Saturday, June 21, 2014

Summer2014: Here's to finding "Jeweled balm for the battered spirit"

Summer is the time when one sheds one's tensions with one's clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all's right with the world.
Ada Louise Huxtable

We are passing through the magical force field of the Solstice, landing straight into summer 2014, where we all hope to find that "jeweled balm" for our "battered spirits."

One of the great attributes of the season for me is the resonance of rum, which captures all the languid heat and dreaming quality of these days.

When James Bond walked into history in Casino Royale he asked for Mount Gay Rum and soda. That says it all.

Mount Gay is sweet and smokey, but not too sweet. It’s a preferred drink of sailors of all stripes, a nod to the beverage that was the backbone of British Navy for centuries.

These days I am enjoying Santa Teresa rum, from Venezuela, particularly the Claro.

And now we will consider the Mojito.

For there is also a place in our hearts for light rum
For fresh mint is heady and clarifying
For the sparkling is sparking indeed

(top photo: My very own pic of Stonehenge, from my university days at Southampton.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bloomsday 2014: The Polyphony of James Joyce's Dubliners

This year's Bloomsday, Monday, June 16,  is seeing a worldwide salute to Jame Joyce's more accessible work, Dubliners, which was published 100 years ago on  June 15, 1914, just months before The Great War would ignite. It is a sobering thought that Joyce finished writing the stories when he was just 25.

I once felt a great connection to this collection of short stories, and was greatly encouraged to do more writing about it by my Irish Lit professor at Rutgers, Julian Moynahan. The centenary made me think of Prof. Moynahan, and I was saddened to learn he died just a few months ago.

Professor, this post is for you.


Here's why Dubliners is a masterpiece. Each story captures a place and time and people with astonishing depths of understanding of human nature, and each story can be deeply savored as such.

But Joyce is a master composer of literary polyphony: while each story, or line, is independent, these stories stack vertically: the a capella voices complement each other, echo each other and create startling chords when you listen to the collection as whole. And the theme that emerges the loudest for me from this exquisite sonority is the age old thing about men and women: just how are the sexes getting along?

Let's start with ARABY, the first story where the main character interacts with the opposite sex. Joyce captures the first throbs of sexual passion as a young man describes seeing Mangan's sister, "My body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires."  She occupies his mind "I hardly had any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me an my desire, seemed to me child's play."  He decides to buy her something at the exotic Araby bazaar, because she can't get there herself. Surprise, surprise, it doesn't go well at all, and the story ends with "Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger."

In terms of the relation between the sexes, this young man's desire for a girl has become self-loathing and calling himself a creature. See, that's not good.  Whether he does it consciously or not, he will hold that girl, and probably other females along the way, responsible for this self-loathing.

Next we have EVELINE, who decided that "she wouldn't be treated as her mother had been." Her father was a violent man who went after her brothers and her mom. Eveline is engaged to a kind man, and on her way to starting a life together in Buenos Ayres, when we find her on the dock, completely frozen, unable to get on the boat.

"She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition."

My take: her fear of men will not let her choose to trust one--even a kind loving man--after seeing how her father treated her mother. All she can do is to passively remain in her situation. So now it's a young woman negatively affected by the opposite sex.

Next Joyce gives us AFTER THE RACE,  a story free from the problems of the sexes interacting because it's only men.  This is a man's story filled with Hemingway initiates who are striving for the vibrance of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan: "What jovial fellows! What good company!" "flinging themselves boldly into the adventure" of a card game.

The great thing about this story is Joyce's attitude to his four musketeers: it's one of ridicule, draped in terrible writing:

"The journey laid a magical finger on the genuine pulse of life and gallantly the machinery of human nerves strove to answer the bounding courses of the swift blues animal."

"The resonant voice of the Hungarian was about to prevail in ridicule of the spurious lutes of the romantic painters when Segouin shepherded this party into politics."

Joyce's condescending attitude toward this type of male bonding may be because he sees testosterone-fueled exclusion of women as a bad thing for the sexes getting along.

This passages leads us to THE TWO GALLANTS, a title that invokes the gents above.  Lenehan, with "his adroitness and eloquence," "vast stock of stories, limericks, and riddles," and his sack "slung over one shoulder in toreador fashion," should be in the back seat of the racing car. But because of his poverty he is forced to leech off of Corely, and their life is very different from the life of the initiates. Corely has seduced a woman who steals for him, and pays his tram fare. "You're what I call a gay Lothario," said Lenehan."  Yeah, these charmers are getting whatever they can from the woman, who is not heard from directly. Again, not so good for the disposition of the sexes.

