Friday, February 29, 2008

A Leap Day Special: Le Morte de Cadfael

ONCE upon a time. . .

No, that’s not quite right.

IN the beginning. . .

No, that’s just asking for trouble.

TO everything there is a season. . .

Yes, that’s it. I enjoyed a very special season of travels with Cadfael.

In the TV version of our story, this is a second season, flashback episode:

Scene up: Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris

M.A.Peel, luggage in tow, looking to meet up with a group going to Solesmes to study Gregorian chant.

Peel voice-over narration: Hmm, the instructions said to meet by the Air France info desk. Oh, there’s a good looking group. Maybe . . . .Maybe. . . . Ah, no.

[Several much older couples are at the side of the counter.]

Oh please, it can’t just be them.

[One young, good looking man is talking to one of the grandmas]

“Yeah, I never know how much to pack. And the cassock takes up so much room.”

Ohh, the only visual hope for fun in France is a priest, and, it turns out, a Benedictine monk.

Well, who did I THINK would be studying Gregorian chant?

Why was I studying Gregorian chant you may ask? I was deeply involved with singing Renaissance polyphony at the time, and I wanted to connect with the actual chants that many of the glorious motets are based on.

I had heard from a musician about a course taught by a professor out of Cal State, Los Angeles, at ground zero for chant, Solesmes. It was there, in the late 19th century, that Dom Gueranger led his community to study the texts that were being used throughout Europe, and to create one, codified version. Pope Pious X accepted this scholarship, and in 1904 the Vatican commissioned an edition of their work.

For me, it would mean a vacation living in a small French town for two weeks, and then a weekend in Paris. What could be better? And that’s what brought me to Paris on a fine July day at the end of the last century, and into Cadfael’s life.

Benedictine School Daze

Our days settled into a languidly lovely routine: after breakfast the group had class in an old building down by the river taught by an American monk. Several times a day we would go up to the church to listen to the French Benedictines as they chanted the canonical hours. The church is mostly 19th century built over and around the 11th and 15th foundations. It is very long and narrow, all stone, and appropriately imposing.

The stunning French Latin vowels ricocheted all over the walls-—I loved being completely enveloped by the sound. Cadfael was allowed to eat with the monks, one of whom, in a timely connection, was a nephew of William F. Buckley, Jr.

Here are the Office hours we listened to:

7:30 a.m. Laudes
10:00 a.m. Mass (office of Tierce integrated)
1:00 p.m. Sext
1:50 p.m. None
5:00 p.m. Vespers
8:30 p.m. Compline

In between the class lectures, and the time awash in the singing in church, we students had lunches and dinners and some free time together. I found myself often in the company of Cadfael.

On some long walks he told me about life in the monastery, all the intricacies of a closed system, all the little power pools that spring up.

I told him about life as a New Yorker—all the intricacies of a closed system, all the little power pools that spring up.

We clicked like a strange reincarnation of Hepburn and Tracey, with much banter. I was in the throes of multiple men headaches, and here before me was a wise, compassionate, funny listener. It was heaven.

The days peeled away. We finished the course, and the group went to Paris for the last weekend. Cad and I said we would keep in touch, but travelers often say that. In this case, it turned out to be for real.

I went to visit him in his monastery in the States, and he came to visit me in New York with a brother monk.

Then Cadfael went to Rome to study, and the whole world opened up for me. “M.A., I will meet you anywhere in the world . . . .” The Cadfael posts here are just the tip of the time we shared.

Rome, Siena, Florence, Elba, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Lake Balaton, Galway, Dublin, Amalfi, Naples. We were tourists for fun, and travelers going way off the beaten path.

I laughed more on the road with Cadfael than all the other days of those years combined.

The End of the Road

Five years after it started, the time of Cadfael came to an end. He graduated from his college in Rome with an advance degree, and that meant it was time for him to enter the motherhouse in Switzerland. No more studying, no more traveling.

As the cloister engulfed him, he became dead to the outside world, including me. It’s a strange fate to have, to develop an emotional attachment to a man who, by definition, would become unavailable.

But I would not have missed our time together for anything in the world.

