Saturday, January 23, 2016

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening: Death Amid the Beauty

A cautionary tale about the beauty of the snow from 2010.

“Whose woods these are I think I know”

Central Park. The genius of Olmstead and Vaux's landscaped naturalness, an oasis of primordial power amid the world's greatest concrete canyon. Its majesty and magic beckons city dwellers, even on

“the darkest evening of the year”

when the city is being socked by a monstrous mixture of wet, heavy snow, sleet ice, rain, wind.

No equine is present in this tableau to give a harness bell a shake,
But there is some sense of cosmic mistake.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

That is our park, especially with the fairy land decoration of snow amidst its arboreal splendor of 80-foot high American elms trees.

“But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Robert Frost captured for the ages a man’s pause, hinting at the weariness of life and evoking a moment of ambivalence about the point of going on.

The man who was killed today in Central Park when a 100-pound branch fell and struck him directly had no such moment. He was walking through the woods on a snowy evening, and then he was dead.

If this tragic scene wasn’t poignant enough, he was walking on the Mall, through the Literary Walk stretch, where Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Friedrich Schiller and others stood helpless witness to his death.

A mighty tree branch, falling under the weight of snow and hitting one individual: you can almost see Death himself leaning on a power saw at the base of the tree, pulling his dark robes tighter around him as the sleet starts bouncing off his bones.

May this gentleman, at this writing not yet named, find peace in eternal rest, as surprised as he will be to be approaching the Pearly Gates.

 “How strange, I was just walking through the Park on my way home . . . “

I hope St. Peter gently fills him in on the details.

From the Archive: A Tale of Driving in the Blizzard Meets O. Henry

Here is a nesting dolls recap of recent blizzards in the Northeast.

We had a pretty big one January 25, 2014.  That reminded me of a post I wrote for the really big blizzard of February 2010. And that referenced an even earlier really big blizzard.

So, from 2014, via 2010, via 1983 . . .

Lance Mannion posted a photo from a Daily News feature showing vintage photos of past great snow storms to hit NYC. One of them unexpectedly illustrates a post I wrote during the huge blizzard of February 2010.

 * * * * * * *

Here is a New Yorker’s first-hand account I found of driving in the blizzard from Teterboro, New Jersey to Massapequa Park, Long Island. I like it for its detail of the great roads of the Metropolitan area and the sheer driving description. Though a city girl with no car, I love the roadways of Gotham and the car culture of the people who know them intimately.

Plus, there is a sweet O. Henry-like twist at the end.

“I left Teterboro (NJ) at 3 pm and the ground was already covered. The snow fell heavily (but fine)—about 2 to 3 inches per hour.

"I made good time to the GW Bridge, but then the back-ups began. We moved ever so slowly along the entire length of the Cross-Bronx Expressway (Ha!). After finally navigating a rise at the juncture of the CBX and The New England Thruway the way was pretty open to the Throgs Neck Bridge. It was difficult, though, because the road had not been plowed, and the snow was blowing and blinding and my windshield wipers were not working very well.

"The rise in the road I mentioned was part of the problem with the CBX and set the stage for the rest of the trip—many cars (the drivers really) could not climb even the slightest incline without skidding and getting stuck. Quite a few of them ended up perpendicular to the traffic flow.

"I took the Throgs Neck without a problem and the Clearview Expressway to Northern Blvd., where I got gas (Thank God!) This phase of the trip was relatively uneventful.

"Back on the Cross-Island things crept along. (I had thought about staying on Northern Blvd. but I new the further East I went the hillier it would become so I decided against it.) No one could get on or off the L.I.E. because the entrance ramp/incline was blocked by snow.

"We inched along, sliding and avoiding the abandoned cars. It was incredibly slow going.

"Finally, after getting up an incline near New Hyde Park road I saw another world---there was no backed-up traffic! Eureka! There were a few cars moving in front of me in a single file and I joined the procession. There was only one lane open (still no plowing, but some plows passed us on the other side, going into Queens), and with my windshield wipers not working at all by this time, I found it difficult to keep in line, but somehow I managed.

"This strange caravan wound its way to the junction of Northern State and Meadowbrook Pkwy and since the cars in front of me went on Northern State, I did too. Soon the three cars in front of me pulled to the side to either rest or clean their windshields or whatever. That left me in the lead!