 "She's on the turf now. I saw her driving down Earl Street one night with two fellows with her on a car."
"I suppose that's your doing," said Lenehan.
"There was others at her before me," said Corley philosophically.

The Two Gallants is then in counterpoint to THE BOARDING HOUSE. Polly, the daughter of Mrs. Mooney, who runs a boarding house, initiates an affair with lodger Mr. Doran.  Mrs. Mooney lets it go a bit until she's ready to declare to Mr. Doran that "there must be reparation made," leading to an upwardly mobile marriage for her daughter.

Mr. Doran: "He could not make up his mind whether to like her or despise her for what she had done. Of course he had done it too. His instinct urged him to remain free, not to marry. Once you are married you are done for, it said."

Here the women are doing the manipulation. It's as if a choral motif started by The Two Gallants (tenors and basses) has been passed to the altos and sopranos. And the theme continues to build: men and women use each other.

The Boarding House leads to resonance in A LITTLE CLOUD, which fully plays out the theoretical trapped feelings of Mr. Doran, and combines them with the frustrated feelings of wanting to be a wild and crazy guy in a racing car.

Little Chandler's problem is his dream of wanting to be like Gallagher in the literary world, but being trapped by his own incapacitating timidity.  Chandler is married with a child, with the domesticated burdens of buying new furniture that must be paid for, all of which frustrates his dreams further. "Why had he married the eyes in the photograph?"  In the last sentence of the story Joyce sums up the man's life and pain: "He listened while the paroxysm of the child's sobbing grew less and less; and tears of remorse started to his eyes."

Newflash: Men don't particularly want to be domesticated.

COUNTERPARTS amplifies the stifled anger of A Little Cloud, in another example of male bonding. Farrington is a man wrought of anger and rage who frequently indulges his violent nature. He has no sense of duty, no maturity, and little common sense, yet he has a wife and five children. At work he his humiliated because he does such a bad job, and with his friends he is humiliated because he loses an arm wrestling match. And that leads to the violence against his son: "O, pa!" he cried. "Don't beat me, pa! And I'll... I'll say a Hail Mary for you....

Farrington feels the same anger and anguish that the young man felt in Araby; we see he is the same brute as Eveline's father; he has the same need for male camaraderie as the men in After the Race; he looks at women in the same way as The Two Gallants, infrequently, and only to get something from them; he knows too well the foreboding feelings of suffocation by marriage which are but shadows of a thought to Mr. Doran in The Boarding House; and he acts out all the violence that Little Chandler in A Little Cloud is too afraid to do.

This is the polyphony of Dubliners. 

And in all this human weakness, human fear, there is not much hope nor happiness between men, and women.

However.  The composition ends in a glorious tour de force of language and emotion in The Dead, with a husband's epiphany about his wife's early lover.

“While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.”

Oh Gabriel—all that self doubt, all that horrible self criticism because you think that Gretta is comparing you to another. It’s not about YOU. She’s simply filled with a memory of her own past. Please let her have that part of her life, and don’t punish her for it.

And then, Gabriel does just that.

“Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully. . . So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life.

“He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

“Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love

From that realization, Gabriel’s soul is opened, and once that happens, anything is possible.

Joyce leaves us in silver shadows, in the peace of falling snow that unites the living and the dead. Critics disagree as to whether Gabriel is spiritually dead at the end, or if now that he realizes he has never fully lived, something more is possible.

At each year’s reading, I like to think that Garbriel and Gretta go on to happier, more deeply conscious lives with each other.

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight... It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Jubilate Subtervia: Happy 110th, NYC Subway System

 The MTA is celebrating the subway system's 110th birthday today with a party with cake at the New York City Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights. I wrote a birthday post for the system's 106th b-day.

For I will consider the New York Subway System

(For you English majors out there, this is based on Jubliate Agno: "For I will consider my cat Jeoffry" by Christopher Smart, circa 1760)

# The New York system has 26 lines and 468 stations.
# Average weekday ridership is more than 5 million passengers

 It’s a complicated history of several private, competing systems that eventually came together as a municipal system.

The first two were Brooklyn Rapid Tranist Company, or BRT which then became BMT, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, and Interborough Rapid Transit, the good old IRT, later joined in 1932 by the Independent Subway System, IND.

I am a fan of the system, just like Pacino’s Lucifer in The Devil’s Advocate. I like to think that I help to balance out the evil that knows how to travel underground (although as we saw in that film’s denouement, pride is the gravest of the deadly sins.) There’s a great photo of Bing Crosby on the subway in the 1970s that I couldn’t find. He knew it was the fastest way around. And you aren’t beholden to a taxi driver or a car service driver. You have so much independence when you swipe through that turnstile. And don't forget Billy Joel's early hit album, Turnstiles. Say no more.

