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An old woman reading — a magnificent painting done in the 17th century Netherlands

There is indeed one element in human destiny
that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever
else we are intended to do, we are not intended
to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business
is to continue to fail in good spirits. — Robert Louis Stevenson

Friends,

Accept what you are.
Do what you can.
Be glad you can do that.

These are lines I tell myself or some version of them. They help me carry on. I then try to follow them doing what’s in front of me to do that day, and doing what I tell myself I want to and shall do for the sake of events coming up that I can participate in. Participate to the best of my ability and if I can’t do what others do, live with it.

Very sad today because dear close friend for the past 4 years now has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It has been so hard to live since Jim is gone. One can say live in and on yourself but to do this in my state of several dysfunctions takes strength, courage, cheer and yes friendships.

This one is hard. I have a new understanding — much better, much more accurate — of friendship, its limits as well as its gifts, can picture how many people live on themselves and with others. It’s probably salutary for me to see better, more clearly (like Lear is told to) but honestly I would have preferred to go to the end of my chapter without seeing. In reason or logically it should make me stronger to be able to see clearly, but like when I’ve done something that’s hard for me to do and then people tell me, each time it will get easier (say traveling or some technology), and the act(s) don’t at all get easier (but come accompanied by the same anxiety, intense reluctance, and when they are over the same intense relief). Perhaps seeing makes things more doable because I realize how others are what’s called striving or struggling to do them too. (Of course for some these acts come easy; such people are not admirable, just lucky in their genes, or circumstances.) I’m not sure seeing where others experience similar emotions and where they don’t, makes things more doable.


Roger Fry, self-portrait

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.” — Virginia Woolf

I’ve been immersed in one of Virginia Woolf’s it seems to me now hundreds of masterpieces of writing, this one a full length biography of Roger Fry. She grasps that powerful turning points for him later in life were when he faced defeat, recognized what he could do and then flourished within his limitations so as to live out his extraordinary gifts. He was tremendously lucky in who he was born to: he automatically went to the best schools, had connections to get to places where he could meet minds equivalent in finest and insight to his own, and he was born sociable: could make and knew how to sustain friendships. I am so moved by his life style: he was partly homosexual and bisexual and sustained deep relationships among men and women that were unconventional. His rooms were beautifully decorated by true art (not what would fetch money or give prestige necessarily at all) and filled every where what he was doing: books, papers, easels, paint, his food on plates because he was too taken up with what he was doing to keep up with tidyness. A man after my own heart. Fry’s art was one she understood, his principles those she lived by as Fry had understood hers: she reveled in his life, wished she could have lived it.

I’m comparing Woolf’s book to Samuel Johnson’s life of Richard Savage, considered his masterpiece in biography. What a contrast from the point of view of failure. Savage a self-deluded wildly behaved “genius,” born with no advantages but that of “intellectual greatness” (Johnson’s phrase) whose “eminence” because of such gifts just made him a better known instance of of how such things contribute very little to worldly success, happiness, or fulfillment — all of which Roger Fry knew, partly the result of his having been born with the extrinsic advantages Savage lacked and didn’t know how to or in his world could not acquire. It was not just bad luck as Savage also had some innate awful traits of vanity, luxury, scorn for those beneath him (as he saw this), and he could not control ill-advised responses, like anger (when he desperately needed to). His sexuality is not clear; at the time (not in Johnson’s biography) he was linked to at least two women, one Eliza Haywood supposedly had a child by him, but I wonder if he was homosexual or bisexual. It is as extraordinary a story as Fry’s is, only far more flagrantly breaking all taboos. The man may have been in effect homeless, living on the streets, in taverns, for some 28 years; at 46 he died in debtor’s prison, surely from exhaustion and the terrible wear and tear of his body and mind as much as anything else. Johnson was 35 at the time he wrote the biography, living on little bits of money, and saw a possible fate for himself in Savage.

“They are surely happy,” said the prince, “who have all these conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with which separated friends interchange their thoughts.” — Samuel Johnson, Rasselas


Van Gogh, A Field with Poppies — Woolf begins and ends her biography of Fry with his utterances about poppies

I’ve been following a Future Learn course on autism for three weeks now and have some thoughts about it. It’s done by a group of people running a center in a British university (Kent) for people on the autism spectrum. They have a variety of degrees and positions that legitimate them — and give them salaries. What are they doing with this precious four weeks in public on the Internet they are given?

They persist in asking, Does Autism Exist? & seem to doubt there is such a condition. They know better. They present evidence it does, two of them are clearly autistic themselves — or Aspergers Syndrome as the high end of the condition, where people come closest to non-disabled functioning and are highly intellingent in reasoning, writing, reading, understanding, used to be distinguished. Logically from what they show, if it’s amorphous, cannot be confirmed by scientific method that is unassailable, and manifests differently, there is a (laughably) strong base of similarity. Like cancer, the basic disability or problem comes in different manifestations, but we don’t doubt cancer exists.

I’ve decided that they mean to counter intense hostility by the neurotypical world: my experience is the hostility only goes away when a NT has an autistic person in their family or as a friend. Even then, not all the time, and many inside a family especially (where they cannot get rid of the tie) want to doubt the person is autistic. How painful this is. How painful this Future Learn course. It means such people don’t want to recognize the autistic and refuse to acknowledge they exist. I know this is what people without disabling conditions do with disabilities (I’ve reviewed & read enough books on disability to know this), and with this one mental they can deny even more readily.

So I don’t exist. One of my daughters doesn’t exist. Aspergers Syndrome which describes the part of the spectrum she is on and I’m almost does not exist in the book any more.

The Future Learn course is doing little good to the Aspergers or autistic person: by spending so much time doubting autism, the speakers don’t have the time to go into individual characteristics. Or they don’t want to — two of the three weeks have been unusually short (less videos, less essays than most such courses). I suspect they fear evoking ridicule and hostility. Open objections that could become obnoxious. So they don’t talk about specifics autistic people can’t do, only try to assert through photos how autistic people are social, are made happy by having friends, just don’t know the unwritten codes and social behavior that gains and sustains them.

What they have been willing to discuss (again in general terms) are depression & anxiety as “co-existing morbid conditions.” The language chosen is, shall we say, unfortunate?

Then they show reluctance to say these two linked conditions result from autism & are a response to the way society treats the autistic and how society is organized along neurotypical lines w/neurotypical expectations. So I must spend 4 traumatic hours trying to upgrade a computer with someone’s help so I can even have an app for a power-point presentation; today four more for installation; and now my older daughter may help me learn to use this software and I know that still I might not be able to do such a thing in public. Too nervous. Or I can’t travel alone without it becoming an intense ordeal because I know I get lost. These are crippling conditions and it’s natural to be depressed, would be unlikely not to produce anxiety.

I’m sure they recognize the worst problems of the disabled are mostly the result of the way the larger society refuses to recognize and help them. Books on disability begin with this insight (see, for example, Fictions of Affliction). Deaf people have gone furthest with this, declaring themselves a simply culture, which is not quite so. Not to hear is to live in danger. The alphabet is based on oral sounds

You are given room to comment as “a learner” in these Future Learn courses and I watch people dialoging or commenting alongside one another. So I told the people who invented and have enacted this course they are not helping the autistic by this approach and they are not countering the hostility of the non-autistic by their innocent films (showing autistic and non-autistic babies interacting and then supposedly disproving stereotypical pictures of how autistic people look).

It’s them being timid and is, unfortunately, matched by timidity I’ve seen in other of these Future Learn courses: say on colonialism. The people there were afraid to offend (I now realize from having taught two courses in the Booker Prize book formula and discovered that people drop the course because they identify with the settler colonialists, the imperialists) and spoke in jargon-filled words (like marbles in their mouths) lest they be understood too readily.


Katy Murphy as Jenny Wren from the 1998 Our Mutual Friend by Sandy Welch

From Charlotte Mew’s The Changeling

Sometimes I wouldn’t speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel’s feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat’s black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell’s sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That’s why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn’t do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything …

I’ve finally taken to sitting in my sunroom, only this week through the windows I saw much rain. It is very quiet there, no TV, no computer, no radio, just a silent clock. A comfortable chair, tables, lamps, some of my books, two smaller bookcases of DVDs, a thick cream-beige rug, the walls a soft light green. I read more this way. Settle down to my book friends.


My room of my own in the evening: during the day imagine Snuffy cat sitting along the top and Clarycat by the radiator, me in the chair …

I know some peace here,
for peace comes dropping slow

Miss Drake

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Night time ending (Season 2, Episode 6, 2016 Poldark)

Night Thoughts

What pain did I see in your eyes
and still something beautiful inside?

My fear that you will go —
because no one stays forever.

This memory: at the outdoor cafe near the sea,
the waiter’s black shirt

and some stranger waiving to another stranger,
waving.

Live move on like shadows of the windblown willows
to other lives.

Wounds heal but the scars remain vulnerable,
Sand sifts across the high dunes endlessly.

My body turns and turns again moving in and out of sleep,
dreams like sand dollars sinking.
— Patricia Fargnoli

Friends,

I wake to find I’ve been dreaming of character in movies I’m moved by — especially serial drama, and lately the new Poldark series. I am not sure if I’ve always done this but think not: I remember when I wrote my books (my dissertation on Richardson, the unfinished ones on Vittoria Colonna and Anne Finch), I used to dream of these people I’d been writing and thinking about so much. Since I’ve known him, I’ve dreamt of Jim. He’d come in late from wherever and I’d lift my arms to him, “my darling,” and hours later wake having dreamt of him, too. Now I’ve not got any people that close any more. No person to dream of. So I dream of characters in movies. Much of our lives is spent in dreams.

