Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Melancholia, Nostalgia, and Il Penseroso walk into a bar. . . "

Ok, it's not a bar. It's closer to home during these final days of this summer that are grey and sticky. I hate humidity. It's soul-sapping.

So I wasn't entirely surprised when Melancholia moved into the apartment last week along with the humidity, leaving crumbs on the couch, glasses in the sink, and knocking the small objets d’arts over with those honking wings. It’s a small apartment, and we fell in to a barely tolerable, functional choreography around the place.

While she’s here, nearly every thought is tinged by her cousin, Nostalgia. That's who led me to think about my schooner days on The Appledore the other day and post some pictures.

I thought Melly was finally going to disappear when L’Allegro unexpectedly popped out of the classic Hughes edition of Milton that had been languishing on the bookshelf since college,  banishing “loathed Melancholy,” and avowing

 “These delights if thou canst give, Mirth, with thee I mean to live.”

Oh yeah.

But when I went to the garbage shoot, Il Penseroso, who had been sulking out in the hall,  slipped through the door with his contrarian “vain deluding joys,” and tribute to “divinest Melancholy.” And so the supreme sad-sack was summoned to stay.

Now the three of them are rattling around here. Melly has taken hold of the remote, and Pensive has a lock on the DVDs.

He keeps playing this one over and over, Thomas Moore's classic poem, “The Last Rose of Summer” set to a sad Irish tune.

’TIS the last rose of summer

Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
To give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

I need to leave these three and go shopping.

(Top image: Albrecht Duerer's woodcut, Melancholia.  "The Last Rose of Summer" sung by Laura Wright, who released an album of same name in the UK 2011)

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Last Day of a City: August 23, Pompeii

This post is part of my Travels with Cadfael series, travelogues of the amazing trips I took with a Benedictine monk whom I had met at Solesmes while studying Gregorian chant.

It’s the mouth of a volcano. Yes, mouth, and lava tongue. A body, a monstrous living body, both male and female. It emits, ejects. It is also an interior, an abyss. Something alive, that can die.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover

Cadfael and I pick up the walking sticks and start the ascent to the ancient gaping hole that is the top of Mount Vesuvius. The sun is blistering hot, even for late
August. Our column of polyglot pilgrims— dense, and nearly single file—winds its way through the long switchbacks, slowly rising in altitude. The ground is hard, fine dust, silky ash, and so very oooooold.

Having left his horse with a groom, grasping his walking stick, pouch slung over one shoulder, the Cavaliere marched firmly up the slope. . . . He never approached the crater without apprehension—partly the fear of danger, partly the fear of disappointment.

We feel no disappointment and only fear’s counterpart: awe. We are like ants crawling on the side of overwhelming past power and the threat of potentially more destruction to come. It’s sleeping, somnolent, now, but there is no denying the seismic power beneath the dust, real power, like when the gods and ancient Rome ruled the known world.

The souvenir stand doesn’t even bother me—it harkens back to the cartes postales tradition from the centuries of visitors, the Grand Tour to Victorian times to now.

After taking in as much as we could of this natural death machine it was time to make our way down, and move on to the victim.

It is, purely by happenstance, August 23 in 2004. I find it chilling to be walking in the actual streets that would be buried under twenty feet of ash the next day in Anno Domini 79, obliterating Pompeii and Herculaneum.

In a world of overhype, Pompeii stands out as a stunning, genuinely stirring destination that also does not disappoint. The city is huge—we wander from street to street, entering a villa here, a brothel there, with more and more blocks as far as the eye can see.

I imagine the shadows of the townspeople everywhere, going about their daily life with no idea that they would soon be buried under a pyroclastic flow: fast-moving currents of hot gas, ash and rock collectively known tephra that fell at a rate of 700 km/hour at a temperature now thought to have been 350 degrees celscius, for nearly twenty hours. Wiki tells us that the thermal energy released was 100,000 times that of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

We wander out to the amphitheatre, where I hit my head walking through a low doorway and am stunned for a moment. Feels like a little blood on the scalp, I'm feeling a little woozy . . . .

In the TV version of this blog, this will trigger a dream sequence:

Scene up: Handsome Roman couple in a lavishly frescoed living chamber with an open-aired sky light and indoor fountain

Gaius Cadfaelius: Must we go to Lucius' tonight? We’ve already sat through two of his daughter’s Dionysian initiations. Isn’t that enough?

M.A Pellia
: Yes, keep dressing or we’ll be late. You will need his support when you run for magistrate next year.

Cadfaelius: But their place is near the temple of the Sybilline Sisterhood. Those chicks give me the willies.

M.A.Pellia: Is that what you’re wearing? I wouldn’t be caught dead with you like that. Go put on your formal toga . . . .

Dream sequence ends--

In real life it just meant that Cad kept asking me, "Are you all right?" worried that a trip to an Italian emergency room was SO not on our agenda. We'd already had a flat tire.

We make our way to the Garden of the Fugitives, where there is a grouping of plaster cast victims, frozen in time. It was like looking at an eerie George Segal sculpture, except that these had been real people and there was no whimsy.

