Monday, November 30, 2020

Photo of the Day: Fall Twilight

When I took this photo the other day looking out on the creek at Overpeck Park, a couple of miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ, it seemed that I was not merely making a visual record of a typical twilight in autumn, but even a goodbye to the season this year.

Almanacs had predicted that sunset was still a way off, but you’d never know it from the headlights on in cars negotiating their way under uncertain gray skies. There's so much darkness in the atmosphere in the attached image that I feel like I could be looking at a J.M.W. Turner landscape painting.

Temperatures haven’t been regularly frigid this year, as they had in past late Novembers. In fact, periodic upswings in the mercury have been enough to bring people out in sizable amounts, if not the droves of spring and summer.

But on a day like the one this weekend, it depressed the spirits to have sunset slip away, even if only until tomorrow. A walk is an activity that anyone can relish, no matter your job status or income level. To have a contracted afternoon felt in keeping with a year in which so much we once took for granted could no longer be enjoyed.

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Big Bang Theory,’ In Which Penny Takes Sheldon To Task)

Penny [played by Kaley Cuoco]: “Come on, Sheldon, you can’t move. Don’t you need to stay in one place so the mothership can find you when it returns?” —The Big Bang Theory, Season 3, Episode 13,The Bozeman Reaction,” original air date Jan. 18, 2010, teleplay by Chuck Lorre, Steven Molaro, and Steve Holland, directed by Mark Cendrowski

Over the course of its 12 seasons, I believe, one of the most pleasant aspects of The Big Bang Theory was the growth of Kaley Cuoco in assurance and comic timing.

Today marks the 35th birthday of the actress. I have no idea how good her latest project, the HBO Max mini-series The Flight Attendant, might be. But I hope that it, or some other film or series in which she may become involved, may give her a similar high-profile outlet where she can equal or surpass her work on Chuck Lorre’s sitcom.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Flashback, November 1850: Dickens’ ‘Favourite Child,’ ‘David Copperfield,’ Published

With the last of its breathlessly awaited 20 monthly serial installments issued, David Copperfield was released in book form in November 1850, capping the publication journey of the most autobiographical novel by Charles Dickens

Just a few years before his death, the astonishingly prolific writer pronounced this his “favourite child” among his novels, and whenever writers use the adjective “Dickensian,” they, more likely than not, have in mind the miserable childhood remembered and subtly reworked here.

In some ways, the novelist didn’t realize just how autobiographical his fiction in this case was: He later wrote friend and future biographer John Forster that he hadn’t noticed that David’s initials were his own in reverse.

Even the title character’s first name has underdog overtones that Dickens would have identified with: Just as the biblical David had to overcome a direct threat to his life, so did Copperfield and Dickens, in the form of grinding poverty.

The story of a youth at bay, struggling with a broken home, adult cruelty, youthful infatuation and the meaning of true friendship surely shows up, in one form or another, in many reading lists for children and youth adults. But I wonder how much the great prototype of the coming-of-age tale—Dickens’ novel—is read today, either by youngsters at their leisure or by students?

When I eye its bulk (882 pages, minus the scholarly appendices, in the paperback I’m holding now), a quote from a considerably slimmer, more recent novel, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, inevitably springs to mind:  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” 

And there goes, I suspect, any inclination to urge Dickens on younger readers.

Victorian readers had no such compunctions about the novel’s length or its sentimental, sometimes lachrymose, subject matter. David Copperfield did not initially sell as well as its predecessor, Dombey and Son, but it became Dickens’ best-known book, particularly admired by Leo Tolstoy and Somerset Maugham.

Part of the book’s appeal comes from its almost cinematic qualities. Dickens’ affection for the stage has been well-chronicled, but it is equally extraordinary how he anticipated the elements of the motion picture: realistic depiction of setting and atmosphere, memorable dialogue, and most of all, montage, or parallel action that drives narrative simultaneously among different characters (a technique, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein noted in a famous essay, first employed by D.W. Griffith).

