Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Giving Deep Thanks for My Courageous German Great Grandmother

"Mareichtag and I are speaking nothing but English now. So we should feel at home when we get to America."

"To America!" [Watch the wonderful scene.]

I am a life-long fan of Casablanca, and as the years have gone by, I have discovered more and more cosmic connections to it.

Ten years after I moved to West 103 Street in Manhattan, another fan succeeded in documenting that Humphrey Bogart was born right across the street from our apartment. The city put up an official street sign and plaque, and Lauren Bacall and Stephen Bogart came to the unveiling. It was my beloved film coming to life right on my doorstep.

 I now have a new connection the classic: the short scene of Herr and Frau Leuchtag on their way to America.

Because, it turns out, I am truly part German. My great grandmother on my mother's side--Susanna Sander Waldis--was German and came to America in 1875 as a 10-year-old girl.

On Saturday I am on my way to Trier, Germany—Prussia in her day—which we now have documentation to prove is the town of her birth.

Wherein My Brother Discovers a Talent for Ancestry Research
It’s been quite the road of discovery. As an O’Neill, the Irish/Brooklyn Irish Catholic American-ness was the dominant culture growing up. My identity as a daughter of Erin is very strong, forged from the Clancy Brothers/Bing Crosby-fueled spirit in the household led by my dad and his best friends, my faux uncles.

My mother’s side of the family was quieter. And Lutheran. Growing up we knew that her maiden name—Brown—had been changed at Ellis Island, when her paternal grandfather came over from Norway. His name was Jacob Jacobsen. He returned to Norway late in life, and relatives sent a photo of his gravestone to show the money they were sent to bury him had been correctly spent. So that was clear.

There was also a family story about four china plates that my maternal grandmother had, that her mother had “brought over on the boat from Germany.”

That might seem clear, but it was fuzzy. There was just that one story, and nothing else. So growing up, being one-part German had no resonance. It didn't seem quite true.

My brother became interested in our ancestry some years ago when the confluence of the DNA companies and records of all types being scanned made amateur  research possible.

Working Backwards: Finding the Immigrant Ship from Liverpool
We knew our great grandmother’s name: Susanna Sander (or Saunders). Pat found the record of her marriage certificate in Manhattan in 1885 to Anthony Waldis, a man from Switzerland!  And the marriage certificate had the names of both sets of parents and where they were born. That is how we learned of Lorenz Sander and Helene Berrens, from Trier, Germany.

Patrick next found a 10-year-old Susanna Sander on a ship manifest, leaving Liverpool, England in 1875.  It was the SS Kenilworth, and it docked in the port of Philadelphia on January 7, 1875.

The beauty of this: there are guilds of volunteers who type hand-written ship manifests into databases that can be searched.  Isn’t that wonderful.  If no one did that, then the handwritten documents would be completely silent.

As it happens, I had the opportunity to be in Liverpool in June. And so I found myself at Albert Dock, and the Maritime Museum, which is more and more exploring the enormous historical significance of Liverpool in the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. The museum has a permanent exhibit where they try to re-create the experience of those ships in the late 1800s. I walked between the wooden bunks, around the large galley tables, all on an angle with the sound of water lapping against the walls, but I knew nothing can re-create immigrant steerage travel conditions in 1875.

Maritime Museum Immigrant Ship Experience; Liverpool, England

I tried to imagine little Susanna and her 44-year-old mom and 5 siblings, speaking no English, making their way to Liverpool--how?--and then waiting for their ship.

There is a statue on Albert Dock commissioned by the Mormons--the MVPs of genealogy--called The Crossing. It shows a 19th century immigrant family-- a mother and father with the kids--but I imagine the reality was many women traveled alone, crossing with their children, joining the husbands who went over earlier.

Liverpool, England; Albert Dock
The Maritime Museum has a great restaurant on the top floor. I raised a glass of wine to Susanna and her brave mother and siblings, getting on that ship, not knowing the language, not knowing what that 2-week voyage would be like, and what was ahead.

Liverpool, England; Maritime Museum at Albert Dock
Susanna grew up and made her way in the New World, married a man from Switzerland in Manhattan, and they moved to a farm near Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Farm life is harsh, I don't think she had a particularly happy life. She had 10 children, only 2 of whom survived childhood: my grandmother Rena, and her sister, my great aunt Helen. My grandmother is the one who escaped the farm by becoming a maid for a Lutheran minister who lived in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.  She is one of the links that gave me the enormous gift of being born in Brooklyn. My great aunt Helen never escaped rural Pennsylvania.

I guess it's not so unusual that there weren't more family details of Susanna's immigrant experience. She had made it to America and did not want to be seen as an outsider.  She came to live with her daughter and my mom in Brooklyn around 1938 when she was in her 70s. My mom says that she spoke without any accent. How/when she learned English is not known. She was a voracious reader--mom says my grandmother was always going to the library to bring her new books. That makes me feel close to her, and I hope she found great enjoyment there.

Susanna died in Brooklyn in 1950 at 85, and is buried with her people back in Pennsylvania.

So, Which Religion Are We?
And now I have the very great privilege to return to Trier. I have never been to Germany, I’ve had no particular desire to visit, but I want to see where the Sanders came from, and great grandmother Susanna lived until she was 10.  Lost to history is any reason why they left.

There is one more little twist to this lineage tale. My mother was baptized Lutheran, as was her mother, and we assumed,  Susanna and her husband from Switzerland. My grandmother married a Norwegian American in the Swedish Seamen’s Church in Brooklyn, a Lutheran church.

I have an appointment at the Trier Diocese Archives office. They verified that they have parish records from 1800s showing the Sander family baptisms and deaths at Saint Gervasius Church.

Trier is a Catholic city. Saint Gervasius is a Catholic Church. So Susanna came to the US a Catholic.


We knew about the sadness of Susanna's 8 children dying.

We only recently learned a crucial detail from a cousin of my mom's: when the local rural priest came to bury one of the children, Susanna gave him some money (which is customary). He threw it on the ground and said it was not enough.

It’s an ugly, heartbreaking story. When Susanna’s later children were born, she had them baptized Lutheran.

In a twist of fate, my mother married a Roman Catholic, she later converted to Catholicism, and I was baptized Catholic. So I will return to Susanna’s homeland as a daughter of her original faith. It sadly made me pause to think of the thousands who have died over the centuries in religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, when it's really all in the family.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I'll continue the story on the other side.

Susanna Sander Waldis, circa 1930, rural Pennsylvania

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Thomas Hardy's Guy Fawkes Bonfire & the Lessons of Eustacia Vye

While the men and lads were building the pile, a change took place in the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district.

