I can’t quite figure out what to say about our latest movie excursion, Wanderlust with Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux. Part of me wants to applaud a raunchy, funny film about hippiedom and communal living; part of me wants to reject it as simply a raunchy, funny forgettable film. My ambivalence has to do with the fact that although many of the scenes were funny, I discovered that neither I nor most of the audience were laughing out loud, maybe an occasional chuckle, but nothing like the side-splitting laughter of most Seinfeld episodes. The plot’s center is a present-day commune called Elysium, owned and founded by an aging Alan Alda, peopled by a collection of oddballs: Jeff (Justin Theroux), the leader of the band; a nudist wine-maker who also hopes to become a best-selling author; a black/white couple who, after the wife delivers a baby au natural, carry the baby around with placenta and cord still attached until, they say, it falls off naturally; a lovely blond extolling the joys of free love; and dozens of old and young sharing a seemingly idyllic life without doors and plenty of hallucinogenic drugs. George and Linda (Rudd and Aniston) flee the Big Apple after George loses his job and they can no longer afford their “micro-loft” (about 150 square feet of very expensive West Village property). They are going to Atlanta to live with and work for his obnoxious brother. But along the way they get sidetracked looking for an inexpensive place to spend the night. And they find Elysium, and Elysium finds them. The rest of the plot is pretty predictable, but pretty funny also. My ambivalence tells me to give it three of five stars. My final criterion for movie judging is the length of time I’ll remember it. Not for very long.
Monday, February 27
The 84th Academy Awards. So much to say, so little time. Everyone kept insisting Billy Crystal wasn’t right for the job, that he’d fall on his face with the same old crap he’d used eight times before, that surely there was someone else who’d do it better. They were all wrong. Billy Crystal did himself proud. The opening segment in which he pointed to those up for best film was good but oh so very expensive, duplicating the sets of the nine nominated movies. And Clooney’s kiss made it all worthwhile. All in all, this was the best Oscar production in a very long time: the theatre was classy, the sets were classy, the production numbers were classy (how about that Cirque de Soleil flying act!), most of the presenters were classy (I’m not sure what Emma Stone or Robert Downey Jr. were doing), the “In Memoriam” section was classy. The Talking Heads sections were especially well done, assorted actors and directors telling us what so attracted them to movies. The acceptance speeches were good, most well within the time they were allotted. But if some of us were hoping for controversy, like Brando’s non-acceptance or a streaker dashing across stage, we didn’t get it. Even the multiple acceptors didn’t get too trapped into the microphone hogs. Why don’t those multiples nominated agree beforehand how they will split up the thank yous? I hate it when one person takes it all and the other poor schmucks stand there looking uncomfortable. The ladies and their gowns. Sandra Bullock’s white over black was my favorite. Classy. Then there was the gold lamé on Meryl Streep. Oh, my, that was ugly. And the Lady Gaga of filmdom, Angelina Jolie, came out in that black, bustled, double-slit-to-the-waist thing. Come on, Brad, just tell her not to wear it. I missed on a few of my predictions: best supporting actress to Octavia Spencer, who nearly had the vapors when she weepingly climbed to the stage; best director to Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist; best actor to Jean Dujardin (instead of Clooney). And I was happy for all the accolades to The Artist as best film. The clips made me want to go see it again, if only to watch Uggie do his Jack Russell thing. I have only two complaints. I want to know how we mere mortals ever get to see all the short films that were nominated. Where in the normal world are they ever shown? And I think the Academy should be increased to include more women, more young people, more critics--just more voters to get a more accurate set of winners. There, now I’m ready for the 85th Academy Awards.
Sunday, February 26
It’s a quiet Sunday in sunny Sun City West, no breezes rustling the arbor vitae, clear skies, temps heading for 80° this afternoon. All’s right with the world. And in a little while, I’ll be able to open the door to the patio and let Charlie do his thing out there. He loves watching the birds and rabbits in the backyard. One of these days, he’ll be there when our three large coyotes saunter by. I wonder how he’ll react to that. He seems to love the old cat perch that’s out there, sort of ratty after more than a decade in the patio weather. Charlie doesn’t mind. I went on-line yesterday and found a new one on EBay. It’s four feet tall and will allow both he and Squeakie to admire all the wild life. And in another month the quail parents will be parading their broods through, little moving walnuts that should drive both cats crazy. Doesn’t take much to drive Charlie crazy. He’s had six or seven small feathered toys to play with, and we now have feathers all over the place, enough to gather up and knit a whole bird.
Today the boys are playing the final matches in the WGC tournament being played in Marana, Arizona. Right now, Rory McIlroy is one-up on Lee Westwood, same score for Hunter Mahan over Mark Wilson. Good golf.
Tonight we finally have the Oscars, with Billy Crystal hosting. Can’t wait to see how my choices turn out, see how outlandish some of the ladies’ gowns are, see how Billy handles the hosting, hear the prepared and unprepared acceptance speeches. Altogether, a nice Sunday.