The 2020 film, starring Dev Patel in the title role, is only the latest adaptation of the novel for the big screen and television. The many extraordinary characters that Dickens created (Micawber, Mr. Murdstone, Uriah Heep, Steerforth, Betsey Trottwood) has attracted, over the past 85 years (since the classic MGM version), some of the brightest acting talents, including Basil Rathbone, Maggie Smith, Ralph Richardson, Richard Attenborough, Laurence Olivier, Cyril Cusack, Wendy Hiller, Edith Evans, Michael and Corin Redgrave, Ron Moody, Bob Hoskins, Lionel Barrymore, Edna May Oliver, Hugh Laurie—and, in the most unconventional bit of casting, W.C. Fields as Micawber.

(As I contemplate all these actors--and all the other actors, directors, and adaptations of Dickens--it occurred to me that I could create an entire blog on everyone associated with these versions for film, TV and stage, and never come close remotely close to running out of material.)

But as much as anything else, what contemporary readers responded to in the novel was not just its masterly characterization or its vivid description—both characteristic of Dickens’ fiction from the start—but a more naked honesty than Dickens had previously attempted, or, as G.K. Chesterton termed it, “a new torrent of truth, the truth out of his own life.”

To some extent, that derived from its form: not merely a story seen through the consciousness of a child (something Dickens had created 12 years before in Oliver Twist), but an entire coming-of-age novel told through a first-person narrator.

Forster seems to have suggested this device after reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. But Dickens’ technique and voice differed from Bronte’s: less inclined at the start of the novel to take the reader immediately into the action, but more oriented towards a bifurcated vision of the past. Copperfield is not merely re-telling his history, but interpreting, even re-interpreting it as an adult, while foreshadowing later elements in his tale (e.g., the seaside setting and the roles of debt and dispersion, suggested in the sale of his birth caul).

In particular, Dickens--37 years old as he began his narrative, recalling a life of tumult and triumph--mined and tweaked his experiences and the people who played major roles in his life. 

For instance, Maria Beadnell, a pretty woman who infatuated him before she rejected his courtship attempts, was turned into David’s doll-like, childish first wife, Dora. Traits of the novelist’s father, John Dickens, were assigned to David’s stepfather, Mr. Murdstone (callousness), and Wilkins Micawber (an inveterate and unwise optimism in the face of financial catastrophe that has spawned the “Micawber Principle” of money management).

In a sense, the novel functioned as a form of displacement for Dickens’ long-repressed humiliation and anger at his parents, whose impracticality and improvidence led him to working in a blacking factory rather than being placed in school. Except for a reduction in age by two years (thus accentuating the peril faced by fictional David), the facts and feelings in this passage exactly mirror those of Charles:

“It is matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so easily thrown away at such an age. A child of excellent abilities, and with strong powers of observation, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt bodily or mentally, it seems wonderful to me that nobody should have made any sign in my behalf. But none was made; and I became, at ten years old, a little labouring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby.”

To be sure, the novel has its weaknesses: Chesterton complained that, in sending Emily, Peggotty and Micawber off to Australia in the conclusion, Dickens had conceived of the far-off colony as “a sort of island Valley of Avalon, where the soul may heal it of its grievous wound,” and I find Dora infuriatingly infantile at maddening length.

But altogether, Dickens’ recent biographer Claire Tomalin is correct in calling David Copperfield “a masterpiece built on Dickens's ability to dig into his own experience, transform it and give it the power of myth.” Midway through his career, it opened up a vein in his memory, leading to the mature period in which he would write Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Bob Dylan, on How the Gospel ‘Can Give You Courage’)

“[G]ospel news is exemplary. It can give you courage. You can pace your life accordingly, or try to, anyway. And you can do it with honor and principles. There are theories of truth in gospel but to most people it’s unimportant. Their lives are lived out too fast. Too many bad influences. Sex and politics and murder is the way to go if you want to get people’s attention. It excites us, that’s our problem.”—American singer-songwriter—and Nobel Literature laureate—Bob Dylan quoted in Douglas Brinkley, “Still Painting His Masterpieces,” The New York Times, June 14, 2020

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Song Lyric of the Day (Cat Stevens, on How ‘The Answer Lies Within’)

“Yes the answer lies within
So why not take a look now
Kick out the devil’s sin
Pick up, pick up a good book now.”— Cat Stevens, “On the Road to Find Out,” from his Tea for The Tillerman LP (1970)

“On the Road to Find Out” is not my favorite song from Tea for The Tillerman, which was released 50 years ago this week. That distinction belongs to "Father and Son," the achingly poignant dialogue in song in which parent and child talk past each other about different life goals.

