Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Academy Award

Since 1989 I've been without a television and I have not watched an Academy Awards ceremony. I do not feel culturally deprived [as I sometimes do when listening to people I respect enthusing about Downton Abbey]. But I have just read Ronnie Barrett's assessment of the pervasive ageism displayed Sunday at this year's awards. Click Times Goes By in the sidebar here.

In general we know that movies are made for the young male audience between 12 and 22 -- that is a demographic that wants nothing to do with anyone of their parents; generation, let alone their grandparents' generation. Yet, many Oscar winners this year, including the indomitable Christopher Plumber were well into the senior years. And the joked, remarks, asides and implications throughout, which Ronnie points out, were ageist.

A certain part of the population doesn't want to hear about any "ism", most especially feminism, racism or ageism, but all are rampant in our society. Cultures do not change rapidly but our culture changed enormously during the last century, so rapidly that the populace contains plenty of laggards who still have strong biases but now know that admitting them is safe only in like minded situations. Among these "isms" ageism is the latest and it's going to be around for quite a while as the population tilts ever more toward those of us over 65.

Many people don't see it because they don't feel it. Most of my associations are with people over 50. THEY are close enough to where they're going that they can't afford to be ageist. But many haven't felt it's bite ... yet. They will. Mos don't want to listen for it's insidiousness, as in the jokes at the Academy Awards, maybe they still harbor the ageism of earlier years. It's time to smell the smoke. If you don't speak up and protest when you get that burnt scene drifting your way, it will be too late to put out the fire -- which is headed our way with cuts in Medicare and pensions and so on.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wislawa Szymborska

Almost since I read her for the first time I have been saying the Wislawa Szymborska is my favorite living poet. I read last night that she died early this month. I did not see an obit, but I get my daily NYTimes online and it is selected sections, no obits. For those who do not know of her, she was a Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize in 1996. She is witty, ironic, feeling, political, personal and writes without pretense. Her poetry is never obscure. Here is one that is appropriate today.

Seen from Above

On a dirt road lies a dead beetle.
Three little pairs of legs carefully folded on his belly.
Instead of death's chaos -- neatness and order.
The horror of this site is mitigated,
the range strictly local, from wenchgrass to spearmint,.
Sadness is not contagious.
The sky is blue.

For our peace of mind, the death seemingly shallower,
animals do not pass away, but simply die.
losing -- we wish to believe -- less of awareness and the world,
leaving -- it seems to us -- a stage less tragic.
Their humble little souls do not haunt our dreams,
they keep their distance,
know their place.

So here lies the dead beetle on the road,
glistens unlamented when the sun hits.
A glance at him is as good as a thought,
he looks as though nothing important has befallen him.
What's important is valid, supposedly, for us.
For just our life, for just our death,
a death that enjoys an extorted primacy.

I am reading a wonderful anthology of poetry which contains this and other Szymboska poems among poems from many countries around the world. Czeslaw Milosz has collected and the poems and introduces them. A Book of Luminous Things is the perfect bedside companion.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Met simulcast, Ernani

Opera and I go way back almost 60 years when, as a young teen, I discovered the Saturday broadcasts on the radio and sat, many a winter Saturday afternoon wrapped in a blanket on my bed listening to the music and getting an operatic education from the intermission features. I had heard all the war horses at least once, sometimes more, by the time I finished high school. All I knew of how an opera looked was "the great gold curtain" that descended and sometimes the color of the women's gowns. The stories often confused me and I had to guess from the plot outlines what was happening as they sang.

