Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Can I Have a Napkin Please?

What a great moment! A guerrilla musical (complete with wireless mikes going through the court's sound system) breaks out in a food court in LA. Improv lives.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Do you hear the people sing?

The more I teach my students about history, the more I realize that we as humans keep repeating past mistakes. The power of Les Miserables and the musical Les Miz is that it speaks to us quite eloquently about the need for justice and right in our world. "Do you hear the people sing?" seems an apt rallying cry for this election.

Cleopatra in the Arts: a preview

I recently finished a 2009 calendar using some of the images I created for my Dressing Cleopatra book. I was pleased with how they work as a calendar. For a preview of the complete calendar check here. Be sure to wait for the preview to load.

Let me know what you think.


As many people have been sharing this, I wanted it here. It says it all.

Thanks to

Morning Surprise

Today, as I do almost every morning, I hurried downstairs to my garage which is located at the back of a connecting building. I used the remote to raise the garage door and went to get in the car. Through the window—aided by the overhead light—I saw what I first thought to be a dead body slumped behind the steering wheel of my car. Trying to overcome my shock, I opened the car door to discover a middle-aged homeless man sleeping in the car. I’m afraid I rudely awoke him, screaming for him to get out of my car. When he finally did and started to leave, he stopped, looked at me and said, “I didn’t take anything.” As if that made it all better. And then he walked out of the garage and down the alley.

My friends tell me I should have called the police, but I decided I was already running late and didn’t want to add another 30 minutes to my schedule.

My garage is large enough for only one car and I have many boxes of assorted books, former school papers, and video tapes. All the box lids had been opened and some of the items were on the ground. In the car I found my intruder had left a flashlight behind. And the door to the interior of the building (which I never use and keep locked) was unlocked—the way I assume my visitor got into the space.

Oak Park, like many American cities in today’s economic climate, is host to many homeless. They often spend the night at the church beside my building which houses PADS. I see them peopling the parks, I see them panhandling near the Starbucks I visit, on one occasion I went up to the back entrance that I tend to use and found a guy urinating believing he was hidden from sight. Friends tell me stories of finding someone sleeping on their porch or in their condo lobby entrance. I, like most people I know, don’t see a solution to this continually growing social problem. All I know is that they are there, like so many walking ghosts.

This morning, I was totally freaked out—I think I still am. Sometimes a sense of security is little more than empty words.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Male Menopause

When I was 50, my older brother died of lymphoma. He had been separated from his wife, but rejoined her in the last months of his illness. His death was one of things that led me to 2 years of depression—a chemical inbalance which was both genetic and situational. As I neared my brother’s age, I kept asking myself, “Is this who I am? Is there where I’m meant to be?” And in a long painful process for both of us, my wife of 25 years and I separated.

Sunday, as I prepared to watch Mad Men, I talked to a good friend who told me about an acquaintance whose husband of 25 was leaving his wife that day. He’d apparently had an affair with another woman for 18 years and had finally decided to leave.

In Mad Men: A Night to Remember, that night, the main character and his wife—the image of the1950s perfect couple—face his adultery and her sense of being trapped by the two children and the suburbs. I identified with it as an archetypal situation.

Over the years since I left my wife, now almost 12 years later, I have become convinced that we men go through a sort of male menopause. In some ways—if I can say this without it sounding flip—women are lucky in that their menopause gives them physical signs. For us men, the changes are hidden very deep in our psyche. Perhaps it’s partially spurred on by the fact that most women outlive men. Often, I feel, when a guy reaches the big 50, he realizes, “I may have only 20 more years or less—and if I should drop dead right now was could I say about my life?”

Women get hot flashes, sometimes lose muscle mass, and endure brittle bones; men buy a new car, leave their old life, find a younger woman, or begin harmful life choices.

A divorced female friend of mine whose husband followed the all-too-common pattern said, “He kept saying, ‘You don’t know how hard this is for me.’ The funny thing was that I did, and I even sympathized with his struggle of accepting his own behavior.”

When I was going through my struggles, I found little literature to help me or my wife. And over the years, I see example and example of the same behaviors. All I can wonder is whether these traits indicate a genetic disposition that many of us men experience. Certainly my sympathy for Don Draper in Mad Men comes from my empathy for his clearly recognizable struggles.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mad Men - The Loss of Failure

AMC’s Mad Men is by far the best drama on television. I meet with a group of women every morning at Starbucks, and at least three times a week those of us following the show do the analysis of the characters and the plots.

Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “A Night to Remember,” is about failing.

  • Don Draper can look his wife in the eye and lie to the end that he was faithful. But does he love Betty as he says he does? My women friends say he does. I’m not as certain. I think he likes the protective coat of marriage and children—the sense of a “womb with a view” where he can come home and feel safe in the life he has created. Before he is thrown out, Betty finds one of his ad campaigns written on a napkin. It says, “What do women want? To feel close.” Don understands Betty, but in spite of his saying he loves, does he? I find it interesting that Don is so good at compartmentalizing his assumed identity that he doesn’t even leave clues to himself in his suits.
  • Betty Draper has to face the failure of her marriage. She is trapped with two small children she doesn’t even appear to like. She loves the upward mobility of her life with Don in the suburbs but at the same time feels trapped in a world away from the working world where she thinks she wants to be. She seems to have as much of a problem with the fact that Don knows her better than perhaps she knows herself as she does with Don's being unfaithful. Her descent into the hell of her obsessions about Don and who he is proves uncomfortable to watch.

