Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Welcome Wagon

In honor of the American—Brit spirit of this blog, I’m adding Tom Watson, a Labour MP for West Bromwich East and now Cabinet Minister for Transformational Government, and the author Christopher Campbell-Howes to the Neighbors. I met Tom in RL through the amazing Venn diagram of blog circles. He has a deep belief in the democratizing and ultimately transformational power of information, primarily through the Internet. The idea is that when citizens have more knowledge and specific information about anything, they will be able to make better-informed decisions on every level, from where to live to voting on important policy decisions.

Christopher Campbell-Howes retired early from teaching in Scotland to write in the South of France. It sounds like something out of a novel itself. He landed here one day, and now I look forward to reading his books, both his expat memoir French Leaves and his novel, The Night Music.

A politician in Westminster + Scotland. Hmm. I feel a flashback coming on.

Back to the great Parliamentary romp I had when I was a senior at Southampton University, Hants. Through a friend of a friend, I was going to house-sit for a week in Wembley on our break. I went over to Ireland for a bit with a fellow American, and then went from an overnight Rosslare/Fishguard crossing straight to London, where my hostess met me. Her name was Carol, and she worked for a Scottish MP at Parliament. She had arranged for me have lunch with her boss—-whose name I am very sorry to say I don’t remember-—in one of the parliamentary dining rooms.

It was such a whirlwind—-not much sleep on the ferry, then meeting Carol at the employee entrance of Westminster. It was exciting going through all the checkpoints into the building (even back then) through a maze of behind-the-scene corridors, finally to the dining room. It’s a little blurry, but all of a sudden we were on the terrace of the building, right on the Thames, drinking sherry. It was thrilling. I tried to sear into my brain what an amazing place to be. (At that time there were no tables and chairs on the terrace.) Then we had lunch. My Scottish MP was an older, burly gentleman or a man. Thank God his accent wasn’t too thick, so I could follow his stories. Before I really realized it, I was being drunk under the table. Ah, those were the days. Wine, more wine, Irish coffee. I could barely keep up, I was tired from little sleep, and I started getting giddy from the wine and spirits, but I don’t remember any catastrophes. Soon the MP was off, back to work, and Carol was ushering me through some of the public corridors, back to the street.

The next day Carol left for the Cotswolds with her husband and 2 kids, and I had the house for 2 weeks. Which was very nice when the Englishman I had met on the Dingle Peninsula came to town . . . .

Here’s a cup of Sunday tea with Steed and Mrs. Peel, a la Peter & Gordon, for the new neighbors.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Cost of Living (as Don Grolnick Understood It)

If I ever start to feel jaded or a little weary with blogging, I now have a moment in time to turn my thoughts to for some instant renewal. That moment is when I first watched the video memorial that Matt Zoller Seitz created in tribute to his wife, Jennifer Dawson, on the second anniversary of her shocking death at 36.

A husband’s memory of his wife is one of the most personal experiences there is. In another age the artists offered their tributes in verse.

Milton wrote:

METHOUGHT I saw my late espoused Saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,

Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Her face was vail'd, yet to my fancied sight,
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But O as to embrace me she enclin'd
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.

It is an exquisite poem, particularly the last line, one of my favorite in all poetry. The poignancy of the beloved being alive and seen in the dream is heightened by the literal darkness that waking brought to the blind Milton.

Thomas Hardy wrote several poems about his wife Emma after she died, capturing her spirit here in how she never bothered with formal leave taking.

Without Ceremony

It was your way, my dear,
To be gone without a word
When callers, friends, or kin
Had left, and I hastened in
To rejoin you, as I inferred.

And when you'd a mind to career
Off anywhere -- say to town --
You were all on a sudden gone
Before I had thought thereon,
Or noticed your trunks were down.

So, now that you disappear
For ever in that swift style,
Your meaning seems to me
Just as it used to be:
'Good-bye is not worth while!'

And now a contemporary artist/filmmaker has added to the world’s sad and important in memoriam literature. It’s important because the generations who come later find comfort in knowing others have suffered the great pain, and dealt with it.