It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

Thomas Hardy set his beguiling The Return of the Native in his beloved Wessex, around Guy Fawkes Day. It gives us an excellent, up-close look at this most Albion of holidays.

Hardy's Bonfire on Egdon Heath and Eustacia Vye
Hardy wrote Return of the Native in 1878.  I love that he focuses on the primal urges of the bonfire—the Lux Fiat against the darkness—as the heart of the tradition, and not the echoes of the Gunpowder Plot with its religious baggage.

I read The Return of the Native in high school, a novel well matched to that time and place. Wildeve, the heath, the bonfires, the odd, red Diggory Venn character, cross-dressing mummers, burning a foe in effigy, Hardy’s relentless themes of loneliness and isolation—does anything more clearly speak to the surging angst of high school?

And to top it off, I connected with the tortured, sad, exotic figure of Eustacia Vye, deemed by a chapter heading to be Queen of the Night. It’s hard not to read Hardy as mocking his heroine, but this was a serialized novel during Victorian times, and modern irony was still waiting just over the horizon in the No Man's Land of World War I:

"Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman."

Hardy’s Tess has gotten the serious attention through the years, and we won’t even talk about the effect Jude the Obscure's Sue Bridehead and Father Time have had on subsequent literature.

But for me, Eustacia is the character that made me feel less lonely in high school, because she was so solitary.

She enters the story silhouetted against the Guy Fawkes bonfire:

"When the whole Egdon concourse had left the site of the bonfire to its accustomed loneliness, a closely wrapped female figure approached the barrow from that quarter of the heath in which the little fire lay.

Her reason for standing so dead still as the pivot of this circle of heath-country was just as obscure. Her extraordinary fixity, her conspicuous loneliness, her heedlessness of night, betokened among other things an utter absence of fear."

A tract of country unaltered from that sinister condition which made Caesar anxious every year to get clear of its glooms before the autumnal equinox . . . was not, on the face of it, friendly to women."

Hardy's language is a joy: "extraordinary fixity." It is astounding that he would write of a woman in terms of such strength—"utter absence of fear"—while understanding that such fearless independence can also be isolating. That was comforting to hear in high school.

Eustacia suffers from yearnings of grandeur: she is trapped by class and circumstance to live on the heath, which she detests, while she’s tormented by delusions of living in Paris. She yearns for love in an equally distraught way. Much of the book is overwrought passages about her comings and goings on the heath, as she walks between bonfires.

Yet, amid all the hype, I found a metaphor that seared into my teenage memory.

". . . a clue to her abstraction was afforded by a trivial incident. A bramble caught hold of her skirt, and checked her progress. Instead of putting it off and hastening along, she yielded herself up to the pull, and stood passively still. When she began to extricate herself it was by turning round and round, and so unwinding the prickly switch. She was in a desponding reverie."

Important lesson for women: beware the brambles of life because they will snag the hem of your dress if you are not careful. If you are not vigilant, they will keep you motionless, throw you into a desponding reverie,  or worse. Clear them away, or at the least, walk around them.

Here's the rub: It’s not always easy to see these low-growing thorns, especially when your gaze is focused elsewhere than on your feet, like when looking up at a glorious sky or into the eyes of a beloved or at the bobbing head of a toddler. And that's when you can get ensnared . . .

But since high school, I have been on the outlook for those brambles. And it has helped. Thanks, Hardy.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Twin Peaks The Return: The Day After

This is not another recap of Twin Peaks: The Return, just some observations I offer as part of the wonderfully participatory arena the whole TWR has provided.

I enjoyed the whole series, and loved both parts of the finale. I also loved reading all the intellectual interpretations about the huge subtleties within the art.

One of the questions the one-armed man asks in the Black Lodge (two times actually) is “Is it future or is this past?"  That idea is more prescient than Lynch could have possibly known when he wrote it, given the recent nuclear testing in North Korea and our government's heightened rhetoric.  For me, there are 2 real-life touchpoints to the series that will stay with me for a long time.


How eerie that David Lynch’s masterwork Twin Peaks: The Return ends on the weekend when I get a NY Times email alert: North Korean Nuclear Test Draws U.S. Warning of ‘Massive Military Response.

The art-house highlight of The Return—the extraordinary Episode 8—-is Lynch’s meditation on the ever-living effects of Trinity, the July 16, 1945 test of the A-bomb. Born in 1946, his early childhood was awash in “Drop, duck, and cover” taught in schools in the 1950s to prepare Americans to survive a nuclear attack. Children across the country went through actual drills where they methodically hid under their desks, as though that would save them.  Or they filed in neat little 1950s lines into "fallout shelters" in the school.

That anxiety of a nuclear attack seems to have had an enormous impact on Lynch’s young artistic mind. Throughout The Return Lynch brings us the ever ominous evils of electricity and multiple nightmares, including the “Gotta light?” walking incineration who kills all in his path. We get it. Mankind often faces manifestations of pure evil, many of his own doing.

The real-life threat of a war over nuclear war provides a whole new dimension of scary behind the simpler debatable semiotics of our beloved TV series.

The Return finale also made me think of the 1983 TV event that was The Day After, which aired on Sunday night, November 20. It was watched by more than 100 million people, including me. Even so, the possibility of nuclear war did not seem real to me then, so the horror of what happens to the fictional families in Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri just seemed like any horror film. [Lynch, by the way, is from Missouri.] Today I fear war over nukes is entirely possible.

The Day After is also notable for the live panel that ABC broadcast from Washington, right after the broadcast.  Ted Koppel hosted Henry Kissinger, Carl Sagan, Brent Scowcroft, William F. Buckley, Jr., Elie Wiesel, and Robert McNamara along with a studio audience.

Koppel opens with: “There is some good news. Look out the window. It’s all still there. It’s not too late yet.”  The panel is highly worth watching.

ABC also opened 1-800 lines with counselors if people wanted to talk to someone after watching the US suffer such destruction.

Like the TV show, which had no clear conclusion, the North Korea situation continues on in all of its evilness.

Gotta light?

Laura Palmer

The finale works its way back to the story of Laura Palmer. As many have said, the whole story exists because a young woman was raped and murdered by her father (possessed by a demon, in order to explain it).

One of the most poignant moments of the finale is Agent Cooper going back in time to the night Laura will be killed. He is “the thing that’s over there in the woods” from the prequel Fire Walk With Me. He stops Laura and takes her hand to lead her away from continuing on to her death.

That moment. That moment of intercession.

The most human of longings: IF ONLY.

IF ONLY someone had been there to stop the violence.