Diary-journals shared with others are daylight events I record here. These past few weeks I tried taking or following a few courses at the two OLLIs I teach at, went to the Smithsonian, and also signed up for a couple of online Future learn courses. The first week I did and tried out too much, went out 5 of 6 days! (also lunch and a movie with a friend). By Sunday I was so dizzy I couldn’t keep it up. Now I’m down to two OLLI at Mason courses on Wednesday (four 1 hour and 1/2 sessions each): one on Sylvia Plath, and the other early modern American women writers (not just Anglo either). In a two session course I learnt a lot about making out my tax returns (what is a deduction anyway?) and where is the local AARP who will help Izzy and I for free. On-line I’m following an excellent course on autism at Future Learn once a week — I wish I had a way of telling how good it is to participate in these dialogues. Hope triumphed over experience at the Smithsonian again: of hearing good conversation or intelligent thorough analysis (which didn’t happen, again it was dumbing down, silly histories of kings and queens instead of the Scottish culture I expected to hear about from the descriptions).

I go because I spent so many decades of my life in effect (as to social life) alone. This is probably the social life I am most comfortable at.

I can offer informative detail for but a select few of such experiences. To round off this opening section, this week I read for the Plath class Plath’s night dreams under the title of a Mermaid:

Lorelei

It is no night to drown in:
A full moon, river- lapsing
Black beneath bland mirror-sheen,

The blue water-mists dropping
Scrim after scrim like fishnets
Though fishermen are sleeping,

The massive castle turrets
Doubling themselves in a glass
All stillness. Yet these shapes float

Up toward me, troubling the face
Of quiet. From the nadir
They rise, their limbs ponderous

With richness, hair heavier
Than sculpted marble. They sing
Of a world more full and clear

Than can be. Sisters, your song
Bears a burden too weighty
For the whorled ear’s listening

Here, in a well-steered country,
Under a balanced ruler.
Deranging by harmony

Beyond the mundane order,
Your voices lay siege. You lodge
On the pitched reefs of nightmare,

Promising sure harborage;
By day, descant from borders
Of hebetude, from the ledge

Also of high windows. Worse
Even than your maddening
Song, your silence. At the source

Of your ice-hearted calling­
Drunkenness of the great depths.
O river, I see drifting

Deep in your flux of silver
Those great goddesses of peace.
Stone, stone, ferry me down there.


Susan Herbert’s sad daylight Mercat

We have two more sessions of Plath and then I will make a separate blog for under Austen Reveries. Below, today’s middle section is on two lectures, the second one contrasted to my reaction to the early modern American women writers class thus far.

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A coherent lecture from the Washington Area Print Group last Friday afternoon: American romance in translation in Turkey


Harlequin marketed at Amazon: Twilight Crossing

Heather Schell talked of the business and production of Harlequin romances originally written in the US and translated into Turkish and sold across Turkey. She called it “American Delightz: Harlequin Romance in Turkey.” My sten is so weak I have had to omit much detail but I hope what I transmit is of interest. Prof Schell began with the assertion that Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is seen as the foundational text for romances. That observation, which I’ve no doubt is true in some large circles of people, is so ironic, but is the reason the subject belongs with Austen studies. Georgette Heyer is the modern quintessential regency romance; her Regency Buck was cited. Then she cited three recent American authors and two novels, one of which after the lecture another woman scholar at the meeting said she loved as a girl: Janet Daily with her Dangerous Masquerades; Violent Winsfrey; Shirley Jump’s Doorstep Daddy.

In 2001 supported by various grants, Heather Schell traveled to Turkey to Turkey and lived there for a year. She had taken a year of Turkish, and had been studying romance for some time. Alas when she arrived her main contact had died, but she made her way to this Harlequin company, which is located in a small townhouse (another shop in the front first floor). This was a small firm going since 1949; it began with 25-65 books a year and now publishes 110 books every month. They bought up Mills and Boon. She showed us a group of books, where the authors’ name is de-emphasized, the covers are naive pictures of sentimentally attached lovers. There are an astonishing number of small bookshops selling such books across Turkey; otherwise you must buy them by mail order.
Gov’t censorship remains strong; you can be put on trial. The books were originally about strictly chaste heroines, heroes successful in whatever they endeavor, and this utter mainstream point of view protects them still today when they have somewhat departed from this formula. They used euphemistic language reminiscent of US romance in the 1950s. Most authors and translators and bookshops seek to stay “under the radar: so pseudonyms are used; translators’ names rarely appear on the covers. She asked how the books are chosen: apparently the firm employees look at the number of stars given a book on Amazon and choose a book with the most stars.

She outlined the conditions and constraints under which this company published these translations: the translator is given a month to translate. He (there were two males hired by this firm) or she makes a pittance compared to translators in the US or Europe and even tinier in comparison to the original author whose incentive is they need do nothing for a good profit but offer the text. The books are regarded as interchangeable. She suggested in fact the books are individual, but the translators sit down to translate without having read the book through; they will omit descriptions and dialogues to keep to a certain length. If they find they have omitted too much and have too few words when they get to the end, instead of going back to find good passages and restoring them in translated form, they just add on their own stories and ideas. She found that the publishers and translators would not allow the idea that men read these books, and would not discuss anything having to do with religion in them

She told us the story of Shirley Jump’s One more Chance; Jump professed herself fascinated by the changes made to her book. A couple married for many years living in Indianapolis separate. Cade is a corporate attorney and Melanie has dedicated her life to him and her family for many years. Upon separation, she opens a coffee shop. The translator made many small changes, the effect of which is to turn a mildly progressive realistic book into a conservative romance. She made the heroine conventionally much prettier (e.g., thin waist); the American heroine showed her age. The translator also made them lower in class and status. In general translators play a mediating role, changing the book to suit the tastes and understood culture of their target audience. When American texts are translated in Turkey, the heroine is made less intelligent, less educated, without knowledge of sports (very common in American novels for heroines to be involved with sports). The woman’s function is to redeem the man. (This reminded me of the new Poldark films: the new Ross is made to say how Demelza has redeemed him, an idea and feeling no where to be found in Graham’s novels or the older Poldark films.) There are a large number of TV soap operas in Turkey, most of which do not go on for more than half a season and have happy endings, and such endings are tacked onto the American book if the American book is at all ambiguous. Asked, Turkish women said they long for very rich husbands, a prince in the story, or a cowboy. Sex scenes are varied and may be “hot” and “heavy,” and how they are translated depends on the sensibility of the individual translator.

The pseudo-contemporary content of the books as described left me cold, what material Prof Schell could carry away (filch) about authors, themes, ritual product promotion was not new. I love the Poldark, find Outlander irresistible, read when I can fictionalized biography and the Booker Prize books, but these sorts of contemporary things even when respected don’t attract me (or sometimes, conversely, threaten me), so what was interesting was all the Turkish sociological and other circumstances surrounding them.

Sometimes you learn by contrast. Other women in the audience said they had read more of the Outlander books than I have, and that these are a cut and more well above the Harlequins Prof Schell was describing. One woman said to me when she was a girl she devoured Violent Winsfrey. I replied that I never read these curiously innocent books: instead I veered between lurid, violent, openly masochistic journals like True Story, and the middle-brow historical and contemporary novels that came through my mother’s book-of-the-month club which were packaged with more staid pictures (of houses, or heroines say at the typewriter or doing some job) and were in more complicated language; and the 19th and early 20th century classics I found on my father’s bookshelves.

Then there were 12 for dinner and the talk was good and lively. I was snubbed by one woman. I tell about this since she snubbed me by saying to my attempting to introduce myself, “oh I knew you, from WMST-L and your blogs” in this dismissive kind of voice. Well “there was me placed,” not the tenured person she and her husband (aging, half-blind) were as she proceeded to let me know, by telling me of how she lives in Dupont Circle and travels back and forth between DC and to where their prestigious Pennsylvania college is. I, OTOH, waste myself in these blogs, which so tiresomely make some names better known than others on lists (of all places).

And so to class and race in the US: A muddled lecture, a reflection of US culture accompanied by a selection from early 20th century paintings and films


Edward Potthast, Coney Island (this was not one of the paintings shown in the course below)

The OLLI at AU (3 morning sessions): Art and film, 1900-1950:

Unfortunately the woman appeared either to know little about the art (paintings) of the 20th century or be unwilling to discuss or evaluate it. She was even more reluctant to discuss her very early films, which she was unable to show for the most part because power-point presentation is not that easy. She refused to (or could not) describe them in words. Surely she was not as empty-headed as she seemed, but worried lest she offend someone somewhere somehow.

What I picked up from her selection: US paintings and films of this era were as egregiously racist, class-ridden, and commercialized as today, only the surface content different. According to her, some artists drew rich people portraits (like John Singer Sergeant and Cecilia Beaux), some piously sentimental group pictures where poor Negroes are happy all the live-long day and while working people just enduring all stoically, to these abstract pictures of the city (awful, hardly any sun, or moon, or even recognizable buildings, all abstraction, stick figures for people). She showed no influence from Europe and when I asked about the 1913 Armory show, she seemed to know nothing!. Moving along with what slides she managed to show, she cited all sorts of names, mostly men e.g., Henry Ossawa Tanner, Alfred Steiglitz, Robert Henri (many socialite types), a roster of early 20th century commercial male artists, photographers who sold from NYC galleries, now and then a woman (Georgia O’Keefe, Isobel Bishop). We saw “The Great Train-Robbery,” some railway scenes, proto-typical Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers luxury liner piece. All she could say over and over, was “see the movement.” Well, duh. The high-point (or shall I say low) of these films was the 1915 Birth of Nation.

