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