Matt’s in memoriam is not poetry, but a video on YouTube. It is a haunting piece set to the mastery of Tony Bennett singing “Some Other Time” accompanied by the incomparable Bill Evans. The words so beautifully add dimension to the images of a young woman who was daughter, wife, and mother.

"Where has the time all gone to?
Haven't done half the things we want to
Oh, well
We'll catch up some other time"

It’s all part of the revolution we are witnessing; that this haiku on the deepest experiences of LIFE—-told through images--combined with such towering talents as Bennett and Evans, is sitting on our desktop, as accessible as e-mail. I still find it extraordinary. I think the overall impact of this creativity will not be understood for many years, but I am certain that humanity, one individual at a time, is the better for it. And Matt's blog is the reason so many of us know him. His work drew us all back, the way the best blogs will.

I know that anyone who finds Matt’s video for Jennifer, say through the Bill Evans tag, will be moved by the love that embues it. And you just can’t ask for more, given the circumstances.

Friday, April 25, 2008

That's Not Funny

So the universe keeps telling me. I entered 2 comedy-type things this week, and didn't even make it to the semifinals in either.

Ken Levine ran a Komedy Konest, asking everyone to finish this line:

"Danny had such a fear of commitment that he __________."

The winner, voted by the community from 5 finalists, won a signed AfterMash script.

Here's the winning line.

..told his mother he "Wanted to see other moms."

Maybe it's a guy thing, 'cause I don't find that funny at all.

Here was my entry:

"Danny had such a fear of commitment that he wouldn't meet George Clooney for lunch."

Pop over to Ken's to see lots of the other punchlines.

Not yet feeling beaten down by the comedy gods, I entered the New Yorker cartoon contest.

Here's my caption: "Yeah, the Big Guy's on a Spy vs. Spy kick."

Can you believe it wasn't chosen! Who doesn't love Spy vs. Spy? Here are the 3 finalists:

"It just looked so uncool to wear a seat belt in the Batmobile."

"I only got halfway through my deathbed conversion."

"I'm allergic to down."

You can vote for your favorite over at the contest.

All right, universe, I accept your slapdown for now. But me and my funny bone will be back.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Pope on Our Shores

As a child of Vatican II, I have very little personal feelings about the pope, for the pope. I did not notice them at all until John Paul II. Part of that is coming from a somewhat anticlerical Irish tradition. Not anticlerical like Unitarians, but in a demythologizing way. The Irish respect the office of the clergy, and the mystery of Alter Christus—but aren’t officious toward the men. We never had a priest over to dinner, just as we never invited a doctor over. Both professional men performing necessary functions.

The other thing about being after Vatican II is not seeing what came before. Apparently popes were carried in around in chairs, and never left Vatican City. All very dark, as though this human man had any special properties.

So Vatican II brought the medival office into the warmth of the twentieth century. History and the Holy Spirit brought us the extraordinary JP11, but in 1979 I didn’t watch anything of his visit here.

And now Benedict. His greatest act of leadership, the only one that will have meaning to his pontificate, is if he insists on criminal prosecution of the pedophiles, and, in extreme cases like Cardinal Law, criminal prosecution of the bishops. It’s not likely to happen, and the magnitude of how disheartening that is hard for me to reconcile.

The best I can do is hold on to a quote from St. Teresa: “The personal love Christ has for you is infinite. The difficulty you have re His Church is finite. Overcome the finite with the infinite."

That said, I think the trip is going well. The media is shining quite a spotlight on what are really everyday matters, but that’s what it does. I am glad CNN and NY1 are broadcasting the Mass at St. Patrick’s, a glimpse of the pageantry of the Church at its best. I thought singing a verse of the Catholic Top 10 “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” in German was a very nice touch.

But what I love about St. Patrick’s is its common everyday mode, outside of such attention. There are 7 daily masses, all well attended. Daily mass is just 30 minutes, yet it never feels rushed, which I like to think is part its mystical nature.

“The spires of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline, yet in the heart of this busy metropolis, they are a vivid reminder of the constant yearning of the human spirit to rise to God,” the pope said in his homily.