That is a powerful truth in our real world. It made me think of all the women who have been murdered—usually by men—because there was no one there, at that moment, to intercede. We know the names of some of these women because they are in the news, like Katina Vetrano,  raped and murdered while jogging in Brooklyn. But there are countless, countless names we don’t know. I travel alone a lot, and I am super aware of surroundings. I have experienced women dawdle in a secluded ATM area if I enter and everyone else has left, and I have done the same. But it's never, ever enough . . .

In our fantasy story, we don’t know if the intercession was entirely successful. But that’s a commentary on how you can’t mess with time travel. Has Agent Cooper never seen Doctor Who?

Having Twin Peaks: The Return end on Labor Day is perfect. It was a summer appointment for we who stuck with it.  Many are calling “fraud” on Lynch for another incoherent, lazy, over-indulgence that shows he has long lost his magic.

Given the state of the world and our own crass government, I celebrate the artistic expression from a kid from the Show Me state. Long may we all go on Lynchian voyages together.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Two Women for the Ages: Princess Diana & Mother Teresa, 20 Years in Heaven

 Time marches on. It is twenty years now since these two extraordinary women died 6 days apart in 1997. They had met just two months earlier that year, June 18, 1997, when Diana visited one of the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx. 

How oddly fitting that Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, who had some connections in life, are connected to each other in death because they died six days apart in 1997. The coverage of Diana’s death made for a somewhat memorable Labor Day weekend that year, which then rolled right into the coverage of Mother Teresa.

And now, this week, we pause to remember that it has been twenty years since Diana died in a car crash. At the ten year anniversary, the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light came out, along with an article in Time that put forth the extraordinary idea that Mother Teresa basically lost her faith just at the moment she started the work with the poorest of the poor for which she is known.

Princess Diana, Escaping for Love
I happened to be awake 20 years ago when the first reports of Diana’s car accident broke into CNN. Shortly after, her death was announced, and it was shocking, in the way that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death was. Young people with all the earthly gifts possible, dying in sudden, violent ways makes one stop for a moment. You intellectually know that this very day can be your last, but incidents like this make that idea more tangible.

I haven’t read Tina Brown’s book nor any of the cottage industry of tell all rags on the princess, but I have kept up with her story over the years. We share a birth year, but while she was getting married in 1981, I was off crewing on a schooner and didn’t get to see the wedding. My feminist friends at college had given me a “Don’t Do It Di” button, which their English counterparts had made up following a headline in the feminist magazine Spare Rib. But I didn’t understand it back then. I didn’t know what they were talking about, why shouldn’t she marry her prince, an actual prince? I think theirs was a general invective against the patriarchal monarchy, but how eerily prophetic was their warning.

The draw of the Royals, for most people, is simply that it’s a family writ larger than in our own homes. The saddest part of their particular mess is the triangle of Charles and Camilla and Di. Having a husband/lover who is always thinking of another is a soul crushing, living hell. It’s a shattering experience, and whatever personal struggles and demons Diana had herself—-bipolar/borderline personality, bulimia-—the unrelenting presence of Camilla in her marriage doomed any spec of happiness she might have known.

And to make it worse, Diana was horribly subjected to the subtle and not so subtle power plays from everyone around her. For instance, Camilla supposedly is responsible for Di getting into that monstrosity of a wedding dress, under the guise of the old guard helping her. Parker-Bowles supposedly laughed and laughed with her friends at how successful she was in making the wedding of the century look buffoonish. (This sickening power play is at least a plausible explanation for that nightmare in taffeta.)

It also illuminates how utterly Diana’s mother was missing from the whole equation, and what a devastating absence it proved to be. Frances Althorp Shand Kydd was an enigmatic woman. She also married young, to an older man of stature, and found herself in an unhappy marriage. She had an affair with Peter Shand Rydd, and a year later divorced Diana’s father and married him. (He would leave her years later for a younger woman.) It seems that with this kind of split, where Lady Althorp's own mother testified against her in the custody hearing in favor of Lord Althorp getting custody of their children, she wasn’t very close to her daughter at all, and that’s very sad for both of them.

In the end, I admired Diana for playing the hand she was dealt. She developed her dazzling style and looks as a way to parry the blows to her self esteem from the Royal family. She refused to stay in a sham marriage, and believed that she could have actual love with the right man, if she could find him. She saw two little boys through their early childhood with much genuine love and caring. And in the larger historical dimension, she reinvigorated the monarchy for all time. It was a short life well lived.

Mother Teresa, Losing Her Faith
Mother Teresa died six days later on Sept. 5. She was 87 years old, and her death was neither sudden nor violent. The ten-year mark saw the publication of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, a collection of letters in her own hand that speak to her loss of belief in God. Teresa had been an ordinary teaching nun of the Sisters of Loreto of Ireland for 15 years when she received a “call within the call” to leave her convent and work with the misery of the world’s poorest poor.

What follows is a life that has been lionized and pulled apart from every angle. Either her homes for the poor are badly run or they aren’t. There are questions of where all the donations to her Sisters of Charity go—so the accounting is questionable. There’s the question of her judgment, in aligning herself with the likes of Charles Keating. Nothing here is surprising. Human institutions and their leaders are always corrupt in some way.

But her internal loss of faith is startling. For fifty years she struggled to regain her faith in Christ: “for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.'"

Even the Eucharist had no meaning for her, which pretty much caps it: “I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist]."

For the cynics team, this means she lead a life of complete hypocrisy. That she “knew” there was no God, and she didn’t have the courage to admit it. Of course she has no more actual knowledge on the subject than any of us. She was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church on September 4, 2016.

Just as Princess Diana was subjected to much armchair psychology, there are theories in the Time piece that Mother Teresa needed to sabotage her own success. Maybe. Maybe she wanted to leave her institution just as much as Diana wanted to leave hers, but didn’t have the strength or ability to make it happen.

I find much to learn from both of these larger-than-life women, and it all comes back to love. As a late teenager Diana thought she had found it in Charles, and she paid for her misperception for the rest of her life, and one could argue, with her life. Mother Teresa once felt a presence of Christ’s love so strong that it negated the need for the love of an earthly kind. She was surprised and saddened when she later felt that His love had abandoned her, and she faced fifty years in a depressed darkness where she simply continued on as best she could. Such is the reality of many lives.

The two women admired one another, and I read somewhere that Diana is buried with a rosary that was a gift from Mother Teresa. Considering what an RC custom that is, it seems a little unlikely, but it’s a lovely thought.

Here’s the stirring hymn from Diana’s funeral, I Vow to Thee My Country.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day: My debt to my maternal grandmother, Rena Caroline Waldis Brown

Rena Waldis Brown at the Forest Lake Country Club circa 1918
Thinking of my maternal grandmother on this Mother's Day, whom I affectionately called Grammy Whammy because she was a pip.