"I was virtually driving blind. I sat forward as far as I could with my forehead practically pressed against the windshield with my chin on the steering wheel. Besides struggling to stay in the lane that had been traveled before (and de facto plowed) I had to be careful not to hit the abandoned cars. Grueling doesn’t begin to describe it. And it just didn’t end.

"The whiteout effect was so strong that I missed the turnoff for Wantagh Pkwy, which I had intended to take. I finally managed to cross-country (practically) at Hicksville Rd and make my exit. I was making progress when I ran into a snow bank on my left and the snow blew up and completely blocked my windshield so I had to stop and clean it off.

I must say it was quite an ordeal. I was really afraid I would not make it home. I finally did, NINE HOURS later. I had a triple martini.”

(As a point of reference, Teterboro to Massapequa Park is a 2-hour trip.)

Here’s the thing about this description: it’s not about today [the Feb. 10, 2010 blizzard]. It’s from a letter my father wrote me when I was away in England as a senior in college!

He wrote me letters once or twice a week, this being the world before email. My father was an expert driver-—I love the swipe he takes at the drivers who can’t keep from skidding (it’s not the cars, it’s them).

I thought of this letter today. When I pulled it out, I was shocked to see that the date of the blizzard my father is describing: February 10, (1983)!

Holding the letter in my hand brought me back to my flat at Southampton University, sitting on my bed reading it for the first time. He could not have imagined me rereading it in the 21st century. Nor did he know he would die two years after writing it. We know not the hour nor the day.

For the moment, I’m just happy to be reunited with his spirit and the storytelling of the ordeal during his February 10 blizzard.

* * * * * * * 

Back to blizzard January 23, 2016: And today happens to be National Handwriting Day. My father had beautiful, distinctive handwriting. Partly because he went to Catholic school, where penmanship was taught, and partly just his intrinsic hand. What are the odds?

The photo from Daily News that included the great 1983 snow storm.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Pomegrantes: My madeleine to La dolce vita & the Zeffiro Villa, Sicily

Pomegrantes. I had pomegrantes as a garnish this evening with some lamb tacos, and they had the amazing effect of the Proustian "episode of the madeleines." 

I traveled to Sicily in 2008, which is mythically linked to Persephone and the fateful 6 pomegranates that Hades tricked her into eating. 

As the snow storm clouds gather over NYC, and you can feel the freezing moisture in the air, I dreamily think of the beauty and warmth of Sicily. From 2008:

Persephone first crossed our path in Rome, freed as she was from the block of marble by the hands of Bernini only to be captured by Hades and forced into the underworld. Some legends say that she was playing in fields on Sicily when the earth swallowed her up.

When her mother, Demeter, the goddess of all fertility, goes after her, she deprives the earth of its ability to grow food. Hades relents to the mother, and says Persephone can go, if she hasn’t eaten anything; he then tricks her into eating six pomegranate seeds. Demeter still strikes a deal with Hades: Persephone will spend 6 months in the underworld, during which her mother is sad and nothing grows, and then 6 months on earth, and her mother is so joyous that the earth blossoms into spring.

From Rome we went to Sicily, and one evening entered a Fellini film . . .

It’s dusk in July in Triscina, a small beach town adjacent to the great Greek temple site of Selinunte. Pre-dinner cocktail hour is commencing on the patio of a house that sits at the end of a public beach of beautiful, fine white sand.

A man appears in frame beside a bareback horse. He slowly leads the appaloosa into the water, gently deeper and deeper, until they both cannot stand. Floating man and beast, as the sun continues to set.

Next a pair of men appear, one older, with white hair, dressed in white linen, and a younger beatnik looking man, with goatee. They stand together on the bottom step on the public access beside the house. The younger man takes out a sheet of paper, and reads something aloud to the sea. Then they walk on to the beach, and away from the house.

Original man and beast then emerge from the water, cross the short depth of the sand to the same stairs and ascend, leaving the line of sight.

As the party reassembles on the patio, an ultralight--one of the man-in-a-flying chair marvels--buzzes across the water line right above our heads. We wave at the pilot and he waves back.

And, CUT. That’s a wrap.

Only, we weren’t in a Fellini film (from the later art years). It just felt like it. We were on vacation in Sicily. Intriguing, extraordinary Sicily, and all this actually happened within 20 minutes one sultry evening.