The lunchtime masses draw every manner of person: shoppers with bags, businessmen and women in suits, tourists, teenagers. Truly every age and race. It’s a very personal time. I have seen people on their knees clearly in agony and suffering. I have wept there myself, trying to find the way through the gifts and difficulties of life. But for those 30 minutes we are all together in the mystical Body of Christ.

Then it is time to go. The word “Mass” itself comes from one of the most ancient of phrases in the rite, “Ite missa est,“ which means "Go it is the dismissal." Yup-—move along now. Take Christ with you, but get going. Because the love and communion with Christ in the Eucharist is essential, but life is outside the walls of the cathedral. And so we exit onto 5th avenue and join the streams flowing north and south.

Updated 4/20: When did the terrorist attacks on the World Trade towers become a "tragedy"? That's how Benedict referred to 9/11 in his homily, and Egan specifically echoed it today at Yankee Stadium. If the towers had been hit by lightening and fell, that would be a tragedy. But that's not what happened. It was a planned terrorist attack to kill as many people as possible. To call it anything else is to do a great dishonor to those who were murdered. That passive term really bothers me.

(Photo: New York Times)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

April's Showers of Tears

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain

Somehow I have always known these lines. They are timeless to me, part of the DNA of my internal narrative. I sometimes forget they have a human author and open The Waste Land.

I did not always know the centuries older words of Chaucer’s Middle English Canterbury Tales—-perhaps the most famous in literary history, when April was the sweetest month—-that T.S. Eliot was inversely echoing, filtered through the monstrous death of the trenches of World War One.

Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr

Eliot could not see the flowers of April and life-giving rain without thinking of death. Such was the impact of WWI.

It is poignant and chilling that this connection was one of John Gregory Dunne’s last earthly thoughts.

From Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking:

“At another point in those seconds or that minute he had been talking about why World War One was the critical event from which the entire rest of the twentieth century flowed.”

And then Dunne was dead of a massive coronary.

The death of a civilization to the death of the individual.

My father met death in April—April 16—at age 57. Although it was many years ago, this date doesn’t pass without memory and a desire to meet for lunch.

He started growing not lilacs, but roses in what would be the last 10 years of his life. A serious rose garden is a very consuming passion in the planning and constant tending of the bushes. The rewards were highly satisfying, in the beauty and variety of roses that filled the house. But the rose thing was a surprise—nothing in the Dad I knew led up to it. We chalked it up to midlife crisis.

Just a few years ago, I stumbled upon one of his college textbooks. It was an anthology of modern French literature, completely in French. On the inside front cover he had written “Memorize page 47.”

And on page 47 is the second half of a poem by Francois de Malherbe “Consolation a M. du Perier sur la Mort de Sa Fille”: Consolation to Madame du Perier on the death of her daughter”

My father had bracketed just one particular line:

“Mais elle etait du monde, ou les plus belles choses
ont le pire destin: Et, rose, elle a vecu ce que vivent les roses,
L’espace d’un matin.”

“But she was of the world,
Where the most beautiful things have the worst fate:
And being a rose, she lived what all roses live,
Just one single morning.”

It was a touching, eerie “from the grave” moment. My father had never spoken of French poetry to me. I had no idea he had studied so much in the language.

But here I held in my hand proof that the idea of the fleeting beauty of the rose had touched my 19-year-old father deeply enough for him to note it, and memorize it, in French. That's a very special kind of spirit. Thirty years later he gave life to roses himself.

I don’t know how many other thoughts and dreams that 19-year-old kid from Brooklyn had. I witnessed some of the disappointments and frustrations that plagued him as an adult. Now all I can do is pray that he has the fullness of peace and Divine love in his eternal rest.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

George Knows, Some Things You Just Can't Control

Does anyone come across well in a New Yorker profile?

What’s the allure? Why does anyone subject themselves to being so encapsulated? Does The New Yorker still exert such a literary spell on the imagination that to be recognized in its pages is desirable, no matter what the actual outcome?

Ian Parker is fairly sympathetic to his subject (in 2008), George Clooney, but the piece makes the movie star smaller than life with no insight to his art or craft of acting. But then Clooney isn’t Olivier. There just isn’t that much there.

