Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

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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Santa into the woods

Beatrix Potter, Christmas Pudding

Dear friends and readers,

I have felt that I and all the people around me are living in some unreality, something I used to read about as occurring elsewhere, or in time past. A fascist gov’t takes power, a party brazenly determined to destroy democracy since their leaders and followers are a minority, where seemingly quite inexplicably (it’s not really) even a majority of the people living within the land mass where this gov’t will have a monopoly on legal violence and control of laws, courts, prisons, are against all that is happening. Yet the process continues to occur since there is no political will among those with some power to stop it so that soon the worst and corrupt decisions are about to be enforced. But we are all not in a novel about horrifying perniciousness though, since one need only take a train to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue to see the circus and military-armed police there (forget Guy Fawkes). I probably assumed without admitting this to myself that it could not happen where I live. Encompassed. This is more than a winter solstice. More than a matter of short days and cold winds. I thought of a line from the author of Game of Thrones: Winter is coming.

From the Disney movie we saw a couple of years ago on Christmas Day: Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife

Within this soon-to-be directly dislocated, yet more war-threatened (with a nuclear arms race according to a man who performs to his public through tweets) beleaguered world, Izzy and I managed a few cheerful rituals. Life goes on. She and I and Laura went to the Kennedy Center on the afternoon of Christmas Ever and enjoyed a performance of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which seemed to have mostly understudies that afternoon. Izzy pointed that out saying we had a diverse cast. Then out to a restaurant where we had the yummiest Chinese food I’ve had and seen in a long time. As I’ve done before I began to cry

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Do not let it grieve you,
No one leaves for good.
You are not alone.
No one is alone …

Careful the things you say
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see
And learn …

Careful the spell you cast …

Though it’s fearful
Though it’s deep, though it’s dark
and though you may lose the path,
Though you encounter wolves,
You can’t just act,
You have to listen …

Into the woods but not too fast,
Or what you wish you lose at last,
Into the woods but mind the path

The way is dark
The way is dim ….

The truth is I miss Jim more than ever. Now that this horror of a gov’t is taking charge and will do cruel acts across the world and inside the US (privatize and thus destroy social security, abolish medicare by whatever means they can, cut the federal govt where what jobs are good are), and their bully leader floods the media with poisonous, menacing lying tweets, I feel more alone and vulnerable. Into the fourth year without his loving companionship and the perpetual satisfaction with living he created. I have no substitute for him. Can find none. Books, good movies, my daughters, friends help to sustain.

The night before I had gotten through by watching once again (a yearly ritual for me) the exquisitely melancholy-comic Huston film adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. I’ve watched it now for a few years. I enjoy the party and love the ending peroration by Donal McCann:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Closing images of Irish landscape under snow

And that evening Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, an appropriation of Mansfield Park set during Christmas week, with very realistic NYC Christmas time scenes — ones I recognize, bringing in Christmas by watching a film of a fake yule log burning in a fake hearth. It reached only innocence soiled: Audrey goes shopping blithely enough:


I was going to try for a third movie, Love Actually, but decided perhaps this year its fierce resistance to anguish, even accompanied by the brilliantly satiric Bill Nighy’s Christmas is All Around Us would no longer work. That is not what is all around us. Christmas day we didn’t do too well, but our Boxing Day sojourn at the National Gallery brought us into two good exhibits, one of drawings made by Dutch Renaissance painters for some good pictures,

The painters did not paint while outside, but drew what they saw and brought in the drawings and proceeded

and another of photography (a few good pieces, the early ones by Cindy Sherman, one from a series on artists who restore pictures, but many pretentious as if seeking to make up for their show-offy “low” content), lunch out.

What women made to look like in the 1950s

I thought of Jane Austen’s quip about a couple of days she passed in travel: “we were very little crowded and by no means unhappy.” Especially over our bowls of spaghetti at home on December 26th.

I managed to clear a space between our Christmas tree (sitting on its piece of furniture under a window) and said window so that the cats can look out the window again, and so they can be comfortable … staring out once again at the clear mild winter day scene …

We’ve decided for New Year’s Eve we’ll stay in once again.