Saturday, February 25
Tiger, Tiger, what are we going to do with you? Feet of clay, hands of lead. Just when I thought you were about to find your old form and start winning again, you showed me and the world that you still aren’t there. And it all seems to be linked to the putter. In the old days, you could will a putt to go in, no matter how long or how much break. Now you can’t seem to make anything, especially when it really counts. You couldn’t make anything on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, couldn’t make anything on Sunday at Pebble Beach, couldn’t make the big putt in your Thursday match at Marana. Although neither match, the first against the unknown Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano nor the second against Nick Watney, were very well played, you still had every chance to win both. On the 18th against Watney, needing a five-footer to square the match and go to extra holes, a putt that was almost automatic in the past, you shoved it right and that was that. After the match, when asked what about your game needed fixing, long game or putting, you chuckled and said fixing the putts was easy. Hmm. We all know that putting success depends on a positive attitude. If you can imagine a putt going in, it probably will. That was what separated you from the rest, your ability to will a putt in. So, you’re faced with a five-footer, knowing you either make it or go home. You could give it enough speed to take out any break. The spectators around 18 started rushing to the first tee. They and the whole world were waiting to see what was going to happen on the first playoff hole. You struck the putt. Didn’t even touch the edge. Tiger, Tiger, I still want you to regain the old roar, but I’m beginning to think you never will.
Friday, February 24
My wife and I see a lot of movies, I more then she, and I think we’re both fairly discerning when it comes to the quality of what we’re seeing. I know it takes a really awful flick for me to consider walking out before the closing credits. And though I know I’ve done it once or twice, I can’t remember the titles of the walked-out-on. They must have been so bad, so unmemorable, that I drew a mental line through them. Yesterday, we went to see This Means War, with Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, and Tom Hardy. About forty-five minutes after it began, I looked at Rosalie and asked, “Well, have we had enough?” She agreed with a chuckle. We made our way down the steps, passing half a dozen people sitting near the exit. I wanted to ask them why they weren’t joining us in our exodus. But I didn’t. Why was it bad enough to abandon? Let me count the ways. But first, the plot. Two CIA agents, best friends, meet a woman and both decide she’s the one for them. The woman, Reese Witherspoon, dates both of them, unaware that they know each other. The title has to do with the war between these two friends in their battle to win Reese’s heart. That tired plot device alone might have made it worthy of our scorn, but there were plenty of other false elements. The CIA headquarters in LA was unrealistically elaborate, with the two operatives unrealistically sitting around with nothing better to do than engage in a contest of shooting paperballs in a wastebasket. Then both of them use the spy capabilities of the bureau to listen in on Reese’s phone calls, watch her in her apartment, listen to her and her girl friend as they talk about the two men she’s dating. Not just unrealistic but also very illegal, unethical, immoral. And stupid. In a sub-plot, a terrorist vows to avenge his brother, who was killed in a covert operation involving both CIA friends, who nonchalantly kill about a dozen bad guys and then walk away joking about it. One would also have to wonder how much CIA operatives make. Both wore $3,000 suits, drove fancy little sports cars, lived in lavish apartments. The action scenes were filmed rapid fire with chaotic cameras to recreate reality. I don’t know that such scenes are even close to reality. Then, to convince Reese that he’s really not just a quiet, unassuming guy, Tuck takes her on a paintball battle and proceeds to annihilate all and every opponent. Really, truly dumb. We don’t know which of them finally wins Reese’s heart and hand. And we don’t care.
Today, I decided to test my perspicuity by seeing another movie, this time Gone, with Amanda Seyfried playing Jill, an escapee from a hostage situation, a young woman whom no one believes was really kidnapped. She’s been put on meds, gone to shrinks, was institutionalized for a while. She keeps pleading with everyone, especially the police, to believe her, that there really is a bad guy out there who takes, imprisons in a deep hole in the woods, and then kills any number of young females just like Jill. And then her sister, who has been living with her to keep her company and help control her madness, goes missing, and Jill just knows it’s the same guy who had taken her and was now out for revenge because she was the only one who had escaped. The entire plot involves her flight from the disbelieving police and her attempts to find where her sister is being held. Although Amanda Seyfield looked a bit bug-eyed and frantic throughout, causing even the viewer to wonder whether she was delusional or telling the truth, the suspense was believable enough to make the movie worthwhile. And the opening segments that followed her as she made her way through the park, through a depth of Oregon pine forest, trying to find the pit where she was held, were beautiful. Oh, yes, and it also set another mark for me: One of the detectives, a young woman who also disbelieved Jill's story, should win an Oscar for the ugliest hairstyle in the history of film. What was the director thinking when he allowed her to show up looking like that? And the movie, not great, was good enough for me to recommend it. But then, when I used This Means War as my benchmark for quality, almost anything would come out looking pretty good.
Tuesday, February 21
Yesterday on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, we were for about the fifth time assaulted by the two little monsters from the UK, Sophia Grace and Rosie. Why Ellen thinks they’re worth bringing back and back and back I just don’t understand. They were first on her show because Ellen had seen a video of them screaming a Nicki Minaj number. Well, it was only Sophia Grace doing the screaming, since Rosie doesn’t seem to serve any purpose but as silent sidekick to Sophia Grace, one of the most abrasive little girls I’ve ever seen. I can’t Imagine anything good in the future for either of these little girls, and Ellen is doing them both a disservice by holding them up to public scrutiny and making them think they’re really talented and special.