  • Peggy , like Don, has created a persona—the successful Madison Avenue female ad agent--but when she agrees to help Father Gill, she fails at winning the committee over to her views because the two closed-minded church biddies care more about having a hand in the planning than they do in wanting to create a dance for the girls. And Father Gill once again prods her, trying to get her to confess what he knows—that she had a baby out of wedlock. [One of the priests I teach with was irate about Father Gill’s using information he has learned to deal with Betty.)
  • Joan finally seems to be breaking out of that shell we have seen. She helps Harry out by reading scripts, making suggestions, and ultimately being a great asset to him. At which point, oblivious Harry passes her over and hires an ungifted but male replacement. When we see Joan with her future husband/doctor—is she putting him through school?—the most telling things he says are, “You should be sitting home eating bon bons” and “Were you going to get me some water?” The look of heartbreak that we see when Joan realizes her attempt has failed in getting her beyond being just secretary is one of the moving images of the episode.
  • And finally, Father Gill, who ends the episode by taking off his collar and playing the guitar, seems to register a sense of failure at not having “healed” Peggy, finding solace in singing.

The show is set in 1961. The coping mechanism for many of these characters are cigarettes and Manhattans. One wonders what will happen when they all discover valium (1963), the drug of choice for many of my parents' generation.

It’s not too late to follow Mad Men. Check AMC’s OnDemand.

Some interesting reviews on last week's show:

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pinocchio Politics

At this third lie, his nose became longer than ever, so long that he could not even turn around. If he turned to the right, he knocked it against the bed or into the windowpanes; if he turned to the left, he struck the walls or the door; if he raised it a bit, he almost put the Fairy's eyes out.

The Fairy sat looking at him and laughing.

"Why do you laugh?" the Marionette asked her, worried now at the sight of his growing nose.

"I am laughing at your lies."

"How do you know I am lying?"

"Lies, my boy, are known in a moment. There are two kinds of lies, lies with short legs and lies with long noses. Yours, just now, happen to have long noses."

Pinocchio, not knowing where to hide his shame, tried to escape from the room, but his nose had become so long that he could not get it out of the door. [from Chapter 17 of The Adventures of Pinocchio by C. Collodi]

It’s unfortunate that politicians don’t suffer from Pinocchio syndromes and have their noses grow every time they tell a lie. It would make it so much easier to sort out today’s concept of “truth.” I’m beginning to believe that truth is any lie you say as long as you don’t get caught. Politicians stretching or distorting the truth is nothing new at all, but today it seems tell a lie, tell it often, and gee it becomes the truth.

Michael Cooper and Jim Rutenberg at The New York Times have an interesting article on our latest Pinocchio Politics (a term I've coined for this election). Read the article.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chilling Continued

A couple of days ago I wrote about my concerns regarding the reported Sarah Palin suggestion that we need to ban some books at the public library. Discussion with students in class has reinforced for me how complicated I find the issue.

Not long ago someone sent me a picture of a young man being beheaded by the Al-Qaida. I won’t go into detail about the picture because I found it so disturbing that I think even the description might be enough to upset some people. [And so I censor myself in the description.] I wish the person who had sent it had done the same reasoning. I did not need to see the blade going through flesh. Even though I looked at it only briefly, it is an image that permanently etched itself into my consciousness.

The same might be said of watching Luis Bunuel’s Un chien andolu, a surrealistic/Dadaist film from the 1920s. In the film a woman is shown in closeup. A man’s arm and hand reaches across her and then in extreme closeup slits her eye with a razor (actually the eye of a sheep). One of the goals of the surrealist was to shock the audience. It does. The problem with the images, of course, are they don’t go away. Some 40 years later I can vividly recall the sequence.

During the mid 1990s, I found a video tape of Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini. I knew from the publicity around it that the film would be shocking. I’m sure I was intrigued by that idea. “How shocking is shocking?” I thought. At the point in the film where young men were forced to eat excrement, however, I said to myself, “Did I EVER need to see this?” [The same I would ask about John Waters Pink Flamingo where a similar event occurs.] My therapist greeted my subsequent outrage with a simple, “Wasn’t it a good thing to only have to pay $5 to realize your own boundaries?”

I asked the students whether there were things they were sorry that they saw or read. Several referred to the violence of the film Hostel. From their descriptions I can see why we at least tout a rating system. Obviously for the students the rating system did little good.

For the students, the argument seems to finally boil down to (a) protect freedom of speech and let the artist do what they want; (b) censor by not attending, not buying, not supporting what you don’t want you or others not to see.

So where do I really stand on censorship? I, like many people, find the answer varied. I don’t believe we need to fear art. I don’t believe in the suppression of ideas. I do believe that not everyone needs to see all the seamier and more disgusting sides of life, that dark underbelly of our beastial human nature.

Certainly as a teacher, I support that there are many images and ideas that young people don’t need to see or follow. But does that mean we censor or do we just warn others that what they see or hear may be upsetting? And where do we draw the line?

As the King in The King and I maintains, “Tis a puzzlement.”

Friday, September 05, 2008

Dressing Cleopatra: The Cleopatra Costume in the Arts

I spent the summer writing a book.

On my website are five pages dealing with the Cleopatra costume on stage and the screen. Since November 2002, I have had 241,809 visitors to the site. This summer I decided to expand my research, include research into some of the Cleopatras from paintings and eventually publish a book starting with the information that I already had online.

So far I have a total of 160 pages with over 70 full page color artworks.

Writing the book was fairly eye opening. When I first started writing, I thought that historical accuracy of the Cleopatra costume was the desired goal and somehow deviations from that were "wrong." However, the more I saw some of the truly creative and innovative creations, I have come to appreciate all approaches—whether historical accuracy or the flights of fancy from some of the designers. A few of my 70 full page color artworks are seen below.