And who knows, maybe the monk thing isn’t going to work out for him in the long run . . . .

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My One Oscar Tidbit: We Saw the Horses in Realm & Conquest, Too

The only big film I have seen is Michael Clayton, which I liked a lot. There is quite a strong blog presence against it, particularly against its structure.


At the beginning of the film we see MC survive a car bomb, and then we get the “4 days earlier” message that resets the time frame. When we arrive at this point in time again, people are complaining that no suspense exists, because we know he survives.

That is true. But the car bomb scene is not about intrigue suspense, but about subtle dramatic revelation and a turning point for the character Michael Clayton. I haven't seen anyone write about this.

At the beginning of the film, MC “fixes” a situation for a client in Westchester, and as he is driving toward home he sees horses in a stand of trees. He pulls over, gets out of the car and walks over to them. It is just dawn, and the lighting of the scene is very beautiful. Over his left shoulder we see his car blow up. He runs into the forest, and then we go back 4 days earlier and the story really starts from there for the viewer.

When we arrive back at this scene, we have important new knowledge and context. We have learned that MC’s son Henry is engrossed in a sci fi world of a book called Realm & Conquest. He gives a copy of the book to his dad, and to Arthur Edens, the other main character. Arthur is very taken with it, and bonds with Henry over it. MC hasn’t had time to look at it.

Fast forward to Arthur being killed. MC goes to his apartment to look around, and he finds the copy of the book. He flips through it and stops for a second on a page with an illustration of horses. (He continues to flip, and finds the receipt for the report that is at the copy shop.)

Now further ahead to Michael driving away from his task in Westchester. Again we all see the horses—but now we know that they are almost exactly like the illustration in the book. That’s why Michael stopped in the first place. He was amazed, surprised. Without this knowledge the first time, you have to wonder why he got out of the car for a bunch of horses. They are not an uncommon sight in Westchester.

This second time with the horses is a longer scene than the first. We see Michael’s reaction more fully, and it is beautifully dramatic. We now see on his face that he feels his grief over Arthur, and his deep love for his son, and that he is having an “ah-ha” moment of embracing life itself in the beauty of those magnificent animals. Then the car blows up. So, the illustration in Realm & Conquest saved Michael's life. Hmm.

The evil corporate giant U-North is the antithesis of everything that is connecting in Michael's head, and from that moment, he acts to finish what Arthur started, and bring down the bastards.

As I said, it’s a subtle moment. It wasn’t meant to be suspenseful about the car bomb. I think it’s a tighter film than some people give it credit for, and Clooney’s performance is very, very rich.

That said, they say that Daniel Day Lewis has a lock on the Best Actor nod. I will catch up, sometime.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Goosed by the Grasshopper

Our favorite fiction writer, Kathleen Maher (aka grasshopper), has memed me (duck, duck, duck, goose) for “go to a page in the nearest book.” The rules are this:

• look up page 123 in the nearest book
• look for the fifth sentence
• then post the three sentences that follow that fifth sentence on page 123.

“Looming over the town, La Rocca appears a suitable home for the giants that are said to have been the first inhabitants of Sicily. It was here that the Arabs built their citadel until the Norman conquest in 1063 brought the people down from the mountain to the port below. This dramatic backdrop combined with the narrow Moorish streets has made Cefalu a popular film set, most notably for Cinema Paradiso.”

From Lonely Planet: Sicily

One great winter indoor activity is planning a trip to a sunny clime. And that’s what finds the travel guide to Sicily within reach.

So what that I was trapped in the subway for 45 minutes this morning, as the little bit of city snow threw the system into existential madness: the local train went express after 72 Street, bypassing my stop at 50th street. I calmly got out at 42 Street and crossed over to the uptown local, which went express back to 72 Street. Who can live like this?

But I will not be discouraged. My head is in the Sicilian clouds, near the great Greek ruins at Selinunte. Where my body will later be.

Congratulations, Kathleen, in being named a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest! Go pop over to Kathleen’s Diary of a Heretic and follow the Amazon link to read her piece and comment. Very exciting.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Meditation on Hallmark's Prime Day

Valentine’s day is unappealing from most angles. The Hallmark hearts that pop up after New Year’s are crass commercialism at its worst.