Today I was deeply stirred by the close of what I now think a very great historical novel, Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover: soliloquy diaries by three women: Catherine Barlow Hamilton (Sir William Hamilton’s wife, a man who wanted to be remembered for his collection and as having loved volcanoes though what he is remembered for is having married) Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton, her mother, Mrs Cardogan, and stunningly Eleanora de Fonseca Pimentel:

I feared I never would understand what would allow me to protect myself … I would lie to myself about how complicated it was to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their glory or well-being [modernized: their place in the organization]. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.

I now see that showing a character after death as talking to us from the perspective of what happened later is a brilliant stroke. I’m seeing some of the fantasy conventions permit needed instruments for creating truths.

Fonseca Pimentel was a remarkable journalist, poet, radical, senselessly murdered, a historical novel about whom I will read next: Enzo Striano, Il resto di niente. Storia di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e della rivoluzione napoletana del 1799, Napoli, Avagliano 1999; Milano, Rizzoli 2001 (available on Amazon for $4.91). I had only heard of her vaguely before: the novel almost exists to tell her story finally. Nell and her 20th century author (in the novel too) require a separate blog as did my watching of the BBC The Hollow Crown; this week too. All so newly relevant.

My plan for New Year’s Eve: read Jonathan Bate’s book on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, dip into two I’ve been meaning to look at: Lynch’s Becoming Shakespeare and Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars, Randall Jarrel’s poetry, then a favorite mini-series. Or shall I subside into a favorite Jane Austen movie? or continue with the new Poldark?

We (two of us on Wwtta) carry on reading Hermione Lee’s astonishingly deep biography of Virginia Woolf which has enabled me to come closer to her than ever I did, and over on Trollope19thCStudies a few of us Christmas stories, tonight for me the excitingly visionary ghost story, “Library Window” by Margaret Oliphant: I entered utterly into her dream of a young girl writer who sees across the street in a window a vision of the inexorable demands, price, and rewards of writing, reading, as a way of sustaining oneself hour-by-hour.

It’s a nightmare story about being a writer; about what one has to give up to become a writer, and also what one has to let into one’s soul and allow that perception of reality (however much it’s trauma, however much it takes such hard work) to sink in; one must loose one’s moorings from the social world around and pick up the currents of inward life. Since it is one of Oliphant’s last stories it is her looking back from the perspective of what she was when she set out. There is a luminousness about the tone too. I felt deeply stirred by how she experienced the depths of imaginative reverie as shown in the story. There’s an allusion to Scott which suggests she did see herself as following him finally, not Trollope; the story is set on a street in St Andrews she visited many times when young.

On face-book Christmas day some of the facades were cracking, but not enough to register; a mother and daughter who loved one another dearly have died and twitter shows the grief some feel at the loss of Carrie Fisher, from a massive heart attack at age 60, a remarkably candid writer and iconic actress (Princess Leia, Star Wars) whose memoir, Postcards from the Edge, suggests a Dorothy Parker manque following Carolyn Heilbrun’s prescription to tell. I did not realize her mother, Debbie Reynolds, had phases of her career where she acquitted herself beautifully in serious plays and movies; I wouldn’t discount the brilliance of her performance in the the great “Singin’ in the Rain.” She was living next door to her daughter, outlived her but two days — the blow brought on a stroke.


My daughters seem to feel about Carrie Fisher’s death the way I felt about Jenny Diski’s death from cancer this year. I am so touched over how the mother died of a broken heart, her grief was too much for her heart to sustain.

And on Wom-po, a poem by Dunya Mikhail as translated by Elizabeth Winslow, about how she turned around to discover she had lost the country she thought she had been living in, which I’ll quote these lines from:

Please, if anyone passes by
and stumbles across it,
perhaps in a suitcase
open to the sky,
or engraved on a rock
like a gaping wound,
or wrapped
in the blankets of emigrants,
or canceled
like a losing lottery ticket …

please to let her know, where, how it has gone, how find it again, who will return it.

This week’s massacre: Aleppo

Miss Drake

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Poor tiny tree. I feel sorry for it. It never drank its water from its bowl, not permitted to grow up.

Dear friends and readers,

And you thought I had done with Christmas. Well past its sell-by date? Not at the Folger Shakespeare Library where epiphany is not forgot. I bring in the new calendar year with a jigsaw puzzle. I had forgotten how gratifyingly satisfying an activity it is. When in her adolescence my older daughter Caroline would do difficult ones by the hour and day and week.

