Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 61

1. AOTW: Waiting to turn right on red. Look to left (clear). Look to right (clear). Start our turn. Then ... here comes the AOTW, to our right, turning left, cutting off so much of our lane as he does so that he nearly smashes us. A Driving Note: Left turns are not done on the hypotenuse!

2. Noticed this morning: I must put my left sandal (shoe, boot) on first. Otherwise, my day is ruined.

3. Last night, we went to see the latest Mission Impossible film with Tom Cruise (whose personal life, of course, is repellent--but if you failed to patronize all productions, to read all books, etc., involving Jerks, you would, for the most part, be Home Alone). Anyway, I used to watch MI back when it was a TV show, which ran from 1966-1973. (I began teaching in 1966 and--not having met Joyce yet--was Home Alone a lot, and I watched the old black-and-white TV my parents had given me--used, with rabbit ears--and one of my shows was MI.)

I actually liked this newest film--was fooled any number of times--and one of my criteria for judging a film: Does it fool me--fairly? Cruise was good; fun to see Simon Pegg (from Shaun of the Dead, etc.); Jeremy Renner and Alec Baldwin going at it. There were some genial nods to the Bond films (a bikini-clad woman stepping out of the water), some great action scenes, and (as I said) some real surprises. Worth going to see! (Link to trailer for the film.)

4. You know you're getting old when no one notices (or says anything) about your recent haircut.

5. Senior Moment: I arrived at the health club this week, opened the back door of the car to get my gym bag and discovered that, instead, I'd brought my backpack.

6. I've been reading Rick Moody's novel The Four Fingers of Death (2010) the last week or so. I've read all of Moody's books--most of them in preparation for a review I did for the Plain Dealer of his trilogy of novellas, Right Livelihoods (2007). (The review was picked up by Newhouse News Service, and you can read it at this link.)

Anyway, when this new one came out in 2010, I put it on the shelf, thinking that if I were to review Moody again, I would wait and read it then. Five years have gone by. Time to read it. (Okay, another reason I've delayed: It's well over 700 pages--big pages.)

But now I've started it (have read about 400) and am dazzled by his virtuosity here. Stories within stories, meta-fictional monkey business, a human Mars landing, stuff goes wrong, a single astronaut returns--but not in the shape you'd think, etc. I'll give you the Full Report once I finish it.

6. As followers of this blog know, I read more than a half-dozen books at a time (not all at once!), reading a chapter or so of each in bed as I wind down from the day. Right now, I'm trying to finish novels by Smollett (The Expedition of Humphry Clinker), Eliot (Romola), Dumas (Twenty Years After), Stegner (The Big Rock Candy Mountain), Wallace (Infinite Jest), Smith (Agent 6), Johnson (Another Man's Moccasins, one of the Longmire mysteries), and a work of nonfiction: Shermer (The Moral Arc). Don't usually read from all of them each evening, but, like a good baseball manager, I try to set up a solid rotation.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Not-So-Smart Day

Today has been one of those days: Smartphone Meets Dumb Guy.

Yes, today is the day I traded in my antique iPhone 5 and upgraded to an I'm-so-hot-and-you're-not iPhone 6. (I know: the 7 will be out any old day now probably; then, once again, I'll be an Inferior Creature.)

It began with a trip this morning to the AT&T Store in Stow/Kent, where (lucky me) I got a Professional to help me right away. She was actually quite good and got me out the door (with a somewhat diminished bank account) in under a half-hour. And the biggest surprise? I remembered key passwords. I planned to stop somewhere and celebrate on the way home. But I forgot.

At home I had to "sync" up on my computer. I kind of managed that all right. Then, getting my apps and info to download on the new phone. That took a little doing--until I figured out how to do it--feeling only mildly inadequate when I realized how simple it all was. Once I knew.

That's the key, isn't it? Everything's simple when you figure out how to do it.

Oh, and then I had some fun (earlier: this is out-of-sync (like my phone)) when I had to sync my new phone with the Bluetooth phone device in our car, which wanted desperately to recognize my new phone but somehow just couldn't get it done. (Like me in Algebra II in high school.)