The above is the first full-length film made in the US and is referred to as a “classic.”

All her chosen material was part of the formation of a nation all right (not just the Klan, the US itself) or one stream of it, based on fantasy norms, atavistic nightmares and slapstick. This very real American grain group just voted in the hideous Trump. She appeared to condone the depiction in paintings of blacks as innocuously innocent or wild devils. I was uncomfortable to have to sit there and be silent while hardly anyone spoke so asked a few questions. When I asked if the 1910 Fry Exhibition influenced the 1913 Armory Show, she muttered something about not wanting to describe or discuss anything not American. She also seemed not to know what was in it, and finally came up with (as if this said all one needed to say, as when someone says of someone else they “Have you seen their resume?”): “it was curated!” A little later I asked about audiences who went to galleries to see these pictures (were they elite?) and mass audiences for films? so how much interaction could there be between these classes and thus between films and art? somehow she resisted that. No, lots of people went to museums, but then she began to drip with condescension over the guards at museums today. “Did you ever ask them if they stay and look at the pictures?” “Of course not” and as she answered her rhetorical question, she smiled. Far more professional looking than me with her styled hair and even a two-piece pantsuit. She was well packaged (most presentable — she claimed she was once a writer for the New Yorker). What talk she had (without statistics) was how much money someone could make or how their career demanded this or that. That was her level, what she thought motivated each artist whose work she showed.

By contrast, the female professor at the OLLI at Mason who presented real material about two early women writers (Sor Juana de la Cruz and Anne Bradstreet), was in a relaxed sweater over a blouse, and jeans: she gave concrete details, evaluated, critiqued. After about 10 years of my life going to the Library of Congress at night and on weekends during the 1980s and early 1900s where I used to read these early modern and 17th century women writers alone, now I heard two discussed for the first time, and it was a kind of revelation to hear the perspective, the context offered. Also the other women in the audience reacting, commenting. This is the sort of thing I used to read by myself in the library and at home: personal poetry by these women:

Sor Juana On Her Portrait

This that you see, the false presentment planned
With finest art and all the colored shows
And reasonings of shade, doth but disclose
The poor deceits by earthly senses fanned!
Here where in constant flattery expand
Excuses for the stains that old age knows,
Pretexts against the years’ advancing snows,
The footprints of old seasons to withstand;

‘Tis but vain artifice of scheming minds;
‘Tis but a flower fading on the winds;
‘Tis but a useless protest against Fate;
‘Tis but stupidity without a thought,
A lifeless shadow, if we meditate;
‘Tis death, tis dust, tis shadow, yea, ’tis nought.

(A poor online translation — I will see if I can find something better in my conventionally printed older book)

This professor presented very different difficult-to-read verse by these women meant to make very compromised public statements. Her material too I shall present separately after all four sessions are done with the lectures on Plath (on Austen Reveries). After all the OLLI at Mason these past weeks was not for me what Feynman used to call Cargo Cult Experience.

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Walk Where They Fought. Battle of Waterloo. June 18, 1815. (Petho Cartography)

Daylight hours at home, on the train, in my car: reading and writing (though not my paper, only notes towards it and postings). Outstanding best critical book has been Andre Maurois, Aspects of Biography. Deeply moved by Graham’s Twisted Sword (the 11th Poldark novel, where Demelza and Ross’s son, Jeremy is killed at Waterloo), re-fascinated by the de-constructive abilities of Trollope (in An American Senator), now listening to every single word garnered by Boswell in his Life of Johnson, unabridged!) as read by Bernard Mayes. Lots of Latin quoted and then patiently translated …

Sometimes it’s been freezing cold, and sometimes balmy.

Miss Drake

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Closure

Friends,

More than two weeks since the festivities were over, and more than a week since I turned into a class member at the Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning for 4 weeks at Mason (and soon, very briefly, but 3 mornings worth) at AU. The above tree has been taken away, and bitterly cold spells keeping us in so that after weeks of pushing myself reading as much Virginia Woolf, Samuel Johnson and on biography as I could take I achieved the proposal and an outline and plan for the paper I’m working on: “Presences Among Us Imagining People: Modernism in [Samuel] Johnson and [Virginia] Woolf’s Biographical Art” — too long to quote here – and send it to the editor of the volume it’s intended for, whereupon it was approved. And there’ve been balmy afternoons, permitting a museum visit and afternoon walks,


Me at the National Gallery with


my friend, Panorea,

much reading, as in Roger Fry, whose Vision and Design taught me what was wrong with the Vermeer and His Contemporaries exhibit we saw on that day in the museum (when we also had that hellish experience of parking in today’s world):

I liked the paintings, and of course, especially Vermeer, who of course stood out, but of course one knew that would be so already. I saw two new Vermeers I’d seen before and some of his contemporaries’ paintings I’d only seen in reproductions were made far truer for me. But it was a disappointment. Why? it was organized by motifs, by what was shown, the literal content (musicians with women of dubious reputations, women writing letters &c) and I learned nothing new. It should and could have been organized by painter. I did see that several had one or two paintings as good as Vermeer and there were two Vermeer duds. I could get no sense of the vision or development or uniqueness of these others.

I’d been reading Roger Fry and while looking at these persuaded me his total dismissal of content, of imitation of reality, as unimportant won’t do, his insistence this is a medium that the artist expresses emotion through and we contemplate and enjoy from aesthetic criteria is accurate. I couldn’t do that because the exhibit was arranged only with literal content in mind. Outside the exhibit there were two expensive books filled with artistry of one or another of these people separately ; that means they could have organized the exhibit that way. Surely they know better too.


Amelie Beaury-Saurel, Dans Le Bleu (1895?) — one of the many artists and pictures I’ve never seen before

I did buy a book, an equally expensive one — under $40 — Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, once I stop this doing of papers for others and get to my own projects I will return to blogging for women artists among other things.

Also in no particular order a few marvels of novels, literary criticism, and biography, and movies, of which I’ll describe just one: Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent:


On her own at last (Wendy Hiller as Deborah, Lady Slane)

Deborah, Lady Slane, is an 88 (!) year old heroine. At long last she is standing up — well sitting down mostly — for what she would like to do with her life, where she would like to live. Her husband dies — shall I say at long last again?– and she refuses to live with her children, or to travel from one to another but instead sets up her own apartment in Hampstead in a place she saw 30 years ago. I couldn’t quite believe that not only does no one want to cheat her but she comes across two elderly men who do all they can to cater to her — she meets these gentle non-materialistic noncompetitive people, giving her book a long central space for a long soliloquy in the middle of the book (very like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) that just riveted me. How she was deprived of her deepest desire to paint; how no one of course wanted to deprive her, but neither could anyone take such a desire seriously. She must (they all thought) value her work as a mother (and especially of sons) infinitely more. She thinks about the anti-feminist point of view, and asks herself why is life as a mother not as valuable? why is producing a fine human being not as valuable as a work of art. The answer is the other person is apart from us and it’s us we want to embody in something beautiful or truthful or relevant that speaks to others.

It has funny passages such that I laughed aloud. Not a very common occurrence with me. Jokes in the dialogues between Deborah, our 88 year old heroine, and her beloved maid, Genou (played by Eileen Way, barely recognizable from her part as Aunt Agatha in the 1970s Poldark). As novel began, it resembled the humor of Patricia Duncker’s Miss Webster and Cherif, about an aging spinster to whose door comes a young African or black English young man and she takes him in as a handyman about the house. Very dangerous and Andrew Davies picked that up in his film adaptation of Barbara Howard’s Falling with Penelope Wilton as the older woman living alone who takes Michael Kitchen, as the seeming kindly alone older man, who becomes terrifyingly abusive. It’s probably skirting that which makes the delight of such books. The origins are ultimately the kind of thing we find in Mrs Miniver, or The Egg and I — or they participate in this fantasy.


Her unkempt garden

When Mr FitzGeorge, an equally elderly man who has kept an image of our heroine somewhere in his mind for many decades since the time when he saw her in India (despite hemmed in by family and children) and recognized a kindred spirit, when he I say comes to visit, and then he leaves her his vast collection of art objects, what does she do? Not leave it in legacies to her children (most of whom she dislikes — her spinster daughter so happy on her own at long last and unmarried son not so much), but give it to the state and charities. Everyone thinks this is throwing it away as the worst people may get their hands on it and what will they do with it.

The meaning the heroine’s mind wants is a final gesture contra mundi. She refuses to acknowledge that all this is valued for the money it will fetch, its status (who did it), its prestige – what Roger Fry said was true of why people valued what art they paid for. Then a visit from a great-granddaughter shows her that this one girl despite the photos which made her out to be an utter sell-out don’t represent her for real. Soothed by this thought but not regretting she didn’t leave this granddaughter anything she dies.

I love the way S-W’s mind just leaps on to the telling descriptive detail that so convinces and amuses — suddenly she lifts, John, her cat, John off the magazine she is pretending to read. Of course John was there, and of course he struggles when she attempts to make him look at something.

Ah me

Also the depth of feeling between a woman and her “maid” found in Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing (a historical novel centering on Marie le Jars de Gournay, her maid and Montaigne), for the two live meaningfully because they are together, one serving the other, with the tragic close of the death of the rich one with the poor thrown out. Poor Genou. She will be kicked out and only if there is some kind of tiny legacy will she know any comfort after this. We get a quick picture of what her life was before becoming this 24 hour servant – one where she was 12th child, utterly mistreated. More than merely bitter-sweet.


With her faithful Genou (Eileen Way)

And I watched a deeply satisfying dream-like realization of it in a film with Wendy Hiller (1986, TV film) at the center this.