To go chronologically: On December 30th, I spent part of a day doing a puzzle with my neighbor-friend, Sybille, drinking some kind of eggnog. It takes concentration and you gradually find yourself gaining great satisfaction as the colors of the individual pieces fit into the large scheme of things:

NYC Christmas, a Ravensburger puzzle (an early 20th century painting)

We always started with the frame. Auntie Phyl taught my sisters and me how to pick out all the straight-edged pieces of the jigsaw first, to find the corners, and to build up the four sides. Then we would begin to sort the colours, and to construct areas of the picture. Unlike some people, we did not have a set procedure for this stage of the puzzle, and we were never of the wilfully austere school that does not look at the picture on the box. Looking at the picture for us was part of the pleasure. Doing a jigsaw … was a pursuit that lay somewhere between creation and imitation and discovery and reverie … We would sometimes reach a stage where Auntie Phyll would say, ‘Well, I can’t see by the colours any more, we’ve done all the bright ones, so I’m giing to have to go by the shapes now! .. One of the strangest and more unsettling cognitive experiences of a difficult jigsaw … occurs when a piece that has eluded intensive search over hours and days and weeks suddenly makes itself known, and fits into its home. At once, the piece loses its profoundly unknown quality, and becomes so much a part of the pattern that within seconds you cannot remember where the gap was — Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet, a Personal History with Jigsaws.

New Year’s Eve Izzy and I went to the Olive Garden with two friends, had dinner, and returned home. I probably brought in the New Year’s later that night watching the 1972 BBC 20 episode film adaptation of War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins a brilliant Pierre, my favorite Angela Down as one of the central hero, Andrei’s sister, Maria). I’ve started watching Andrew Davies’ 6 part War and Peace and am disappointed as too much has to be left out, the effect is an outline of the book, intelligent, catching the right moments with perceptive thematic resonance, but painfully thin. Jim had downloaded it for me from Pirate Bay, and Caroline had saved it from the crash of my first computer by putting it on my laptop for me. Where would I be without all three I thought that night as I retired to bed with my pussycats, Clary and Ian?


And, one last lingering night at the Folger Shakespeare Library, justified (rationalized) by the historical reality that for Elizabethans and Jacobeans, the festival time ended on January 6th. It was seasonal, church and community-centered, with plays, the controlled anarchy of fools’ days, feasting in great houses, traditional dances, masques.

On Epiphany (so Elizabethans would call it), tonight the Folger opened its older reading room, whose shelves, appearance, lighting, tables is that of a great hall, to virtuoso performance by one of the great Shakespearean actors in the Washington repertoire circuit, Louis Butelli. I’ve seen him many times: Iago, Cassio, often the second supporting actor not requiring any conventional youthful handsomeness. It was conceived and put together by Robert Richmond, most of it passages and lines from Hamlet which enabled Butelli to seem as framing to tell the story of the play as the gravedigger. The Folger Shakespeare Library director, Dr Michael Witmore spoke and said earlier in the day the room we were had bene filled with scholars reading very old books. Some of the most contented moments of my life in these years I’ve spent in the DC area have been reading 400 plus year old books in that room. Every seat was taken, perhaps as many as six rows in a large horseshoe arrangement around a fireplace at center of one of this room’s walls. It was “interactive:” Butelli gently maneuvered members of the audience into speaking lines from the play and in two sequences reading lines in key scenes (one Hamlet with Ophelia).


Among the passages chosen were those of the players’ play, of Hecuba frantic with grief, unable to save her aging husband from the barbaric death inflicted on him. I should not continue to be surprised with how Shakespeare’s use of this melodramatic idiom conveys such universal human truth I thought of the refugees from El Salvador forced to return to the most murderous place on this earth.

Afterward, there was a wine and gracious snacks reception in the second reading room, the contemporary and brightly lit one where there are more than adequate outlets for using computers. I talked with one man who said he has spent his Christmas Eve day as an usher in at the Shakespeare theater on 14th street in DC watching a play, and his New Year’s day at another Shakespeare theater as an usher watching another play. He goes to the poetry readings at the Folger and to the concerts. I liked that. I dream of going to DC homeless shelters to help provide meals for the day — like Scrooge’s now aging fiancee in the Alistair Sim’s movie of A Christmas Carol — I’m making fun of myself here. This man neither drives nor has a TV in his apartment.