And I say this as a Clooney fan. I thought he created a very compelling character in Doug Ross on ER: his friendship with Mark Greene and slow maturing to a relationship with nurse Hathaway was very good television. I love his Danny Ocean, times 3. I thought his Michael Clayton was a nuanced performance. But the reveals of the piece make him seem like a strange narcissist who needs to be “protected” by those who care about him, while he single handedly tries to give “fame” and “celebrity” a kind, very good-looking face.

There are moments in Parkers piece that I liked:

“ [Clooney]'I’m perfectly willing to give up control' as in the matter of the house renovation, perhaps—'but somebody has to be in control.' It’s no good, he said, with a likable hint of Martha Stewart in his manner, 'if nobody’s asking, ‘Who wants wine?’ Maybe they’ll get wine or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll get cheese, or maybe not.'”

I agree with George on this. (Now no eye rolling Steed.) Nature abhors a vacuum. Someone in the group is the planner, someone brings the group together, and then plays host.

For Clooney, that sense applies most deeply to his male friends:

“'He loves the guys and the camaraderie of the guys,' [Richard] Kind said, talking of Clooney’s long-standing male friends, most of whom are connected to the entertainment industry. And then he added, 'He loves the notion of the camaraderie.' This was an amplification, not a correction; but it hinted at Clooney’s social purposefulness."

In that instance I see Clooney as Cary Grant/Archie Cutter in Gunga Din, off on escapades with Ballantine and MacChesney. (Hey, maybe doing a remake of that grand epic would serve Clooney better than Leathernecks did.)

George and Me and a CSF Leak
There is one thing about George Clooney that I understand intimately: the problems of a CSF leak.

A spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak happens when there’s a tiny tear in the fabric, or dura, of the spinal column. The spinal fluid leaks out of the column and then there isn’t enough in the base of the skull to cushion the brain against the bone like there should be. That’s what the headache is. The spinal column is an astonishing hydraulics system, among other things.

Here’s Clooney on Larry King: “I basically bruised my brain. It's bouncing around my head because it's not supported by the spinal fluid.”

That’s a pretty good description. I know, because it happened to me too, seven years ago. Clooney’s spinal tear happened when he was filming Syriana. He accidentally fell to the floor when tied to a chair. I don’t even know what the onset trauma was for mine, which isn't unusal. I had a horrible pain across the back of my skull for a few days. I finally walked into an emergency room. Two dry spinal taps later-—something I wouldn’t wish on my worse enemy--and we had the diagnosis (althought they first thought it was meningitis, because the menges get inflamed from the rubbing).

The first line of treatment is complete bed rest-—keeping the body prone-—lots of fluids, and steroids, to see if they will shrink the hole back.

I was lucky. That worked for me. I had one relapse, eight months later and had to go through the bed rest and steroids again. It did resolve again, and I’ve been fine since.

Clooney was not so lucky. The next line of treatment after steroids is an epidural blood patch-—it acts like putting a patch on a hole in a tire. But it means you have to find the general area of the leak, which is done by injecting dye into the spinal column. These are two horrible, invasive procedures that have to be repeated if not successful.

In Parker’s piece, Clooney still has lingering headaches. As in all lives, it’s just one of the thousand things he can’t control. I’m glad he likes to plan parties. Now they can help keep his mind off the pain.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Brad Braden: ALL Man

All About Eve is about adults, a diminishing breed in an America of perpetual, panicky adolescence.”

James Wolcott’s recent sentence about Bette Davis’s crowning flick popped into my head when I heard of Charlton Heston’s passing.

Heston was the most grown-up, adult man of my cinematic youth. He didn’t have the artistry of Burt Lancaster, or the sheer charisma of Kirk Douglas, but he was a Man, with that capital M.

I saw all their movies on what was charmingly called “The 4:30 Movie” on WABC in New York every day after school in the midseventies. These films were the last wave (or gasp) of old Hollywood. They were in color, just one signal that we weren’t in the same place as the days of Gable and Tracy. But we also clearly weren’t in the same place as that time’s Dog Day Afternoon and Marathon Man. I didn’t see those movies as a kid, but I remember the commercials for them, sitting amid my beloved 4:30 Movie, and I wasn’t very attracted to them.