What does a diary do but mark time? I’m not the only one in this house who has changed in the last four years. I newly appreciated Rudyard Kipling’s “The Cat That Walked By Himself” (a story that in another life Jim read aloud to me and Laura when Laura was around 9, sitting in front of a winter fire in the front room fireplace).


Snuffy in the morning near his cat tree and water bowl

My cat, Ian, now Snuffy has undergone a profound change. Four years ago when Jim died, Snuffy spent most days under the bed or hiding somewhere. He’d come out to sit on the top of chairs and watch us, seemingly for hours never moving. Each night after dinner when Jim and I would sit by the table drinking wine or coffee, he’d come onto Jim’s lap. Once in a long while, he’d come over to be petted by me. After much effort, when Laura spent four days and nights he, he began to play with her, follow her about and open up his body to her, sitting up straight, putting out paws, and looking at her longingly. But he remained wary and played from a corner of the room. He never asserted himself that I could see. Jim had forbidden him and Clarycat to come into my study during the day because once long ago Snuffy had eaten the wires to the computer and messed them all up. It took Jim hours to repair and replace.

Shortly before Jim grew sick, shortly after I retired, I rebelled against this regime and said they come into my room with me because they are old enough to know not to gnaw on wires when bored, lonely, tired, frustrated. (I am not sure of this and would not want to leave them in this house alone for days to try this out.) Gradually I was making better friends with them.


Togetherness

Well now four years have gone by, and I have let them become part of all my daily rhythms; they have their place in all that happens. He still hides out for a couple of hours a day, but when he’s finished this calming stint, he comes over to me, puts his paw out and nudges me gently and gets onto my lap. We have lap time. We also have chest and head time; he pushes his body against my chest, his head against mine, his tail waving away, and lets me hug him tight. We do this a couple of times a day. He follows me from room to room, sometimes getting out in front of me and then moving on in the expectation I will follow him, but turning to make sure and then alter his path if I do. He spends most of the rest of the day quite visible — running about, sitting in front of windows, hanging around me or ClaryCat — often making a nuisance of himself as he tries to mount her (she will spat at him after a while), wrestle with her, or lick her thoroughly all around. She cannot bully him the way she once did as she held fiercely in her mouth a toy. He remains wholly unimpressed nowadays. Night time he takes his place curled into my legs; Clarycat has lain nestled by the side of my body most nights for years. (This is how I slept with my dog, Llyr, and 40 years ago, with another cat, Tom I called him, the stray-feral I had to leave behind in Leeds.)


Clary waking one morning

Izzy’s door. This is a bone of contention and he is winning. He stands by her closed door for hours mewing. He used to make half-hearted attempts to get her to open it, but now he is persistent. We open it, and he goes in, but he wants out. He stands before the closed door on the other side. Goes over to Izzy, paw on her arm. He then stands in front of the door after she opens it. What he wants is a door ajar. And he is winning. I threatened to strangle him one day if she didn’t leave that door ajar. He will trot over to my chair and mew at me, and put his paw on me to get my attention. If I talk at him, it doesn’t help. Another day she threatened to go mad if he didn’t leave the room so she could write in peace. She says the room gets cold if it’s ajar, since he opens it farther to come in and farther to come out. I don’t like hearing her music. But he is winning. He wants access to us both at once. He feels securer. Access to her room where there are places he hides. As I type this this morning the door is ajar, he has pushed it and trotted into her room. Clarycat in front of my computer looking out the window with alertness.

Most striking of all is how he treats others coming to the house. Yes he will still run and hide when people come into the house. And most of the time not come out until they leave. He does not chase or pursue insects the way he once did, keeping at them and then somehow killing the poor things as they become exhausted or crippled, and then pushing them with his paw. He grows older I expect. Maybe wiser in the sense that there’s nothing practical here for him. He was never one for toys the way Clary is. Yet once in a while he will venture to show himself to people and have a look. But often time nowadays as someone comes down the path, he growls and loud. He shows his displeasure by going to the door and growling. Sometimes he prowls about guarding the space. We have never had a guest who brought in a pet.

Startlingly he solved the problem of Greymalkin. You may remember Greymalkin as this peremptory grey cat I thought was a feral or stray and was putting food out for when I discovered that she or he had an owner, a neglectful one who had left her or him there for two weeks with only a brief visit a day from his daughter to replenish food. I can do nothing for him or her because he or she is defined as property, “owned” by this man. That cat is still neglected and still comes round and meows quite loudly on my stoop for food and water — and attention. He or she wants to be petted, and I can see wants to come out of the cold and wet by immediate feeling; if I thought it wouldn’t cause trouble, and I’d let him or her come in. It’s been very cold, sometimes pouring ice when I see this poor cat come round. It would cause trouble for me, for what would happen if this cat ran under a chair or hid, as it has no bell as part of its collar the way mine do and it is “owned” by someone else. (Thus I experience how someone living near an enslaved person could be helpless to protect him or her).

Well, Snuffy does not feel this way. He apparently resents the cat coming to the stoop and eating food I gave him or he. Some “smart aleck” type person would say Snuffy is wise to this cat. When Snuffy sees this cat coming down the path, he leaps off my desk (he might be sitting between the back of my computer and the window over my desk), growling and spatting and runs to the door and makes loud noises. Poor Greymalkin flees in fright, leaping away like a kangaroo.

Snuffy’s basic wary nature is still there. I mention he needs hiding time. He will spend time opening drawers and then getting in and staying there. It is important that I don’t let him know I see him, which I do (he thinks if he cannot see me easily I cannot see him), for when he sees that I know where the place is, he finds a new place. Were he a human being would he be the less intelligent seeming, less senstive type, and (forbid the thought) vote conservatively. I feel sorry for Greymalkin, who is a neglected cat. He or she is a hard fat sturdy cat, but I feel the hard behavior is in imitation of his or her owner and if he or she had a kinder environment a nicer personality would develop eventually. Greymalkin does not expect to be treated with affection.

Clarycat is not quite the same as she was when Jim lived either. She was deeply attached to Jim, and grieved for days after his death. She knew he was dying and was distraught the two days he died. Caw-cawed and walked back and fourth in the corridor between the front part of the house and the bedroom where he lay. Then she sat squat down in his chair tight for days on end. Now she is attached to me. But not quite the way she was to Jim because he was a different personality.

She is my perpetual pal, murmurs and talks to me all the live-long day, my companion, ever there. She was attached to Jim, but not in this way. Snuffy is nowadays around my computer much of the time, but he does not make little murmurs in reply to my speech the way she does. He is not Loving or dependent in the way Clary is. He is a cat who walks by himself, she is not. She is also much more alert, picks up what’s happening around her, eager to join in once she deems it safe, pro-active, open to experience: as to Greymalkin, Clary was terribly curious but would just watch from the window. Jim would not permit the endless interventions she imposes. He would have her in his lap and engage in eye-contact time for a while; he’d play with her, letting her cat-bite him gently; then that would be that. I don’t play; I’m not playful with people either; most games bore me. She has just now lost her little grey mouse toy; it’s disappeared. She probably took it somewhere I can’see and for a time, it’s gone. She does walk by herself in the manner that Kipling suggests: she negotiates. In return (she is aware) for good treatment, she sits by my radiator, drinks what I give her, but as for killing (another aspect of the negotiations in Kipling’s story; the cat agrees to seek out and kill certain yet smaller animals) that’s out in this house.

What is the refrain of Kipling’s story: “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me. I will not come …. And he went back through the Wet Wild Woods, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone. And he never told anybody” (This is much resented by the Man and the Dog.)


Emma Lowstadt-Chadwick, Beach Parasol (portrait of Amanda Sidwall, 1880) — another from Women Artists of Paris

Miss Drake


Mary Poppins’ Cat: and some considerable sorrow for Garrison Keillor, with troubles over taxes, Yahoo groups, and (sigh) once again travel in the NB and PS comments

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A New Yorker cartoon from the 1930s (subject: skyscrapers)

Usually I tell of what I did once I succeed in parking. Now my subject is Parking itself

Friends,

On Wednesday I went with my friend, Panorea, to the National Gallery in DC to see the Christmas blockbuster show, Vermeer and his Contemporaries. I will write about that separately. I thought this time instead of telling about the show or lecture or whatever event it is I went to upon succeeding in getting there and/or parking, I would tell the framing that characterizes almost all I do: parking the car. Yes, I hardly ever go anywhere without having to park my car near where I am going to be or near the Metro. Surely, you will say you sometimes take a bus or a cab. Rarely. I drive mostly and alone most of the time — listening to unabridged texts of books read aloud to me on CDs or MP3s.


A typical choice for me

Wednesday was not exception — though I had a friend next to me.

Lately I’ve been taking a chance and parking my car on a block where after 3 hours I could be ticketed knowing that I will not be back within the three hour limit. But I had noticed directly across the street from the King Street Metro stop a garage entrance over which there was a new sign: Public Parking. I had just read a story in The Post where we are told the flagrantly injust justice department is now allowing police and DMVs and local authorities to hike up parking fines, and then if they are not paid promptly enough, add fines. I determined I would not scoff-law the way I often succeed but park in that new parking garage.

Little did I know the sign was a lie. Why I never thought before about the large number of people who must work in the enormous building across the street from said Metro station I know not. Nor the altogether hundreds of people who work in the many other similar huge tall (prison-like) cement buildings (with rows of windows) near by. There used to be a huge railway yard on the other side of Duke Street and it is now filled with soulless apartment houses nearby further on. What was there in the 19th century?