Of course nowadays you can watch all the TV you want on your computer — but it is a narrow select TV you curate yourself. It’s what I do most of the time. I watch PBS news most evenings: Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill, Jeffrey Brown, Fred de Sam Lazaro, Malcolm Bradley and (of course) Hari Sreenivasin my favorites. Thus I avoid most commercials — PBS reports has these too so I start the show late and leave before Judy has to advertise for PBS itself at the end of the program. And I correct what I see by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez’s DemocracyNow.org much smarter take and far more insightful candid interviews with searching questions on the day or week or month under view and often much more important topics over the hour.

Life has gone on for Izzy and I since I last wrote. We took down our tiny tree, pulled out lights off of the tree on our front lawn, I took down the cards arrayed across the piano, and saved a few. She returned to full day full time work as a librarian, and I to my life among books. The past week and a half I have been deeply enjoying a return to Charlotte Smith’s novels, poetry and recent criticism and scholarship on her writing. Also reading about Scotland (Carla Sassi, Why Scottish Literature Matters) as insofar as Smith’s novel, Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake is known, the portions of it set on Scotland are remembered for their picturesque beauty and hard realism. Have I said my edition of Smith’s Ethelinde is going to be published by Valancourt Press this spring? (!) I managed to send off a proposal for a conference on Smith next October 2016 Chawton House Library. I will write about this on my Austen reveries blog. Cross your fingers for me it’s accepted. My spirit soared reading Smith’s sonnets and Beachy Head and other poetry this week. She seems never to tire of walking on the cliffs of Sussex:

Scene, on the Cliffs to the Eastward of the Town of Brighthelmstone in Sussex. Time, a Morning in November, 1792.

Slow in the Wintry Morn, the struggling light
Throws a faint gleam upon the troubled waves;
Their foaming tops, as they approach the shore
And the broad surf that never ceasing breaks
On the innumerous pebbles, catch the beams
Of the pale Sun, that with reluctance gives
To this cold northern Isle, its shorten’d day

A friend on face-book whom I met in London this year posted a photo of this area today:

The feel was gloomy on the warren east of Folkstone towards Dover East this past December; a whole area had been taken back by the high flooding seas of climate change, though, she wrote, “in the low land you may be able to make out in the distance in this picture, behind the tree, is Samphire Hoe, a totally new part of England, created from the waste from drilling the Channel Tunnel on the British side …”, prompting me to recite some lines from Spenser’s Faerie Queene as read aloud in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility movie by Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon to Kate Winslett as Marianne:

What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eat the earth, it is no more at all …
Nor is the earth the lesse, or loseth aught,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought …

I also found myself reading Wordsworth, just unbeatable for depth of feeling, solace, strength.

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
        We will grieve not, rather find
        Strength in what remains behind …

I signed up for a four week seminar on World War One books at the Smithsonian: I’ve read and taught Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, with the film, Jim and I went to a London production of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End where the technological apparatus of the theater was able to make the audience experience the terror of the sounds of bombs raining down on us (imaginatively), and I will make time to read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (to Tipperary, Booker Prize winner) and Pat Barker’s (much beprized) Regeneration. I’ve got to get myself to read in French with the English translation as a crib, Sebastian Japrisot’s A Long Long Engagement (the title Un Long dimacnche de fiancailles Englished). I’ve got to get myself to return to my French. I’ve missed it and my Italian readings for too many years.

Ian keeping me company the other day — yes that’s Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton scotch-taped on my wall. He was my favorite actor when I was 13-15. Near him Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet gazing meditatively at an English northern landscape …

I even have two New Year’s Resolutions which should be easy to keep.