In, I think 1956, I saw my first operas, two that summer at the opera in the Cincinnati Zoo [yes, that's where they were]; two totally different operas, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Pucini's Turandot. I did not understand the comic aspects of the former and was stunned by the costumed grandeur of the latter -- of course there were no subtitles so I still had to guess what was being said.
All these years have gone by and I have seen many operas and continued to listen to them on winter Saturdays as well. I developed favorites and ones I don't care for. I've become so enamored of La Traviata I have to sit in a seat near the wall so I can go through a box of Kleenex as everything in it makes me cry. I have a nearly similar reaction to Lucia de Lamamore and various arias, like the Casata Diva from Norma have the same effect. I enjoy other kinds of opera but bel canto singing is an emotional indulgence for me that happens with no other art form and with only a few wonderful pieces of orchestral music. My intellect sinks right down to my toes and emotions are at the mercy of voice and violins.
alt=""id="BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5713586627555492706" /> I have seen actual Met productions -- but always from a balcony seat. Even with good binoculars the experience is very different from seeing the video simulcasts. I feel very lucky indeed that they are shown here in a theatre not too far from me, at prices that are reasonable. This has becomes another kind of opera experience. Yesterday I saw Ernani from the met. I have seen in on video once and knew I loved the lushness of Verdi's solos and duets and trios and the big choral pieces. Although the story does not make much sense -- all those old guys in love with one pretty young thing and she steadfastly holding out for the bandit Ernani who, of course, is really a count. The cast was brilliant, Angela Meade, young but with a powerful voice was the young woman. Usually it's the tenor who steals one's heart but in this case I fell for the baritone, Dimitri Hvorostovsky, who had magnificent arias as Carlos V of Spain and looked like a fairy tale prince all grown up (a white wig -- these days white hair can be a turn on) and the most gorgeous costume on stage. His voice, for me, was more wonderful than tenor or bass or soprano. This was a new opera experience, I am still moved by it. And I look forward to early April when they will simulcast my beloved La Traviata and I will go well armed with Kleenex or maybe even a couple of study cotton handkerchiefs.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Alice Neel, painter

The biographical film about the painter Alice Neel was yesterday's documentary film. I loved it. She is not as well known as she deserves. Alice Neel was born just a few weeks after the turn of the 20th century. She lived into her late 80s. For almost all of her adult life she painted portraits, quite alone, piling them up in her homes, first for the WPA during the '30s, then in Grenwich Village and later in her Harlem apartment where she went to be able to paint the real people on the streets while the "big boys" among the artist of the '50s had totally given up all figurative painting for abstraction. She had two daughters and two sons, the first daughter died of diphtheria very shortly before a vaccine became available. The second daughter was left in Cuban with her father and his wealthy family because Alice could not care for her alone. The two sons came a little later, each with a different father, one of whom was very abusive, as a single mother Alice was always struggling to make ends meet but the two became professionals, one an M.D. and the other a lawyer. A grandson made the documentary which was very professionally filmed and edited.

Throughout her life Alice lived to paint and painted haunting portraits of people of every social layer. Her paintings emphasize personality -- especially in their eyes -- in her own style which is not "realistic" but deeply realistic in conveying the personality. Only in her last couple of decades was she recognized; the women's movement helped greatly to bring her to the art world's attention and she was given a one woman retrospective in the Whitney Museum in the mid-'70s. And inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters. Recognition she relished after so many years of total neglect. I was lucky enough to see a reprisal of that first big Whitney show in the early '80s -- my introduction to her work. It was astonishingly moving and only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of the hundreds of portraits she painted. I am enormously heartened when I watch a film like this or read about someone (and especially a woman) who has worked with dedication in obscurity finally recognized. For every Alice Neel who is recognized how many are there who are not?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cold but beautiful

We've had a winter of high blue skies, minimal snow adn very, very chilly winds. Mostly I have been timid about going to the beach to walk -- my nose and cheekbone do not take well to very cold winds. But a couple of days I ago I wanted some photos so I went to the ocean. I was surprised that the wind was not quite as cold there as in my yard. I'm not sure whether it's because I know what the temperature was (about 38 degrees) or because it's actually evident, but to me this picture looks cold. The houses lined along the beach are all empty this time of year. They are all well over a million dollars each and I presume nicely furnished inside but there they are, unused six months of the year looking out on that blue sky and blue sea while their owners are in a city or perhaps in Florida or other warmer lands. I don't know if their owners consider themselves among the 1% so much in the news, I think they probably are in that blessed and accursed number -- depending, of course, who's thinking of blessing or cursing.