Then (Einstein Moment!) I realized I had to delete my old phone first (don't know why), and when I did so, our Prius happily linked my new phone, so now I can be hands-off when I talk. Though, I have to say, that after reading (and reviewing) A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel (2014)--a book about how we just can not text-and-drive and talk-and-drive without putting ourselves and others at great risk (oh, we think we can do it; tests show conclusively that we can't)--well, I've quit using the phone while the car is moving. I never did text-and-drive, but I did talk-and-drive. No more.

So ... apps are downloaded; now all I have to do is to combine them in folders and then walk around and act superior, a status I've achieved because, of course, having a new electronic device confers Greatness upon you, right?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 144

Exploring the Boot of Italy

As we’ve seen, newlyweds Mary and Bysshe Shelley did not stay long in England once they’d exchanged their vows at St. Mildred’s, Bread Street on December 30, 1816. A little over a year later they—and Claire Clairmont with her fourteen-month-old daughter, Allegra (whose father, recall, was Lord Byron)—were on the way to Dover to sail for Italy. With the Shelleys, as well, was their son, William, about two years old. It was a journey that would transform them all and would place a dark, dark period at the end of the sentence of their youth.

Part of the plan for my journey to Europe in April 1999 was to follow the Shelleys to Italy—which, I knew, wouldn’t be all that easy. The peripatetic Bysshe could not stay in one place for very long. During his four years in Italy, they visited and/or lived in (sometimes more than once) Pisa, Leghorn, Bagni di Lucca, Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Rome, Naples, Florence, San Terenzo. They were up and down and around the boot of Italy like shoeshine cloth.

Well, my masters, Time and Money, would not allow me to go everywhere. But I did the best I could given my masters’ restrictions. My biggest regret: I did not make it to Venice, over on the northeastern side of the boot. For me, it was pretty much the western side, the side where they were living when Bysshe never returned from a sailing excursion in July 1822, washing up ten days later at Viareggio, where local officials required he be cremated on the beach.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Back from the Bard, 4

Blackfriars Theater
American Shakespeare Center
Staunton, Va.

Final thoughts (I think?!?) about seeing Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale last Saturday afternoon at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va.

Okay--the time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Well, a few things, anyway. Specifically--what about the endings of Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter's Tale, endings that require us to accept that a loving woman will forgive a man who (in Much Ado) shamed her at her own wedding (calling her a whore, basically) and (in Winter's Tale) accused her publicly of infidelity with his best friend, condemning her to prison and ordering the death of her newborn, who, he believes, is not his child but his best friend's?

Both women (Hero and Hermione) feign death, but Hermione waits sixteen years to reveal that she is alive.

And, as I said, both women forgive the men. Happy ending.