I have decided we will not take our cats on separate bi-annual trips to have their nails clipped. It is just to stressful for all involved. If we have to take them for immunity injections, for advised wellness check-ups, then I’ll ask that their nails be clipped: they do tear my skin when they jump, and Ian gets his entangled. This time Ian didn’t notice quickly enough to flee to a place we couldn’t reach him to put him in his carrier quickly, but Clary did and I had to yell to make her jump out of a space, and then there was grabbing and forcing her into the carrier. He cried all the way there, while there and back and paced like a tiger in the carrier, but he did not seem that upset when we got home. A little cuddling and routine resumed and he was coming back to himself. She, however, ran and hid. When she came out she hissed at me when I came near at first, gradually she sat in my lap, but I had to be careful, the slightest untoward sound and she was off like rapid light; she hissed and snarled at poor Ian all afternoon; only in the evening was she willing to let him lay beside her. Today still she has lost her sense of security and cat understanding of my love for her. She and I have now become so close; if Ian has become Cookie, an altered sociable cat (part of this paradoxically how he growls as anyone comes up the path), she and I have become tenderly loving friends. She cannot understand that I could do this. So I must limit such scenes to the minimum possible.

And next year I’ll keep the trees inside and outside Christmas-y until Twelfth Night. Why not? In my neighborhood people keep their lights up into the 2nd week of January. One man who every year puts lights on an enormous tree and does it for the neighborhood keeps his lit until Burns’ night. This way the poor plant (tree) which gives up its life so much earlier than it should (they can live for so long) will not be wantonly bought quite as much. I’ll look for a slightly larger one in the hope it’ll drink its water.

As for Winter, we have had three days of it thus far: bright blue sky, frigid temperatures in the morning and night, in the middle of the day warming up some. But all but the last two days it’s been he new winter in a mid-Atlantic state on the east coast of the US. It’s a mild season, lots of rain, sky often dark, sometimes gets very warm, usually dank in the morning but when the sun comes out quite balmy. Some days have this real chill and nip in the air and night can be quite cold. Like living in a ghost story. It’s not warm enough for plants to come out, but they get confused and seem to begin the process and then give up. Flowers may still be seen and leaves too from fall hanging on bushes and trees …

The worst part is my house’s heating system is structured on the assumption of real cold. When it’s not true Winter cold outside, the heat does not go on. If I put up the thermostat to force this heat to come out of the grates (say 74 fahrenheit), it becomes too hot in here, so I turn the thermostat down. Too stuffy. So I open the windows. Then it’s too cold. My clothes are also not quite appropriate for this new season. People will say these are minor nuisances. Proper Winter is a deadly threatening difficult time no matter how beautiful, soothing, with quietude to my eye looking out my window:

Camille Pissarro, Winter Road, Sun and Snow (1869-70).

And so they are, but not for everyone is climate change something easily adjustable to. For some it is destroying their homes, their livelihood, sometimes it can kill them or people near them.

In last week’s Talk of the Town in the New Yorker Zora O’Neill said as how the ski business and hockey on iced-over ponds are not doing so well, but the people who make, service and know about steam heat are still thriving. The Hold-Over Dept describes immense boiler steam radiators, the subject of a lecture and many other concerned people attended. It made me remember an apartment I lived in with my parents in Kew Gardens (say 1958?). Deep in the bowels of the building was one of these giant noisy contraptions; my father and I would go down there and watch. Fast forward — or rewind — I also remembered my British in-laws’ fireplaces: when I first met them ten years (but in terms of life’s experience a life) later, in their parlor one of these used coals: dirty, and not as pretty as a wood fire, it radiated a helluva lot of heat. Coal is still making enormous sums for the 1% (maybe a slightly larger number) and occasioning much misery for the feebly unionized (unions now very weak in case you haven’t noticed it and the Fed gov’t has given oversight to the wolves) i.e.g, those work hard and long in the mines; and steam heat people still tend enormous radiators in more places in NYC and unexpected ones than you might suppose — like the Empire State Building.

Memories. That’s what this ritual time brings. A thoughtful review in a recent (December 11, 2015) issue of TLS by Richard Smyth in a recent TLS, December 11, 2015, on what appears to be an excellent book by Alexandra Harris. Weatherland: Writers and artists under English skies: no one appears to notice by writing down the weather of daily life until the 18th century when the teleological frame of existence vanished. Not that they were not aware of the influence of weather:

Frozen Thames by Abraham Hondius (1677) — just look at what the individual people and pairs are variously doing

What I did this year? I discovered Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, saw it perhaps for the first time. I felt such deep satisfaction as I learned about 11 women artists, read books about them. The books I remember best from reading is Jenny Diski’s What I don’t know about Animals and Apology for the Woman Writing. The book I was stirred by again and again from Simon Slater’s reading, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Favorite cinema movies: Mr Turner, I’ll Dream of You, and Mr. Holmes; favorite mini-series Wolf Hall and Danger UXB.