Sometimes I drive among the wealthier enclaves of large, gracious homes and see that most are empty half the year and have Puritanical feelings of embarrassment that I live in a place of such conspicuous consumption. I'm on the horns of a dilemma not truly begrudging people the fruits of their success which, I believe, is more often earned through honest work and intelligence than by greed and dishonestly. On the other hand I think of the many places in the world I have visited where people have so very little -- including a good many places in this country -- and then the display of wealth, of unnecessary and unused houses become obscene. Obscene because they suggest to me that the owners of such wealth think first of their wants and not of the rest of the world; chose an amount of luxury that probably does not substantially increase their personal happiness. I sense a coldness in the hearts of those who can choose to own great empty homes while people in the street shiver and line up at soup kitchens for hot meals.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lastingness, Nicholas Delblanco

Lastingness, a word Nicholas Delblanco may have made up, is absolutely the subject of this not very long book. To state the obvious, it is about creativity going on into old age. Refreshingly Delblanco covers the various arts well and with many examples of people he has known. He writes of writers, of course, also painters and musicians, some recently deceased and some giants of yore like Goya, Bach, Tolstoy. Sometimes I felt a bit at sea as he seemed to have no direct line of inquiry - do brilliant people just keep getting better doing what they do? Do they grow in unexpected directions? Some are stopped by physical deterioration. Musicians can continue composing but lose the ability to play as they once did, he mentions Liszt and Casals and his own father-in-law, Bernard Greenhouse, an eminent cellist.

Finally he reaches no overweening conclusion. Picasso's style changed constantly, Monet painted the same lily pond for the last 30 years of his life. If there is a final wrap up it's that individuals are all different. Guisseppi de Lampadusa who wrote The Leopard very, very late in life and never saw it in print although we now consider it one of the great works of literature said, about the time he started writing it, that he believes every aging adult should be required to write down his or her memories; that that is the only way history will remain known -- not the great history of politics but the history of ordinary people living ordinary lives.

Certainly many people do turn to writing memoirs, or at least recording their memories in some form. This week I am happy because a European woman in her 80s who was struggling to write her memoir that began just before WWII and recorded her experience as a young teen as a prisoner of war and then searching for her displaced family told me a publisher is interested in printing her work. I helped her edit it and put it into good English over several months of last year. It is a fascinating story that we Americans know nothing about. She is not a Jewish refugee -- they've told their stories -- her story is unique to me although not to central Europeans.

At her age, to have accomplished the telling -- and it is lengthy and wonderfully detailed -- was exciting, but to have it in book form and NOT self-published is a wonderful reward for her perseverance. That is lastingness as I am witnessing it. She was in a writing class I taught 18 months ago, others in my classes are also working on memoirs, all are senior citizens and many are fulfilling Lampadusa's instruction. They are recapturing years gone by that are unknown to their grandchildren's generation. Some will print their work, several will self-publish which is no disgrace any more. Lampadusa saw the world in the 1950s totally changed from the one he knew at the end of the 19th century as a young man, and my generation has even more change to deal with.

For those who don't recognize Lampadusa, you may remember the movie, The Leopard with Burt Lancaster as the nobleman -- that was, I think, in the '60s. A magnificent book, a great success only a few years after it's author's death, and a very fine movie.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Four generations

For about an hour this afternoon, three generations of women played a spirited game of a new version of scrabble -- the literary one, a Christmas present that we are learning to play. We were three generation, me, my daughter, her daughter and the fourth generation was very much present in the form of a 22 month old who needed attention and his 2 month old baby brother contentedly being fed a bottle by his grandmother and burped by his mother. For the first time ever in a long series of weekly scrabble games I and my granddaughter tied.