There are all sorts of ways to look at this. I'll review a couple, then talk about where I come down--and why.
  • We must remember: Shakespeare wrote these plays for an audience, a late 16th-, early 17th-century audience. An audience living in a time when males dominated everything. Women were basically a man's property (as were children), so one hard way to look at these endings? Shakespeare was a man; he had very probably strayed (his wife and family were back in Stratford-upon-Avon while he was in London, the most popular playwright of his day). So ... man strays; woman forgives ... does she really have a choice? (Other than suicide or a life of disgrace?) Only a man in a male-dominated culture could write a story like this ... imagine the opposite? A woman behaving in such a fashion ... never happen, right?
  • The plays are not tragedies. If they were, Claudio and the King of Sicilia would, like Othello, have committed even more grisly acts than they did--murder, perhaps. Then die themselves. But Shakespeare wanted a brighter ending in these two plays, so dissipating the darkness that reigns for a while in both is the sun of forgiveness. 
  • But I have another thought, a thought about the vast dimensions of love and forgiveness that appear in his plays, the vast dimensions of the human heart. Yes, the men shame the women in horrifying ways (I'll tell you this: I'm pretty sure--no, positive--I wouldn't be married now if I'd carried on at our wedding the way Claudio did at his!)
    • Both men, however, undergo a transformative period of suffering. Claudio, realizing the horror of what he's done, goes regularly to the grave of Hero (who, of course, is not there) and declares his sorrow and regret; he agrees to marry, sight-unseen, a cousin (he will willingly do his duty); he even realizes that he will perhaps have to battle with his friend Benedick, who has blasted him for his actions, who has suggested they will soon be drawing swords. It's not until the final moments of the play that Benedick lets him off the hook.
    • Leontes (King of Sicilia) grieves for sixteen years--not just for the death of Hermione (who's not dead, of course) but for the the death of his young son (caused by the King's disrespect for Apollo) and the (supposed) death of his infant daughter, whom he ordered abandoned in the wilderness. We see that he has softened, become more humane. More of a human being.
    • And so ... the women, recognizing true transformation, forgive them.
  • So, maybe I'm a bit Pollyannaish about all of this. Blame my own experiences with the love of a wonderful woman, if you must. I know, you see, firsthand, about the dimensions of a human heart.
  • Shakespeare wrote about love over and over and over again. (Anthony Trollope, by the way, wrote forty-seven novels and said he tried to write one without a love interest in it but had to change his mind part-way through: It just wasn't working.) The Bard saw that there is nothing funnier than love-at-first-sight (Romeo, Claudio, Lucentio, Berowne, and many many others), that there is nothing more moving than a man and a woman recognizing they must be together, nothing more ludicrous than a cuckold (best shown in The Merry Wives of Windsor). And nothing more, well, tragic than love spurned--or disgraced.
  • Hawthorne's story "Young Goodman Brown" charts the dark story of a young man who cannot forgive once he discovers that the people in his life are sinners. And do you remember the grim final sentence?
    • And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.
  • I think Shakespeare knew this long before. No forgiveness, an embittered heart. Forever.
All right ... now here's something you probably didn't expect. We saw The Winter's Tale on Saturday afternoon. On Saturday evening we walked down the street to the little local movie theater and saw Minions!

More about that later this week ...

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Back from the Bard, 3

Joyce and I saw The Winter's Tale at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., last Saturday afternoon ...

Let's admit this right away: The Bard can give us problems--and I'm not talking here now about unfamiliar vocabulary and Elizabethan customs and the like. I'm talking about what happens in his plays. Sometimes, it can, well, require a lot of us.

Like Hamlet's encounter with the pirates. That's a stretch. And (in the comedies) the stunning failure of characters to notice that other characters are pretending to be someone/something else. Like those cross-gender transformations in, oh, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. C'mon now--how dumb do you have to be not to recognize that "Ganymede" in As You Like It is actually the amazing Rosalind!?

Okay. There are those sorts of problems. But there are others that can be deeply disturbing. In my memoir about my teaching career (Schoolboy, 2012--available on your Kindle app from Amazon) I tell briefly about an experience I had teaching Much Ado About Nothing to eighth graders back in the 1990s.

In that wonderful play, the young and mercurial Claudio, convinced (by lies) that the young woman he is about to marry (Hero) is, well, providing services for another man--on the eve of her wedding--he waits until the actual ceremony to confront her, to accuse her of infidelity in front of the assembly, and then to stalk self-righteously out of the wedding-that-is-no-more with his equally huffy buddies. Hero, in the meantime, has fainted with shock at the vileness of the slanders against her.

The word goes out that Hero has died. Claudio later discovers he's been manipulated and deceived. He begs forgiveness from Hero's father, who says he will forgive--if (among other things) Claudio will marry, sight unseen, Hero's cousin. The distraught young man promptly agrees.

At the second wedding, his new bride is heavily veiled and he does not see who it is until the last minute. It's Hero, of course, who has not actually died but has been in hiding until friends rescue her reputation (which they do).

At this moment as we were reading the play aloud in class one day, one of my eighth grade girls cried out, "Why would she take him back!" Indeed. A sizzling little conversation ensued.