The sun continued strong on that August day, and there is almost no shade in Pompeii. We popped in to a few more of the specific doma, where I was particularly satisfied to see one of the original Cave Canem: "Beware of the Dog" floor tiles. Such a long way, in every sense, from the black/white/de-glo orange vinyl plastic “Beware of the dog” sign on the neighbor’s cyclone fence of my suburban childhood.

Of course the next day, August 24, did not see a repeat of history, and I woke up safe and sound in my hotel, where I spent the morning with Sontag’s The Volcano Lover which so richly combines legend, history, and Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton..

Vesuvius was once a young man, who saw a nymph lovely as a diamond. She scratched his heart, and his soul, he could think of nothing else. Breathing more and more heatedly, he lunged at her. The nymph, scorched by his attentions, jumped into the sea and became the island today called Capri. Seeing this, Vesuvius went mad, He loomed, his sighs of fire spread, little by little he became a mountain. And now, as immobilized as his beloved, forever beyond his reach, he continues to throw fire and makes the city of Naples tremble. How the helpless city regrets that the youth did not get what he desired!

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover

Friday, August 16, 2013

Elvis Has Been Sighted! Another Year Since We Lost the King

I wasn't personally affected by the King's death, because I was never a true fan, but I remember the enormous coverage and emotional outpouring. It was at the time, the first full-blown media frenzy around a male pop culture icon death since Rudolph Valentino.

What I also remember is that for years, it was a joke of sorts that Elvis had been seen--at a gas station, leaving the back entrance of a hotel, on a New York street. This theme cropped up in a lot of late seventies, early eighties tv shows, and in the late night monologues for years. Last year I finally learned the source of this odd post mortem in wikipedia:

Two main reasons are given in support of the belief that Presley faked his death:

On his grave, his middle name Aron is misspelled as Aaron. Presley's parents went to great lengths to remove the double 'A' on his official birth certificate after his twin brother Jesse Garon was stillborn and fans don't believe the family would allow such a typo if Elvis was really in the grave.

This is countered by others who say that Elvis legally had his middle name changed from Aron to Aaron right before he died."

Hours after Presley's death was announced, a man by the name of Jon Burrows (Presley's traveling alias) purchased a one way ticket with cash to Buenos Aires.

For you crossword puzzlers, it is finally an explanation why it is always the 4-letter "Aron" as an answer when 'Elvis middle name' pops up as a clue, when we have all seen the gravestone with "Aaron."

At some point, the sightings myth died out, at least in the mainstream of monologues and tv shows. I'm
sure some American Studies phd candidate is working on pinpointing the precise moment right now.

Of course Elvis's memory lives on in the yearly vigil and viewing at Graceland, and in great pieces like this from  Edward Copeland for the 30th anniversary of his death and many great pieces from uber-fan Sheila O'Malley.

The Cosmos Speaks

August 16, like July 6, is a very important day in music history: the King of Rock 'n' Roll died and The Queen of Pop was born.  Not the same year, but it's still eerie.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Mysterious Affair of the Dead 'Tec's Obit: Hercule Poirot & The New York Times

August 6, 1975,  is the only day in its history that  The New York Times ran an obituary for a fictional character. And it was on PAGE ONE! You will find this factoid in absolutely every article about the character and in most about Agatha Christie. What is not on record is: why did the NYT do it?

Christie introduced Poirot in 1920 in the novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It's set in Essex in 1916 (when she wrote it), where  Captain Hastings is at a country house party. In the village he runs into Poirot, who is a World War 1 refugee. When someone is murdered, Hastings calls upon Poirot, mirroring how they met in Belgium when the Brussels police had called Poirot into a case years before. The rest is a history of 33 novels and more than 50 short stories that spanned 55 years.

Christie killed off Poirot in the novel Curtain, written in 1945. She seemed to have the similar feelings toward her creation that Conan Doyle felt for Sherlock. A line that is oft quoted is that by 1930 Christie found Poirot "insufferable." But she locked Curtain away in a vault because he was so very popular and a cash cow for her. The rest of the oft quoted line is that by 1960 she felt  he was a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep." I find her distaste fascinating, because she had control over how he "was," didn't she? She could have made him different in many ways.

 Then, in 1975 with her own health failing, Christie had Curtain published in the UK in September 1975, and then in the US by Dodd, Mead on October 15. She died herself just months later in January 1976, at the age of 85.

The New York Times ran the obituary on August 6, 1975. Why that day? No idea. You would think it was linked to an ad campaign of sorts for the novel, but I could find no direct line connecting the dots.  And I haven't been able to find any information about who made the decision to use a RL convention for a fictional character.

One interesting note is that the position of executive editor was vacant at the time, from 1969, after James Reston left,  until 1977 when A.M.  Rosenthal assumed the responsibility. So, there may have been a little more flexibility about what was going on. . . .

Thomas Lask, who wrote the obit, was a leading culture, arts, book reviewer for the Times and NYRB. He's just who you would want to write such an obit, and it's spot on:

Mr. Poirot achieved fame as a private investigator after he retired as a member of the Belgian police force in 1904.