I didn’t know what to expect in the great island of the south. As a city dweller I was so happy to be on the beach for a week. I rented the Villa Zeffiro from Gabriella Becchina, whose family makes the exquisite Olio Verde products from their olive grove in Castlevetrano.

Triscina does not see many Americans, nor even our British cousins. The southwest of Sicily has the strong African influence and the remnants of the great Greek civilization. In an homogenized world, it is still exotic, while the teenagers hanging out at night on the beach were beautifully eternal.
* * * *

Mary Taylor Simeti, who wrote the engaging Persephone’s Island, has her own take on the myth: “Persephone, the eternal expatriate, the goddess of unreconciled contrasts and alternate allegiances, chose to eat the seeds of the pomegranate, that she might enjoy two roles, two worlds.”

Nice idea, or just making lemonade from her abduction.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Life on Mars: A Telling Critique on Life and TV Watching Itself, and a David Bowie Homage

David Bowie died yesterday,  January 10, 2016. I wrote this post back in 2008, when I discovered the compelling BBC series Life on Mars in a marathon (that being the days before the present-day bingeing.) I am the age of those for whom David Bowie was truly the soundtrack of our lives. I will admit that by 2008 I had not connected with that towering talent for a while, since the days of dancing in clubs. And so reconnecting with Bowie was another thrill of finding this series and one of my personal memories when I heard of our enormous cultural loss.

I have this photo of the great Bowie above my desk at work, I have for years, and oddly enough, I found myself wearing a poncho this week. The seventies seep in wherever they can.

I ran into a marathon of the British Life on Mars one recent Saturday on BBC America, and I was enthralled. How great that Bowie's song could inspire an entire series, and such an imaginative one at that.

[Spoilers now.]

DCI Sam Tyler of the Greater Manchester Police gives a quick, clear exposition for the series in the opening credits: "My name’s Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up back in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home."

It’s a tantalizing premise. Sam (John Simm, the Master for Doctor Who fans) walks into his police precinct, but it’s filled with typewriters and old style lightening, men in wide ties and leisure suits. To his cop colleagues, he has been transferred from Hyde. He starts to work cases—what else is he going to do?

The center of the show is his relationship with boss DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), and the clash of cultures, methods, sensibilities, and knowledge. The music, the writing, the acting, the storytelling are all stellar.

And the mystery. Things start seeping into Sam’s world. He hears voices of doctors. He hears his mother say she’s still with him. He hears deafening sounds. Which start to stack the deck to his being in a coma, but the suspense is very well played out.

And now for a word about the American version: for me it pales in comparison, but it may grow into its own solid new piece. I also agree with added issue of the American Sam waking up at the base of the World Trade Center. He didn’t have enough of the emotional response that anyone would have with that experience. For great discussion on this, pop over to Alan Sepinwall

Back to the Brits. What also gives the series its strength is the ending. For the whole series, Sam just wants to go home. This homesickness is a powerful, poignant part of his character. Finally, in a life-and-death shootout between his colleagues and the bad guys, he wakes up in the hospital. He has been in a coma. The series has been in his head.

Now we are all back in 2006. Sam gets out of the hospital, and returns to work to the wistfully distinctive strains of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s “Over the Rainbow.”

The coloring becomes cold blues and blacks, instead of the warmth of the seventies color palette. That visual sums up what he’s feeling: his friends, his life is back with Gene and the guys and WPC Annie Cartwright in 1973.

And so he walks out of a meeting, goes to the roof, and jumps. It is a startling moment of television.

He wakes up back in the action in 1973, between the cops and the bad guys.

I had two strong reactions to that ending. The first is an inverse-Hamlet fear. “There’s the rub.” How did Sam know he would get back to 1973? What if he committed suicide, and didn’t “perchance to dream?”

But more importantly, the theme of “living in your head” was a subtle subtext to the series. If real life is boring, you can create a whole world in your head that is preferable. And that includes the worlds we ingest while watching television. At the very end of the series, the Test Patern girl-—a British institution who popped up on various episodes-—appears with her clown, and leans forward and turns off the tv. That wakes us the viewer up. That puts the viewer back into 2008. We are all Sam Tyler.