Cleopatra herself might have appeared in the first example. Here she is pictured beside a small black basalt statue believed to have been created during her lifetime. She wears a typical Alexandrian Graeco-Roman belted stolla and sea-green palla.

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1606. If the boy actor Edmans portraying Cleopatra were dressed as James I's queen, he would have a wheel farthingale, ruff, and stomacher.

Next is seen a Cleopatra that might have appeared in Dryden’s All for Love, during the Restoration period. Here she is made to represent Charles II’s mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland. Typical of the period were the beginnings of the standard tragic costume: crown, plumes and train.

Jumping to the end of the nineteenth century, we see “The Divine” Sarah Bernhardt in Sardou’s Cléopâtre. Artist/designer George Clairin painted her in this costume and Sarony photographed her in it when she came to the United States.

Into the twentieth century, we have Leon Baskt’s design for Ida Rubinstein in Fokine’s 1909 Cléopâtre for Diaghliv’s Ballet Russes ballet.

In 1945, Vivien Leigh starred in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra with Claude Rains as Caesar.

Valentina in 1947 designed an understated elegant dress for Katherine Cornell’s Broadway Antony and Cleopatra. Cornell was nominated for one of the first Tonys for her performance.

Perhaps the most famous and infamous Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor’s in 1963. Here are three of the over 40 costumes designed for her in what was at the time considered one of the most expensive flops in Hollywood history—it led to the firing of several executives and made Taylor a permanent star.

In 1999, Leonor Varela starred in a two-part made-for-television version of the Cleopatra story. The Mausoleum gown and mantle are made from iridescent gold tissue silk, varigated with gold, magenta, and green. The "electrum" combination Isis crown is a modified Greco-Roman style. The drawing is done in frontal based style, meaning that the “feather” section is turned toward the viewer even though it in actuality faced the viewer.

The twenty-first century Cleopatras have often been garbed in other periods. As the 2005 Glyndebourne Cleopatra from Guilio Cesare in Egitto, Danielle de Niese looks like a combination of Lulu and Velma from ‘Chicago.” She flirts with dark glasses, a cocktail, pink cigarette and umbrella.

While publication of the book may be a few months away, I feel like I took a class in Cleopatra this summer—and passed.

The Big Chill

In the early 1990s, a poster stating “Fear No Art” appeared. That image has stayed in my consciousness since then. I wonder often at the fear some people exhibit toward the visual art or the written word. Surprisingly for me, both educated and uneducated people seem to acknowledge the power of art to transform us, seemingly beyond our control.

In reading about Sarah Palin today, I felt a chill down my spine as I read this passage from Time:

Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them.
"The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

I’ve previously talked about the chilling effect that religion had on the time of Chaucer. Sarah Durant’s book, The Birth of Venus, deals with the climate created by Catholic Dominican reformer Girolamo Savonarola.

In 1481 or 1482, Savonarola was sent to Florence to preach. Immediately he began opposing the Renaissance attraction for pagan works and the perceived immoral life of the Florentine society and Lorenzo de Medici’s court. Becoming obsessed with the Book of Revelation, he spent from 1489 on trying to save souls from the Apocalypse he felt was immediate. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Many persons brought articles of luxury, playing-cards, ornaments, pictures of beautiful women, the writings of pagan and immoral poets, etc., to the monastery of San Marco [where Savonarola was prior]; these articles were then publicly burned. A brotherhood founded by Savonarola for young people encouraged a pious, Christian life among its members. Sundays some of this brotherhood went about from house to house and along the streets to take away dice and cards from the citizens, to exhort luxuriously dressed married and single women to lay aside frivolous ornament. Thus there arose an actual police for regulating morality, which also carried on its work by the objectionable methods of spying and denunciation.

During the 1497 carnival, Savonarola organized fifteen story-high pyres in Piazza della Signoria, onto which his followers threw “carnival masks, rich feminine ornaments, mirrors, cosmetics, cards and dice, perfume, books of poetry and on magic, musical instruments, and worldly paintings where female bodies were displayed unclothed.” Botticelli, a very sensitive soul, was so impressed (or so scared) by Savonarola that he threw many of his paintings on the bonfires. Among the works burned were Boccaccio’s Decameron and the works of Ovid. The spectacle became known as the Bonfires of the Vanities.

Savonarola’s criticisms of the Church in Rome eventually led to his excommunication in 1497, and his subsequent execution by hanging in May 1498, after which his body was burned.

In 1933, it wasn’t the Church promoting the burning of books and ideas, it was German students. Nazi Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels began an attempt to regulate the arts to bring them into line with Nazi goals. Organizations were purged of Jews and others considered politically or artistically suspect. On 6 April 1933, the German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda called for a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” eventually culminating on 10 May, in many university towns, in the burning of over 25,000 volumes considered “Un-German.” Students marched in torchlight parades, bands played, songs were sung, “fire oaths” were taken and the left was silenced one way or another. Some of the banned authors included Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Alfred Kerr, and Americans Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller.

Moying Li in Snow Falling in Spring describes the rampaging Chinese Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution in 1968 who break into her home and force her father to destroy his collection of “Western” books.

Book banning and burning follows much the same philosophy as that of the ancient Egyptians—if it’s not there to see, it didn’t exist. Pharaohs often had inscriptions from previous rulers recarved and their names inserted. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, in 221 BCE, took the same tact when he ordered the burning of classic works and histories, fearing that they might undermine his authority.