Mr. Poirot, who was just 5 feet 4 inches tall, went to England from Belgium during World War 1 as a refugee.


The news of his death, given by Dame Agatha, was not unexpected. Word that he was near death reached here last May.

His death was confirmed by Dodd, Mead, Dame Agatha's publishers, who will put out Curtain, the novel that chronicles his last days, on Oct. 15.

The Poirot of the final volume is only a shadow of the well-turned out, agile investigator who, with a charming but immense ego and fractured English, solved uncounted mysteries in 37 full-length novels and colections of short stories in which he appeared.

Dame Agatha reports in Curtain that he managed, in one final gesture, to perform one more act of cerebration that saved an innocent bystander from disaster. "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it," to quote Shakespeare, whom Poirot frequently misquoted.

[The entire obit is available for purchase here]

What the Heck Was Going on in the Zeitgeist of 1975?
What interests me so much about this is that Poirot doesn't seem a big enough pop cultural icon to warrant, or inspire, such creative attention.

Here are some touch points, mostly courtesy of Wiki, of the 1975 landscape upon which this obituary was first seen. It was the days of Watergate, the fall of Saigon, and a failing, crime-ridden almost bankrupt New York City (although the famous "Ford to NYC: Drop Dead" didn't come until October 1975.)

January 1 - Watergate: John N. Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman are found guilty of the Watergate cover-up.

January 20 - Michael Ovitz founds the Creative Artists Agency.

January 29 – The Weather Underground bombs the U.S. State Department main office in Washington, D.C.

February 11 - Margaret Thatcher defeats Edward Heath for the leadership of the opposition UK Conservative Party. Thatcher, 49, is Britain's first female leader of any political party.

February 21 – Watergte: Former United States Attorney General John N. Mitchell, and former White House aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, are sentenced to between 30 months and 8 years in prison.

March 4 - Charlie Chaplin is knighted by Elizabeth II.

March 10 - Vietnam War: North Vietnamese troops attack Ban Me Thuot, South Vietnam, on their way to capturing Saigon.

April 4 - Bill Gates and Paul Allen found Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

April 30 – Vietnam War and the Fall of Saigon: The Vietnam War ends as Communist forces from North Vietnam take Saigon, resulting in mass evacuations of Americans and South Vietnamese. As the capital is taken, South Vietnam surrenders unconditionally.

July 30 – In Detroit, Michigan, former Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa is reported missing.

On TV: The Jeffersons, Barney Miller, and Baretta debuted; MacLean Stevenson's Col. Henry Blake on M*A*S*H died on March 18.

In Literature: The heavy hitters were at it. Martin Amis Dead Babies (a parody of an Agatha Christie country house mystery);  Saul Bellow Humboldt's Gift; James Clavell Shogun; E.L. Doctorow Ragtime

In Film: Jaws, Shampoo, Tommy, Rollerball, Love and Death, Funny Lady, and Nashville all opened before Aug. 6.

The truly all-star Murder on the Orient Express came out in November 1974, but besides that, there doesn't seem to be much in the zeitgeist that would suggest that the death of Hercule Poirot would land him on the front page of the New York Times.

It's a nice footnote to literary history that a Belgian sleuth, written by an English mystery writer, ended up on the front page of America's paper of record. Why? I like to think that the people who had the power to make such a thing happen were just such huge fans, they couldn't resist.

(Hercule Poirot obituary & headline are ©The New York Times)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Doctor Who: What Are the Oods, Summer 2013 Edition

Updated 8/4: And the winner is, Peter Capaldi. I don't know his work as the profane spin doctor In the Thick, nor it's film spinoff In the Loop, with our own beloved James Gandolfini.

I do now remember him in the 10/Donna Pompeii episode (with, as everyone is pointing out, a pre-Amy Pond Karen). And realize he is the producer guy in season 2 of The Hour. The Hour reference Matt Smith made in his taped segment was a nice fake out, since Ben Whishaw is a star of the series, people forget Capaldi is in it too.

But the best memory is of him is in the lovely 1983 Bill Forsyth film Local Hero.  The young Capaldi hits a bunny with the car ("maybe it's just stunned ") then he and Peter Riegert have to sit and wait out the fog.

[Original Post]
The Summer Surprise. Tomorrow at 2:00 pm the next Doctor will be announced in a live special. Interesting approach.  Thought is it must be someone an audience would have an immediate reaction to. No one knew who Matt Smith was, so a live appearance would have made no sense. So the money is going toward either a famous actor, an actor of color, or a woman, all of which would make for good live television for immediate reactions.

The chart below is from the composite site OddsChecker, which like the airline sites like Kayak, shows you the odds across 23 different sites for your optimal betting pleasure.

I don't know Peter Capaldi, I never saw The Thick of It. #2 on the list is Andrew Scott. I like that he's an Irishman, from Dublin. We've had the Scotts, it's time to cycle through the rest of the British Isles.

Lots of crazy names on the list, like Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis, Billie Piper, and David Tennant!  I think it's a good time for either a Doctor of color, or a woman.

Click over to Oddschecker for real time odds updates.