Last night we decided to give The Voice a look, compare it to American Idol as a talent discovery show. We were both pleased with what we saw. Idol has turned us off more and more each season we’ve watched it, with lesser talents winning almost every season, with Ryan Seacrest and his irritatingly toothy grin, with Randy and his “Yo, Dog!”, with Steven Tyler and his whatever that some people find appealing. Only J-Lo is worth watching both for her attractiveness and her insights into the talents they present. Idol seems to be more about the judges than the contestants. On The Voice, Carson Daly hosts, a much less pompous and invasive host than Ryan Seacrest, and the four judges—Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine, and Cee Lo Green—make interesting and insightful comments to the performers, explaining why they did or didn’t choose them for their team. In the blind audition phase, the judges have only a minute of the performance to decide if they want the auditioner on their team of twelve, basing their decision entirely on the sound of the performer, not on the looks. I still don’t understand what they do with any leftover contestants when the four of them have filled their twelve-person teams. Just say goodbye? The next order in the format is the battle phase, when contestants on each team battle against each other to narrow the field to a final eight. Sounds a little complicated to me, but I’ll wait to see it before judging it.
Monday, February 20
Let’s see now, I think I’ve written at least twice before about athletes and expectorating, baseball players in particular. My point in the past was that most athletes other than baseball players do not spit when they play a game—not football players, not tennis players, not basketball players, not soccer players, no players of any other sport that I can think of, and especially not golfers. Again, I can’t figure out why baseball players still do it. I know they’re simply emulating players from the past, who were prone to having a cheekful of chewing tobacco when they played. But that’s now a thing of the past, at least for most baseball players. But the tv viewer still has to get up close and personal with ball players, and we watch them spit and spit and spit. Thankfully, their spit is only accumulated saliva and not the sinus honkers some people bring up and then out. Back to golf. Tiger has been reprimanded for his occasional tv spit, and I hope he’s stopped doing it. But last weekend, as I watched the Northern Trust Open in California, we all got to go up close and personal with young Keegan Bradley, the fidget king, and during the last four holes on Sunday, he spit so often that even Gary McCord thought he’d have to speak to Keegan about it. Somebody certainly should, his parents, or maybe his aunt Pat Bradley. Golf is a gentleman’s game, and gentlemen don’t spit. At least not in public view.
Sunday, February 19
One more time with Old Movies. For at least four years, from 1941 to 1945, we always had “News of the Day” before any of the cartoons or the feature film. I guess it was the only way we could learn how the war was going. Did that mean we didn’t have newspapers? We did, but out in the hinterland where I grew up, there were no major journals, so we got world news in front of the movies. Another odd thing we had, a singalong, with the audience all following the bouncing white ball and singing our little hearts out. The ball would jump from syllable to syllable as the audience followed on screen the lyrics to a popular song. How strange, group karaoke.
Tiger isn’t playing this week in California, but Phil is, and doing quite well again. I noticed that Phil looks much trimmer than last year, not nearly as much man boobs and belly. Maybe that accounts for his recent success. Back to Tiger. Those of us who pull for his recovery have been somewhat dismayed at his seeming to choke on Sundays, at Abu Dabi and Pebble Beach. Where is the Tiger of old? An article in Golf Digest suggested that he may be too nice lately, strolling along with his competitors, joking, being a nice guy instead of the solitary intimidator of the past. No one seems to be afraid of him anymore. His presence at a tournament still guarantees about a twenty percent jump in attendance and tv viewing. Doesn’t matter if you love him or hate him, you still have to see how he’s doing. It should be interesting to see how he fares in the match play next week in Marana.
Saturday, February 18
Rosalie and I were discussing a childhood treat, Cracker Jack, and she told me they sold Cracker Jack at Ace. So I told her to bring some home because I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered. It wasn’t. What I remembered was the little box it came in, the caramel taste and crunch along with the peanuts, and the prizes, oh yeah, the prizes. Mmm good. What she brought home, in a bag not a box, was dry, not very caramelly, and with almost no peanuts, and the prize was some dumb little paper thing you could stick on a pencil. How disappointing. I remember the thrill of finding some small treasure at the bottom of that Cracker Jack box, little plastic people or animals or little metal cars. But then, almost nothing is as good as we remember it or tastes as good as the junk food from our youths. I remember going to movies in our local theatre, The Mascot, and filling up on popcorn or Cracker Jack or push ups or fudgesicles, all at a cost of about a nickel apiece. But considering that the movie ticket was only about a quarter, the nickel treats were reasonable. And for only a penny one could buy from the popcorn shop a small container of old maids. Just the thing for us youngsters to break our teeth on. Even the movies seemed better back then. They probably weren’t, but they seemed so in the mirage of my remembrance. Our theatre ran an "A" picture Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays, then a "B" picture Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. And on Saturdays, a double feature, usually some western backed by a horror flick. At any movie showing, we got warmed up with a variety of shorts, mostly cartoons with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, or The Road Runner, or Dudley Dooright and Snidely Whiplash. Sometimes we saw a short called “Behind the Eight-Ball” with Joe McDoakes, or a Three Stooges, or an Our Gang. And if we were really unlucky, we had to sit through something called a Travelogue. Oh, yuck! I and my buddies could go to a Saturday matinee around 1:00 and get out just before supper, probably still too gorged on that old-time junk food that we didn’t want any supper. It was always called "supper" in my youth, never "dinner. The westerns were Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, or Hopalong Cassidy (remember the sidekick Gabby Hayes?). And the horrors were things like The Mummy or Dracula. My memory links Gunga Din and King Kong as one of the double billings, but that can’t be right, since both those films would have warrented a "B" billing, and maybe even an "A" for Gunga Din, with a young Cary Grant and an old Victor McLaglen, a dapper Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and a lovely Joan Fontaine. Oh, and all the Johnny Weismuller Tarzans. How could I forget them? And his mate, Maureen O’Sullivan, and his buddy Cheeta. Oh, my wasted youth. Where of those days in my past has the Cracker Jack gone?