The right side of my body has become so weak that I’m now going twice a week to a class called Body Strengthening at the Jewish Community Center. Over 40 people in large auditorium follow Paula for an hour doing mild exercise (including dance, stretching, pressing with barbells and stretch rubber, using a ball), all to music. It reminds me of those rare times in high school (1961?) when I and the girls in the “small gym” (disabled, pregnant, pulled out of the main group for all sorts of reasons) joined the girls in the large gym for large patterned marching-dancing. In our end is our beginning (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

And so I enter a third year of life without him. I continue to observe how much each day of existence brings of quiet small changes slowly happening he is not here to know with me.


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Dancing and Dinner (Huston’s The Dead)

I cannot change my mind for you, my dears ….
all the lovely and beautiful times we had — Sappho, trans. M. L. West

Sounds from our life’s first poetry —
like music at night, far off, fading out — Cavafy, trans. Avi Sharon

Friends and readers,

The last few days and evening have passed peacefully and mostly cheerfully.

Izzy has been “let out” of work (like some prisoner whose sentence is briefly commuted) early repeatedly: the 22nd, 4 pm, the 23rd, the same, then the 24th at noon! she betook herself to Old Town on Christmas Eve day, had lunch out, walked (though the wet sky did persist in raining on her) amid the pretty place and got home just as I was leaving. I spent the evening with a new friend, Phyllis: spinach inside some kind of light baked flaky dough; home-made soup, squash (vegetables are such a treat for me nowadays), banana bread, all washed down by wine. We listened to musicals (Weber, Fosse) and women narrators: Lorrie Anderson who conjures up worlds of half-mad Americans, and Nora Ephron’s wry essays from her I Feel Bad About My Neck. She sounded to me just like Laura Linney — one of my favorite actresses.

Christmas Day I slept until nearly 8. Izzy’s custom is to play good Christmas music, and this morning she had the whole of the Christmas Revels. Around 1:30 we began what some and we call (comically meant) a “Jewish Christmas,” out to a Chinese restaurant (good food, warmly lit felt place – since some detail menus, we had peking duck and savory eggplant dish, me Riesling wine). Phyllis met us there because I had forgotten my reading glasses the night before, and then stayed for dinner. Before the hot rain began to pour (the 25th was like a day in May, muggy, heavy, raining dankly like some neglected greenhouse), brief walk for me & Izzy, and then she and I at home watched John and Tony Huston’s moving delicately nuanced sometimes very funny (as when Lady Gregory’s dreadful poem is read aloud and all admire it) film adaptation of Joyce’s culminating Dubliner story, The Dead, starring Donal McCann as Gabriel and Anjelica Huston (this was a family affair) as Gretta. We had together written a paper a few years ago on this story, comparing it to one by Anne Enright. At the close of the movie Huston films older parts of Dublin and then the Irish countryside, a couple of old churches and some very ancient gravestones, and McCann uttering Gabriel’s magnificently melancholy words ….


Evening for me one of my presents, Patti Smith’s M Train and for her ice-skating on the Net and her present, Mary Beard’s SPQR.

These latter were acquired on the evening of the 23rd. Caroline came over and we drove about and went shopping to an open group of sidewalks, semi-mall in Arlington. The Apple Store. Izzy did not need an new ipad after all, resident “geniuses” in red t-shirts fixed it for her and improved my access to g-mail on my cell phone. Then we adjourned to a bookstore and bought two books each. We then did our exchange of presents in Caroline’s car. (I forget what books Caroline got, what was Izzy’s second, mine was Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second of her Neapolitan novels as I recently finished her powerful My Brilliant Friend.) We did Christmas in the car.