The best we can hope for is that the day puts us in mind of all the kinds of love we experience in our lives. Lives and loves—they are so entirely the same thing, even the words are nearly identical. The “i” at some point gets turned around, confounded, transformed, by the great “oooooooh”

For my own experience, the Metaphysical Poets are, alas, my romantic love poets. In their striking metaphysical conceits—from nature, geometry, physiks of varying sorts—they captured deep, intense difficulties of the heart with amazing wit and beauty.

Here is Andrew Marvell in his “The Definition of Love”

“As lines, so love's oblique, may well
Themselves in every angle greet:
But ours, so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.”

Those haunting, parallel lines. Filled with the infinite, in sight of one another, but apart. I know those lines well. I am one of those lines.

Then there is John Donne’s great “Valediction on Weeping,” with the exquisite image of the tear minted, like a coin, with the face of the beloved who is the cause of the crying. And again, the lovers are apart, on diverse shores.

"Let me pour forth
My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
And by this mintage they are something worth,
For thus they be
Pregnant of thee;
Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore."

And then the powerful image of breathing for each other

“Since thou and I sigh one another's breath,
Whoe'er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other's death.”

In the parlance of the 17th century guys, I am a free radical, an unbonded electron in the universe. A planet with no gravitational pull to any other planet.

Here’s a fragment from an obscure 17th century poet, a distant ancestor of mine:

Comfort there is, in the dark firmament

Sphere upon sphere
De revolutionibus orbium coelstium
The grand design in place.

Thou art in your circle, I in my orbit rest;
Would that we could force Fate’s hand
And end the eternal quest

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Jew and an Irishman walk into a psychiatrist's office . . .

"There is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever." Sigmund Freud, speaking about the Irish.

This sentiment is paraphrased in The Departed, the great Italian’s look at the dark complexities of Boston Irish. Seems the quote is apocryphal, although not entirely unfounded, as someone posted on a psychiatry message board:

“One of his followers said that Freud categorized people as "Irish and non-Irish." He did in fact have a dilemma with the study of Irish people but it’s not evident outright in his writings.”

The Hibernians confounding Sigmund. Sometimes I am just so damn proud of my people.

And yet with In Treatment, HBO has delivered us quite an Irishman, playing a psychiatrist. (Perhaps he’s Jungian—it’s not yet clear.)

What is clear is what a superb actor Gabriel Byrne is as Paul, a private practice psychiatrist in the middle of his years. In Treatment brings us into Paul’s sessions all week, through a range of patients, and then with his old supervisor, Gina, now his therapist again.

The series has very mixed reviews. Nancy Franklin (The New Yorker) and Tim Goodman hate it. Here’s Goodman: “The writing is forced and thin, some of the acting stagey, most of the characters unlikable and—the show-killer quality that HBO execs apparently failed to see—profoundly boring.” Tim Goodman

I categorically disagree.

Franklin thinks it’s not realistic enough: “. . . the writing itself rings false to an almost bizarre degree, with the result that the world created in the show simply isn’t credible.” Franklin doesn’t like that the patients are all very articulate.

But Nancy, this isn’t cinema verite. It’s theater.

Alessandra Staley (The New York Times) sees it my way: “This show is smart and rigorous, with a concentration that bores deep without growing dull. . . . In Treatment is hypnotic, mostly because it withholds information as intelligently as it reveals it.” (Interesting that Staley uses the homonym of “bore,” the harsh putdown of her fellow critics.)

I like to think what separates these reviewers from each other is the Celtic soul. Staley has it; Franklin and Goodman don’t.

In Treatment is based on the tv series Be’ Tipul from Israel created, produced, and mostly written by Israeli filmmaker Hagai Levi. The executive producer for the HBO version is Rodrigo Garcia, the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, along with Levi, but I think that Levi’s underlying creative spirit still comes through the cultural transliteration and is given perfect resonance by Gabriel Byrne.