We live within two miles of one another. Our competitive temperaments are somewhat different. I have never been a serious game player [except for crossword puzzles where I am the only player]-- so much so that in college when my roommate and two of our boy friends learned to play bridge, they gave up inviting me to play because I just didn't care enough about winning to keep other people's hands in mind. My daughter is marginally more competitive and granddaughter can be very competitive. But we have a give and take when playing, especially this new version in which knowing names of books and authors gives extra points. I've read far more than either but they have read kinds of books I have not so we give each other clues -- which is the same as giving extra points.

In short we spend a structured hour together, catch up a little -- there's not that much catching up to do, of course, and have a sense of togetherness that we know is very, very rare in a society where families seem to be more often widely scattered than living close together. It wasn't always thus for us, of course. I've only lived near-by for three years. We're a lucky family.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day - a poem

A short poem, about as close to a love poem as I have ever written.


I didn't mean to smile.
I didn't mean not to smile.
I was just waiting for you,
people watching
not worrying that you were late
that there was some confusion
that traffic was snarled,
just waiting for you.

When I saw you I felt my face
soften into a smile
and through me a spiral
of happy hormones felt good
for my health,
for my heart.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Living Aloners

A new book, called Going Solo, by Eric Klinenberg is getting written up, as in today's Times Style Section. I've read other articles on the phenomenon lately. Sociologists are noticing that a high percentage of people currently live alone, young and old -- as might be expected -- and a higher than previous percentage of people in the middle years when the expected status is marriage and family. Over half the apartments in NYC are single apartments. Something I read about elders/seniors, whatever you want to call us, said over 65% of women over 65 years of age live alone. Today's article says 277 million Americans live alone.

Formerly such numbers would draw sighs of pity from the majority. No doubt many of those people would prefer to be living with a loving, congenial companion or mate. I think many share my feeling of comfort being alone. I have lived alone about half my life, and I very much like feeling free to do what I want to do when I want to do it. When I am with someone I can never forget their presence and get totally into what I want to do. I know many people can ignore others around them but something in my mind is always aware and, after a while, I miss the sense of freedom from being alone. In those middle years when I had been part of a couple and ceased to be I learned to go to events and gatherings alone. I overcame the sense that others would wonder why I was alone, I learned to go into restaurants alone and enjoy a dinner by myself. And I learned to travel alone -- but found that I preferred to be alone in groups which is possible and is exactly right for me.

To have lived alone for some period of time, I think, is an important part of learning who one is. Those who have always been part of a family or at least a couple, often seem to lack knowledge of their own strengths and sometimes their own opinions. I think of primitive rituals when young people had to spend a few days alone before being promoted by the tribe from childhood to adulthood. I believe there was wisdom in such a practice. And I think many young people undertake a period alone after their education because something in the psyche needs to be tested. Especially for older people there are negatives about living alone, fears of fall or a stroke cross our minds. Of course I know about the alarm pendants that many people buy and most don't use. I'm not at that point, I'm fully independent and intend to remain that way for quite a long time in the future.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Buck and The Horse Whisperer

Yesterday's documentary film, in class, was Buck, which was among the top fifteen documentaries nominated for an Oscar this year. Buck is the horse trainer who was Robert Redford's consultant for The Horse Whisperer. He began at the age of three as a rope twirler/trick man with his father and older brother. His mother died when he was still pre-school, the father had serious anger problems and whipped the boys fiercely. Finally a coach at school saw the welts and saw to it that the boys were put in a foster home. Nothing in the movie says what became of the brother or the father. Buck became extraordinary.

Two older men, from whom he learned about handling horses were his role models teaching him to respect horses and think about their psychology and understand that the owners and trainers were often the horse's problem. He is shown working with horses and with people, he's respectful of the animal and straight taking to the humans. His foster mother is shown, she raised 23 foster boys. Somehow she gave a very scarred boy enormous compassion and knowledge of psychology. He was shown with his wife and his daughter, a loving family.