I do wonder on and off why I just don’t sit and cry, and the answer comes back, it’s useless, plus would ruin what we can have. “Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;/We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind…” I had a panic attack one noon, the 22nd: I became convinced my car had been stolen. I went out to my car park and it was not there. It took three hours, frantic phone calls, a police officer coming over and questioning me slowly — and courteously, to awaken the memory I had left it the night before near the Metro because a neighbor offered to drive me home. The sadness is worse at night, sometimes sleep comes hard, at the same time as in one way at least for this yearly event this year I felt freer without him.

You see Jim hated Christmas in his deepest self from bitter memories of childhood as well as times in public school as a day boy. (I’ve met a lot of people who dislike the imposition, find the insistence of others oppressive; cannot ignore family pathologies.) Then I watched the famous BBC documentary from the 1960s, Cathy Come Home. I had been waiting for weeks for it to come from Amazon.uk as I am in the midst of reading an good book on British Television Drama (Lez Cooke) which discuss the very best (also John Caughie’s Television Drama: realism, modernism, British culture). A devastatingly traumatic story about a couple driven into homelessness (he cannot make enough money for rent once he gets into a bad accident and loses physical abilities, once she has children, she makes none), rightly immensely respected: I had not quite realized what it means to say the Wednesday Night plays on the BBC were not presented as plays but as contemporary films, this one with its montage, over-voices, photographed real places, a seeming documentary. The last scene because Cathy has become obstreperous she is evicted from the last shelter, and since she has no hope of anyone who will rent her a place for her meager change, her children are forcibly removed from her in a bus station she has fled to.

It is an unforgettable experience.

Chance turned out to be fitting for me because the film brought home to me one aspect of how & why Jim came to feel about Christmas the way he did. In 1948 to 51, when he was born until age 3 or so, his mother and father lived in condemned housing where they were continually harassed to get out of it, berated for not finding another place, threatened, without being given the slightest help (money, contacts, nothing) — the excuse was that there was no housing and probably just after the war there wasn’t. Unlike Cathy, my mother-in-law remained polite (she had been an under-governess in a great house, a job she hated but taught her silence). They were not evicted. After a futher year of misery (he was 4) Jim’s mother’s best friend managed to get a larger flat where she could invite them to stay with her. Then a year or so after that, with her negotiating skills and a loan on remarkably easy terms (2% interest at first) from a Friendly Society (workman’s loan association), Jim’s parents bought an long old narrow attached house in Southampton. They lived there until Jim’s father died in 1978 and his mother moved to Leeds to be near her daughter (Jim’s sister, now a vicar).

Jim’s first remembered Christmas was hardly any food to eat, much less presents ,and heartless menacing and cold scorn from authorities who came to nag because these people feared for their jobs if people stayed in condemned housing. A first searing experience of individual and community hypocrisy. I had tried until I was 9 to be the child I was supposed to be on Christmas day in myths, but experience and truthfulness began to break this veneer down when I was 11. Over the years he moderated: after 11 years of marriage, when Laura was 2 we had a tree for her sake, and in her and Izzy’s babyhood, I performed the Santa shower of presents, and then my parents started coming over and we’d have the family meal, but suffice to say as time went on, and hard experience intervened, this yearly enforced set of demands became more and more fraught. The imposition, the grating on my worn nerves while I kept trying, a increasing grief to me.

He did break this cycle in 2000. He took Izzy and I to Paris for 2 weeks over Christmas and past New Year’s Day. We all remembered it afterward as a magical time. We saw so many plays: Corneille’s Cinna (slow enough I could understand), Moliere’s Tartuffe (very acrobatic), a dramatization of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Offenbach’s La Perichole (extraordinarily festive operetta), Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (for New Year’s Eve after which we walked to the Eiffel Tower to see the fireworks); we went to fascinating movies, remarkable bookstores, ceaseless museums, to Versailles, on bus tours into the countryside; we even went to the banlieus. We were in an apartment worthy a movie about picturesque Paris (not far from Notre Dame). Christmas Day Jim went to a market and brought home cooked what he said was French Christmas meal — I recall a ham, some yummy vegetable dish, a roll of fancy cake. The best thing about Christmas day in Paris was so much was open; you didn’t have to observe the day if you didn’t want to, and lots of people were going out. We saw some Racine play that day. The last day we were there (January 3rd) Izzy stood on one of the bridges and stared hard to try to keep in her mind all we had experienced.