Watching tv or a film is a reality, but it is also in place of reality. I never met a Sonny Crockett, but I was attracted to that character-—as I would have been to a man if I had met him--and wanted to spend time with him. And so watching Miami Vice on Friday night when it was first on was more enjoyable than going out.

All these ideas enriched the Brit Life on Mars. We’ll see if the American version offers anything more on the subject. (Update 2016: It did. Let's just say that it took the Bowie song very literally, 8 years before The Martian.)

Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

And the character DCI Gene Hunt naturally lead to a spate of fan videos set to the great "Jean Genie."

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Melchior, His Cousin Fred, Gaspar, & Balthazar: A Four Wise Guy Epiphany

Robin is now right. It's the 12th day of Christmas, Little Christmas, the appearance of the Magi, aka Epiphany. Christmas is over.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” meaning “manifestation." The feast originated in the Greek Orthodox faith, there called Theophany, and it celebrates when the Christ child’s divinity shone through his humanity, as acknowledged by the Magi’s adoration.

James Joyce is generally credited with the crossover of such a religiously charged word to secular life and literature. A Google search brings this definition: "Epiphany in fiction, when a character suddenly experiences a deep realization about himself or herself; a truth that is grasped in an ordinary rather than a melodramatic moment."

The Bible does not delineate three Magi, but three gifts: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.

Catholic tradition added a name and slight identity to each: Melchior representing, Europe; Gaspar, Asia; and Balthazar, Africa, and so the trio has shown up in creches since the 16th century.

And So, The tale of Melchior and Fred

My mother handmade me a nativity set many years ago. The figures are soft sculpture dolls filled with old nylon stockings. The set is a perfect representation of faith, love, and talent.

For the Wise Men, she used hat pins that had been her mother's as the jewels in each of their crowns. For the gifts, she found small trinkets for two of them, and wrapped up a sugar cube in tinfoil for the third, Melchior in fact.

Fast forward 20 years or so. When I open the Nativity box I see that the front of Melchior's robe is completely stained brown. Over the years, the sugar cube had finally liquified, or something, and that's what stained.

It was a shame, because the front panel of his midnight blue robe was a beautiful silver sparkle material.  So my mother took Melchior home to fix the robe.

A few months later I open a small present from my Mom, and it's Melchior, in another robe. Well, it turns out it's not my old Melchior, it's a new king, whom I call Fred, with a fourth jeweled hat pin.

The oddest thing had happened. My mother lost Melchior. She had brought him down to her favorite thrift store to look for a remnant of material, and he disappeared. The thrift store ladies were as baffled as she. They had looked at him together, and then my Mom put him down to look for the fabric, and  when she was ready to leave, my little king was simply gone.  The ladies said they were sure he would turn up, and so my mom left.

The months passed, and the little king did not turn up. So that's when my mother made another one. Luckily she had one more hat pin, and so Fred joined Gaspar and Balthazar at Christmas 2011. He did a good job.

Fast forward to my birthday, October 2012. I open a present, and it's the original Melchior! After more than a year, he did turn up at the thrift store.

Where had he been?  It's such a cinematic story.

He had fallen, unnoticed, into an open box in the thrift store while everyone's attention was elsewhere engaged.  Maybe someone's elbow knocked him, maybe when someone opened the door enough breeze came in and he teetered down. It would be fascinating to have a videotape of what actually happened.

He fell straight to the bottom of a box, below the other things on top. Later that day a lid was put on that box, and it was put into a storage room. Echoes of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, right?

In the summer of 2012, the thrift store did an entire overhaul of their space, and that storage space had to be emptied. To do that, every box was opened and looked through, and that's when the thrift store lady found him. She could not believe it.  And thank goodness it was one of the ladies who knew about the Nativity set and my mother. She could not wait to give it back.

My Mom finished the repair on the robe, and gave it to me in October. What a surprise. If I were an animator, I would make this tale into a Toy Story-like movie, detailing Melchior's adventures in that box for a year. Like Woody and Buzz he probably got out of the box a bunch of times and bonded with other dolls stuck in that storage room, always waiting and hoping for the time when he would get back to his mission to bring gold to the Christ child.

And so for Epiphany, I have 4 kings in the creche. A reminder that where's there's life, there's hope, in all things. Always.

Up Max Steiner music.