The movie, The Horse Whisperer was one I enjoyed but I would not have seen it three times except that shortly after it came out I went somewhere that meant a long overseas flight and, as it happened, the movie was shown on both the going and return flights. It was warm and moving enough that I actually watched those extra times. I think I was given brief rides on horses when I was small, nothing that would deserve saying I've ever ridden a horse. For a few years now I've been thinking I've missed something and semi-dreaming of a dude ranch vacation or one of the horseback trips guides arrange in the Rockies. I'd like to ride a horse. And even more so after this movie.

The movie was so simple and the people so good hearted that I don't think prize givers will rank as highly as something more dramatic. I'm glad such a movie has been shown widely and will be available for some time. Buck's method and the message of respect for an animal -- rather than the owner/slave mentality -- is a message that cannot be told too often or too strongly.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Like a Big Pizza Pie

A stock image, like a cliche, is just that because it's so true. After a busy and varied day with some annoyances, I drove home from a painfully amateur student reading of a painfully amateur screenplay. The moon looked exactly like that image and was front and center for about two miles. I remember a song from long ago sung, if I remember correctly, by Vic Damone -- or maybe Perry Como -- with the lines "when the moon hits your eye/ like a big pizza pie. That's amore." Amore hasn't particularly been on my mind but a moon like that is sure to bring cliches and trite memories.

As for stars, I don't quite understand the phenomenon -- when I first looked up, from a place where a tallish building blocks the moon, I saw only a couple of very bright stars; but there were many trees overhead as well. Later on, out in the open, I still saw only the few very, very bright stars, not a sky full as I see in the summer. I know they don't go into hibernation in the winter. Maybe there were high clouds that I couldn't really see. It's a moon to write a poem about and I'm going to give that a shot before I go to bed this evening.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Enjoyment and Skilll at Your Work

Yes, it's the Bard. He's a haloed figure lost to most of us as a real person. But not to all scholars who love his an have studied him for many, many years. I am taking a class that will discuss Pericles, Coriolanus, Merry Wives of Windsor, in the next month. No matter what play or plays of Shakespeare's we were talking about the professor who teaches the class -- a retired professor who is doing this gratis out of his great love for sharing the Bard's brilliance -- the classes would be a joy. Never heavy but always erudite, full of delight, ready to listen to various views, the teacher is a man doing what he loves most.

I wrote recently about Bill Cunningham as a person who is at one with his profession. Cunningham is more "one pointed," as the yoga meditators say, but Steve, the Shakespearean, brings to his classes the meaning of light in the word "delight". Someone who presents documentary films has a soul-deep joy in doing what she does. These people are rare and should be treasured when they are discovered. I sit through the Shakespeare class with a smile on my face and I leave the documentary classes smiling too. Oh, how I wish others had that light in them! Isn't sharing what you know well and love the ultimate reward of a long life well lived?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein. Stein, Stein, Stein

I just finished slogging through Gertrude Stein's novella, Melanctha. I had many thoughts about it but most of them eventually fled my mind as the hypnotic, rhythmic repetition made me feel that I was running a marathon, physically capable of finishing [though certainly not winning], but having begun to wonder after the first few miles why I had undertaken such a truly pointless way to spend a few hours. The why of reading this novella is a course in Women's Literature and the why of not giving up after a bit is that I believe Stein deserves a place in such a course and deserves informed discussion. She was an important figure in her time and contributed to the experimental, and sometimes equally impenetrable writing, of her time and place. I'm thinking of Ezra Pound and James Joyce in particular.

But, Lordy, Lordy! it's boring and "slogging" is the only word to define the hours I've spent. Melanctha is a half black woman who is searching for a man in her life, one suitor spends a lot of time with her talking and talking and talking. Not only is it highly repetitious, Stein does not paragraph each change of speaker but runs great hunks of dialog on and on in page-long paragraphs. I am not a speed reader except in nonfiction, and very little of that, so I register every word.