Wednesday, February 15
One more poet and then I’m done. Edna St. Vincent Millay is a minor American poet whose reputation rests on traditional sonnets and lyric poems expressing her Twenties non-conformity. She may be the best writer of sonnets in American literature. The sonnets, either traditional Italian or English, are most often poems about lost love or the passing of time, some using poetic diction, some in a modern idiom, all expressing the non-conformist stance typical of the Twenties. Her best-known sonnet, in Italian sonnet form, exemplifies the world-weariness, the new-found freedom, especially of women, in the Flapper era:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
“First Fig” and “Second Fig,” although little more than flippant throwaways, are two short lyrics that state her attitude best:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
Safe upon the solid rock
The ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace
Built upon the sand!
Another that shows her seeming disdain for conventional love:
“To the Not Impossible Him”
How shall I know, unless I go
To Cairo and Cathay,
Whether or not this blessed spot
Is blest in every way?
Now it may be, the flower for me
Is this beneath my nose;
How shall I tell, unless I smell
The Carthaginian rose?
The fabric of my faithful love
No power shall dim or ravel
Whilst I stay here,–but oh, my dear
If I should ever travel!
Two English sonnets express in quiet, prosaic language her main theme about unrequited love:
If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man—who happened to be you—
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.
Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field and thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea,
Nor that a man's desire is hushed so soon,
And you no longer look with love on me.
This have I known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
Millay, though not a great poet, is certainly good enough to look at if only to see how she reflected the attitudes of that generation we think of as “The Jazz Age.”
Tuesday, February 14
Jump half a century from Dickinson to e. e. cummings and you’ll see more similarities in their poetry than differences. Both thumbed noses at traditional punctuation; both used capital letters (or lack thereof) to reinforce meaning; both exulted in Nature’s glory; both wrote passionate love poems; and if Dickinson occasionally forced a word into a different syntactic category, cummings did it all the time; if Dickinson was occasionally ambiguous or “difficult,” cummings was most of the time. Cummings, though not as great a poet as Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, T. S. Eliot, or any number of others, was in his day and still is today one of the most popular poets who ever put reason to rhyme. He’s just so damned much fun.
In a non-traditional love poem, one illustrating the Twenties’ move toward free love, the speaker (cummings?) presents this argument to a reluctant lover:
yes is a pleasant country:
let's open the year
both is the very weather
when violets appear
love is a deeper season
my sweet one
(and april's where we're)
Note the lack of capital letters, his way of saying that he and most others aren’t important enough to deserve capitalization. Note the way he takes words from one function and forces them into another: yes and if become nouns, suggesting that the country of “yes” is pleasant whereas the country of “if” is cold and wintry; the state of “bothness” (two together as one) is the wonderful (“very”) weather of spring whereas the state of “eitherness” (two but separate) is not the weather of spring. And in the last stanza, his argument is that love should be a matter of feeling, not reasoning, and they are at the beginning (spring) of their relationship. So, let’s do it, he says.
There now, isn’t he a fun poet? Here’s another love poem that’s simply a variation of this theme of feeling over reason:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a far better fate
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
What does he seem to be saying in the final stanza, that life is not a paragraph and that death is no parenthesis? A paragraph, by its very nature, suggests that there is another paragraph to follow, that life has another unit after this life is over. A parenthesis is only the first mark in the pair we call parentheses, so he seems to be saying that there won’t be another mark following the first one. Two ways of saying that this life is all there is and we’d better make the most of it. “Then laugh,” he says, “leaning back in my arms,” and we’ll make love.
How about one that exemplifies the ambiguity and difficulty of much modern poetry. This one uses the same tricks of capitalization and word function as the first two, and it seems to be telling the reader not to be like the ones he describes in each stanza—greedy, wary, busy, cunningly cowardly, tenderly shy people. We should note steeple bells, the glorious moon, the silent stars, the sun, and the wonders of spring.
the greedy the people
(as if as can yes)
they sell and they buy
and they die for because
though the bell in the steeple
the chary the wary
(as all as can each)
they don’t and they do
and they turn to a which
though the moon in her glory
the busy the millions
(as you’re as can i’m)
they flock and they flee
through a thunder of seem
though the stars in their silence
the cunning the craven
(as think as can feel)
they when and they how
and they live for until
though the sun in his heaven
the timid the tender
(as doubt as can trust)
they work and they pray
and they bow to a must
though the earth in her splendor
The poem has a unity that’s effective in communicating his theme. Each stanza employs a parallel structure that reinforces the meaning of each separate stanza. Where the lines may be too obscure in one stanza, clues to the meaning and syntax are given in the equivalent lines in other stanzas. And just as the reader accustoms himself to this parallelism throughout the poem, Cummings plays with the language of the last stanza, surprising the reader with a pun and aptly concluding with one last succinct statement of theme. The last word of line four of each stanza contrasts directly with the last word of the stanza (because-Why, which-Who, seem-Be, until-Now, must-May). The reader observes this and expects this contrast to hold true throughout the poem. And it does, at least on one level. In the last stanza the auxiliary verb “must” has become a noun suggesting that “the timid the tender” live in the belief that they must conform to unbendable and unbreakable rules and conventions, either social or divine. The last word “May,” also an auxiliary verb, suggests the opposite, a permissiveness, or at least our ability to shape our own destinies to some extent. The joy we receive in the double meaning of “May” comes when our minds register that the poet also means the month of May, “the earth in her splendor” giving the lie to the greedy, the chary, the busy, the cunning, the timid. Cummings’ theme is concentrated in that last word—spring, love, and joy of life.