Then for a couple of years we tried for a new set of customs: the Jewish Christmas, Chinese restaurant and movie and for a couple of years enough of the Paris mood and memories remained. One of these two or three years we happened into a restaurant where the Peking Duck came out with flames and it was carved in front of us. We added on Boxing Day one year: we hadn’t one set of relatives to go to, much less a second, but discovered how all the museums in DC were open and put on special blockbuster shows. So we began to do the second British Christmas day: I remember (and have the books for) The Victorians, John Singer Sergeant, Vuillard; Age of Watteau, Chardin, & Fragonard; an innovative exhibit on the natural landscapes and photographs of the Pre-Raphaelites. I wrote blogs on some of these. But not every year is there is worthwhile exhibit. We also added going to Kennedy Center for New Year’s Eve and the ball there. But by 2010 we had again been thinking, we needed to break away, do it freshly, the three of us, a trip elsewhere for the two weeks — Scotland maybe.

Artemis and deer (from after Augustus, in Rome)

Izzy and I had not planned to do Boxing Day this year: I cannot remember if we did it last. I knew we had had a good day the 25th and I said to her this morning, a little regretfully but thinking this was best to make it explicit, well maybe it’s time to give up this second day. She responded, “At the National Gallery they have a good exhibit on Hellenic Sculpture.” “Would you like to go?” “Yes.” As her present of Mary Beard may suggest, Izzy is into Latin and Roman Culture. She took Latin in school every year from the time she was 11; some years she had Latin two hours a day; she minored in it at Sweet Briar. During the 4 years between getting her librarian job and graduation from Buffalo (MLIS), she took 3 courses in latin and Roman history/culture at Mason (post-graduate, no credit). This exhibit would be part of her thing.

It was somehow so touching that when we walk round back, we discovered he has these perfectly delicately carved feathery wings — the human presence who did this came across

We set forth by 11 am. Pathos and Power one of the more intelligently put together exhibits I’ve seen in a while. the curators reveal an art of true individuality, subjectivity grew up in the ancient Greek empire as artists commemorated heroes, royals and heroines (Athena and Artemis were there; also one Egyptian queen), and some ordinary people in bronze between 300 BC and 100 AD. There are photographs of frescos, paintings of places in Greece and Italy where these were found or temples are or were located. The exhibit includes a room on collectors, what periods this material was gathered in, where; in slightly later centuries (3rd century AD) how they were used, then how copied by the Romans, then the 18th century excavations, 19th. We noticed how much is recently found: since the 20th century maybe it’s been more obvious to fisherman or people living near frozen mud they can get money for these objects? A piquant well-photographed 25 minute film from the Getty narrated by someone Izzy recognized as a fine narrator and scholar. I bought a book of Greek Lyric Poetry — fresh lovely translations with a picture of Sappho by Gustave Moreau on the cover.

Sappho on the Rock (Moreau)

Downstairs to the cafeteria for a sit down and lunch. We were game for more and, escalator up, went back to the main galleries and lost ourselves among 19th and early 20th century American impressionist and realistic pictures. I began to feel dizzy and she to have had her full. Christmas Done.

I had so liked the displays of scarlet and pink winter flowers and large green trees with white lights around the garden and fountain areas so we took photos of one another before we left.



By a much later Greek poet than Sappho

In the Evening

It would not have lasted long in any case.
Years of experience taught me that. And yet,
it was rather hasty, the way Fate ended it.
The good times were brief.
Bur how powerful the fragrances;
ow wonderful the bed we lay in;
what pleasure we gave our bodies!

An echo from those days of pleasure,
an echo from those days came near,
an ember from our youth’s fire;
I took one of his letters
and read it over and over until the light faded.

Melancholic, I stepped out on to the balcony –
Stepped out to change my mood by seeing at least
a little of this city that I love,
a little movement in the streets and in the shops.
—C. P. Cavafy, trans. Avi Sharon

Miss Drake

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Dear friends and readers,

I mentioned my daughter whom I sometimes or used to call Yvette and mostly call Izzy (her name is Isobel) was working on a YouTube rendition of Goo Goo Dolls‘ “Better Days” for Christmas Eve. Here’s Izzy:

If you want to view and listen on her blog. click on We need more fruit.


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