She died in 1993 at the age of 93, born when the 19th century became the 20th century.

I have several of her belongings, but the one that is the most emotional for me is her Atlantic #511 washboard, from the National Washboard Co., Chicago, Saginaw, Memphis.

That washboard is a testament to the difficult realities of her life.  Rena Caroline Waldis was born in 1900 on a farm in rural Pennsylvania to immigrant Swiss German parents. The family history is sketchy—my mother’s generation didn’t ask questions of their parents. My brother has been doing some amazing ancestry work, and has found the immigrant records of Grammy's own mother coming over from Trier, Germany, on a ship through Liverpool, as a 10 year old with her mother and 4 siblings. That's a story for another day.

I know my great-grandparents were painfully poor. They had 11 children, only the first and last of whom survived childhood (my grandmother being the youngest). My great-grandfather died when my grandmother was young, leaving great-grandma with two girls to fend for themselves.

Grammy rarely spoke about her childhood, except in an offhand comment once that when she was still in the highchair her mother put an  iron in her hand so that she could iron handkerchiefs for one of the summer resorts in the area to earn pennies. And one other specific, that when she was a young girl her dog ate poison that a neighbor had put out to kill a fox, and died.  At 80 she could start crying whenever she told that story, so deep was her love for her dog, a lifelong love for all of her dogs.

What I know of her history picks up when she was 16 or so. She got a job at the Forest Lake County Club in Hawley, PA--a private club that opened in 1882 and continues today--as a waitress, and a laundress (picture above). Doing the resort’s sheets by hand was not easy. Hard manual labor followed her from the farm to the resort—it was all she knew.

Grammy had a very winning personality, and it turned out that a Lutheran reverend from Brooklyn summered there with his family. The family story goes that he said to her 'you should come to the big city' and so she did. She somehow navigated herself to Brooklyn and showed up on his doorstep to work as a live-in maid!  She had the spirit that told her there was more to life than a rural farm with no electricity, and she was going to go find it.  Her only surviving sibling did not have that spirit, and spent her entire life in the country.

In some ways Grammy hit the jackpot. I mean the reverend could have been from Boston (no offence) but no, it was New York, and Grammy had the soul of the quintessential New Yorker. I think she arrived in Brooklyn around 1919.

Again the history is a little sketchy.  After working for Reverend Harper for a while she got a job with a dowager as a paid companion--which always made me think of the Second Mrs. De Winter traveling with Mrs. Van Hopper to Monaco in the film Rebecca.

The dowager lived on Riverside Drive at 116 Street in Manhattan. Seven decades later I would move into an apartment literally up the block from there, on Claremont Avenue. Truly, what are the odds?

The years passed; Rena had a series of boyfriends. Somewhere along the line she met Arthur Cornelius Brown, a first generation American with Norwegian parents, and they began dating. It was the Depression, and he had a job as a mail carrier, which was good. Around when Grammy was 30 the dowager asked her to go to Europe with her.  Grammy said to her beau Arthur, “we get married, now, or I’m going to Europe.”

They got married.

I never met my grandfather, but it seems that married life did not turn out as Grammy was expecting. She had worked for wealthy people, and had received beautiful furniture and china as wedding gifts. She thought that she would be entertaining a lot herself, but as a mailman Grandpa worked very hard, and he wasn’t interested in much of a social life. It's also that he had been a bachelor for almost 40 years, and maybe that was too long.

My mother once told me that when she was a teenager she came upon her mother in the middle of a crying jag. I think about that sometimes. The life Grammy imagined was not her reality, even after all her will power had gotten her off the farm and into the most fabulous city in the world, where she was a success in many, many ways. She had her own money and her own bank account, no small feat for a woman in her day. She had the freedom of the great NY subway system, that she learned backwards and forward.  She had a mailman who came home, every day (something she liked to repeat), and two little girls, but perhaps something was missing, or just wasn't right.

I loved and admire her for all her struggles—for her strength, in surviving the pandemic influenza of 1918 (when the coffins in NY lined the streets), for her encyclopedic knowledge of the NY subway system, her life-long love of her dogs, for raising such a special daughter, for always sending money back to her sister who never left rural Pennsylvania, for playing tea party with me when I was 5 with much patience, and keeping her spirits up, even as old, old age descended on her, until at 93 she finally joined back up with Arthur.

Because she got off the farm, I am able to live in a condo in Manhattan that has a washer/dryer IN THE KITCHEN--which for Manhattan is still pretty rare.  How do I ever repay such a debt?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Massive MTA Failure: Sadly, Nothing New.

The MTA has been failing its costumers on an epic scale lately.  Yesterday's commuting nightmare also had Con Edison pitching in: NY Times "Why a Midtown Power Failure Snarled Your Morning Commute."  Snarled is a pretty cozy word for soul-sapping mess.  

Funny thing, when I was googling for info about yesterday's mess (April 21, 2017), I kept landing on articles I thought were about it, but were about other recent messes: "Chaos as power blackout hits New York's Grand Central bringing trains to a standstill" is from January, 2013

There really are too many examples to list, except perhaps for the one I've pasted below. From August 1980!

Kudos to The New York Times archives.  I started commuting from Long Island into Manhattan in high school during the summer of my junior year when I got an internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was soul-sapping (I know I've said that before.)  I was young and wanted to shout and scream about how awful this daily experience was, and of course was really thrilled when the NY Times ran it.

Even more satisfying: my brother, who also commuted, was on a Penn Station platform, trying to get to the stairs to get to the street, hemmed in by too many people who can but shuffle inch by inch to keep going, when he heard a guy say to his friend, "This is just what she was talking about."  He had read the article!  

Thirty years on, and commuters are still cattle. Maybe that is simply the fate of city dwellers.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Leftovers: I’m All in for the Final Season of Exasperations and Magic

I am all in for the niche ruminating about The Leftovers after the premiere of its 3rd and final season last Sunday because there is so much fun to be had. The series is a triumph of imagination, combined with the highest arts of TV writing, directing, and acting. It is pure enjoyment to be pulled into its narrative spell and try and makes sense of what’s going.

Warning: The below presumes the reader has watched the 2 seasons and the season 3 premiere, both for comprehension of points, and what might be spoilers.

1. Let’s start with the title: The Leftovers. Terrible title. Who doesn’t think of doogie bags from restaurants or Tupperware sitting in the refrigerator.

As for the Guilty Remnants sect, I see scraps of fabric, maybe because my mother is a talented seamstress, and she was always buying something from the remnant table, the fabric that was too small to sell in yardage.

So from a verbal/visual side, it was off to a strange start.