If you’ve never been a fan of cummings and his poetry, you should give him a try. He really is a fun guy.
Monday, February 13
I always enjoyed teaching poetry. It was such a fun exploration of style and meaning mixed in with relevant biographical information. And one of those people I most enjoyed was Emily Dickinson. She wrote traditionally, she wrote untraditionally; she wrote intensely personal poetry, she wrote universally. She was a sort of bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries. In her non-conforming punctuation and word usage, she anticipated e. e. cummings and others. In her occasional ambiguity, she anticipated almost all modern poets. One of the problems is that only a few of her poems were published in her lifetime, and of the approximately 1700 poems her sister discovered after Dickinson’s death, it wasn’t always apparent if a poem was or wasn’t finished. There were often different versions of the same poem. And early publishers of her poetry helped the poor “little tippler” by cleaning up her punctuation and giving all her poems titles. She often used personas that some mistook as her voice. She was reclusive to such an extent that an event like the Civil War was never mentioned or referred to in her poems. She wrote love poems that drove biographers crazy trying to figure out who she might have been referring to. Stylistically, she used four-line stanzas for the most part, in iambic rhythms, rhyming ABCB, sometimes ABAB. She loved to use dashes instead of commas and periods, one of the things her editors “fixed” for her. She seems to have used capital letters for words she felt were important to her meaning. She experimented with rhyme, often using approximate rhymes instead of exact rhymes, rhymes that shock or surprise the reader.
Okay, that’s enough background. Let’s look at some poems. Here’s one of the love poems that drove biographers crazy:
Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild Nights should be
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass,
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden—
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
They kept wondering whom she wanted to moor within or spend those wild nights with. But apparently her lover was purely imaginary.
Her Puritan heritage caused her to question God and His purpose, to consider death from all angles, from a sinister pale figure who woos her, then carries her away, to the ominous buzzing of a fly.
Death is the supple Suitor
That wins at last—
It is a stealthy Wooing
By pallid innuendoes
And dim approach
But brave at last with Bugles
And a bisected Coach
It bears away in triumph
To Troth unknown
And Kindred as responsive
I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air--
Between the Heaves of Storm--
The Eyes around--had wrung them dry--
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset, when the King
Be witnessed--in the Room--
I willed my Keepsakes--Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly--
With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--
Between the light--and me--
And then the Windows failed--and then
I could not see to see--
A nice paradox in that last line, and the image of the sound of a fly physically coming between the speaker and the light is unusual enough to be attractive. And, like the image of the “supple suitor,” there’s something sinister about the buzzing of this fly. In contrast, in another view of death, she compares it to the soul, or spirit, stepping away from “an overcoat of clay.”
Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death--The Spirit, “Sir
I have another trust”--
Death doubts it--Argues from the Ground--
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.
Then there’s her attitude about grief, that the death of someone dear causes her to question the love of God, “boots of lead,” a mental pounding that causes the speaker to go “numb,” leaving her to feel totally alone, “Wrecked, solitary,” and then senseless.
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through—
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum—
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My Mind was going numb—
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space—began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here—
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—
She tries to describe this feeling of emptiness from grief, the “Hour of Lead,” in quite a few poems. Here’s another:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
A quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
And from her dark studies of death and grief, we see her joy in the nature she experienced in her garden, the intensity of this love like an alcohol that makes her drunk.
I taste a liquor never brewed—
From Tankards scooped in Pearl—
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of Air—am I—
And Debauchee of Dew—
Reeling—thro endless summer days—
From inns of Molten Blue—
When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door—
When Butterflies—renounce their “drams”—
I shall but drink the more!
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats—
And Saints—to windows run—
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the—Sun—
Then she can also see the dark side of nature, a woman without her crown.
The Sky is low—the Clouds are mean.
A Travelling Flake of Snow
Across a Barn or through a Rut
Debates if it will go—
A Narrow Wind complains all Day
How some one treated him
Nature, like Us is sometimes caught
Without her Diadem.
She also questions God’s plan or even if God is aware of us, as well as nature’s indifference to human suffering.
Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play—
In accidental power—
The blonde Assassin passes on—
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an approving God.
Most of her poems, though often difficult, are accessible to modern readers, but some are so condensed or abstract the meaning eludes us. But that, according to Dickinson, is part of the joy.
The Riddle we can guess
We speedily despise—
Not anything is stale so long
As Yesterday’s surprise—
She says in another poem that sometimes truth can be too painful, and gives us this lesson:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too Bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
I hope I haven’t bored anyone with all this Dickinson stuff. I’ve really only brushed the surface of her work. One could do worse than be a reader of Dickinson. And she’s so quotable: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” “I can wade grief, whole pools of it,” “Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn,” “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me,” “Pain has an element of blank.” I could go on and on. But that’s enough. Next time I’ll tackle e. e. cummings.