But perhaps more than any other song on this 11-song collection, “On the Road to Find Out” allowed Cat Stevens to explore spiritual searching and personal transcendence—themes given urgent form for the British singer-songwriter when he came close to dying the year before from tuberculosis at age 21.

For many Baby Boomers, these needs found an outlet in health and exercise fads, New Age spirituality such as Scientology, and self-help programs such as EST (Erhard Seminars Training)—an orientation towards self-fulfillment and self-actualization that led Tom Wolfe to christen this age cohort “The Me Generation.”

For Stevens, that instinct found its object at the end of the decade in the Koran—a different, and, given the tensions of the late Seventies and Eighties, a more controversial “good book” than many of his fans expected.

The second album released by Stevens (who, these days, reflecting his turn towards Islam, goes by Yusuf Cat Stevens), Tea for The Tillerman found him continuing to turn away from pop music in favor of folk sounds, even more decisively than in Mona Bone Jakon seven months before. The acoustic sound crafted by producer Paul Samwell-Smith proved an ideal counterpart to Stevens’ introspective lyrics.

Like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, another album of spiritual yearning released the same week, Tea for The Tillerman found a ready audience a half century ago for its message. With other songs that became FM radio staples like “Where Do the Children Play?” and “Wild World,” it vaulted into the top 10 on the U.S. album chart and made Stevens an uneasy superstar—an ambivalence he finally expressed, just before dropping out of the music industry to convert to Islam, on “(I Never Wanted) To Be a Star,” on his 1977 LP Izitso.

(For an interesting take on Stevens’ 50th-anniversary re-recording of Tea for The Tillerman—as well as an animated video for “Father and Son”—see his interview with NPR’s Bob Boilen.)

Quote of the Day (Poet Mark Strand, on ‘The Coming of Light’)

“Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow's dust flares into breath.”— Canadian-born American poet, essayist, and translator Mark Strand (1934-2014), “The Coming of Light,” in The Late Hour: Poems (2002)

Friday, November 27, 2020

This Day in Catholic History (Fiery Pope Urban Sermon Launches Crusades)

Nov. 27, 1095—Having already issued decrees over the prior eight days that sought to curb simony, corruption and other deviations from church practice, Pope Urban II electrified a crowd of thousands in a French marketplace with a sermon calling for a continental military mission to deliver Jerusalem from Moslem control.

Urban’s fervent summons to his listeners, a motley group of priests, knights and peasants, spurred the Crusades, a series of expeditions that not only lasted beyond the remaining four years of his reign but into the 13th century.

The goal of reducing the geographic reach of Islam in the Middle East was not achieved by all the subsequent massive expenditure of blood and treasure. Nevertheless, as with the great majority of wars, it produced unexpected consequences before the clash of arms faded.

A Hot Historical Debate

For centuries, the Western and Muslim worlds viewed the Crusades through sharply different lenses, a result of each sphere’s ethnocentricity. Increased contacts, rather than uniformly leading to greater tolerance and understanding, often only highlighted these profound differences.

From the Western side, the origin of “Crusade” bears witness to the religious fervor evoked by Pope Urban. The word blends the Middle French croisade and the Spanish cruzada, with both ultimately derived from the Latin cruc- or crux—i.e.,cross.” It was the symbol of a faith encircled and under siege.

With the rise of multicultural studies, the term began to take on more complicated overtones. Virtually nobody in the West blinked an eye, for instance, when Dwight D. Eisenhower titled his 1948 memoir on delivering Europe from Fascist tyranny Crusade in Europe.

But 53 years later—five days after 9/11—George W. Bush’s statement at a press conference referring to the war on terrorism as “this crusade” was assailed by many progressives as an ignorant gaffe certain to trigger the anger of an Islamic world with a long memory for ancient wrongs.

All of this has also, in the past 50 years, taken place within the context of constant Mideast tensions and terror, an era in which the much-discussed “clash of civilizations” has been accompanied by a clash of historians. This historiographical debate has “long remained a dialogue of the distinctly hard of hearing,” wrote historian Francis Robinson in an essay on “Islam and the West” in the May 1986 issue of History Today Magazine.

Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun and commentator on comparative religion, epitomized the greater sympathy for Islam among scholars with Islam: A Short History, a revisionist history which argues that “it was Christians who had instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world.” In this and Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World, she traced many ills of the 20th century—including the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict—back to the Crusades.

Revisionists such as Armstrong have been countered by the late Cambridge historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, who argued that “the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression.” More important, Riley-Smith and the school of historians who followed in his wake reappraised the scope and longevity of the Crusades and the motives of the men who inspired and waged it.

The Council of Clermont: The Background and Fallout

The latter took their cue from Pope Urban, who delivered his sermon--perhaps the most crucial of the Middle Ages--at the Council of Clermont in central France. 

A reforming pope in the tradition of his mentor, Pope Gregory VII, he had convened this meeting in keeping with his longstanding vision of a church that would be “catholic, chaste and free: catholic in faith and the communion of saints, chaste from all contagion of evil, and free from all secular power.”

You will notice one word missing from this sentence: “collegial.” For all his idealism, Urban was not particularly interested in hearing the views of the 200 bishops present. He expected them to listen to and obey his new strictures against clerical misconduct and amassing of power. When finished with them, he turned to the princes of Europe, pointedly using the word “anathema” to warn them against interfering with church affairs.

But then he called for the great military mission in the Holy Land, and the conference took a different turn altogether.

Urban spoke against a backdrop of spreading Islamic military conquests and fractured Christian unity. The Byzantine Empire, sundered politically and even religiously from the West, increasingly shrank in the face of Muslim armies. Altogether, Islam held sway from the coast of modern Portugal to the Hindu Kush. Even in Italy, Rome had been attacked twice and the Emirate of Sicily had been established.

Then, early in 1095, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I made a special appeal to Urban for help, citing Muslim atrocities and the reduction of Christians to slavery and dhimmi (i.e., legal protection in exchange for loyalty to the state and payment of taxes).

There was neither audiovisual equipment nor a stenographer on hand to record Urban's exact words. But five eyewitness accounts passed down through the years mention the kind of abuses cited by Alexius, including the following from Balderic, archbishop of Dol:

“Our Christian brothers, members in Christ, are scourged, oppressed, and injured in Jerusalem, in Antioch, and the other cities of the East. Your own blood brothers, your companions, your associates (for you are sons of the same Christ and the same Church) are either subjected in their inherited homes to other masters, or are driven from them, or they come as beggars among us; or, which is far worse, they are flogged and exiled as slaves for sale in their own land. Christian blood, redeemed by the blood of Christ, has been shed, and Christian flesh, akin to the flesh of Christ, has been subjected to unspeakable degradation and servitude. Everywhere in those cities there is sorrow, everywhere misery, everywhere groaning (I say it with a sigh). The churches in which divine mysteries were celebrated in olden times are now, to our sorrow, used as stables for the animals of these people!”

The varying accounts agree that at the conclusion of Urban’s address, the multitude of listeners took up the cry, “God wills it!”

Those who heeded Urban's call took the movement in directions he could not halt. He had anticipated that knights would provide the military force needed for the reconquest, but had not foreseen the extent to which the entire populace would be called on to sustain it through provisioning or, more actively, through taking up arms. (Eventually, an army of between 60,000 and 100,000 was raised.)

Moreover, Urban regarded this mission as so all-consuming that he extended a plenary indulgence (the remission of all penance for sin) to those who aided Christians in the East. He never foresaw how these indulgences would undermine his objective of ridding the Church of abuses, furnishing a major cause for the Protestant Reformation.

The army Urban called into being was big enough to eventually take Jerusalem on the first crusade, but with so many undisciplined recruits, it seized lands and wantonly killed on the way to the Holy Land. Urban died in 1099, before the news of the military success and abuse of power could make its way back to him.