2. I began weekly watching in season 2, I don’t remember what drew me in to start.

So I binge-watched the first season to catch up, which was good because it helped me to connect some of the craziness very easily.

Season 1 tracked the original underlying novel. A pivotal episode— “The Garveys at Their Best”—comes 9 episodes into the 10 episode season.

As Sonia Saraiya said in the AV Club:

“Tonight’s episode offers a lot of helpful information. So what was the point of making us wait to see the backstories of these characters, nine weeks after the pilot, instead of making this, or some version of this, into the pilot?”

Messing with the narrative timeline certainly energized the storytelling.

It also meant that we learned about post Departure life first.  So when in episode 9, we were shown extended flashbacks to our characters before the Departure, something jumped out at me:

3. Much of post Departure world is a projection of Kevin's pre-Departure psyche.

Follow me:
Pre DepartureKevin didn't want to stop smoking, Laurie wanted him to, and so he hid the fact that he smoked. 
Post Departure: Smoking is a part of the very faith of the Guilty Remnant and they smoke ALL THE TIME.

Pre Departure: Kevin didn't want a dog, Laurie did. 
Post departure: Kevin gets to shoot multiple feral dogs.  Like the smoking, a wildly heightened expression of feeling in his Pre Departure life.

Pre Departure: Kevin feels threatened by how competent and loved his father is. 
Post Departure:  Dad is certifiably crazy & put away.

There has to be some reason Post Departure tracts back to Kevin's psyche. Among the mountain of things not explained, this connection is never explained. In season 2, there are no more specific parallels, though season 2 is not from the novel, but is the extension of the story written by the novelist Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof.

4. For now I will consider Kevin and his multiple resurrections.

For Justin Theroux now has a world-class beard.

For Christological symbols abound, my favorite being the deer that appeared throughout season 1:

Sonia spoke of it in terms of Kevin:

And then there’s the whole thing with the deer, which takes on a resonance and significance that implies a whole bunch about Kevin. The show has visited and revisited deer in unexpected spaces: The Garvey kitchen in 2014 is torn up because a deer got stuck inside; the wild dogs kill a deer in the pilot, leading Kevin to take up thinning their ranks. 

Stags are beautiful and dignified animals, and there’s a lot of subtext written into these huge beasts being trapped in houses, terrified. There’s even more subtext when Kevin introduces the idea that it’s just one scared deer that keeps getting confused.”

The stag is a medieval symbol of Christ. So a little interesting foreshadowing in season 1 that is leading to the Book of Kevin.

And now, season 3 episode one, The Book of Kevin. He may not want to be the new, New Testament, but his rational mind will need an answer for himself about his ability to cheat death, even if he rejects Rev. Matt's interpretation.

I try not to read things in advance, but apparently everyone knew that The Leftovers will end in Australia, and the prologue of The Book of Kevin was a look at the Millerites cult in 1844, in Australia.

Then the reveal at the end, with Nora, an aged woman. In Australia, with a dove/carrier pigeon coop just like the 1844 gang had.

Of course I don't know what this means. But if Lindelof and Perrotta write themselves into an end of times in Australia, I hope they do some serious homage to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, and to a lesser extent Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach, two pieces of art that got there first.

The novel On the Beach is much superior to the film. It is a terrific read, and the final page chilling.

The Last Wave (photo above) is one of those films that will stay with you your whole life.

Looking forward to episode 2—

Friday, April 14, 2017

Mystical Connections This Weekend: Our Titanic Catharsis, Lincoln’s Assassination, and My Dad’s Easter Memorial

The wheels of history have turned to align us today to the same days to dates as 1865.

In Daniel Mendelsohn's excellent 2012 New Yorker article "Unsinkable, why we can't let go of the Titanic" he noted an historian once quipped that "three most written about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic."

This weekend hits this trifecta perfectly. 

1. Abraham Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and died at 7:22 am on April 15, Holy Saturday. Just how mystical was that extraordinary man?

2. Not aligned to 2017’s days, but we still have the annual parallel to Lincoln’s assassination: The Titanic hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912, at 11:40pm,  and broke in two and foundered at 2:20am on April 15.

3.  Easter Sunday, April 16, happens to be 32 years since my father died.


I have felt some connection to the Titanic my whole life. I have an early memory of my dad in the kitchen filling the old metal ice cube trays. He brought it up, for no particular reason, saying that the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable because of its watertight compartment, but that they didn't have tops, like this tray.

"Nearer My God to Thee" was in my Magnus Organ book. I knew those words and that tune since I was 6, and later learned it was what the musicians played as the Titanic sank. (Apocryphal or not, the NY Times had the music for "Autumn" on their page as part of their coverage the next day in 1912.)

It happened that I went to college in Southampton, England, where the Titanic started her voyage with such hope. I visited the small museum they had in the 1980s, but they have just opened a new, more elaborate center. Later I moved to 106 Street and Broadway, where Straus Park is. It has a memorial called "Memory" to Isidor and Ida, the Macy's magnates, who died together rather than being separated. The sculpture is by Augustus Lukeman, and this line from 2 Samuel 23 is etched into the bench: "Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in their death they were not parted.” The original reflecting pool has been replaced with a flower bed. (My photos above and below.)

I remember weeping through A Night to Remember when I saw it as a kid. It was directed by Roy Baker, who went on to direct 8 of the best 1965/66 Avengers episodes, another connection!

Following Mendelsohn's rhetorical "why we can't let go of the Titanic," here are some of the usual reasons pointed to:
*The hubris of declaring a ship "unsinkable" was just begging for karma to act; naming the ship after the gods was bad enough

*"Tall as an 11-story building and constructed from 46,000 tons of steel, it was the largest moving object on earth" -- so what was it doing trying to float?

*The Carpathia steaming to the rescue, but too late for most, the much closer California tragically asleep

*Captain Edward Smith going down with the ship but the ship line owner J. Bruce Ismay jumping into a lifeboat and surviving to a lifetime of shame

*The New York Times has pdfs of their original coverage, all of which is fascinating. It started the reports of the first time "women and children" had been given as an order, and the first time SOS is actually used for distress, in addition to the longer standing CQD [ based on the French for secur, help, then the word distress].

But somehow the place Titanic has had in our minds for generations since April 15 is more than all those points.

My Titanic Thoughts:

*People had been crossing the Atlantic commercially since the mid1800s. They were on the boat for vacation, to see the world, to join family, to go to a new job, to start a new life. It's every circumstance of living in one defined place subjected to the cruelest way to die: unexpectedly, and in great pain.

•A ship on the ocean is powerful and vulnerable at the same time. It is a floating small city built not on concrete, but on the Archimedes principle: "Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid. " Buoyancy is great while it works, until it doesn't.