A sobering poster from World War II from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows a book with the headline: “Books cannot be killed by fire.” And under the image of the book and burnings is the slogan, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

To learn more about chilling of our minds, start here to learn the history of book burning through the ages.

And if you need any more frightening image of repression of art, check out the following images of the Hitler book burnings. Are these the past or our future?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Looking at China

In 1989, my mother went to China. Her tour group visited Tiananmen Square a week before the “June Fourth” incident. From her trip, she brought me a 3- inch lovely doll which she had watched being made. My mother’s fascination with the country has proved genetic. She would have been as fascinated with the pageantry of the Summer Olympics in Bejing as I was.

In preparing the curriculum for my freshmen world literature class at St. Ignatius College Prep, I knew I wanted to teach the charming book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. Balzac takes place during Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1968. Two “intellectual” teen-aged students are sent to the countryside to be re-indoctrinated. I’ve never taught the book, but have loved it since my first reading of it several years ago.

In doing additional research I’ve read Moying Li's Snow Falling in Spring, an autobiography of a young woman who grew in Peijing during the 1960-1970 period, which has provided many interesting first-hand details. As a child in the late 1950s, she witnessed her neighborhood’s abortive attempt to help move their country into the present by producing homemade steel, using pot, pans, and knives. Later as the Cultural Revolution started she watched gangs of teens denouncing adults and other teens, creating public humiliations, suicides, the destruction of books and break down of the educational system, and dissonants being sent off to concentration camps. There are incredible shades of Hitler’s Youth and the rise of the Nazis.

In my search for a video to support the unit, I remembered scholar of Polonysian literature once said about how it is a culture’s dreams and fiction that tells us about what they who they really are. I at first watched The Road Home, a recent Chinese film which deals with the widow of a teacher who wants the body of her husband carried home in his coffin so that his soul will know the road home. In flashback we learn of their courtship. The film gives a fascinating view of rural China during the same period as the other books. [I found a delightful touch, speaking of the connection between global cultures, in that in the educator’s house two posters of the movie Titanic hang—and are never mentioned or referenced.] I did decide that film might be a little too slow for class.

Being a fan of Chinese fantasy film, I happily stumbled onto the 2005 Warner Bros. release, The Promise [Wu ji]. The film is one of the most expensive ever made in China and has thousands of extras, fantastic sets, and magic realism. With the goddess Manshen’s flying entrance at the beginning, I was hooked. I’m a sucker for flying goddesses, fighting warlords in elaborate costumes who can fight unhampered by gravity, and a hero who can outrun time. It is an interesting tale about the inevitability of destiny and the power of love to defeat it.

I’m looking forward to starting the unit next week.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire

Years ago, Alice Roosevelt Longworth in an interview said that she was asked about all the wonderful things she saw in the years she was in the White House with her father’s administration and her cousin’s. She described a favorite poem in which a salamander living in the court of Nebuchadnezzar is asked to describe all the great things he had seen in the great king’s court. Upon reflection the lizard replies, “I didn’t notice any of it. I was concentrating on the flies.” I’m sometimes reminded that I am kin to that salamander. Perhaps we all are.

Last night I joined some friends and attended Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. I went, rather oblivious as to what we were going to see, and I came away realizing how big the world is and how little I really know of it here in my sheltered Oak Park, Illinois, life.

Raffo’s play is a one-woman show of 9 monologues, inspired by a 1993 trip to Iraq. During that trip she saw huge portraits of Saddham Hussein and a painting of a nude woman as a tree. Wanting to learn more about the artist, she began interviewing her and then other Iraqi women. Their stories were woven into the 90 minute show. Raffo portrays, among others, a painter, a Bedouin, a woman who mourns the deaths of her family in a bunker, a doctor, and an expatriot living in London. Each character is vividly drawn with her own posture and appearance, verbal cadences and dialects. Raffo is amazing, often funny, often heart-breaking.

The set Raffo moves around on consists of slabs of broken concrete, a partial Iraqi doorway boarded up, pieces of mosaic on the wall and mosaic patterned lineolium on the floor, a pool of water representing the river, bright yellow sandbags, and other debris, all surrounded by bare scaffolding, mood lighting, and huge plastic tarps. It is a world of both survival and destruction.

I was amazed by what I learned. One of the descriptions that astonished me were the genetic defects Raffo’s doctor describes—children born with two heads, ten year old girls developing breast cancer. [In 1991, according to an online source, the United States and Persian Gulf War allies blasted vehicles with armor-piercing shells made of depleted uranium as the Iraqis retreated from Kuwait.] Some sources speak of Iraq as another Chernobyl. Another source speaks of a baby with a head growing out its head and others with intestines growing outside the body.

Another character describes how Saddam’s henchmen had to learn to torture and cull crueltry from watching films. Torture, she says, is a learned behavior. She describes how young girls were kidnapped, raped, called prostitutes and then beheaded. Another character describes how an imprisioned woman is punished for menstruating by being hung upside down. Her three year old child is brought to outside her cell and put in a bag with hungry cats. The babies screams are recorded to play for the father who is locked away in another cell.

All evening I was reminded of Vladmir’s line in “Waiting for Godot”:

Was I sleeping while others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow when I wake, or think I do, what will I say of today? That with Estragon my friend I waited for Godot. … But in all that what truth will there be? We give birth astride of the grave, the light gleams an instant and then it’s night once more. I can’t go. What have I said?

I consider myself a literate person, but how could all that epic suffering have not penetrated my safe cocoon.