And we all know about the special affinity between the Jews and the Irish. It’s hard to put your finger on, but there is some deep-seeded soulful connection. The greatest story of the 20th century, Ulysses, features a Dublin Jew. (Leopold Bloom technically isn’t a Jew because his mother wasn’t Jewish, but on the surface, that’s his place in literary history.)

The Jewish population in Ireland has always been tiny. At its peak in the late 1940s it was around 5,000. In the 2006 census, it was around 1,500 in a population of 4 million. But both Cork and Dublin have had famous Jewish mayors, and Chaim Herzog, president of Israel 1983 to 1993, was born in North Belfast and grew up in Dublin!

Part of what joins the Irish and the Jews is their deep understanding of the supreme power of language, and by extension, a love of storytelling and theater.

And that’s what brings us back to Paul’s sessions. They are half hours of pure language. Just 2 actors (or 3 for the couple) on a stage with nothing but words. I find great beauty in a television show stripped down to that bare essence. Like Staley, I see the real subject of the series as Paul, whom we learn a little about each session by his reaction to his patients.

It is a real treat when Byrne is in session with Dianne Wiest, where we catch him bending the truth of his week. For instance, he called to his wife Kate to help him clean the blood stain when Amy began miscarrying. But when he tells about it to Gina, he says that Kate barged into the room on her own. Where Franklin sees language that isn't credible, I see incredible life-like details like this.

This series requires a high level of active listening on everyone's part. There's no noise or visual distractions in it. It's a unique place of quiet intensity on the tv landscape.

As for psychoanalysis itself, I’m with my people on that point. I have been in treatment at a few points in my life, and found no help there. Maybe if I had tried an Irish therapist, it might have been different. But if there had been a Paul, erotic transference would have occupied the whole session. C’est la vie.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ashes to Ashes

I get called to jury duty every three to four years like clockwork. One time I was even sequestered on a jury. That’s a tale for another time.

A few years ago I was in a different room than my usual at 110 Centre street. This room had a white marker board behind the officers’ desk. On it were written quotes meant to be funny to those hanging out in the jury pool:

“They also serve who only stand and wait”

check—-Churchill by way of Milton “When I consider how my light is spent”


“Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still”

Hmm. I didn’t recognize that quote. It really bothered me.

It happened to be Ash Wednesday. At the lunch break I made my way over to St. Andrew’s, the Catholic church near 1 Police Plaza.

Where, to my complete amazement, in the middle of the sermon, I hear the priest say “Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still”

And then go on to explicate some of the T.S.Eliot poem it is from, Ash Wednesday.


The homily on the day I saw the quote? And that somehow I had missed studying that poem in a fairly rigorous English lit education.

Sometimes the universe simply gives you what you want. I wanted to know where that line was from, and through no effort of my own, the universe tossed me the reference.

I’d like to see that kind of cosmic action on some of the bigger things I want . . . .

Here is the last section of Eliot’s very ample, “conversion” poem.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Obama for Mardi Gras

It is quite a confluence of events here in Gotham: Super Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Giants Victory Parade.

I voted for Obama. I worry about his inexperience, and I am not at all attracted by the sappy JFK analogies. But I do not want Hilary. And Obama may be able to attract some new, smart people into government. That is my hope.

If you have not done so already, go to the polls. This one really counts.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Big Blue Re-sil-i-en-cy

I haven’t been to Giants Stadium since my father took me to see Lawrence Taylor play, but if they are in the Super Bowl, I’m with them. I’ve got an uncle who has been betting not inconsiderable sums of money on generations of these guys going back forty years, so it’s in the blood.

I liked the pregame video that showed the key players on each side, meant to capture the spirit and defining character of these very different teams with a vocabulary word. The Giants and their “resiliency” came across as very smart.

The Patriots, on the other hand, got the $10 word of “team work.” They came across as not so bright.

I hope my uncle finally came out with a net gain on his team.

Did Coke and Pepsi agree to split the time? It seemed to me that the first half had only Pepsi commercials, and the second only Coke.

I didn’t like the Pepsi stuff at all. I thought Coke's Macys Thanksgiving Day “It’s Mine” was imaginative and classy, a great meet-up of beloved pop culture icons and classic music, with Charlie Brown coming out the winner!

(photo Jeff Haynes/Reuters)