Saturday, February 11
The memory is a fickle beast. We remember some of our past in vivid detail and most of it without a clue, vast stretches of shimmering seascape. And even the vivid detail is often false, just scenes we’ve repainted to fit our eye. I go back to my sixteen months in Korea in my youth and it’s mostly a blur. For example, I know I had to eat at least two meals a day, but other than one Thanksgiving meal in 1953 where the cook had underdone the turkey, I can’t remember a single time ever going to the mess hall for a meal. Bloody turkey leg made it memorable, but that’s it. I remember when Pop Ferrer, our platoon sergeant, would cook a chicken on our pot-bellied stove, breaking the chicken into six parts and putting it in a pot with water and vegetables to simmer all day. Probably the best chicken I ever ate. But I don’t really remember ever eating any of it. I remember stretches of several weeks eating nothing but C-rations and assault rations when I and a bunker mate had to live in a bunker with our 20-power scope, checking out the front lines. But not a single memory of ever going through a mess line. I don’t remember ever being sick while I was in Korea. Nor do I remember anyone else ever being sick. I remember having a-p-c pills available for those times I might have felt woozy, but they invariable pulled me out of it. A-p-c pills, “all purpose cure” pills. I wonder what the army put in those pills. Probably some strong antibiotic along with some pain medication, something like morphine. Don’t quote me on that, but as I said, I don’t remember illness ever being an issue in Korea, not for me or anyone else. The army needs healthy warriors, not sickies. A fickle beast, the memory.
Friday, February 10
[If you disagree with what I'm about to say, please leave a comment explaining your point of view.] Arizona gun laws are peculiar at best. At worst, they’re insane. Under current law, we have folks walking around with guns strapped to their waists or concealed in a pocket, proclaiming their right to protect themselves. No need for background checks or classes in safe handling, no need for permits for anyone 21 or older. Only Alaska and Vermont have similar laws regarding guns. And now there’s legislation pending to allow students and teachers to carry those same guns on college campuses. From peculiar to insane. One would think we were still galloping into town, hitching up our horses, and striding into the nearest saloon to toss down a shot, then challenging the local bad guy to a shootout in the street. But even in Tombstone in the 19th century you had to leave your gun with the sheriff when you came into town. The Second Amendment says, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” “A well regulated militia” back then suggested a citizen militia which might be needed for the protection of our nation. But that was over two hundred years ago, and “the times they are a changin’,” as Bob Dylan suggested. We no longer need a civilian militia just waiting to spring into action. We have police, military, even National Guardsmen there for our protection. I can’t think of many scenarios where I’d want everyone around me to be carrying concealed weapons, just waiting for some bad guy to look cross-eyed at them. It seems to me that’s just asking for bad things to happen. How, for example, does one know the difference between the bad guys and the good guys? And even if you do recognize a bad guy, what if you miss him and take out one or more of the good guys who just happen to be in your line of fire? What if you approach a guy in a car on a dark night, looking for some help with your out-of-gas car, and he thinks you’re a bad guy about to zap him and he beats you to it and lets you have one through the window? What about all the road rage out there, nearly every car, every driver, having ready access to a gun, just waiting for you to flip him the bird as he cuts you off at the pass, just waiting to pull up beside you at the next red light and, smiling, shoot you in the face? Too many awful possibilities, too few positives.
Thursday, February 9
A Few days ago, Miley Cyrus sang a Bob Dylan song on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” and Ellen, by way of introduction, told her tv audience that Bob Dylan was one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Hmm. I can name quite a few of his that are good songs: "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are a Changin'," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and others. But are they great? And exactly what makes for a great song? Obviously it’s a serendipitous union of music and lyrics, and many songs have two writers for those two elements, many songs have only one. Dylan’s body of work is huge, many songs of which are considered great because of their timeliness as well as their timelessness, their singability, their popularity. But I’m not sure about them being great—maybe good, but not necessarily great. Of the two, I think the lyrics are most responsible for great songs, and Dylan’s songs often have only average lyrics. For example, one of the closing sections from “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome”:
“Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad,
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair.
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
And the closing section:
“I’ll look for you in old Honolulu,
San Francisco, Ashtabula,
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above,
In the tall grass, in the ones I love.
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
These lyrics are at best only average.
From the past I can point to Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Larry Hart, Oscar Hammerstein as great lyricists. From the present, Steven Sondheim and the Bergmans, Alan and Marilyn. And of all the songs ever written, the Bergman’s have what I call the greatest set of lyrics ever in “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”
“What are you doing the rest of your life?
North and south and east and west of your life,
I have only one request of your life,
That you spend it all with me.
All the seasons and the times of your days,
All the nickels and the dimes of your days,
Let the reasons and the rhymes of your days
All begin and end with me.
I want to see your face in every kind of light,
In fields of dawn and forests of the night,
And when you stand before the candles on a cake
Oh let me be the one to hear the silent wish you make.
Those tomorrows waiting deep in your eyes,
In the world of love you keep in your eyes,
I’ll awaken what’s asleep in your eyes.
It may take a kiss or two.
