Saturday, July 28, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: Christmas in July

There is a tradition of “Christmas in July,” although I don’t know why. The charming Dick Powell/Ellen Drew/Preston Sturges film is from 1940. Just last week USA reran the Cynthia Nixon/Christmastide episode of House, so someone is keeping it alive. I will contribute to the idea by continuing the Irish Christmas travels with Cadfael that I started on Bloomsday.

It is Christmas Eve, 2003. We are staying in the Galway Radisson, the only hotel for miles open on Christmas. Dinner at the hotel is a proper Christmas Eve feast: roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, broccoli and salad followed by a bouche de Noel, with the banquet tables festooned with fresh fir garland and white and red candles lit everywhere. After dinner we are walk to the great Cathedral in Galway under a clear dark sky. The night air of Christmas Eve has always felt palpably different to me. Maybe it’s the fleeting visceral sense of holiness and its companion, “the thrill of hope.”

Midnight Mass was warm and joyous. The bishop spoke in Irish for quite a while before changing to English.

After Mass we return to the hotel, to the Scandinavian-inflected bar with a beautiful open fire, filled with the interesting mix of people who find themselves in a hotel at Christmas. There was an older gentleman—tall, solid, like a boxer, with shocking white hair, the map of Ireland on his face, wearing a beautiful, stiff white dress shirt and exquisite black suit, who stood up and sang “O Holy Night” a cappella in a strong tenor voice. It’s an old tradition, this bar singing, but you don’t always see it. And there was that thought again, “the thrill of hope” in all the beauty of the music. Cadfael then sat down at the piano, and accompanied the gentleman through several other songs, which we sang harmony to. It was the first time since Elba that Cadfael and I sang together, and it was lovely.

So, you may ask, what do two drifters off to see the world do on Christmas Day?

They go to the Cliffs of Moher—-that cold, dramatic, stark place of imposing beauty. The cliffs at their height are a sheer drop of 700 feet to the Atlantic. We drove through the Burren through small, rural villages under a deeply leaden sky. From the moment we got out at the visitor's car park, the wind was a formidable presence as we made our way to the cliffs' edge. It was the perfect anti-Christmas Day. While families all over the world were waking up to a cuddly Christmas morning, the monk and I were hiking around the ancient sandstone—-I screamed a bit and laughed and cried, feeling a little like King Lear on the plain. Not everyone gets to have the cozy Soprano Christmas tableau.

The next day we flew over to Inishmore, the first and largest of the Aran Islands. That brought us back to 1000 B.C. to a fortress called Dun Aengus, built during the Bronze Age. We hiked through terraced layers of the ancient stone fortification to the cliffs’ edge, braced by the cold, snapping air that brought the primal place strangely to life. I could imagine those Bronze-Age people trying to scratch a life out of the harshness of that rocky land, and going to their deaths defending their next-to-nothingness from Barbarians trying to take it away. Being at Dun Aengus—without the hordes of summer tourists--tore a rip in the cozy fabric we shroud our lives in—-I could see and feel life stripped down to the barest elements, and it felt good.

Cadfael and I were headed for Rome for New Years, but we stopped for a night in Dublin to see The Return of the King, which had just opened. In a movie theater near O’Connell Bridge we were swept into the strongholds of Rohan and Gondor for the final battles for Middle Earth. It was a stunning visual complement to the actual ancient fortress we had seen. It reinforced my admiration for Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s astonishing imaginations. The movie is also a paen to fellowships outside of traditional nuclear families, which is something I know a lot about. As the credits rolled, Annie Lennox’s haunting "Into the West" filled the theater in a very Celtic ending to our time in Ireland.

We left for Rome the next day. It was December 30, and on January 1 The Talented Mr. Ripley (the scary, newly ex) was walking down the aisle with his ready-made family in my own parish. I was relieved to be in exile, but more distractions from the crushing reality of it all were still needed.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Road to Oklahoma

I like Alan Sepinwall’s take on Saving Grace very much: ”Is the world ready for an R-rated drama about angels? For a gritty crime drama that's one part NYPD Blue for every part Touched by an Angel? Since the show in question, TNT's new Saving Grace, stars an acting force of nature, I guess we had better be.”

Holly Hunter’s Grace Hanadarko shares much in common with the early Andy Sipowicz, from the cursing to the drinking to the sex.

But she’s also part of a continuum that started with Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus—the early persecutor of Christians, thrown from his horse by a light that blinded him. After three days the scales fell from his eyes and he was baptized as Paul and became the uber-apostle of Christianity.

Grace is a media age incarnation of the desire to have a dramatic encounter with something divine, while the rest of us muddle through far less well-lit channels.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

When Worlds Collide

In the last 48 hours, alternate worlds from what I believe is my actual reality have dominated the waking hours.

It started with Mad Men on Thursday night, which evoked an office landscape as foreign to me as Fafner’s cave, Brunnhilde’s rock, and the rest of the sites in the Russian Ring at Lincoln Center. Friday night was five hours of Siegfried, the third in the Ring of Valery Gergiev’s distinctive, unsettling, odd production. There was another layer of strangeness when Steed showed up in a horned faux Viking helmet—unusually playful for him.