Parking for the 90%

Well where do these people park? in labyrinthine caverns everywhich way under roofs in danger of collapsing. That’s where. As I drove in, I saw signs saying one or other of the vast areas were pre-assigned to people in the building. I saw signs for prices for monthly, weekly, all day parking. I felt something was awry and wished I could get out. But I had promised my friend and worried she would think me mad if I said “I do not like this (Sam I am).” So I said to the attendant, “Is this a public parking place or do you have to work here to park here?” Somewhat to my dismay he could not speak English very well, but grinned and seemed to indicate, yes you can park here, and waved me on. I got out of my car to ask again, and someone came over and said I had to go down to the fourth level and then someone would show me where.

I should say that for 3 years now I have parked in one of these caverns under a tall building but as a “Schwabb private client.” Ahem. As I drove in, an attendant would come right over, take my key and near the entrance in group of designated spaces park my car. The ticket I had punched for coming in, would be validated by a stamp and I could punch it in going out and pay nothing. I had never looked about me. Now I had to.


What more characteristic of modern life — this one offers automated parking!

Everywhere cars parked every which way. The lanes weaving in and out. Pillars which from my parking in a not such a bad garage under the OLLI at AU building in DC I knew endangered the side of my car as the spaces are hardly big enough. Worst of all I saw spots where several pillars were put up all together with what looked like maskin (spelling?) tape. Panorea wondered if they were to to prevent the ceiling from one level from caving to the next. She was joking, she said. Of course it’d hold. Ha! Criss-cross I went until an attendant came over and indicated (none of them spoke English well) he would show me where to park. I asked, “Was there any room?” “Of course,” he grinned. I didn’t like it. The sign lied; only a tiny proportion was public parking at the deepest level – some concession to the city? I had to give a man I somehow didn’t trust to be there when I got back my car key to leave the car there. Car keys nowadays are these tiny computers which cost $400 to replace. I hate them — as what if I lose it, and then have to get a new one. Why consumers put up with this I know not. I was told when I bought my first Prius in 2013 this was the kind of key used for years. I realized that was and my old key (made at a key maker) was old-fashioned but I did not know one had no choice.

Had I been alone I would have driven out and gone home or gone to the blocks where I usually park and take a chance. I hesitated looking at him. He asked me if we would be back before 7. Before 7! we’d be back before 4. (It was 11 o’clock.) Well I managed to park the poor car without bruising it. Then we had to walk up. No elevators until one floor before ground. Lanes going everywhich way. Panorea was watching so as to find our way back.

I tried to dismiss my worry from my mind and probably did, mostly.

But when we got back 5 hours later, I felt anxiety as we approached that garage door with its lie about Public Parking. The garage was much emptier. Panorea did guide us back, except forgetting one of the stairways which I found. Whew. Once we were on the fourth floor in the correct area, I saw the same man and he called out to me from across the cavern and waved. I should have trusted him. He remembered me as I had made such a fuss, been so reluctant to leave my key with him. Then he had trouble finding it in the box nearby. Luckily the car was near the box. I began my NYC persona: “Are you going to have to tell me you have lost my key? is this what is happening here?” He took each key out on his board and began trying it on the car. I asked, “What would I have to pay?” he looked upset. Finally one lit up the car doors and so it was the right one in his hand. Panorea said he was a Muslim man and scared of losing his job from the way I was behaving. So I felt bad. He was in charge of the whole of the fourth level. Poor man. There all day and maybe other nights. Sitting on a metal folding chair.


Many scenes in that remarkable serial drama, Breaking Bad, occur in space just like this

Well, we slowly drove up from the fourth to the ground floor. It was not easy finding exit signs and sometimes we were going down or across, but finally it seemed to me, we were at the same entrance we had come in. “How much?” I said, glaring but relieved. $18.00! For 6 hours. Not so bad, but had it been $40 I would have paid to get out of there. Then I drive up and over a kind of mount and find I am not where I had been, but two blocks down from where we had come in. Under these huge buildings are vast connected garages.

Next time when I know there is no place to park (no garage, no grounds) and I have to take the Metro I’ll take my chance and street-park it.

Welcome to the world of the 21st century. When Jim and I took Izzy with us to London when she was about 9, she was far more impressed with the London underground, all the escalators, elevators, corridors, trains, than any tower of “crown jewels” or museum. I thought she was correct. Far more impressive and important. I did remember coming out how the last number of times Jim and I came to NYC by car we had to give the car over to valet parking and I was aware the attendants were doing it because only they could stack the cars efficiently enough. I saw elevators moving stacked cars up and down.


Another New Yorker cartoon — recent

So on that Wednesday the important lesson I learned was to wake up to the vast undergrounds of parking all over Northern Virginia and all vast cities with tall and big buildings. And I want to say I’ve been leaving this aspect of all these trips of mine out. The problem of where to park my car? I’m much better at parking against sidewalks between cars than I am in these lanes. The OLLI at Mason has a large enough parking lot on the grounds for everyone there at any given time to park. But at AU, Kennedy Center and other places I’m confronted with these many leveled garages. Wolf Trap is out-of-doors but immense and it can take over an hour to get out to the highway. And it’s dark and I can’t see well. This is not a small thing and figures in on my thinking when I decide to go anywhere.

Context, said John Berger.

Miss Drake

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My cottage home this bitterly cold windy snowy morning. I’m glad I own it. Glad I live here, how it looks inside, filled with books and many beloved things, memories, with my cats (another order of being). Warm, lit. That my daughter has evolved it into her home too.

Gentle reader, have you considered how museums have become community centers — they really have. The Met in NYC and the National Galleries in DC and London function that. Crowded with people. I realized this for the first time when I read an unkind passing statement — but insightful — a few years ago by Suzy McKee Charnas in her Vampire Tapestry where the vampire stalks museums because they are a place where the public is not excluded most of the time and lonely sensitive souls are to be found on off days. She put it in a way that made me dislike her — but then it was her nasty vampire being so scornful. I reacted the way I did because I am one of these people who found herself by going to a museum – and theater too. A Future Learn course I took online showed that museums are well aware of this function, or they took it on as a way of getting funding.

So this winter solstice we again went to a museum. I’m not sure they will not become a more all-embracing community center than movie-houses as these movie-houses are bought up by monopolies and become increasing experiences of coercion for someone else’s profit. It’s also true that while theaters build a niche group of people who come expecting the same kind of experience, different plays attract different audiences, and a theater after all can play but one play at a time. For Christmas and Boxing Day and again New Year’s Eve, Izzy and I found ourselves in the midst of crowds of people like ourselves participating in this said-to-be communal holiday in two different movie-houses, one of them at a mall; in a museum; and then a vast theater house, the Kennedy Center, which had no less than 5 entertainments going with sold-out auditoriums. I’ll move from the most enjoyable to the less so, so gentle reader if you feel this is going on too long … I wind the reverie to a close with music, ice-skating, and chequered hope.


Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past

I’ve known the Kennedy Center is a community place for a long time now. One summer they hosted original Sondheim productions all summer plus movies of older ones, and various related shows and by the last week, the place was so relaxed with people making music everywhere. Everyone is comfortable there partly because they are part of the same economic and cultural group and feel the others will not shoot them down. If you have the price of the ticket, it’s a good place nowadays. Not Trump’s America. Izzy and I went to the theater lab where I saw The Gabriels last year and this past December Liv Ullman’s Private Confessions. The two and one half-hour performance was titled Twisted Dickens as performed by a group called The Second City, a comedy club and playhouse group of artists who do improv, sing, dance, act, write. Very creative group. Their story-line was a hilarious and serious too parody/enactment of key moments with key characters in A Christmas Carol. The real defense of this story is that it continues to provide a living relevant framework for our modern feelings and experiences. In this case a reworking of many Christmas motifs and familiar re-tellings and moments from other popular movies and shows or icons. Each actor played about ten roles. My favorite moments included two appearances of the distraught George Bailey (the actor personated Jimmy Stewart from It’s A Wonderful Life), snow in his hair, trying to explain about Mr Potter and Uncle Billy and the $8000; he is last seen seeking “Clarence!” Clarence!”; the young woman who did a very funny Tiny Tim; the actor who was the audience member complaining, the actress-singer who was slick witty Dolly Parton with an elegant cigarette. A poor suffering governess. The ghosts of Christmas Past and Present (the actress playing Dolly Parton in a sexy cocktail dress) were got up unexpectedly, but the Yet to Come figure was swathed in black (from the 1951 Alistair Sim film).


Charlie Brown dialogue

Many modern references. One character is seen coming home, picking a bill and finding it’s from Comcast double charging him because they sent the bill late. That got a wide laugh — so my experience of having this happen to me three times (!) and each time hours on the phone, getting enraged is common. John Lescaut stayed with the single character of Scrooge and now and again there were clear references to Trump such as the horror everyone feels when they think he might tweet. Blessedly he never does during the performance. Characters are often desolated. There was a disquieting five minute debate by Charlie Brown characters on whether Christianity should be brought up: the thrust was we must not leave Jesus out (really) but also include Muslims and Jews. There are more than 3 religions in the world. Written by Peter Swinn and Bobby Mort, directed by Frank Caeti, starring beyond Lescaut Carisa Barreca, Aaron Bliden, Anne Bowles, Paul Jurewicz, Eric M Messner, Tia Shearer. I noticed audience members were dressed in all sorts of ways, and here and there a person alone.