The Crusades, however, survived him, because those initial gains were lost. It took centuries before weariness and disillusion finally wore down the will to sustain the struggle, prompting bitter laments like this from Renaissance scholar-philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam in his Consultatio (1530):

“Every time that this farce has been acted out by the popes, the result has been ridiculous. Either nothing came of it, or the cause actually deteriorated. The money, people say, stays stuck to the hands of the popes, cardinals, monks, dukes, and princes. Instead of the wages, the ordinary soldier is given license to pillage. So many times we have heard the announcement of a crusade, of the recovery of the Holy Land; so many times we have seen the red cross surmounted on the papal tiara, and the red chest; so many times we have attended solemn gatherings and heard lavish promises, splendid deeds, the most sweeping expectations. And yet the only winner has been money. We are informed by the proverb that it is shameful to hit yourself on the same stone twice; so how can we trust such  promises, however splendid, when we have been tricked more than thirty times, misled so often and so openly?”

Many Far-Ranging Consequences

Nevertheless, no different than other movements of such widespread and long-lasting influence, the Crusades produced multiple, diverse consequences, including:

*A redrawn map of Europe. Riley-Smith and the historians he influenced encouraged seeing the Crusades as more than the merely eight (or, by some counts, nine) that had been traditionally counted. A chronology in a work he edited, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, also used the word “crusade” in places like Spain, Germany, Estonia, Finland, and Poland—where Muslim armies threatened. The Christian reconquest of Spain in 1492 may have been the most important, as it allowed King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to use money formerly allocated for military purposes to Christopher Columbus’ transformative first voyage to the New World later that year.

*The formation of a broader European identity. The creation of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne in the year 800 attempted to provide a unity on the continent that had been missing since the fall of the Roman Empire. But the threat of a common enemy fostered cooperation, however inconsistent and faltering, among quarreling princes.

*Stronger papal leadership. Gregory VII’s conflict with Emperor Henry IV represented a watershed moment in church-state relations on the continent. Urban’s assumption of moral leadership expanded on the perilous foothold his predecessor had maintained. Subsequent popes continued to leverage their moral authority and expanded their diplomatic and even military influence.

*Absentee leadership at the national level. Campaigns involving leading armies across vast areas, laying siege to Muslim strongholds, and negotiating peace terms meant that European monarchs were out of their country for long stretches of time. In the meantime, they had to deputize others to act in their stead, sometimes with deleterious results. Prince John, for instance, schemed against Chancellor William Longchamp while John’s older brother Richard the Lionheart was fighting the Third Crusade.

*A heavier taxation burden to finance expeditions. Then as now, long wars were exorbitant. The Crusades not only involved the normal provisioning of a mass army but dealing with the unexpected fortunes of war. (The capture of Louis IX of France while on his first crusade in 1250 brings new meaning to the term “king’s ransom.” In the end, historian Simon Lloyd estimates, expenses for Louis’s crusades amounted to roughly 12 times the monarch’s budgetable annual income.) Although exploitation of material rights and possessions may have helped, greater secular and ecclesial taxes were required to fill the gap—engendering natural resentment.

*The mass involvement of all segments of society in the war effort. It wasn’t simply the soldiers who sustained the war, but financiers, preachers, cooks, and wives.

*Poisoned Christian-Jewish relations. The first pogrom in Western European history occurred from December 1095 to July 1096, with Crusaders attacking Jewish communities in Germany and France. Over time, such outbreaks became more frequent and worrisome.

*Heavy casualties. Andrew Holt, a historian out of Florida State College, is certainly correct in using the word “futility” to describe any attempt to pinpoint the number of casualties in the Crusades when the estimates range wildly, from one to nine million. But there is a larger point that can be fairly made: the loss in life (and, for the wounded, diminished subsequent lives) was enormous for Christians, Muslims and Jews alike.

*Improved medical practices. Western medics brought back with them what they learned about trauma during the Crusades. In addition, subsequent hospital practices were heavily influenced by what was learned in dealing with the wounded.

*Greater trade. Merchants passed often between Damascus and the Christian port of acre. Mamluk sultans eventually traded with Venice and Genoa.

*First-hand knowledge of lands beyond one’s community. One of the interesting aspects of American history is the way in which service personnel who had never been outside their towns or cities were exposed through the Civil War and World Wars I and II into areas thousands of miles away. They never forgot what they saw there. Documentation is far sparser for the Crusades than these latter conflicts. But it is hard to believe that the soldiers in the Crusades, who were considerably more isolated than later soldiers, were not similarly transformed by their experiences.