At intermissions, we collided with the swing dancers letting lose to the sounds of Stompy Jones and the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra at the Midsummer Night Swing stage.

On the walk home, we jostled through the Potter fans circling the block around Barnes and Noble, with just 20 minutes to go before they would have the precious tome.

Today I will pick up my pre-ordered H.P and the Deathly Hallows, and see the gods fall in Goetterdammerung.

It’s quite a little vacation from reality.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Mad Men: Madison Avenue Revisited

In the beginning, there were men. Actual men, in a litany that includes N.W. Ayer, J. Walter Thompson, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, John Orr Young & Raymond Rubicam, Mac Dane, Ned Doyle, & William Bernbach. As individuals they created an industry that is the epicenter of the American economy: advertising. Many of the classic advertising agencies have been subsumed into nameless conglomerates like Publicis, Interpublic Groups, and Omnicom. Orwell would have a field day with this.

But AMC’s new series Mad Men turns the clock back to the undisputed heyday of the business, the Madison Avenue of the 1960s, when men smoked, drank, and back-stabbed their way through the honest week’s work.

I don’t know how much time I will want to spent in this period piece, but I love the homage to Saul Bass in the opening credits: that distinctive falling body is reminiscent of the poster for Vertigo and his film title sequences. Bass was the advertising graphic designer of the AT&T Bell system logo who revolutionized film graphics. It’s a clever nod, and in a small example of vertical integration, the series premiere was preceded by Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which Bass also did the title sequence for. Someone at AMC is thinking like a mad man.

The premiere episode touches on every note one associates with the time: smoking, anti-Semitism lumped with Catholic slights, black America as waiters, Eames chairs, Reader’s Digest, the last gasp of the circle skirt.

But for me, it’s the characterization of women that makes me wonder if I will spend much time in this world. It may be historically accurate, but I don’t find it charming.

I came of age in the relatively privileged 1980s. The ‘70s Feminism was still wafting in the air, but the roots that had propelled it didn’t touch my sheltered life. I was always encouraged at home to strive for whatever I could attain, and I never worked as anyone’s assistant.

But this is the world of “Good morning girls” from Mr. Campbell and Mr. Draper, where the worldly secretary Joan says of the new electric typewriter, “It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.” The spectrum of women continues from dandy Don Draper’s mistress who owns her own business to his wife, tucked away in the suburbs, to the female owner of a Jewish store who voices the prescient dictum of people wanting to buy something because it costs more. It's true, these are not narrow portrayals, and we see that Mr. Draper, for all his power, suffers a fatalist's outlook: "You're born alone and die alone."

As television, it’s a powerful re-creation/evocation of a time and place by Matt Weiner, a writer and producer from The Sopranos. It’s clear that this era holds a fascination for Mr. Weiner, perhaps fueled by the celluloid slickness of The Sweet Smell of Success, See Sammy Run, maybe even Bewitched. There are nice flourishes, like the Bass opening and the myth of the napkin doodle, that show a true fan’s warmth toward his subject. Still, Mr. Weiner’s ad men are in a clearly defined Members Only club of their own, and whether it’s a compelling place to spend an hour each week is yet to be seen.

updated July 21, 2007

Monday, July 16, 2007

There's No Vacation from the World Situation

When I go on vacation, I try to take a vacation from media. I live in the midst of it 50 weeks of the year, and, like any addict, I believe I can get on without it for 2.

When I left for Italy on June 25, I was resolute to stay away from the Internet and TV. I did well staying away from the web, but the lure of seeing some foreign TV firsthand proved to be too strong, and so I started looking at RAI in the evenings.

That’s how I learned there was a massive blackout in New York City. It was on the Italian national news. They showed footage from CBS, showing some large place (maybe Grand Central Station) with a guy sitting on the floor reading The Sun that said BLACKOUT across the top.

Oh no, I thought. My poor city. I went online, holding my breath as the New York Times homepage loaded. But . . . . there was no banner headline. Quickly scanning the major stories, there was no headline at all. How strange. Finally, in the Metro section I found one article about a minor blackout in the Bronx and some of the Eastside that Bloomberg said was a “minor inconvenience.” This made the Italian national news? I wondered, had RAI shown a little B roll of the 2005 blackout, thinking it was appropriate? How off could they have been? Was Bloomberg deliberately underplaying yet another example of Con Ed’s inability to keep our lights on? I don’t know.

Then on June 29 I saw the images of London, and it was serious enough to switch over to CNN International, and SKY. The coverage was intense, and got even moreso when the Glasgow airport bomb exploded. I had a sickening feeling watching that situation unfold, and the strange story of the doctors who were the alleged suicide bombers.

Now that I was catching more TV, I saw the other big stories were relentless fires in Greece, and the floods of Yorkshire. I caught images of these stories in bar TVs, the hotel lobby’s media center, on the covers of the Italian newspapers.