We went downstairs in one of several packed elevators to see and hear the ball begin but did not stay. I would have loved to dance the way we used to when Jim was there. Still I wanted to see it again and remember. The last time we were there was 5 years ago with Jim: Elvis has left the building!. We then drove home and I watched my last Christmas movie for this year: Love Actually. For the sake of Laura Linney’s performance, Emma Thompson on a lobster in the Christmas pageant, Hugh Grant’s fantastic silent dancing, and Bill Nighy’s impeccable parody of a rock hit, Christmas is All Around Us (which is no longer on the Net so I can show only


the opening of the movie …

On Boxing Day, Izzy and I kept up the custom we began with Jim in the mid-1990s of going to a museum. Most years there are block-buster shows in the most famous ones: this year was no different: it was Vermeer and his contemporaries at the National Gallery. We had decided to try another museum — Washington DC is a city chock-a-block with museums — and since I’ve started to go to some through the Smithsonian programs, I felt we ought to try another. We went to the National Portrait Gallery. We had not been together ever.

We wandered around the vast place (it’s really two museums, one for portraits and the other “about America”) I again went through the Sylvia Plath exhibit to give Izzy a chance to see it; we looked at American art of the 19th century, historical pictures (which we talked about as Izzy knows a lot about American history), Matthew Brady’s photographs from the civil war — there the point made in part was how much of war-life was sitting and sleeping and living in a state of waiting; and then the horrific deaths in vast conflagrations. The National Gallery is never as mobbed at the Metropolitan Museum on Sundays or holidays, but still far more hectic in feel than this Portrait Gallery and we enjoyed this place because it was much quieter. Less people vying to see. The cafe was outside, and they had two large shops, one just books.


One of the less familiar images

Oddly one might say (were one naive) the one encompassing truthful exhibit they had was not advertised: on the second floor tucked up in a large corridor and corner with a couple of rooms was an exhibit about Marlene Dietrich: her life, her career, her art, many photographs, some famous, iconic, some I’d never seen before. It was honest: we see her bourgeois family, a photo of her looking somehow wrong in a picturesque conventional girl’s dress. I did not know how she married a wealthy man early on, and importantly a film professional; how heavy she was originally, that she trained as a violinist, grew up in the thick of the Weimar era, or anything about a daughter who meant a great deal to her (but is nonetheless bitter) from that marriage. It seems she was more of a transvestite than I thought: dressed as a man far more often than I realized. In her phases of female or feminine sexuality, there is more variety than one realizes too: she could be conventional as well as startlingly beyond what’s acceptance, funny as well as gypsy melodramatic.

She was at first a cinema hit but when the studios put her in films for a more general American audience, the films flopped. She returned to Europe. There were hand-written letters by her: she had many lovers, sometimes several at a time, among them Erich Maria Remarque and Edith Piaf. She became expensive to hire you are told — so in Touch of Evil (late Orson Wells) she is the charismatic presence but it’s a rare later appearance. She traveled around (presumably for much much less) during War World Two entertaining troops. There was a TV with clips from many movies and her life to: one of her throwing chairs at a young Jimmy Stewart in Destry Rides Again. In the 1970s she moved to Paris, bought an apartment and basically lived out a quarter of a century in seclusion (hardly ever left the flat). There were audios where one could hear her husky voice. Downstairs in the bookshop a very fat book about her by her daughter, Maria Riva, by no means balanced in approach.


Another: aboard a luxury cruiser

It is a shame or loss that this exhibit is kept half-hidden. We were handed for free a seven page essay in a pamphlet plus photographs from the exhibit. Her life, what we were seeing, explanations of the photos. She was an important individual of the 20th century and belongs in this Portrait Gallery museum, but not hidden away.


Here’s the corridor in case you happen on it

The National Portrait Gallery had advertised (among a couple others, all large, much blander) as the Christmas exhibit (though the word is never used as it is not yet publicly acknowledged how many people spend the Christmas day out of the house), The Faces of Battle, on US soldiers’ experience of war since 9/11. Said to be poignant. It was a long corridor of photographs and in separate rooms, photographs, paintings, instalments, films made by artists who had acted as reporters and accompanied troops in Iraq, Arghanistan, and other Middle Eastern countries where the US is openly at war. John Keegan’s book as alluded to and there was a sense in which you were shown what contemporary war is like: bombing and guerilla actions as well as interactions with civilians. The concentration was on the faces of these men and women, many now dead. They looked variously exhausted, stiff with trauma, glum and steadfastly enduring what they had to (stoic), carrying a lot on their backs, dirty.

Jun 29, 2009 – Kandahar, Afghanistan – Out of breath, US Army Spc. Larry Bowen age 26, sits shellshocked in a ditch next to his machine gun after a frontal assault on an insurgent position in close quarter fighting during an operation that lasted over several days in the Taliban stronghold of Siah Choy in Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
(Credit Image: © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

One room had pictures of the rooms of those who were all now dead. Very revealing — many were clearly of young men who had wanted to come there as some glorifying images showed. Sexy pictures. Flags. They were no longer naive in the photos. Agons in some of the photos. Some moving pictures showed the absurdity of some of the practices done. One problem was, What were they doing there not mentioned. There were many references to the bombs or guns that had killed them when they were going out on duty — but not what that duty was. We are told these men were blown up entering a private house but what were they doing entering that house? what was their purpose? Where was their rage as they killed? They came to inflict to seek out and destroy and if necessary kill others, do terrible damage to a groups of people the US gov’t and/or its allies and its donors want incinerated. Had the exhibit had twice as many rooms and shown the horrors inflicted on the Afghans, Iraqis and where the US is there by virtue of its money, supportive planes and boats, and arms it might have brought out the full horror of what this has been about — since 1947.


Reading — not quite the faces of battle

As to our usual movie and meal out in an Asian restaurant on Christmas day, Izzy and I are very fortunate to live near four movie-houses which are semi-art places or not controlled by the AMC distribution ownership of movie-houses corporate monopoly. All four are stand-alone theaters — not inside a mall. Two in DC. There a fifth complex of such places in Bethesda (American Film Institute is the movie-house name, nearby is a playhouse and near that a concert hall) but it is very far for us to go. Unfortunately, the two in Virginia are now practicing the ceaseless feed of clips or films between the “feature” (i.e., the one you paid to go see), but they are in much better taste, not so loud, and do not go on for so long and so endurable (occasionally interesting). One of these, Angelica Mosaic Theater was playing I, Tonya (click for excellent review), Christmas day.


Margot Robbie in a narrative segment

It’s a film very much worth going to see. Vivid, direct and combined documentary motifs (the actors faced us on chairs talking to us) with storytelling – at its best it recalled Cathy Come Home (not often enough) and was about class and violence, competitive aspiration and family life and malls too in America. How badly educated we are becoming; Tonya’s problem was she couldn’t present herself as fake genteel, as upper middle class virgin. She didn’t have the money to hire costume-makers. Her mother worked as a waitress, left by her husband early on; a cruel treacherous woman; all Tonya ever learnt was through bullying or harsh denigration. Her husband came from the same punitive milieu. So they broke directly through a crucial taboo in sports and directly assaulted the competition. The pre-feature film was about an artist in Eastern Europe, and the whole building of the theater, which has a cafe, is large and so one does not feel packed in. We enjoyed ourselves because we could relax. I figured out a way to drive to this theater using the streets; Izzy helped make sure that we didn’t lose our sense of geography as to where the parking garage was in relationship to the movie-house.

We then went to a Chinese restaurant we’ve gone to each Christmas since Jim died — we had gone with him there only twice. It’s small, inexpensive, with good food. No pretension. Usually it is so busy and it won’t take reservations for two. But if you get there at 4 as we did, there are far fewer people and we were served quickly. Isobel is is deeply engaged by ice-skating, blogs on it, studies it, we are going to Milan this March to see the a World Championship week of ice-skating so we talked of the movie in the context of her knowledge of the sport and its history.

Perhaps the less said on 70% of movie-theaters today, all AMC owned where the experience is more of a herd of exploited units in atmospheres of anomie created by discomfort, noise, the awful neon lights, techniques to make everyone competitive, where the theater itself sports as advertisements and trailers clips of high violence, torture, killing and coerced sex. But I feel I should not leave out the other movie we saw and this context. No fun to be had in such a place — the people you see on the lines to get tickets, in the theater space have determined faces (I had almost said slightly grimaced), which is why increasingly people prefer to shop online and watch movies via streaming online and DVDs. To go to such theaters and such malls is to voluntarily go to the equivalent of an airport; the movie-house auditoriums are transforming themselves into caste-ridden (assigned seats will soon become differentially priced) airplanes where you are forced into experiences you don’t want.


Streep and an actor playing a friend-reporter associate – you can see the emphasis on their upper class ways

I like to as truthful as I dare in this autobiographical blog and one’s awareness of the existence of such places influences how one feels nowadays about movie-going and its context, hence its penumbra of significance. That the Kennedy Center and the museums are still good places is why the particular exhibits or shows can speak to the individual who goes of civility, of assumed values of kindness, courtesy, companionship. We made the mistake of seeing Stephen Spielberg’s The Post in such an AMC theater and mall on the day before New Year’s Eve. You can read my review and a linked one (scroll down) in my original political Sylvia blog. I need to see the film again.

I wish for all my readers a good year to come where we all weather somehow whatever economic social and political damage is thrown at us all. Among Trump’s very first acts was to cut the food stamp program, to slash at the agricultural department. He didn’t tweet or boast about that.


Randall Enos: repeal, replace …. yes that’s the bipartisan (fool!) Obama — no it’s not a post-racist world Dorothy

I drove a friend to a CVS last night. It was in the dark and I couldn’t drive much better than she. She needed her allergy medicine, a nose spray and pills. The price of the nose-spray was $213.00. Suddenly up $175 dollars. She had had to change medical plans because of Trumpcare hitting her early. We left without her getting that needed stuff. “Reform” nowadays means changing the rules to let people die, take all opportunity for good education from them, unprotected from debt collectors (college students’ attempt to get help from the Education department are stacked up and shelved) — that’s the reverse definition that began with Bush fils. Trump reforms to allow predators to do what they wish. Until Trump is impeached, we are stuck in a hope mode: hoping no nuclear war, knowing that we are regarded by the Republicans the way they regard the colonialized exploited people outside the US borders: with utter indifference to our welfare, so much possible collateral damage on their way to become yet more obscenely rich. Let us hope we survive with our lives and friends’ (I include family in that word) lives and comforts and work and homes we cherish intact.