Through all of my life—
Summer, winter, spring, and fall of my life—
All I ever will recall of my life
Is all of my life with you.”
I love the symmetry of the comparisons, the neat rounding out of the references to time—points of a compass to her life, nickels and dimes to her days, their future together awakened with a kiss, and the seasons to his life with her. And the cleverness of the rhymes, of course. And with the music of Michel Legrand, words and music are joined at hip and heart.
Other lyrics that run close seconds and thirds are Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” Tom Adair’s “Everything Happens to Me” (which has a ‘40’s set of lyrics as well as a revised ‘80’s set, both of which are excellent), Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We?” The list goes on.
I need the play of exact rhyme, the contest to see if a rhyme pattern can be established and then stuck with throughout. Too many modern lyrics rely on approximate rhyme much too often. I consider that lazy. I like words and rhymes the writer has to work for. I like patterns that demonstrate the hard work and cleverness of the writer. I like words that surprise me, like Larry Hart’s “You have what I lack myself. Now I even have to scratch my back myself.” Or his playful rhyme for greenery in the conclusion of “Mountain Greenery”: “You would get no keener re-ception in a beanery, bless our mountain greenery home.” And his slender, surrender, send a tender in “Little Girl Blue.” Cole Porter was a master of surprise lyrics: “Good authors too who once knew better words, now only use four-letter words writing prose. Anything goes. The world has gone mad today, and good’s bad today, and black’s white today, and day’s night today, when most guys today that women prize today are just silly gigolos.” Porter was also one of the last great intro writers, a lost art among present-day writers: “My story is much too sad to be told, but practically everything leaves me totally cold. The only exception I know is the case, when I’m out on a quiet spree, fighting vainly the old ennui, when I suddenly turn and see your fabulous face.” Which then leads into “I Get No Kick.” And Larry Hart was no slouch at intros either. For example the long opening to “It Never Entered My Mind”: “I don’t care if there’s powder on my nose, I don’t care if my hairdo is in place, I’ve lost the very meaning of repose, I never put a mudpack on my face. Oh who’d have thought that I’d walk in a daze now, I never go to shows at night, but just to matinees now. I see the show, and home I go . . . Once I laughed when I heard you saying, etc.” Ah yes, they just don’t write ‘em like that anymore.
And all of those songs are better than anything Bob Dylan ever wrote.
Wednesday, February 8
There’s so much to see on television these days, but so little is worth seeing.
We sat through the first half hour of Smash, the musical about the making of a musical, sort of an adult Glee. The main stars, Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston, were good, but the rest of the cast was only so-so. And there wasn’t much gleeful about it, and very little music. It began with a portion of Katharine McPhee singing her old Idol standby, “Over the Rainbow,” but only a tiny portion. Later on we hear Megan Hilty, the other singer vying for the role of Marilyn in the musical being planned, sing an original song for the show. And that was pretty much it. If this was to be a copy of Glee, then where was all the music? Don’t get me wrong, I love Broadway musicals and all the backstage stuff that goes with the production of musicals. But this didn’t impress me. Maybe I should have seen the whole hour before judging. But I didn’t, and I don’t think I’m going to try another episode. There was just too much crash and not enough Smash.
Too much to see on the tube, too little time.
And the same can be said about the pilot of The River. This was a two-hour pilot and we gave it a full hour before turning it off. It looked too much like a low-budget Lost, a story about scary magic deep in the Amazon. Too much nonsense, too little Lost. The search party looking for Dr. Emmet Cole, the main character in a reality adventure show, doesn’t find him, but they do find his boat, The Magus, maybe the nastiest, rustiest ship you’d never want to sail on. And inside a sealed compartment they find a beastie that escapes into the surrounding jungle, and we just know it wants their blood. The camera work borrows too much from Blair Witch Project--you know, the shaky hand-held shots that wander shakily all over the place. And there were just too many implausibilities, like their making this nasty ship river-worthy again, like the young girl who gets what looks like a six-inch cut in her thigh, gets it stitched up, and then we find her shoulder-deep in the river helping to free the ship from the guck that seems to be holding it. I don’t think so. Steven Spielberg has a hand in the production of The River, but I think he should get it out. His hand, that is.
I must be getting old and losing my hearing. These two shows, like too many others, seem to care little about letting their viewers hear the dialogue, rushing through it too fast to catch, or covering it over with too-loud background sounds and music. Or maybe it’s just my cantankerousness again that finds so little worth watching on television.
Monday, February 6
Super Weekend is now over. I can’t say I’m sorry to see it go. All the hype and hoopla that seemed to go on all day Sunday was enough to sicken the strongest stomach. And the Giants won. I guess I’d have to say they were the best team on that day, but I still don’t think they deserved to be there in the first place. It should have been the 49ers. But that’s another story.
The Garbage Can Open took my attention away from most of that hoopla stuff leading up to the kickoff at 4:30. And it was certainly entertaining, at least to the winner, Kyle Stanley, not so much to the loser, Spencer Levin.
Friday, February 3
The English language is a slippery beast. Non-native speakers (and even quite a few native speakers) have a terrible time deciphering some of our words and their slippery meanings. For example, the old linguistic conundrum “Time flies” shows us how many of our words can be used in different function classes, from noun to verb and back again.