Then the siege at the Red Mosque in Pakistan exploded, and that took center stage and was covered from every angle, 24 hours a day. I watched most of it between midnight and 8:oo a.m., trying to keep the day lighthearted and filled with sightseeing.

It was all starting to feel apocalyptic. The fires and floods, explosions, killings. I wondered what the coverage of these stories was in New York. Did Islamabad and Glasgow feel as threatening at home? Why do I, a native New Yorker, feel so safe at home? Is it pragmatic denial, so as not to become completely paralyzed? Or is it now insane to get on the subway everyday.

On the 4th of July I was in Lugano, talking with a photographer from Seattle’s News Tribune who said his paper made a commitment to cover every funeral of every soldier who had gone through the local base. A sober conversation between Americans abroad on a national holiday, while trying to enjoy Switzerland’s beauty.

Even in my own small, nonpolitical world, it’s pretty obvious there is no taking vacation from the world situation.

And yet, as Frank Rich writes, “it's our own government's vacation from reality this summer that should make us very afraid.”

From the Washington Post:

“Six years after the Bush administration declared war on al-Qaeda, the terrorist network is gaining strength and has established a safe haven in remote tribal areas of western Pakistan for training and planning attacks, according to a new Bush administration intelligence report to be discussed today at a White House meeting.

“The report, a five-page threat assessment compiled by the National Counterterrorism Center, is titled "Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West," intelligence officials said. It concludes that the group has significantly rebuilt itself despite concerted U.S. attempts to smash the network.”

Gordon Brown called for vigilance from the Brits, which Michael Chertoff echoed, "[Al Qaeda] continues to adapt and rebuild," Michael Chertoff told CBS's The Early Show. "The message, again, for us is we have to continue to be vigilant."

One hopes that their entreaties mean at least as much to the average citizen as Mad-Eye Moody’s exhortation for “Constant Vigilance.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Memes the Word

While I was away, I was twice tagged: for a Thinking Blogger Award, and for the "tell us 8 random things about yourself" meme. Some people have a low tolerance for this sort of "you're it" blog phenomenon, but I see it as a way of community building. You are tagged/and tag people whose blog you read, and who read you. It's a way of illuminating and strengthening the dialogue between the people who run individual blogs.

Tom Watson tagged me for a Thinking Blogger Award.

It was started back on February 11,2007, by Ilker Yoldas on his Thinking Blog site—he started a meme called ‘5 Blogs That Make Me Think’--and I see that it’s been picking up some fresh steam recently.

Here are Ilker’s participation rules:
1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,

So Tom put me in his pentagram, and I am passing it along to:

Think Denk—Jeremy Denk’s “the glamorous life and thoughts of a concert pianist.” I read Jeremy and think, why can’t I write like that?

Diary of a Crossword Fiend—Ms. Orange makes my head spin with her solving times, but I love her thoughts and knowledge on the daily puzzles

Cultural Snow—Tim Footman’s blog was one of the first I found. He is an interesting cultural writer and a serious thinker about the blogging revolution

Andrew Sullivan—The Daily Dish was the second blog I started reading. We don’t share politics, but he’s one of the sites I read every day

The House Next Store—Matt Zoller Seitz evolved his solo blog of fascinating, compelling writing to a group blog of fascinating, compelling writing. I can’t imagine the blog landscape without it.

8 Random Things

Ross Ruediger of the Rued Morgue tagged me for the “tell us 8 random things about yourself” meme.

I never pass along chain e-mails, etc.,etc., but Ross entitled his post about his participation as “Auntie Meme,” and that’s why I’m playing. “The Girl from Auntie” is one of the all-time classic Avenger episodes, and so that was a sign.

Here are the rules of participation:

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

Random Facts about M.A. Peel

1. I am not a brunette.

2. As a child, I thought Alaska was an island near Hawaii, because of the school maps.

3. I was walking through Times Square with The Talented Mr. Ripley (the scary ex) and Cadfael (my Benedictine traveling companion) in 2001 when the zipper flashed that Pauline Kael had died. The deep drama of the moment was lost on those two.

4. I wallpaper very well.

5. My father suddenly decided to plant a formal rose garden when he turned 50. He tended it for 7 years, until he died.

6. I was having a tiny fling with a married sea captain in Bimini when we came across the vice president of the Florida chapter of NOW, and she gave me Lauren Bacall's autobiograhy By Myself and talked me out of it.

7. I am a huge Buffy fan, but when all is said and done, I think Angel was the finer show.

8. I collect the artwork of David Barton, an extraordinary painter from Westport, CT.

Now over to:

Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur--apparently the air ace found alive in the Amazon jungle is a Cassavetes fan, but we need to know more

Dennis Perrin

Neddie Jingo

Lynnequist at Separated by a Common Language

Lance Mannion—there’s always more to learn about Lance

Claire at L’Esprit de l’escalier—if her summer hours permit