The last three days have been dangerously cold — dangerous for the large population of homeless people in the US. Temperatures well below freezing, high winds, snow. I took the photo of my house this morning. I was thinking maybe I ought to begin to sign Ellen at long last, but I think I’ll keep the slight distance and original framing of the blog (meant to be far more comic than it has turned out) this pseudonym provides.

No sensible cat would go out to rub itself against a snowman. I was equally mad (as in mad cats and human staff go out in the midday freeze) as I forged forth kitchen ladder-chair in hand to take colored lights off and out of intertwine in the outside tree yesterday afternoon. This Kliban cat is from this first week’s calendar desk-diary. I had thick gloves on too, and my pussycats, Clary and Snuffy, watched from the inside warmth by the window.

Miss Drake

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Photo taken by Izzy from the 2nd tier of the opera house at Kennedy Center (where we were seeing An American in Paris)

Where does Christmas occur? for those who dream. First we must define what we mean by this word. It does not occur in the events we experience outwardly but the feeling in an individual heart that gave rise to a willingness to go to them and (if you are very lucky) a good feeling while you are there and just after.


An American in Paris: Gene Kelly hero (MeGee Maddox as Jerry Mulligan) and French ballerina heroine (Allison Walsh as Lise Dassine)

Yesterday (Saturday) Laura came over around 11 and she and I and Izzy proceeded to the Kennedy Center to see An American in Paris. As a story it has great problems: a re-make of a 1951 movie clearly devised to showcase Gene Kelly’s extraordinary presence, dancing, it suffers from the Hays Code so the males are emasculated and females child-like.

We were bored by the first tame act but somehow momentum was built, it emerged one of the three males absurdly in love with the heroine is homosexual (Henri Bauel played by Ben Michael), the second more than physically disabled, probably Aspergers (Adam Hochberg played by Matthew Scott), the heroine herself a Jew whose parents were murdered by the Vichy-Hitler regimes, and the grand moneyed lady had a brain (Milo Davenport played by Kirsten Scott), and they all began to dance these entrancing absorbing numbers with a large troop of dancers. Meanwhile Gerswin’s music took over the brain. The great hall was beautifully decorated, the terrace so pleasant by the water.

Then we had little trouble getting to a very good Asian restaurant where Laura’s husband joined us, we had Peking duck and exchanged gifts. Drinks. Good talk. Hugs when bidding adieu.


Marley’s ghost visiting Scrooge (Alistair Sim)

The night before (Friday) I’d watched the 1951 A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim. We are observing Christmas on Trollope and his Contemporaries by reading Dickens’s tale for two weeks and then Margaret Olphant’s Beleaguered City (another profound ghost story). I’d finished Staves 1 and 2; my reaction I felt I had read these lines hundreds of times before. I haven’t. It must be that bits are quoted so frequently. The air is filled with phantoms. One “cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below upon a door-step.” Sim is wonderful at irony and sarcasm and succeeds in undercutting somehow perfectly the emotionalism of the film. He makes fun of the ghosts at first; he produces wry comments; he is shy over his new found joy. While the first ghost’s journey is fully done, and the second graphically vivid, the third is scanted and the lesson too self-centered: Scrooge fears he will die, a desire for love is re-awakened, and pity.

Still I found myself crying suddenly and strongly suddenly at moments of great power from Alistair Sim’s performance (his face is so mobile, his eyes) in the context of an older aesthetic of civility, kindliness, humaneness.

As ever I paid attention to last part when he sees the older Alice in the workhouse: I used to have a fantasy I would go to homeless shelters where they do lunch on Christmas day when I was alone but I’ve discovered in DC at any rate, you have to register online to do that, tell about yourself (I suppose that makes sense but the form is intrusive, seeking to know my status) and now this year pay $50 — with nothing on the website telling what the $50 is used for.


Jimmy Stewart as suicidal George Bailey

And then last night (back to Saturday) I dosed myself further with the 1945 It’s a Wonderful Life. I was again moved and entered into the fiction. Like Alistair Sim, Jimmy Stewart’s deeply emotional and distraught presence was essential; he was supported by a cast which was allowed (more than the British actors) to have their intense moments of near suicide, several famous names: Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy, Henry Travers as Clarence, the angel who wants his wings and speaks over-voice, Lionel Barrymore as Mr Potter (Scrooge as capitalist); over-voice was important, Donna Reed as the wife and Gloria Grahame as the promiscuous woman.

Living in the Trumpian American that has been created by 50 years of propaganda (since 1947 — the severe control to prevent anything cooperative, socialistic in the least begins with the McCarthy era) and is now triumphing I saw something I had not before: before I concentrated on the fallacious nature of the bargain: George Bailey is made to experience the world as if he had never lived and all else the same happening the same way. The way the film is discussed is it teaches us that each individual matters.

Now I saw the overarching larger story: what is shown is when the Building and Loan association is not there to give reasonable loans, gradually the town’s life is destroyed under the cruel infliction and imposition of Potter’s ruthless high rates of interest, low paying jobs, no social services. Not only is there no lovely set of houses for the average person. The center of town is given over to drink and whoring and violence, and people behave angrily and suspiciously because it’s each person for him or herself in this capitalist environment. The movie shows us not only the results of this tax code in a few years but how it came to be: the mindset engendered by 50 years of propaganda and insufficient social services and destruction of union. I’m not exaggerating.


Scrooge stopped short by death (Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come)

So as opposed to the Christmas Carol, which is about an individual, George Bailey’s life and choices are about a whole society his behavior and norms fostered. Unjust economic arrangements are central again and again. Capra said he got many letters of people upset that Mr Potter is allowed to get away with stealing the $8000 which Uncle Billy misplaced. The fable shows that George doesn’t erase ruthless capitalism, he ameliorated it. I was impressed by how much better everyone behaved to one another when all were doing better and/or well.

We might ask what should a good Christmas story or movie have? Anthony Trollope argued it should exemplify charity. Of Trollope’s Christmas stories my favorite is The Widow’s Mite. I recommend it, and ask if you think the moral is the one I conclude Trollope turns the old parable into. When giving it matters not if the gift takes anything from the giver, what matters is to give something needed to the person given the gift. He reveals the self-centered fallacy at the heart of the fable. See what you and if you agree with me.

The idea of a miracle is more to the forefront in both A Christmas Carol and It’s a wonderful life. Both have ghosts; Clarence does not look so different from the ghost of Christmas past. The 20th century fable has other people seeing Clarence.


Henry Travers as Clarence explaining himself to George

Capra’s movie also uses the of two realms of time going on at the same time and since George’s nightmare doesn’t last it’s a fantasy, but it does use the time-traveling trope with its improbabilities and deeply structured “what if” idea — in Outlander the heroine, Claire, again and again fights against history and fails to stop happening whatever was destined or already happened. I was happy to notice something else not emphasized enough: it is Mary who saves the day. While George is off with Clarence, she calls Uncle billy, finds out what happened and she goes off to individuals and customers and everyone asking for help. George’s happiness in life is also attributed to their relationship.

A parallel incident in Winston Graham’s 1977 The Angry Tide: there is a run on the bank engineered by the ruthless capitalist banker, George Warleggan. So instead of paying the miners the salary Ross had been gathering for them from profit, Demelza ostentatiously puts it in the attacked bank, and, this explained, the miners accept the way the people of Bedford Falls do — for a while. A week later Ross comes home and with his high status, maleness, abnd good will engineers a consortium of banks to overcome Warleggan. But the idea of the people helping the man who was providing a good life against the establishments’ wishes is in both books. This latter is not a miracle though and thus not a Christmas story?

Ghosts. Traditionally Christmas stories use ghosts, and I have been reading Tyler Tichelaar’s exploration of real ghosts testified to in the history of Marquette, Upper Michigan (Haunted Marquette), spiritual mediums, haunted institutions, people to whom great cruelty was done. Appropriately or serendipitiously, Victorian Studies for December published something highly unusual: a funny scholarly article, Victorian Studies, 50:2 (Winter 2007):

Aviva Briefel in “Freaks of Furniture” writes about critical appraisals in magazines and periodicals of the popularity of ghost stories and séances. It seems that people were worried lest readers and the public become afraid of their furniture. And indeed Briefel quotes articles and letters ordinary people wrote about their fear of a piece of furniture; that some chair or bureau or lamp was not to be trusted to sit there unmoved. Things were behaving badly in some Victorian households. How spectral displays of objects got in the way of servants doing their jobs. Tables were particularly aggressive. Photography had begun to be used by spiritual mediums – Tyler’s book records some uses of this – the light in the center of the photo which seem inexplicable. This was seen by some as “excess energy” we could put to better use. Of course some is direct parody: Punch published a directive telling prospective customers they need to “carefully source” their stuff before buying it. Scrutinize it, find out its history, how it had behaved in previous houses …

Of course it’s skeptical but it also shows how this belief in ghosts and presences was pervasive. In my case I have never seen any furniture or other object in any house I’ve lived in act up, much less in similar ways. When I was very young and lived with my father’s sister (my aunt) and her children, these children did play mean tricks and once the trick was aimed at me. I was terrified and they didn’t reveal this trick until my aunt came home and discovered of course what was occurring. Because of such experiences (there were a couple of such) when I read of tricks played on some specific young person in a family — say in Smollett or Burney or more recently Waugh or Anthony Powell — I am not amused.