One of my friends commented as we left, “I feel assaulted.” I did too… and emotionally drained. But if I were to judge how much I learned about the Iraqi female experience, the performance was an incredible experience. The show has only a run until May 18, but I urge you to experience it. If not, check out Raffo’s webpage and get the book or audio version of the play. I am definitely considering it as one of the works to teach next year.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Book of Air and Shadows

William Shakespeare was born and died on this day.

It seems appropriate that I just finished reading Michael Gruber’s 2006 adventure/mystery/quest The Book of Air and Shadows since Shakespeare is the subject of the book’s search. Avoiding spoilers, let me say that the book is cross between The DaVinci Code and The Maltese Falcon. Three main characters, a weightlifter intellectual properties lawyer, a wannabe filmmaker bookkeeper, and a blonde bookbinder with a past all search a lost and unknown manuscript by Shakespeare, alluded to in letters from a Jacobean gunner/adventurer/spy. The letters are given to the lawyer and then the owner of the letters is found tortured and murdered. The plot abounds with red herrings, Russian gangsters, Polish spies, classic chases, plenty of film noir plot twists, lots of enjoyable characters, and a literate narrative which utilizes three different perspectives. The book also plays some with time sequence. Gruber understands that inherent in the adventure/mystery/quest genre is that while the characters may have to face danger and violence, ultimately the good guys win. And our sense of harmony and order is restored.

One thing I found myself enjoying about the book was the examination of the role of religion in a Roman Catholic’s world past and present—whether it’s Shakespeare who is spied upon because of his Catholicism or several of the modern characters struggling with understanding the place of the church in their lives.

The second idea I particularly liked was Gruber’s argument that we have learned how to deal with things by watching films—and our response to many situations is just like the movies because they have taught us how to respond. In the book the two main characters are discussing this idea. The lawyer and the wannabe filmmaker are talking. The lawyer says:

“… Surely it’s the other way around—filmmakers take popular ideas and embody them in films.”

“No, the movies come first. For example, no one ever had a fast-draw face-to-face shoot-out on the dusty Main Street in a western town. It never happened, ever. A screenwriter invented it for dramatic effect. It’s the classic American trope, redemption through violence, and it comes through the movies. There were very few handguns in the real old west. They were expensive and heavy and no one but an idiot would wear them in a side holster. On a horse? When you wanted to kill someone in the Old West, you waited for your chance and shot him in the back, usually with a shotgun. Now we have a zillion handguns because the movies taught us that a handgun is something a real man has to have, and people really kill each other like fictional western gunslingers. And it’s not just thugs. Movies shape everyone’s reality, to the extent that it’s shaped by human action—foreign policy, business, sexual relationships, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. It used to the Bible but now it’s movies. Why is there stalking? Because we know that the guy should persist and make a fool of himself until the girl admits that she loves him. We’ve all seen it. Why is there date rape? Because the asshole is waiting for the moment when resistance turns to passion. He’s seen Nicole and Reese do it fifty times. We make these little decisions, day by day, and we end up with a world. This one, like it or not.”

While I’m fascinated with the character’s idea, I’m not sure it fully pans out. Look, for example, at this tintype of Billy the Kid, who stands with rifle and gun strapped to his leg. But, I do agree that movies have taught me how to respond in many situations, among them how to be in love. (See one of my earlier posts regarding what literature has taught us about the same.)

If you enjoyed Chinatown or The Maltese Falcon or The DaVinci Code or National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, I think you'll enjoy Michael Gruber's book.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Scarf

About three weeks ago, a reclusive elderly woman, who lived in a garden apartment in the building across from mine, died. Normally I might not even have noticed. Most of the time her blinds were closed and in the five years I’ve lived here, I had only seen her a couple of times.

So how did I know she had died? One afternoon as I returned home I discovered that the dumpsters in the alley were neatly packed with books, magazines, years of TV Guides, cheap furniture, some clothing. When I walked out to my car the next morning, homeless scavengers had torn open all the bags and scattered everything they didn’t take—as if the bags were filled with cloth popcorn which had heated and burst.
Last week the dumpsters were filled again, this time primarily with clothing. [See above.] Again the scavengers attacked. And for four days, when I came home, a lone woman’s scarf lay in my path each time I walked into the building.

Do you believe that some part of us remains with items we have loved and used? I guess I do. And each day when I walked past the scarf, I felt haunted by my deceased neighbor. That’s why I picked up the lonely scarf and hung it up in my garage. Each time I see it, I think of my lonely neighbor. Everybody deserves someone to remember them.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Learning about Love

One of the greatest mysteries of my life has been learning what love is. No one taught me how to love another. My parents taught me what family love means and my grandmother taught me how to treat the opposite sex. But no wise mentor ever taught me what it meant to really love. The great authors often served as my guide.

Here are some of the books I have taught over the years and what they have to say about the power of love:
· A Christmas Carol (Dickens): the need for having love in one’s life
· A Doll’s House (Ibsen): the destructive power of love which fails to see the true other person
· A Lion in Winter (Golding): the ties of remembered love, dysfunctional family ties
· Death in Venice (Mann): the destructive power of obsessive love
· Madame Bovary (Flaubert): the failure of romantic love in a realistic world
· Siddhartha (Hesse): love of family, the inability of love to define our search for self
· Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare): love at first sight, allowing ourselves to change for others
· The Alchemist (Coehlo): love at first sight
· The Book of Lost Things (Connolly): love of family and the healing power of love
· The Iliad (Homer): the destructive power of lust, the nobility of love of family and country
· The Turn of the Screw (James): the effects of “twisted love”
· To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee): love of family, responsibility toward others.
· Washington Square (James): The pain of unrequited love

Of all the works I’ve taught, the one that has taught me the most about love is Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac which speaks of shaping one’s life with beau gestes, the pain of unrequited love and the power of dedicating oneself to serving another. Cyrano taught me to place others above myself. He is constantly performing beau gestes (beautiful gestures which hurt him but help others). His love for his cousin enriches his life while at the same time teaches him the pain of unrequited love. At the end of his life he has the love and admiration of his friends. In his final hour he learns that Roxane has always loved him—even though she thought it was Christian she loved. He dies knowing the joy of hearing another say they love him unconditionally.

Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines

This poem was written by Pablo Neruda, from Chile:

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example,'The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Coming Into the Light: The Raising of Lazarus and Dr. Owen Harper

Recently our gospel reading dealt with the raising of Lazarus. My pastor pointed out in his homily that Lazarus wasn’t resurrected, he was resuscitated… He will die again, but for the moment he rejoins the living. Eventually he will have to die again. Only at Lazarus’ resurrection will he live eternally.

I was thinking about that homily as I ironed my shirts this weekend. And I kept looking at the 7-inch scar running down my lower left arm where my vein was taken out to use in the triple bypass operation that saved my life back in 2005. And I pondered those existential questions that face us all—Why am I here? Where am I going? What is my purpose?

My favorite television series—the one I stay home for this year—is BBC’s “Torchwood.” As a fan of the early “X-Files,” before they loaded the series down with the alien conspiracy story-line, I loved the interplay and semi-romantic banter between Scully and Mulder. In “Torchwood,” we have a main character—growing out of the series “Dr. Who”—named Captain Jack Harkness. Jack is witty and charming. He has a past which is mysterious and only occasionally explained. We know that he was born in a previous time period and has survived death. He cannot die. He is also unashamedly gay. His “shagging” buddy is Ianto Jones, whose job on the Torchwood team is that of a general support character. Ianto idolizes (and sleeps with) Jack. [When Ianto believes that Jack has been killed, the writer quotes “Brokeback Mountain,” by having Ianto standing holding Jack’s coat.]

Straight members of the team include Gwen Cooper, a former policewoman, who Jack recruits in the first episode. Dr. Toshiko Sato, a Japanese-American computer specialist, searches for love while being totally devoted to the team. Dr. Owen Harper, the cynical medical doctor of the team, offers us the cynical Scully view of the world. He is also highly sexual. In one funny moment of last year's finale, upon learning that the death of the world was imminent, he asks the team if they want to shag.

Two episodes ago viewers—if they were like me—were shocked when Owen was shot and killed. The team is such a great unit together, it was hard to believe the writers would kill him off. Since that episode, Owen has been brought back—resuscitated—but he and we are unclear whether he will die immediately or 30 years down the road.
Death has been a common theme dealt with in several episodes. Most commonly the writers’ viewpoint is that death is nothingness—the great black beyond, devoid of hope or comfort. When you are dead, you’re dead. But Captain Jack’s existence questions that very statement. And Owen’s return offers the writers’ another chance to deal with the existential questions of life and death.

In last week’s episode, Owen talked about having a “bad week.” He died, he lost his love of food, his love of sex, and his love of life. He is separated from the team—since they are living—and his sense of existential angst drives him to the despair of wanting to just have it done and kill himself again. But when he tries to drown himself, he stays underwater, still living. In the episode, he comes across what the team believes is a bomb filled with energy. Instead he discovers it is similar to our Pioneer 11 attempt to send our life prints to other galaxies. The machine draws energy and shows us in a darkened world that there is light—wonderous, magical, healing, comforting light—light which allows Owen to find meaning here and go on.

Do we all become Lazarus, locking ourselves in our living tombs, waiting for someone or something to call us forth and help us find meaning in the darkness? I think so. In fact, I think I have the scar to prove it.
[The picture is a modified version of Caravaggio's Raising of Lazarus.]

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Is Anybody There?

Not too long ago I was teaching doing the blog to my juniors, and looking at my own blog I find a deficiency. Nobody seems to want to make any comments. I don't know if that means the entries are too esoteric or too long or too uninteresting. I'm not sure how to get comments, but I know that having them would help open more of a dialog between me and you. Do you have anything to add?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

A fairy tale search for lasting love

I am currently teaching A.I., one of my favorite films, to two high school junior English classes after their reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are looking at the similar themes and new questions that man as creator introduces.

The first image we have in this futuristic fairy tale is of powerful ocean waves while a soothing omnipotent narrator describes the time when the ice caps have melted, the major cities have been flooded, people have migrated, thousands have starved, and the remaining humans have placed limits on the number of live births, thus making the creation of Mechas which don’t eat important. [How insightful for 2001.]

Science is personified in Professor Hobby. His objective in the film is to create a perfect Mecha [future-speak for ‘robot’] which will love genuinely, unconditionally—a Mecha child that will never grow up, never get ill, never reject, never stop loving. … “A Mecha,” his creator says, “that dreams.”

“But,” responds one of the professor’s colleagues, “given the animus toward machines, can you get a human to love it back? And what sense of responsibility will that love carry?”

The professor ends his argument with, “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?”

Monica and Henry’s real son Martin lies in a cryogenic cocoon, unresponsive, seemingly lost forever. Henry brings home the Mecha child David from work to try to pull her out of her depression.

“On the outside he looks so real,” Monica observes, “but I know he is not.” That assertion is something Speilberg constantly reminds us—remember these are only Mecha, but then why are you feeling so sorry for our treatment of them?

Henry cautions Monica that they must be sure they want to keep David because after a Mecha’s imprinting occurs, if they want to give him up he has to be returned to the Cybertronics lab to be destroyed.