To explain further, “time” can be either a noun or a verb. In the first case the phrase, using “time” as a noun, means that time (or life) flies (goes quickly). In the second case, “time” is a verb in the imperative voice, commanding the listener to time (or measure out in seconds or minutes) how fast “flies” (the pesky little winged creatures) travel.
Another example is one I thought of in the depths of night, one of those half-waking, half-sleeping moments when the mind takes on a remarkable clarity that is almost always lost with morning’s light, like the dreams we have that we try to hold onto after waking but that almost always slip away before we can write them down or even tell them to someone. Here it is: “I lie on my bed sheets” and “I lie on my tax sheets.” The meanings of the two have a way of slipping around, like trying to run in glass shoes on a frozen lake, or writing with quicksilver on wax paper. My night thoughts were more complete than this, but whatever else I thought of is now consigned to that cabinet in the sky where all our lost dreams and thoughts reside.
Thursday, February 2
I seem to have nothing to say today. So I leafed through some of my saved jokes and puns and found a few puns you may not have seen. A pun is invariably greeted with a snort of derisiion and an "Oh, no!" So snort away if you must.
1. Two vultures board an airplane, each carrying two dead raccoons. The stewardess looks at them and says, "I'm sorry, gentlemen, only one carrion allowed per passenger."
2. Two boll weevils grew up in South Carolina. One went to Hollywood and became a famous actor. The other stayed behind in the cotton fields and never amounted to much. The second one, naturally, became known as the lesser of two weevils.
3. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, but when they lit a fire in the craft, it sank, proving once again that you can't have your kayak and heat it, too.
4. A three-legged dog walks into a saloon in the Old West. He slides up to the bar and announces: "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw."
5. Did you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain during a root canal? He wanted to transcend dental medication.
6. A group of chess enthusiasts checked into a hotel and were standing in the lobby discussing their recent tournament victories. After about an hour, the manager came
out of the office and asked them to disperse. "But why?" they asked, as they moved off. "Because," he said, "I can't stand chess nuts boasting in an open foyer."
7. A woman has twins and gives them up for adoption. One of them goes to a family in Egypt and is named "Ahmal." The other goes to a family in Spain; they name him "Juan." Years later, Juan sends a picture of himself to his birth mother. Upon receiving the picture, she tells her husband that she
wishes she also had a picture of Ahmal. Her husband responds, "They're twins! If you've seen Juan, you've seen Ahmal."
8. These friars were behind on their belfry payments, so they opened up a small florist shop to raise funds. Since everyone liked to buy flowers from the men of God, a rival florist across town thought the competition was unfair. He asked the good fathers to close down, but they would not. He went back and begged the friars to close. They ignored him. So, the rival florist hired Hugh MacTaggart, the roughest and most vicious thug in town to "persuade" them to close. Hugh beat up the friars and trashed their store, saying he'd be back if they didn't close up shop. Terrified, they did so, thereby proving that Hugh, and only Hugh, can prevent florist friars.
And as long as I've been telling you about our cats, how about a few Cat Haikus?
You never feed me.
Perhaps I'll sleep on your face.
That will show you.
You must scratch me there!
Yes, above my tail!
Behold, elevator butt.
The rule for today
Touch my tail, I shred your hand.
New rule tomorrow.
In deep sleep hear sound
Cat vomit, hairball somewhere
Will find in morning.
You're always typing.
Well, let's see you ignore me
Sitting on your hands.
Small brave carnivores
Kill pine cones and mosquitoes
fear vacuum cleaner.
I want to be close to you.
Can I fit my head
Inside your armpit?
Want to go outside.
Uh oh! Help! I am outside!
Let me back inside!
Oh no! My human
Has been trapped by newspaper!
Cat to the rescue.
My humans are snoring now.
Every room is dark and cold,
Time for "cup hockey".
Wednesday, February 1
Charlie seems to have settled in nicely. There is no spot in our house that he hasn’t explored, and he seems to own them all. He’s decided he loves our back patio, a place where he can get up close and personal with quail and rabbits. He hasn’t been out there when any of our coyote population saunters by. I’m not sure how he’ll react to a coyote. Probably, since he’s a very sensible little cat, he will rush back into the house, just in case the big dog decides to come crashing through the patio screen to make a meal of little Charlie. As I said, Charlie seems to be a very bright little cat. And he and Squeakie are now friends. No more hissing, no more Squeakie tails like bottle brushes. They even now bump noses and sniff tails. Well, not exactly tails, but you know what I mean. They’re still not friends enough to curl up together or bathe each other, but that, I’m sure, will come. After all, if one is up to sniffing tails, can a closer relationship be far behind? That’s true with humans, so why not with cats? They now also sleep with us, Charlie all night, and Squeakie part of the night. But, then, she’s never slept with us for a whole night. Charlie sleeps between us and whenever I get up to pee, he feels obligated to keep me company, twining back and forth between my legs, purring softly as he twines. Then he beats me back into bed and we resume our nightly sleep. We’ve had quite a few cats in our lives before moving to Sun City West, but I swear we’ve never had one like Charlie. Maybe it’s because we were always busy working or golfing and we didn’t take the time to watch a kitten grow into an adult. Maybe it’s because all our other cats were outdoors cats, coming and going via a cat door. Dusty, when we got him, was already a grown cat, and Squeakie was a tiny kitten with Dusty as a big brother. But she never acted like Charlie. I think Charlie may very well be a tiny person in a kitten disguise.
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