In The Winter's Tale (first performed in 1611, more than a dozen years after Much Ado) we have an even more egregious version of that story, as we've seen. The King of Sicilia believes his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful--with his best friend--and that she has conceived a child with that friend. Sicilia condemns her in public, ignores moderating cautionary counsel, sends her to prison, orders the infant to be killed. Only deaths convince him of his error. The death of his son, the death of Hermione. And his daughter is now off, abandoned and dead (he thinks), in Bohemia.

Sixteen years pass between these events and the end of the play. He is reunited with the daughter he thought was dead, and then Paulina, a friend of his long-dead wife, invites him to view a statue of Hermione that she has commissioned. He goes to Paulina's house (with most of the rest of the cast) and sees the statue, initially covered with a drape.

When the covering is removed--TIME FOR A SPOILER ALERT--he sees the amazingly lifelike image before him. He is overwhelmed with regret and grief. And then--after some talking--the statue moves, steps down from its pedestal. It's Hermione, of course, still alive, who's been in seclusion all this time. They embrace. All forgiven.

What?!!?!?!  How could she do that? And why?

In the words of my 8th grader, Why would she take him back?

Indeed ... and next time I'll get into that ...

To be continued ...

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Back from the Bard, 2

Yesterday, I wrote about how Joyce and I saw a production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale at the Blackfriars Theater (a replica--though smaller--of the indoor theater that Shakespeare's company used in London late in the Bard's career). As is my wont, I rambled and never really said anything about Winter's Tale, so that's today's task ...

I mentioned yesterday that, until recently, The Winter's Tale was one of the final two remaining of the plays of Shakespeare that Joyce and I had not seen onstage. But now--as I wrote--we've seen it several times because companies, for some reason (could it be the play is good?!?!), have begun producing it again.

Quick plot summary: two kings (of Bohemia, of Sicilia) have been friends since boyhood; Bohemia is visiting Sicilia (has been there quite a while); Bohemia says it's time to go home; Sicilia begs him not to; Bohemia is adamant; Sicilia enlists his (pregnant) wife to intercede; she does; Bohemia says he'll stay; Sicilia goes all Othello (jealous, murderous), begins imagining/believing that the child his wife is carrying is not his but Bohemia's; Sicilia orders the murder of his old friend, but old friend gets a warning and flees; grrrrr; Sicilia shames his wife in public, accuses her of infidelity, confines her to prison; when the child is born, Sicilia refuses to accept that it's his and orders the infant (a girl) tossed in the fire, relents (a bit), orders it abandoned in a remote place; when word comes from the oracle at Delphi that Sicilia has been totally wrong, he refuses to accept Apollo's decision; oops: his young son and wife die; oops; now he realizes he's been wrong; too bad and too late; an aide has taken the infant to a remote place (Bohemia!), has abandoned it, then runs offstage in a moment described in the best stage direction in Shakespeare ("Exit, pursued by a bear."); he doesn't exit fast enough, though; the bear catches and eats him (offstage!); a shepherd finds the baby; adopts it.

Sixteen years pass; baby has grown into gorgeous young woman, pursued (not by a bear) but by--surprise!--the son of Bohemia; the king goes into disguise to see what his son's been up to--He's courting a shepherd's daughter! NO WAY!--he orders his son to cease and desist--NO WAY!--son and gf flee to ... Sicilia, where the penitent king welcomes them (not realizing they've fled against Bohemia's wishes, not realizing, of course, the young woman is his daughter); Bohemia pursues the couple; we're back where we started; the kings reconcile, and then one of the most amazing moments in Shakespeare ...

I think I'll hold off on the "one of the most amazing moments in Shakespeare" for the nonce. I've left out a couple of the subplots in the little summary above. (Look them up; read the play; whatever.)

The production in Staunton, as I wrote yesterday, was pretty much Elizabethan--low, continuous light; simple costumes; no scenery; few props; music before and during the show; playfulness of the players (they often interacted with audience members, about a half-dozen of whom were sitting on the stage at far Right and far Left); actors (even the principals) playing more than one role.

And they were terrific--as was the Bear. I've seen this done numerous ways--from minimal costuming to maximal. This was more the latter. Full Bear. With an actor who had practiced ursine movements and looked really convincing. At the intermission, the Bear (sans Bear head) was one of the singers. And he could more than ... barely ... sing. He was good.