There are powerful ghost stories from the 1930s — I could cite them if anyone is interested, where the event is a mean trick. The person is fooled, but then what happens towards the end is suddenly the trick is real, and some real revenant punished someone hard. One of these was called “It,” and the idea of the story was to reveal to the reader that these games with an “It” in the center are left-over scapegoating rituals. Sometimes I’m glad I was an only child. These Christmas stories can turn mean.

But there is another sine qua non, a very different kind of Christmas event to hallucinatory movies, riveting musicals, transformative stories: the Christmas pantomime and music hall antics in taverns and theaters. These connect to traditional plays (as in the medieval Second Shepherd’s). A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful have very comic moments. Clarence is oddly hilarious.


Albert Coia and Tracey Stephens (Miss Florrie Ford)

Today at 3 Izzy and I re-found Metro-stage. A flyer had come onto my stoop about a month ago: once again Catherine Flyte, impresario, was staging Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush, this time in Alexandria City. I phoned, reserved with a credit card, took down the address, and trusted to my garmin to get us there. We were getting nervous as the garmin kept disagreeing with our paper map but as we drove up, both of us said, Oh, we’ve been here before — with Dad. I felt happy that Izzy remembered so well a moving play we saw here years ago, Sea Marks with Michael Toleydo and Catherine Flyte as an aging fisherman and lonely woman finding love again. I have a still from it on my wall today.

Jim and I used to go here justthe two of us occasionally for rarely-done plays too: we saw Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. It’s a small theater-auditorium in a plain small building at the end of a residential block of attached houses, very suitable for intimate plays — and shows. They had only the one piano.

Then we looked at our program and there was the unique Albert Coia, still alive and doing Mr Bertie Ramsbottom, and routines like “The Night I appeared as Macbeth:” he didn’t get the laughter over how he had missed Bill’s [Shakespeare] being ill, much less dead, that he should have. No one can do British music hall the way he does — or Catherine Flyte as the aging Fairy (“Nobody Loves a Fairy”) and the schoolmistress putting on play with young children. Izzy said it was 1994 that Laura interned at the British embassy and we saw a genuine full Christmas pantomime: “Little Red Riding Hood,” complete with two dames, and then in 2001 that we saw this show with Toleydo himself as Chairman. He made me laugh that time until I almost couldn’t stop.

This time Brian O’Connor was Chairman. I again found parts of routines hilarious that around me other people were made uncomfortable by (some of the numbers are very salacious: “Spotted Dick” and “Me Little Yo-Yo” for male performers and “Please Don’t Touch Me Plums” for women). To some in the audience this was like Gilbert and Sullivan to the audience I was in 4 weeks ago: another culture. Still it draws people wherever it plays.


This is not the one we saw but a version of it I found at YouTube

Well there was “Champagne Charlie is my name,” “The Road to Mandalay or Come into the Garden Maud” mashed into “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God” (a man speaks Kipling like lines and behind him is a woman whose arms do much work about his body), other routines (“Christmas in the Trenches”), altogether some 30 songs, in bits, as choruses, with audience singing along or in competition, continual moan-and-groan puns, questions and answers, interruptions, repetitions, a soprano (Katherine Riddle as Miss Daisy May), a wonderfully resonant baritone (Bob McDonald), sad songs (“In the Bleak Midwinter”), gay (“Let’s All Go Down the Strand”) and longing — many from World War One: “It’s a long way from Tipperary.” Christmas crackers were pulled. This iteration has been very favorably reviewed and it was (alas) the last performance for this year.

So another outward manifestation of Christmas is (to quote the reviewer) is “soothing the soul” by “spending a couple of hours laughing in the dark at silly jokes and stomping to give your approval.” Something cathartic.


Again this is not from the Gershwin production we saw, but is Judy Garland singing on the radio one of the songs we heard (“Not for me”)

When we were at the Old Bush and Bull and Izzy was singing sitting next to me I heard her beautiful soprano voice so clearly and knew it was superior to anyone else’s in the row; and when we returned from the Asian place after Kennedy Center she had such a relaxed tone in her voice, it sounded so harmonious and easy for a moment. She has had Christmas happen to her this year.

Miss Drake

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Winter again


Wintry walk — in a Maryland park

Grey trunks

Leafless limbs shiv’ring
At sharp winter’s blast; beneath:
Roots clasp cold comfort.
— Tony Lee

Each year time out of mind communities of people have framed winter’s first phase with festivities where light and gay color, preferably green, play a central role. In college (1960s a Queens College, CUNY) I read and as a central text of the first half of British literature (1990s at George Mason) I taught the wonderfully marvelous medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, accompanied by much explication where we were told why red was the other favored color, but I’ve forgotten now (it has to do with blood, berries, mistletoe, legends). Still, without knowing why but because it was there and caught our eyes Izzy and I must’ve bought in the past three years (since we’ve been putting up a tree again) a glittery red garland. It’s in such good shape. (Some of our ornaments go back to before Izzy was born, most at least 6 years old. We have far more than we can put on our nowadays tiny trees). It was the final wrap round this year’s decorating:

Each year for some 15 years I’ve also taken down from the attic my pottery penguin dressed for snow sports, whom I named Colin. At night when I plug him in, he too glitters:

This year I bought him a small friend, to sit by said tree too, a silvery squirrel: funnily, my male cat Ian likes to sit next to this squirrel. It is clearly a harmless presence. She is as yet nameless.

We have bought token but wanted presents to exchange with Laura and Rob six days from now (when we are all to go to the Kennedy Center to see An American in Paris, and after eat out somewhere nice), and tomorrow I’ll send out what paper cards I have to exchange, and many more electronic. We added a new (we hope fun) ritual to our usual Jewish Christmas (Izzy and I go to a movie and then eat out Asian food on the 25th, with the next Boxing Day spent at a museum): on Christmas eve’s afternoon an English Christmas pantomime we found happens each year in Bear and Bush tavern style in a small Alexandria City theater. Jim enjoyed these so (we managed over the years to find three, twice in DC and once at the English embassy), especially the music hall routines that usually accompany them.


Our miniature Maple outside in front — dusk, close-up (this year I had an outside socket installed)

I seem to have forgotten to mention that about three weeks ago I made my way to an evening of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Hirshhorn museum — a Smithsonian event where a professor accompanied about 2 hours of brilliantly chosen clips from films of great productions, interspersed by a local Georgetown theater group (college students) who each spring do a full G&S production. It was great fun, a full auditorium, but I realize that most of the people there had not seen much G&S where I have seen so many — from my years living with Jim. It ended on one of my favorites, which was one most of the people in the audience seemed not to know, from the ending of The Yeoman of the Guard, “I have a song to sing O”. Jim said at the time the sad ending of the play and this song were unusual for G&S.

It brings to mind a song I was led to listen to today, which I’ll close on.

I was coming to the end of the 9th Poldark novel, The Miller’s Dance, where Clowance Poldark, of the Napoleonic era heroines (the year 1812) seems about to self-destruct by knowingly marrying a man she knows to be violent, a liar, possessive, unreasonable, and yet is drawn to — reminding me of what Chaucer and Shakespeare say about the love of Troilus and Cressida that they drink down the poison as it answers some need in their veins (an enthralling drug). She is at an assembly ball and Valentine (a twisted soul himself, whom she thinks is her cousin but is her half-brother) calls for “The Miller’s Dance.” The characters do not know this dance as it seems to be an older one, and we are told it begins with long resonant strings, “creating a deep echoing note such as is heard before a Scottish reel.

Gradually the dance emerges as couples follow a caller and dance round a solitary man kneeling on a sheaf of corn. In the song variant written probably by Graham, the figure counts “his corn and taxes the sun,” but when it comes to money, all vanishes and at the word “gone,” the couples must change partners. Whoever remains in the middle partnerless is pelted by what comes to hand (cake, ribbons, nuts, candied food). In this civilized time all is a “noisy lark but the heavy beat of the music and its peculiarly melancholy rhythm” has an effect of “old Cornish tunes, building an emotion by its endless repetition and conjuring up superstitions and practices which could not so easily survive the night.” The narrator wonders if the “sacrificial centre” had once upon a time “been stoned.” (The archaic basis of the story and motifs of Sir Gawain and his Green Knight is similarly atavistic — someone bewitched, someone beheaded.)

Clowance enjoys the wild dancing and exchanges, half-reeling with exhaustion, until it comes to her this music had “been communicating something to her which had been taken out of her psychic self … ” For her the miller is this man she is trying to break off from, “an unshriven spirit,” “vigorous, brash fascinating … hair, muscle, sinew … ready to fight … to demand what he thought to be his,charming, dominating, ruthless …”

I went about to find the source, and got back as far as a Chesire folk song, found copied out in a manuscript traced to John Dryden, later resurfacing as reworked by Isaac Bickerstaffe in the 18th century from a man and his sons, to be about a deeply reclusive distrustful man, to a re-incarnation in 1973 by Sondheim as “The Miller’s Son” (A little Night Music, an adaptation of Bergman’s movie, Smiles of a Summer Night.

The song quoted in the novel is a fictionalized version of all these others, made to fit the story and characters. As danced in the novel by these 18th century characters it would be closer to the YouTube rendition of the 18th century dance, but I think the layering here includes and comes to refer primarily to that erotic Miller’s Son. It’s not summer in the novel but later November into winter.

What purports the nomination of this song: the price of having chosen a version of that miller’s son. This is my fifth winter without him.

Miss Drake


Oh tree oh little tree

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