Most of the characters are black people or people of mixed race. Stein defines them often as stupid, lazy, selfish, etc. She does not believe is letting the reader discover personality traits through action and speech -- at least not in this novella. She grew up in St. Louis in a well to do family and surely lived with black servants. She is disturbingly racist. If this had not been in the anthology and I had not felt compelled to read it, I certainly wouldn't have read more than a few pages. Of the many things to talk about in a discussion of Stein, very little of it is positive from my point of view.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Bill Cunningham's New York

How rare is it to see a person who lives in the minute, loves what he does, is successful, happy, loved by people who know him and entirely without ostentation? Such a creature is almost impossible in our world today. If asked who might that be, what sort of person, I would say a very accomplished Buddhist meditator.

Bill Cunningham, who does street fashion photography for The New York Times, and has done fashion photography most of his life, is such a person. Last summer and again today I saw the documentary film called Bill Cunningham's New York. He's up there close to the Dalai Lama in my impression of his spirit of mindfulness -- which seems to have evolved, not out of meditation or planning, perhaps partly from his Catholicism, but simply from finding a creative niche for himself that brings him constant satisfaction and doing it in a way that give him complete control of his creativity.

I listened to a room full of smart and probably typical seniors discussing the film. Many psychologized, looking for roots in his family, wondering about his regular church attendance, about his long pause when an interviewer asked, "are you religious?" As one thoughtful woman said, "put that way, it is a difficult question." Since he was always honest, he spent a long time, probably asking himself, "am I what people mean then they say 'religious'?" Certainly I'd spend time thinking about it as would the person speaking. One does not need to be religious to live a beautiful, satisfying, meaningful life. One lives. A simplicity that boggles the minds of those of us who are constantly bombarded with psychobabble.

Seeing this movie again filled me with joy just watching his joy. The psychologist in the group assessed him as being uniquely able to sublimate any psychological problems (assuming, as all psychologists do, that everyone must overcome some psychological traumas just to get to adulthood.) Do we ask if a highly regarded lama was bullied as a boy or if he had sexual urges he's had to sublimate? It is not relevant. When a person reaches his late 60s or early 70s and lives the way Cunningham does, with equanimity and, again, that joy that is all the accomplishment we need to know. It can be done. We can aspire to it because there is a living example to prove it's possible.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Past Comes Calling

When we make major moves in our lives, we unburden ourselves -- at least I do. 30 years or so ago when I moved to NYC I happily responded to an ad in the NY Review of Books asking for diaries of girls who were in high school in the '50s. I sent several diaries covering age 12 to 22. They sat in the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College for some time. In the three years I've learned that a couple of Ph.D.candidates referred to my diaries in their theses. A couple of weeks ago a senior at Harvard emailed me saying she was using my high school diaries extensively in her thesis which is about how advertising and media, especially magazines, influenced teenage girls in the 1950s. I'm only 60 or70 miles away from Harvard so she came down to interview me last weekend. I've been partly processing the experience since then.

I realized before talking to her that I remember very little of my high school years -- it was about 55 years ago and I've experienced not just water under the bridge but floods of life experiences. What a strange feeling to talk with someone who knows me as a teenager --only-- while the teenager is someone so embedded, encrusted within me that I can barely recognize her -- for which I'm enormously grateful most of the time.
My teenage self was in many ways a loner, shy to the bone and yet paradoxically capable of public speaking, writing for publication and performing [very badly] on the piano. I have not yet dug up that long buried teen. I don't even want to sort through the artifacts in her tomb. But I cannot deny that, in fact, she is not dead and she is not a zombie or a ghoul, she is me -- or I am her. But covered by years of accretion -- mold and rust, but also gold and jewels. Somehow metaphors are the only way to describe the memories. I shall slowly come to terms with being reminded of those years. Never have I been nostalgic. Those years were always something to live through, an entrapment to escape. Escape I did, joyfully. Do the circus's tigers, when they are finally given the freedom of a large wild animal farm to live out their lives, remember performing to the crack of a trainer's whip, remember jumping through firey hoops? I think not. Metaphors again. The young woman was charming, professional and, of course, intelligent. She has no idea what psychic confusion she unleashed. Not a bad thing, probably a good thing, maybe integration is an important step at this age.