But I was enthralled by The Greatest Show on Earth because of Heston. I thought Brad Braden was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. Even the character name was no-holds-barred manly. No wonder Betty Hutton was agog. Surely Harrison Ford based some of Indiana Jones on Brad: the hat, the leather jacket, the whip! Then there was The Naked Jungle. The title itself titillated the school girl, and again, there was that compelling body, finally pulling Eleanor Parker into its nooks and creases. I think they played Ben-Hur several times a year, which was fine with me. Nothing fires a young girl’s imagination like a chariot race with matching studs (read that as you will). Even Michelangelo---I clearly remember The Agony and the Ecstasy during Easter week one year-—was virility and passion incarnate.

Pauline Kael captured Heston perfectly in her review of Planet of the Apes:

"With his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, Heston is a god-like hero; built for strength, he is an archetype of what makes Americans win. He represents American power -- and he has the profile of an eagle."

Heston acted with that body to give authenticity to these Men. He wasn’t just saying the words—he was bringing a truth to the characters by his knowledge and expertise as a physically powerful man himself. There is a sense of confidence and entitlement that can’t be faked, and it made him the distinctive actor that he was.

Of course we watched The Ten Commandments in the evening at Easter, but his Moses didn’t impress me as much as his Brad. Maybe because there could be no good fantasy life with “the chosen of the Chosen People.” Much too holy for such thoughts.

I didn’t keep up much with Charlton as an adult. Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green are in the DNA of my generation, and he was great in both. I thought he was an excellent Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s Three/Four Musketeers, and I loved his guest appearance on Friends with Joey Tribbiani.

I also didn’t pay much attention to his politics, one way or another. It was too much of a buzz kill to the zing of my youthful fantasies about him.

Angel: You are a sourpuss, aren't you?
Brad Braden: Yeah.
Angel: You want to bite somebody?
Brad Braden: Yeah.
Angel: Well, pick your spot.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Point of It All

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth, Castle and Environs.

Acupuncture is something that always interested me because the idea of endless Qi—-flow, energy—-makes sense to me. I believe in the soul, but I think there are other forces that animate the body from the depths of the cellular level to our outer skin.

I think it’s possible that Qi can get blocked, for physiological or psychological reasons, that the channels of the body can get clogged and impede this energy from flowing as it should. And that that somatic block can have an effect on your emotional life, since we don’t really know how the mind and body interact. The mind/body/soul connection is a mysterious, tantalizing conundrum.

This is all to say that I kept meaning to find an acupuncture practitioner to see what a treatment was like, with the thought that my own Qi could use a little kick and my Qi channels a little unclogging. But, like many things you think about doing, I never got there.

And then I broke my ankle.

The bones healed fairly quickly, but the foot itself was horribly swollen, and that swelling just didn’t budge. I did weeks of physical therapy, including massage, but the foot remained completely distorted.

That’s when someone suggested acupuncture, to try to open the channels directly around the foot for the fluid to drain. I got a recommendation for Colleen Canyon, who it turns out is a very talented practitioner.

I found the treatments to be very intense and pleasurable. The insertion of the needles doesn’t hurt, per se, but it tingles. Then when the needle is manipulated, a charge can travel from the point up a muscle. It feels oddly electrical. Once set, the needles stay in for 20 to 30 minutes, and there is a deepening into the sensation that comes through that duration.

The acupuncture worked wonders for my foot. Finally the fluid was getting absorbed back into the body. After 4 sessions, I was able to put a shoe on. Yea!

I’ve thought about going back for some more general Qi-work. The first step was I went to Colleen’s Acupuncture Happy Hour, a very creative idea for stressed-out city dwellers. You drop by for 30 minutes of ear points (four in each ear). Each person lies on the floor, candles are lit, music is playing, it's a little piece of Nirvana on 20th Street. Ear acupuncture is particularly relaxing. (Colleen has a great website.)

Acupuncture reminds you how powerful the forces of the body are, its electrical properties, and of the rivers we have surging within. City dwellers can be too disconnected from the forces of nature, even of our own bodies, and any way to connect further with the cycle and flow of the infinite is good.

Of course we have Joyce for that too.

A way a lone a last a loved a long the . . .