*Then what seemed as solid as Manhattan is but a speck easily swallowed up by the might of the world's oceans.

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport

*What haunts my mind is the overwhelming force of the water filling the ship, taking over every physical space where there once was oxygen, including in the lungs of those on board. The men in the engine room, who worked the brutal job of keeping the boilers stoked to make the steam, died first . . .

*That horrible feeling the moment something has happened: like hearing your knee pop and knowing that it's going to need surgery. The captain and senior officers knew from the moment of the ice on the foredeck that the ship was going to founder. 

*The scenes all the movies portray of the panic of the third class/steerage passengers struggling to climb to deck level, some finding passage ways locked. It is a nightmare come to life.

*Doesn't everyone wonder: what would I have done on the Titanic? Would I have been smart and lucky enough to survive?

*Rearranging the chairs on the Titanic is generally an idiom for futility, but I once read a scientist argue that if you were able to strap enough chairs together you might make yourself something to float on.

In the hundred years since, there have been thousands of maritime disasters including ferries with the death toll in the tens of thousands.

But it's impossible to empathize with all of that. And that's what the Titanic provides us: a story that connects us to our collective vulnerability and mortality. That's why we need it. The photo that I took of the Straus memorial shows someone had recently put a bouquet in her hands.

And then the myth takes us even further: it has allowed generations to feel a cathartic grief for the suffering and death of more than a thousand people dying at once, in daily life (not on a battlefield). Sadly, not for the last time.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

100 Years Ago Today the Americans Enter WW 1, to "Oh, were the Americans in the Great War?"

An American Doughboy receives a medal from King George V, World War 1
Updating this post on April 6, 2017, commemorating one hundred years ago today we entered World War 1.

An odd occurrence connects my recent trips to Italy and England. It concerns two conversations with Englishmen of a certain age (let's say somewhere 60 to 70) in both places.

In general chit chat with each man I asked if he had seen the play War Horse. Neither had, though both knew of it and had read about it.

I was interested to pose an observation to the play—which I've seen both in London and New York—to each: that it was an extraordinary theatrical experience, but I was surprised that there was no character, or piece of dialogue, or even hint that the Americans fought for the Allies in World War 1. There is a battle scene in France, with the Brits, French, Germans, and then all of a sudden, it's Armistice, Victory, end of the war.

I was simply surprised that there wasn't one line of dialogue about the Yanks coming over. I don't mean that there should have been a whole scene, or even American character, just a reference to the forces that entered and helped to bring the war to its end. (I know the play doesn't reference the Russians, Austrians, or Italians either, but that little Second Battle of the Marne turned the tide of the war, so we're not just a footnote.)

Then each Brit—in two different countries—said the same thing to me in response:

"Oh, were the Americans in World War 1?"

Wow. Ouch. There was no irony here, it was not leg pulling. These men were highly educated guys. How could they not know that we went "over there." It's a George M. Cohan song: "and we won't come back 'til it's over, over there" sung at the end of the James Cagney film Yankee Doodle Dandy. On the actual battlefields it was the Doughboys, remember?

Service & Sacrifice

It is notable, to an American visiting France, England, Italy, to see the names of the war dead cut into stone memorials in every town, no matter the size, as well as into churches and colleges across the country. (That is not our way, even though towns across the midwest lost tens of thousands of boys to the foreign fields during WW1 & WW2.)

I was reminded of this again at my recent visit St. John's Chapel, Cambridge, and in the Uppingham parish church, each of which had the all too-long list of a generation of young men, killed during WW1 and remembered by name.

The number of American lives lost---around 116,000---does not compare in number to the almost 3 million British lives lost. But remember that the US was no super power in 1914. We were a nation of teaming, recent immigrants from Germany, France, and Ireland, which argued for US neutrality, something Woodrow Wilson fought hard to maintain.

Lest we forgot, here's a quick recap of the Americans in WW1, courtesy of lots of Wiki pages:

•German U-Boat's dominated the early part of the war. The Lusitania— a passenger liner which later was proved to be carrying ammunition—was torpedoed and sank on May 7, 1915, in 18 minutes.

1,959 crew and passengers; 1,198 died, 761 survived. 139 of the dead were Americans, 9 survivors.

Unlike the attack on Pearl, this was not enough to pull the US into the war immediately, although it was something the country remembered.

•President Woodrow Wilson worked hard for American Neutrality, following contemporary leaders from all walks of life who descried the war and insisted the US stay out of it: Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ford, Samuel Gompers, and the Progressive Movement Jane Adams, just to name a few

*In 1917 Germany stepped up the Uboat activity even further, threatening passenger liners directly with the hopes of bringing the US in the war. That combined with the Zimmerman Telegram--a proposal from German Empire to Mexico to declare war against the US that was intercepted and decoded by the British---finally tipped the scales.

•President Wilson asked Congress for "a war to end all wars" that would "make the world safe for democracy," and Congress voted to declare war on April 6, 1917.

By June 1917, 14,000 U.S. soldiers had arrived in France, and by May 1918 over one million U.S. troops were stationed in France, half of them on the front lines, with troops arriving at a rate of 10,000 a day at a time Germany could not replace its losses.

In total we mobilized 4 million military personal and fought in 13 campaigns

Cambrai, November 20 to December 4, 1917
Somme Defensive, March 21 to April 6, 1918
Lys, April 9 to 27, 1918
Aisne, May 27 to June 5, 1918
Montdidier-Noyon, June 9 to 13, 1918
Champagne-Marne, July 15 to 18, 1918
Aisne-Marne, July 18 to August 6, 1918
Somme Offensive, August 8 to November 11, 1918
Oise-Aisne, August 18 to November 11, 1918
Ypres-Lys August 19 to November 11, 1918
St. Mihiel, Sept. 12 to 16, 1918
Meuse-Argonne, Sept. 26 to November 11, 1918
Vitto Veneto, October 24 to November 4, 1918

My grandfather, Arthur Cornelius Brown, was drafted in in May 1917, and served through June 9, 1919. He was one of the lucky ones.  He was not shipped overseas, but served his time in Brooklyn, in Fort Hamilton. The family story explains that he could not wink.  Which meant that he would be a very lousy shot when trying to fire a gun.

I have a feeling that if the war had continued on longer, he would have been sent regardless, being otherwise an able-bodied man.

The American World War 1 Cemeteries
Many men were not as lucky as my grandfather, as the cemeteries of Europe attest to. Off they went, Over There, never to return to the farms and cities they left.

There are 8 American World War 1 cemeteries in Europe: 6 in France, 1 in England, 1 in Belgium. Not surprisingly, they shadow the campaigns. The cemeteries are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which has an excellent website. Links to some of the videos below, a lot more on their site, and many photos.