I marvel at the engineering that went into creating the system and celebrate all the men who made it happen. Which makes me think of the fabulous Claudette Colbert/Fred MacMurray film No Time for Love, where MacMurray is a sandhog, which is how tunnels are built, but since the film was 1943 he was probably building the Lincoln Tunnel, not a subway line.

I love that the system never closes, and was designed to never close. Which posed a problem on 9/11 when the authorities thought it should be shut down. Viva freedom of travel!

The New York Times is celebrating with a subway issue that shows some great vintage and contemporary photos (some shown here, including Mayor Bloomberg).

For I Will Consider the Stupid Side

Recent cutbacks have meant that many stations no longer have a human being in the token/metro card booth. For any station, this means that it decays rapidly: litter builds up quickly, and homeless people move in, with no outreach for better places to sleep.

For I Will Consider the 50th Station on the IRT, #1 Line

The downtown station is a veritable mecca for countless tourists staying in midtown hotels. That downtown station no longer has a human being. Each morning I see tourists trying to get to South Ferry/gateway to Ellis Island. They no longer have anyone to ask. I see them struggle with the Metrocard machines. I see them unfolding subway maps, trying to make sense of it all, as the rush-hours hoards throngs literally engulf them.

Across the way, on the uptown IRT 50th station, there is still someone in the token booth. Not so many tourists are trying to get to Columbia University.


I travel a lot, and I don’t usually mind that the NY subway system is the least friendly IN THE WORLD. But not to have a person in a designated tourist hotspot like downtown 50th, when the signage is already unclear, is stupid and mean.

For I Will Consider the Poetic Side

The 2 best things about the subway in the last 10 years have been the art done in certain stations, and the Poetry in Motion graphics in the cars themselves.

There are 2 stations graphics that I love: the flying hats in the 23rd street BMT, a tribute to the days when the intersection of Broadway and 7th at 23rd street’s Flat Iron building and the wind that whipped around there lead to the expression “23 skiddo” (because lady’s skirts flew up); and a stylized memorial to soldiers of the 77th Division killed on October 3, 1918, Argonne Forest, France, by Pablo Turner in the Woodhaven Boulevard/Queens subway station as part of the MTA Subway Arts project (Lost Battalion Hall is on Queens Boulevard.)

Inside the subway car, I have been moved to tears by looking up at a Poetry in Motion card that has a snippet of poetry. At the end of a difficult day, it can really bring back some perspective: there is still art, and literature, and timeless feelings amid the frustrations of city life.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Utah. Omaha. Gold. Juno. Sword. 70 Years Hence.

How awesome do you have to be to wade through water and walk directly into enemy gunfire? How much courage does it take to jump out of a plane into enemy gunfire, where you are as likely to die getting caught in a tree, or a church roof, like in Sainte-Mere Eglise.

Reading Twitter from 12:30 am this morning, 6:30am in France, when the first men hit the beaches,  I found the same thought I had written over and over and over:

"Imagine being a 19yr old in the bowels of a ship then a transport to the beaches of Normandy door drops & all u see is hell"

"And today, on June 6, I wanna thank the brave American boys my age who died at #OmahaBeach"

"70 years ago, men lost their lives for what we have now. I doubt I have even an ounce of the bravery they had."

The rhetoric about heroes is inevitable, but I find the voices on Twitter sharing more direct, personal, grounded thoughts about this history. What comes across is the sense of awe that these boys from the farms and cities across the nation, joining with the Allied forces, did what they did. And it is humbling every time you get down to that basic fact: those individuals sitting in the transport, sitting in the plane, and hitting the beaches, knowing very well they might not live to see the end of the bloody day.

Operation Overload almost defies imagination--because of its immense scope, the audacity of its imagination, and a tactical brilliance that seems to be lost a completely lost art--and yet it happened.

We are the witnesses of the final passing away of this generation.  For me, it is remarkable and inspiring that both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip are still alive to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the storming of the beaches and the march to Berlin that ended World War 11.

I was interested in the 2009 ceremonies, the 65th anniversary, because it felt to me that that was the actual close of the 20th century. And in one of those ridiculous political idiocies, the Queen was not invited to the commemoration in Normandy that year.  There was much finger pointing, and Charles attended for all to save face.

This year the French are hosting a State Visit for the Queen and Duke. And old, old age notwithstanding, the Queen's commitment to the importance of this history and the service of the British people propels her to KBO.