Quickly we see David imprinting on his mother and learning what it is to be human—to prepare and eat food, to play, to laugh. At first he is too present. She suggests he sleep so she can get away for awhile. “I can never go to sleep,” he tells her, “but I can think quietly and never make a peep.”

We know that David has gone begun thinking for himself when he laughs at Monica with spaghetti hanging from her mouth—a reference to Disney’s Lady and the Tramp?

After Monica says the words to imprint David to her, we know the change because he stops referring to her as Monica and calls her “Mommy.” But as a loving Mecha, David learns fear. “Mommy, will you die?” he asks. “I’ll be alone,” he says embracing her. “How long will you live?” “For ages…for fifty years,” she answers.

Like Disney and Collodi’s Pinocchio, this artificial boy wants to be a real child, but David is created to be only an illusion of human. He is given a Disney wise-mentor Jiminy Cricket in the form of supertoy “Teddy.”

Martin, when he returns, introduces David to the idea of being “real.” “When’s your “build day?” Martin asks. David has no concept of what Martin is asking. Suddenly David is confronted by questions of a larger world: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? The answers seem to lie in Collodi’s Pinocchio which Martin has Monica read to David.

After we see the destructive power of jealousy and hate through David’s encounters with Martin, Monica takes him to Cybertronics to be destroyed, but she can’t bring herself to do it. Instead she deserts him in the woods. David pleads, “If I become a real boy can I come back home?” “It’s only a story,” Monica says and leaves him with Teddy to face a world for which he’s totally unprepared.

The rest of the film becomes David’s journey to find himself, to reach the Blue Fairy, and ultimately to become a real boy. Along the way, other Mecha help him—especially Giggolo Joe [the fox from Collodi’s story] who even takes him to a city of Lost Boys just as in Pinocchio.

David’s journey finally takes him to the offices of Cybertronics where he discovers there are hundreds of Mecha just like him—the unique boy is only the image of Professor Hobby’s dead son.

If the film were to stop here, the sadness of the journey would create only despair that we live in a world of cruel humans where magic can’t happen. But the film has one final surprise. Centuries pass and benevolent aliens come to study our culture. [Spielberg’s Close Encounters return in an advanced future.] Nothing remains of us—except for David, Teddy and a lock of his mother’s hair.

David is given the chance to have one last day with the mother he loves—and when it is over, he lies quietly beside her, dreaming and sleeping for the first time. And Spielburg tells us that of all the remaining traits of our humanity which may have meaning in our universe our ability to love unconditionally is the most redeeming. David spends an eternity loving. If only we could.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Emotional Pain

On Thursday’s NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross talked with Martha Weinman Lear, author of Where Did I Leave My Glasses? The What, When and Why of Normal Memory Loss. [An excerpt from her book is found here.] Lear talked about some of the latest findings regarding memory and aging. I was particularly interested in Lear’s comment that memory of physical pain is not retained while emotional pain can remain as fresh as when it first happened.

Lear talked about the death of her husband and how the pain of his loss was still with her—that she could easily recall the emotions she felt. In contrast she states that it is probably important that we not remember physical pain—remembering a broken arm she points out could be debilitating.

Lear’s comments make a lot of sense. I have little memory of the actual physical pain involved with my triple bypass operation. I can intellectually recall the experience, but I can’t reproduce what I felt. On the other hand, I can intensely recall the emotional pain I felt with my call from my uncle telling me that my father had committed suicide.

I’ve been wondering how her discussion ties into a theory we studied in drama called the
James-Lange theory. William James and Carl Lange basically suggest that our physiological reactions, such as panting, heart rate, muscular tension, lead us to then experience what we call emotions. According to the two of them, our physical reactions come first; we interpret these motor responses as emotions. One of my acting teachers stressed how the theory played out in terms of theatre. According to him, if an actor knows that his response interpreted as anger involves more concentrated and faster breathing, faster heart rate, clinched fists, wrinkling of the forehead, then by reproducing those responses, the actor will find he is angry.

So is our memory of emotional pain tied into physiological reactions to a situation?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Recognizing The Face of Evil

Can we recognize the face of evil when we see it? We are conditioned to recognize the evil nature of a Hitler or a Ben Laden or a Caligula or a Nero, but can we pick hidden evil when we encounter it? In Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's main character's evil transformed a painting while hiding the character's true nature from others. So if we come face to face with the basest nature of man, can we pick out those people by sight? Unfortunately not.

Today I discovered two photo albums on the
Holocaust museum website. One album, called Auschwitz album, contains 192 photographs from 1944, picturing Jews from Subcarpathian Rus, many picturing men, women and children moments before being herded to their deaths into the gas chambers. There they stand or sit, bewildered, in shock, perhaps unaware of their immediate fate.

In grim contrast is a 1944
photo album created by SS-Obersturmführer Karl Höcker [alternately spelled Hoecker], the adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz, SS-Sturmbannführer Richard Baer. In a neat grid of two columns with neat handwriting, the 116 pictures include images of a Nazi officers’ hunting retreat, Höcker playing with his dog, SS officers relaxing with women and a baby, members of the SS Helferinnen (female auxiliaries) and men enjoying cups of blueberries and accordion music, Höcker lighting Christmas tree candles, and officers socializing together. Among the men in the pictures is a smiling, benign-looking Dr. Joseph Mengele, who history has nicknamed “The Angel of Death.”