From some of the close-ups on the tombstones you see Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Ohio et al., reminding us that it was the farm boys who left the farm to fight against the strange sounding Kaiser,  and died so many miles from home.

Belgium: Flanders Field American Cemetery & Memorial

John Mcrae wrote his haunting "In Flanders fields the poppies grow/Between the crosses, row on row" in 1915, after burying a friend following the second battle of Ypres. McCrae himself is buried in Wimereux Cemetery, in the Commonwealth War Graves section. He died of pneumonia at a field hospital in Boulogne.

England: Brookward

France: Suresnes


Oise-Aisne, it's where the poet Joyce Kilmer is buried

Somme American Cemetery

St. Mihiel

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
14,246 Americans are buried there, the largest interment of U.S. war dead in Europe in one cemetery

Saturday, March 25, 2017

My Editions of the Romantics: That Which Connects

"It has been estimated that at the time of Keats' death, the combined sales of the three books published during his lifetime amounted to 200 copies." 

Andrew Motion, The Guardian
January 23, 2010

Yet here we are, two hundred years later, and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association is running an international prize for essay and poetry celebrating the publication of the first volume.

How does a life that ended at 25 wield such power?

This year's theme is "To a Friend" and the idea of Keats's own relationships. It stirred in me enormous emotions about my own relationship to John Keats-- through the editions of his poems that brought him into my life. Like great choral music, if no one picks up the actual books and reads (or sings), the genius is silent.

First stirrings. 
In junior high school, just starting to be conscious of the names Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, I noticed books that had long been on the family  bookshelf: The Literature of England: An Anthology & A History, Vol. 1 & 2, Wood, Wyatt, Anderson, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1947; and Seven Centuries of Verse: English & American, A.J.M Smith, Michigan State College, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1947.

They are my parents' college anthologies from the early 1950s! Each filled with representations of the Romantics.

As I sit up late many nights and page through the big books over and over I feel an enormous connection to the pages of the Romantics. I dive in so easily, read so easily, understand on an as-yet untutored level. And I develop a deep connection to these editions because they belong to my parents and bring me in communion with en entire world I long to know more about.

I only realized years later that I grew up with some casual peppering of some of the great quotes in casual conversation: my Mom, "It winter comes, can spring be far behind" whenever the snows came forceful; my Dad pronouncing "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" in the most sardonic tone when something wasn't going right.

For myself I felt particularly drawn to

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, 
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; 

That wonderful cadence and what I visualized as an Emerald City of books gleaming in gold: I did not know who Chapman was then. My love of this poem would lead me to getting a fairly significant and needed college scholarship because of an essay I wrote based on it. Hmm. So, those late night cogitations had meaning outside of my own heart. . . .

College brought the heady days of being an English major and spending hours with the poets I had met in the family's anthologies. I had the privilege of studying with William Keach for Romantics, and so was ushered into some of the finest thinking about the era and work and enjoyed expert tutelage about my own ideas.

On the larger canvas love came and went, was requited and unrequited in a strange venn diagram that included Paul Fussell and a shy student I'll call "Keats" who was courting me and whom I did not appreciate, blinded by my love for a "Byron" who would never be right for me.

For my birthday one year "Keats" bought me a handful of various Romantics tomes from our college town's wonderful used book store. He inscribed the Byron volume with "Happy Birthday--The years ahead, however thin the strands, however frayed , this one will still be strong, our love for theses books, especially Byron."

Sadly, as I had not appreciated the gift bearer, I barely even looked at the Keats volume at the time.

Turns out is it

The Poetical Works of John Keats  

Given From His Own Editions and Other Authentic Sources and Collated With Many Manuscripts

Edited with notes by H. Buxton Forman and Mrs. Keats and a Biographical Sketch by Wm. M. Rossetti

Complete Edition

A. L. Burt Company, New York

And Now
Looking into this realm of gold now unexpectedly renews my relationship with Keats as I discover the deep riches of this edition decades after I first owned it. (Its one glaring flaw is on the spine, which regrettably heralds Keat's Poems.)

The great Victorian biographer/forger H. Buxton Forman became friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti around 1871, which probably led to brother William's biographical sketch being included in the full poetical works volume.

Rossetti's sketch feels like a portal that daisy chains back to a direct connection to Keats and Shelley as in 'shaking the hand of the hand that shook Abraham Lincoln's hand.' Keats died in 1821, Rossetti was born in 1829, but twenty-five years on the outer circle was still very much alive to pass along knowledge to the literary Rossettis.  The New York edition is from 1906, although the Rossetti sketch is from some years earlier, as he refers to Frances Mary Llanos Gutierrez as "this lady still living in Spain and has a son known as a painter," and she died in 1889.

I love the cadence of Rossetti's prose and how he limns the overall sketch. He touches on many points that have since been much retold, including that Keats did not die from negative criticism:

"It is more to the purpose to say that the once very prevalent story that Keats had been extremely pained and dejected by the adverse reviews, even to the extend of losing in consequences of them  his health and ultimately his life, was a romance of literature. Shelley by a noble poem, and Byron by a jeer, are greatly responsible for the diffusion and acceptance of this fable: Lord Houghton has, to the deep satisfaction of all who value manliness as a portion of the poetic character, dispelled it once and forever." [page xi-xii]

Rossetti also captures the power of desire to be close to our bright star, remarking on the burial instruction to inscribe "Here lies one whose name was write in water":

"That is an age-long and shoreless water, which will continue flowing while generation after generation of men, his brothers and lovers, come to contemplate the sacred tomb in Rome, dominated by the pyramid of Caius Cestius. They have but to move some paces aside, and stand by a still more sacred tomb which opened in the ensuing year, 1822--that of the world-loving, world-hated Shelley, divinest of the demigods." [xvi to xvii] 

Rossetti ends his sketch with thoughts of the poet's character

"As of Keats's character, so of his poetry, enjoyment is the primary element, the perpetual undertone: his very melancholy is the luxury of sadness." [xviii]

"Keats, youthful and prodigal, the magician of unnumbered beauties which neither author nor reader can think of counting or assessing, is the Keats of our affections." [xix] 

Of all the magical ideas that Keats left us, the poem that suggests that poetry itself can replace drinking for mind/body altering experience is in some ways the most ambitious.

Ode to a Nightingale [Forman page 227]

"Away, away I fly to thee
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards
But on the viewless wings of Poesy."

Benjamin Robert Haydon (and others, and the timeline) tell us that Keats was suffering from the untimely death of his brother Tom when he wrote it.

"Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies:"

Forman note: "Haydon, in a letter to Miss Mitford (Correspondence &c, Volume II, page 72) says of Keats--'The death of his brother wounded him deeply, and it appeared to me from that hour he began to droop. He wrote his exquisite 'Ode to the Nightingale' at this time, and as we were one evening walking in the Kilburn meadows he repeated it to me, before he put it to paper, in a low, tremulous undertone which affected me extremely." [page 227]

We know that it was Haydon who gave a copy of the poem to Annals of the Fine Arts editor James Elmes, who purchased it and published it in the July issue, before it was published in the 1820 collection with "Lamia." I wonder if Keats really recited it to Haydon during the act of creation.

But of no import.

The poem has been explicated, close-read, metrically analyzed from every possible angle; I sometimes feel the weight of all of the thought, much of it profound, clever, nuanced.

I struggle to stay close to Keats in my own way, not merely a repository of Forman and Perkins and Hirsch (either of them).

Stanza 7
"Thou  wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn." 

Forman note:
"In the last line of the stanza the word fairy instead of faery stands in the manuscript and in the Annals: but the Lamia volume reads faery, which enhances the poetic value of the line in the subtlest manner--eliminating all possible connection of fairy-land with Christmas trees, tinsel, and Santa Claus, and carrying the imagination safely back to the middle ages---to Amadis of Gaul, to Palmerin of England, and above all to the East, to the Thousand and One Nights. " [page 229]

"Christmas! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades 
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?" 

And in my own happy dream state, that fleeting music can only be:

What can I give Keats,
Poor as I am?
If I were a poet
I would bring iambs;
If I were a scholar
Endymion's where I'd start.
Yet what I can, I give Keats -
Give my heart
Give . . . my heart. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Going Their Way. Attention Must Be Paid.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. . . . 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. James Joyce, The Dead

James Joyce captioning a photo of Bing Crosby in Road to Zanzibar may seem an odd juxtaposition, but old echoes have been swirling about me these past two weeks, as 2016 gave way to 2017. Neither quite Marley's 3 Ghosts nor Carmel's mimosa scent, but equally haunting and demanding attention be paid. Herein I try to do that.

It started with attending the experience of James Joyce's The Dead, 1904, the Irish Rep's spirited idea to bring the short story to life in the appropriately Beaux Arts building of the Irish Historical Society. From Lily greeting the guests in the foyer, to the Irish whiskey and wines that flowed, it was an imaginative way into the world of Joyce. (My one criticism was the lighting: much too bright, much too modern.)

The Dead has deeply touched the heart of generations of readers, as it did mine. So much so that writing about it was one of the very first pieces I wrote for my little space on the blogosphere. And it is the post that Tom Watson found that brought me into the company of so many writers I have enjoyed for these past 10 years, so I have layers of deep attachment to it.

Rich Conaty

Three days later came the shocking news that Rich Conaty had died, on December 30. Rich was a singular soul. He fell in love with the music of the 1920s and 1930s, and made a career out of that love, primarily with a show called The Big Broadcast on WFUV.

I met Rich because of Bing Crosby, the life-long idol of my father. I was weaned on Bing Crosby because of it, watching every film and listening to as much of the enormous repertoire as was possible throughout my young years.

That lead me to be a fan of WNEW AM, and In 1983 Rich had a weekend show, Crooners Corner. That's where I first heard him. He played almost all Crosby, I couldn't believe it. A few years later, 1987, my father had died, and I wrote an essay called "October Song" about the 10th anniversary of Crosby's death (October 14, 1977) and my dad's death (sadly from colon cancer). I sent the essay to Rich. We met, and he read my essay on the air. I used to have a cassette tape of that show, but it got lost along the way. If anyone happens to have heard it, or knows which show it was, I would so appreciate getting a copy.

Shortly after that I starting working at the then Museum of Television & Radio as the senior editor of the publications department. The radio curator shortly after left, and I called Rich and encouraged him to apply. He did and that's how he became the radio curator there. We worked closely with the television curator Ron Simon to produce a book celebrating Jack Benny. It was enormous fun. Rich of course did an amazing job bringing the radio shows to life. The book is still available on Amazon. And there are many wonderful tributes to Rich from his fans on the WFUV site.

In thinking about Rich I tried to find a copy of my essay "October Song" that he read on air, since I no longer have the recording, but could not. It was from the Dark Ages,  pre-digital; if you don't have a hard copy, you don't have it.

The Road to Zanzibar
But I stumbled upon another essay I wrote 30 years ago that I had entirely forgotten about: "Going His Way." And it's not about that Academy Award-winning film, but Road to Zanzibar.

Allow me to be Robert Benchley, breaking into the narrative a bit to help move the story along:

Back in the day my father was diagnosed in January, he died in April. By March he was very ill, but he was home, and we were all living as normally as possible. I saw that Road to Zanzibar was on Channel 13 at 10:30pm that night, and announced it at the dinner table.

"Ordinarily it would have been a given that we would watch it together, but Dad was suffering and went to sleep early. Tacitly, we all knew that for him to miss this movie would be a strong, frightening sign that he would soon be leaving us.

"But then he didn't go up to bed. Instead, somehow, his love for us and his desire not to worry us gave him the strength to stay up, and he settled into his usual recliner chair."

"Benchley": I had never seen this Road picture at that time, and was not familiar with the music. And for some crazy reason I thought my Dad also did not know this flick or the music either. Back to the story:

"Every Road picture has a ballad. For Zanzibar, it's the Van Heusen and Burke, "It's Aways You" with Bing in a canoe with Dorothy Lamour, crooning in that lovely baritone range of his voice. This was new music for me. And to my left, my father leaned back a bit in his recliner, gently resting his head as he clearly sang

Whenever it's early twilight
I watch 'til a star breaks through
Funny, it's not a star I see
It's always you

He didn't falter for a word or a note

Whenever I roam through roses
And lately I often do
Funny, it's not a rose I touch
It's always you

"The years and the pain fell away, even if it was just for the beats of the ballad. And beyond all the resonance of the dying man connecting with his childhood idol was the fact that 5 years earlier my father planted a significant rose garden and become a serious rose gardener. It seemed out of the blue. Well, maybe not . . ."

Essay end.

I had not thought about that moment for decades. And I only revisited because of Rich Conaty.  And in my search for my mementos of Rich, I found my father's Decca 75 of "It's Always You." I didn't even know I had it. It's been sitting in a small part of my bookcase  among other 75's that I took from the house after my mom moved, but honest to God I never looked through them.

And on this first snowy, snowy day, where the snow truly is falling beautifully on the living and the dead, I learn from a tweet from James Wolcott that Road to Zanzibar is on TCM tonight. I have not seen it in 30 years.