The director and the players found some funny stage business to do at times. Grabbing a guy with a shepherd's crook, crawling around on the floor in hopes you won't be noticed, suddenly switching from an Elizabethan dance number (at a shepherds' party) and doing a raucous version of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"--link to YouTube of John Denver singing his famous song).

Sometimes (usually? always?)  I'm bothered when Shakespeare directors are so fearful of losing a modern Twittery, Facebooky, texty audience that they fill the show with contemporary music and references (adding lines to the Bard's!), but I liked this because it was so unexpected--and so fitting--and so unique (it did not happen again).

Also very amusing was Bohemia's disguise at the party (see above), when he was spying on his son. He'd donned a silvery wig, affected a hunch, and tried to act sage and neutral--until it became very clear that his son was with the young girl (Perdita). Then ... all pretensions disappeared and he roared as only a parent disappointed in a child can roar.

One rendering of Autolycus
Also well done--a subplot involving the small-time conman, Autolycus (ought to like us?), who cuts purses and lies and steals throughout. But things don't work out well for him.

And now, it seems, I've written so much that I'm going to have to delay till tomorrow the "amazing moments" stuff ...

To be continued ...

Monday, July 27, 2015

Back from the Bard

American Shakespeare Center
Staunton, VA

Part of Joyce's birthday this year was a trip to Staunton, Va., to the American Shakespeare Center, where we saw this past weekend a wonderful production of the Bard's The Winter's Tale. As you can see from the image (I stole it from the web), the theater is a smaller replica of Blackfriars, the indoor theater that Shakespeare's company acquired in 1608, late in the Bard's career.

Until Blackfriars (others would follow), theater companies had to go on the road in the winter months (performing indoors for various patrons, including the king and queen), for, as we know, the other playhouses (like the Globe) had open roofs (sunlight worked better than no light in the ages before electricity!)--and open roofs in the winter are generally not such a good idea.

Blackfriars was so named because it (and other buildings around it--occupying in all, about five acres) had once belonged to the Dominicans (they wore black cloaks), whom Henry VIII outlawed in his decision to break from Rome in 1534 in the wake of the Pope's refusal to sanction his divorce from Catherine, his marriage with Anne Boleyn. Church property became the King's property and eventually found its way into private hands, as well.

Anyway, at the American Shakespeare Center the productions adhere to some of the routines you would have seen at the original Blackfriars: low-level light the entire production (the original theater had used candles), musical performances before and during the show, many interactions with the players and audience members (some of whom sit on the stage), minimal costuming and props (no scenery at all), audience members drinking and eating throughout (think: movies today), actors playing multiple parts (and sometimes as a member of the other gender), and a general friskiness that helps make the time fly. Oh, and the company has several productions going throughout the week, with the same players in all. From the program cover you can see what's going on now--the cover image is from Henry VI, Part One, which features Joan of Arc (fire, if you recall, is relevant in her story!). It's astonishing to think of the feats of memory these cast members achieve.

Oh, and all of them sing and dance. The cast members are the ones who play (guitar, bass, banjo, etc.) and sing before the show (and during intermission). The songs are contemporary, by the way--as they would have been in the Bard's day.

It's an odd thing about our experiences with The Winter's Tale. As I've written here before, Joyce and I had been on a decades-long quest to see all of the Bard's plays onstage, and as the years drifted by, we soon found ourselves with just two remaining: The Winter's Tale and Richard II. Then, suddenly, companies were doing Winter's Tale, and we've seen it three or four times in recent years. But Richard II? We finally managed to see it at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass., in the summer of 2013. It's still the only time we've seen it. Since 2001, we've been going up to Stratford, Ont., every summer for their theater festival (we stay all week--see almost every show they do--ten or eleven plays in six days), and they have yet to do Richard II.

Anyway, I'm going on and on, so I'll pause here before I write about the actual production of Winter's Tale, one of my favorite plays.

To be continued ...