the Commonwealth who died on the Ypres Salient before August 16, 1917, and whose remain were never found for an individual grave.

The photo at the top is of the Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade at the Last Post Ceremony.  Lots of information about the ceremony and its history here.

My Grandfather's WW1 Was "Over Here"

Because of the WW1 Centenary I started looking into at my Grandpa Brown's WWI service. He's my mother's father, and he died before I was born, but connecting with the some of the traces of his service has given me a little bit of his life that I didn't have.

Arthur Cornelius Brown was born in Brooklyn in 1892 to immigrant Norwegian parents. (The family name Jacobsen was changed to Brown as they came through Castle Clinton.)

He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, David's Island, New Rochelle, on May 10, 1917, when he was 23 years old.

Wiki: By the onset of World War I Fort Slocum had become one of the busiest recruiting stations in the country, processing 100,000 soldiers per year and serving as the recruit examination station for soldiers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the New England states.

He was not sent "over there." The family explanation was that he could not wink, and therefore couldn't shoot properly. I have a feeling if the war had gone on longer, an otherwise healthy man would have been shipped out.

But he was not sent overseas.  Grandma said he never got out of Fort Hamilton, which is in Brooklyn. Grandpa served his two years in the 22nd Infantry, which was headquartered in Fort Jay, which is on Governors Island. He was promoted to Private First Class to Corporal in 1918 (above), and given the all-important honorable discharge in June 1919 (below).

And so I began my journey to the WW1 battlefields of Belgium by going to Governors Island in New York Harbor,  a short 15-minute ferry ride from downtown, from the slip right next to the Staten Island Ferry.

Once on the island I visited Fort Jay, walking under the entrance to the main part of the fort, which Grandpa must have done many times in 2 years, to do things at battalion headquarters. Fort Jay is now a National Monument under the U.S. Parks Serviced, and served by Park Rangers.

Now my journey will take me from our U. S. Army fort to Flanders, in my grandather's stead. I am grateful that he was not sent into the hell that was the trenches and mud and disease and death that met far too many who served. He was able to continue his life after his war service, and get married, and have two daughters, one of whom I'm lucky to call mom.

In Flanders I will pray for the souls of all who were slaughtered during the Great War, which is thought to be about 8.5 million people, not including casualties. And for the victims of all the recent wars and war-like acts.

And I will hold one particular death in my heart. My grandfather's British Army, Royal Army Service Corps counterpart, Lance Corporal Arthur Brown. He was sent "over there" from Mother England's shore and is one of the hundreds of thousands whose bodies were never found.

The Imperial War Museum has digitzed the records of those who served on an amazing website, where the digital age let's you note "Remembering."

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The 9/11 Museum and Memorial: 13 Years On

I visited the 9/11 Museum and Memorial this weekend. It's a lot to take in, I will need to go back to really absorb everything.  The space itself is extraordinary. You descend down a series of very steep ramps. They do a good job showing schematics of how deep you are on different level, and where you on in relation to where the shopping mall once was, where the original PATH station was, etc.

I didn't take too many pictures, but I wanted to capture some of it.  I think they've done a good job. It's essential to tell the story of mass murder of 3,000 people who just went to work 13 years ago. The majority of the visitors on Saturday evening were foreign tourists, which I think is a good thing.

The photo above does not capture the piercing blues of the tiles.  Different artists were commissioned to try to capture the actual blue of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a color that is seared into the memory of anyone who was there.

The actual slurry wall, that held, keeping back the Hudson River. A small miracle.

The broadcasting antenna from on top of the North Tower, which was the main broadcasting vehicle to NYC for decades. Close to my heart, given my career at Paley Center.   The intensity of the blue panels is captured more accurately in the background here than in the top photo.