History tells us that
Mengele was responsible for the selection of who lived and who died and enforcing horrendous atrocities —sterilization, freezing, infecting people with malaria and typhus, giving them mustard gas, sea water, phosphorus, and poison. But as pictured in the album, Mengele stands laughing and enjoying the company of the people he knew, while train loads of humans were being systematically catalogued, selected and sent to their deaths. Monster that he was, he appears almost friendly—death hiding behind a smile.Did he use his charming smile to lull his victims into a sense of security?

Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock understood that everyone has a propensity for evil—we all carry dark secrets. Speaking in a filmed interview, he once talked of enjoying using seeming cultured, harmless people threatening the safety of ordinary people in seemly “safe” situations. In these two Holocaust albums, we can see through the impartial eyes of the camera lens that seemingly ordinary evil.

I found viewing the albums a truly chilling experience.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Revealing our inner selves

During the last couple of weeks, my juniors have been reading from the diaries of Samuel Pepys. While we have easily discussed Pepys’ social life, his descriptions of the Black Plague of 1665 and the Great London Fire of 1666, one issue we had doubts about was whether Pepys intended them to be read. Our final consensus was that since he wrote in his own private shorthand that most of his contemporaries couldn’t read, he must not have intended them to be for an audience.
Pepys does not, for example, shy away from showing his flaws. In one entry he talks about his violent and jealous temper, which leads him to destroy his love letters which his young wife cherishes. In another he beats her:

Thereupon she giving me some cross answer I did strike her over her left eye such a blow as the poor wretch did cry out and was in great pain, but yet her spirit was such as to endeavour to bite and scratch me. But I coying —[stroking or caressing]— with her made her leave crying, and sent for butter and parsley, and friends presently one with another, and I up, vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black, and the people of the house observed it. [Pepys]

Thoughout, as a Restoration playboy, Pepys details his sexual conquests with a pride.

Having been primed for the topic of diaries and the private self we reveal though them, I listened with interest when NPR’s
Fresh Air reaired Terry Gross’ 1995 interview with author William Maxwell. In the conversation, they talked about his 1992 short story “What He Was Like” (found in All the Days and Nights: the collected stories). The story, according to the author, deals with the disparity of one’s interior life and public life. I had not read the story but was intrigued enough by the discussion that I bought the book to read it.

The four-page story deals with an unnamed protagonist. “He kept a diary, for his own pleasure. …” begins the story. In it the man writes all he feels, who he hates, his sexual fantasies, his dark inner soul. He writes, “To be able to do in your mind what it is probably not a good idea to do in actuality is a convenience not always sufficiently appreciated.”

After the man’s death, his daughter determines that she wants to read the diaries. Her mother (who has never read them) cautions her against it, saying, “They’re private and he didn’t mean anybody to read them.” Ignoring her mother’s advice, the younger woman reads some of the diaries. She is devastated. To her husband she laments,

“He wasn’t the person I thought he was. He had all sorts of secret desires. A lot of it is very dirty. And some of it is more unkind than I could have believed possible. And just not like him—except that it was him. It makes me feel I can never trust anyone ever again.”

So the story and the discussion have led me to question whether we really want to know the interior life of anyone we know.

In a 1976
Playboy interview, Jimmy Carter raised many eyebrows by admitting that he had committed adultery in his heart many times—and had been forgiven by God for it. I don’t think I agree. I don’t believe we will be punished for our thoughts; I feel it is our actions that make us who we are.

One of my favorite authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne, investigates that sense of guilt for the unspoken life in “
The Minister’s Black Veil." The author describes how the minister suddenly assumes a black crepe mask:

Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate.

The story deals with others’ perceptions of and reactions to what the veil hides. Tbe minister’s preaching seems to change.

“The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them.”

Mr. Hooper’s parishioners find the crepe veil alternately distressing, mysterious, threatening. The love of his life leaves him when she cannot convince him that other’s feel the veil represents an inner hideous sin.

After a long life, still wearing the veil, Mr. Hooper reaches his death bed. Another minister tells him that since he has led a blameless life in deed and thought that he should now discard the veil.

“Dark old man!” exclaimed the affrighted minister, “with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?” …

"Why do you tremble at me alone?" cried [Mr. Hooper], turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. "Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his
best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!"

When the Good Father Hooper dies, his veiled corpse is buried. The grave decays his body but the thought of the black veil remains. Hawthorne is a master at describing guilt.

So should we avoid revealing the dark landscape of our inner soul? Or should we all acknowledge that we all have secrets that are better kept private? Maybe we need to trust that it is our actions that truly define us.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Just a Cup of Tea

Currently my freshmen are reading Art Speiglman's graphic novel, Maus. As part of their learning about graphic novels, they are going to create a small comic of their own. They will either interview someone or listen to someone's conversation and write a script of dialogue of approximately three pages. Then they will create a five-page comic based on that dialogue. In anticipation of understanding the difficulty they would have in doing the assignment, this weekend I created my sample.

"Just a Cup of Tea" grew out a real conversation I overhead one day at Starbucks. I found the two ladies so facinating I ended up writing down their conversation instead of grading papers. In drama we talk about subtext as being the dialog that continues unsaid throughout any scene. Here in one sentence glimpses we can see the lives these two women lead. Playwright Anton
Chekhov once described the kind of naturalistic play he wanted to write:
"After all, in real life," he observed, "people don't spend every minute shooting at each other, hanging themselves, and making confessions of love. They don't spend all the time saying clever things. They're more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting, and talking stupidities—and these are the things which ought to be shown on the stage. A play should be written in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is, and people as they are.… Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives are being broken up."
I used Spiegelman's design grid of two panels by four panels to create my mini-drama.

Click on the following images to read this five page mini-play.