TV Quote of the Day (‘Seinfeld,’ on Music and Madness)

(George Costanza enters Jerry’s apartment singing "Master of the House," a Les Miserables show tune)

George [played by Jason Alexander]: "Master of the house… doling out the charm, ready with a handshake and an open palm. Tells a saucy tale, loves to make a stir, everyone appreciates a.."

Jerry [played by Jerry Seinfeld]: “What is that song?”

George: “Oh, it's from Les Miserables. I went to see it last week. I can't get it out of my head. I just keep singing it over and over. It just comes out. I have no control over it. I'm singing it on elevators, buses. I sing it in front of clients. It's taking over my life.”

Jerry: “You know, Schumann went mad from that.”

George: “Artie Schumann? From Camp Hatchapee?”

Jerry: “No, you idiot.”

George: “What are you, Bud Abbott? What, are you calling me an idiot?”

Jerry: “You don't know Robert Schumann? The composer?”

George: “Oh, Schu-MANN. Of course.”

Jerry: (Trying to scare George) “He went crazy from one note. He couldn't get it out of his head. I think it was an A. He kept repeating it over and over again. He had to be institutionalized.”

George: “Really? …Well, what if it doesn't stop?” (Jerry gestures "That's the breaks." George gasps.) “Oh, that I really needed to hear. That helps a lot!”— Seinfeld, Season 2, Episode 3, “The Jacket,” teleplay by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, directed by Tom Cherones

Even Jerry’s scare tactic isn’t enough to prevent George from breaking into song at an inopportune moment, prompting the fearsome father of friend Elaine Benes to bark, “Pipe down, chorus boy!”

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Photo of the Day: Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, Pittsburgh PA

The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum is dedicated to honoring the men and women of all branches of service, from all generations and conflicts. From this photo I took a year ago while visiting in Pittsburgh, I think you can see why it was called “this grand edifice” during its 1910 opening ceremony.

Inside, themed displays range from the Civil War through America’s most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Objects displayed include uniforms, medals, firearms, artwork and equipment.

There is a strong local component inside, such as the oak-paneled “Gettysburg Room” (originally a meeting room for members of the Grand Army of the Republic, of Civil War veterans) and the Joseph A. Dugan, Jr. Hall of Valor, focusing on narratives and photographs of 84 Pennsylvania Medal of Honor recipients.

This institution is temporarily closed to walk-in business as part of an international effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Until it can safely reopen, the museum will offer guided tours of the museum by appointment only.

Quote of the Day (Desmond Tutu, on the Blessing of Families)

“You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you, as you are to them.”—South African Anglican Archbishop, human-rights advocate, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (2004)

Happy Thanksgiving, for all our families.

(Photo of Archbishop Tutu taken by Elke Wetzig at the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag in Cologne, Germany, in 2007.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Photo of the Day: Quackenbush Barn, Mahwah NJ

I came upon this barn in early October, in Winter’s Park, Mahwah, NJ. Dating back to around 1850, it was originally located on Sparrowbush Road in the Masonicus section of the town. 

Once belonging to the Wey family, it was sold to Cornelius A. Quackenbush in 1868 and continued in that family’s hands for nearly 75 years. During this period, the barn looked and functioned in a different manner than now, in a two-level structure with animals below and produce and equipment kept above.

The barn was moved to its present site on East Ramapo Avenue in Winter’s Park in 1998 by the Mahwah Historic Preservation Commission.

TV Quote of the Day (‘New Girl,’ As Jess Ponders a Novel Method of Turkey Thawing)

Jess [played by Zooey Deschanel] [unable to thaw a frozen turkey]: “Maybe if I take off all my clothes and I get in bed with it, the heat of my body will warm it up.”—New Girl, Season 1, Episode 6, “Thanksgiving,” original air date Nov. 15, 2011, teleplay by Berkley Johnson, directed by Miguel Arteta

This post is for a friend of mine (AND HE KNOWS WHO HE IS!!!!) who is a great admirer of Ms. Deschanel.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

This Day in Literary History (O’Hara Returns to Short Fiction in ‘Sermons and Soda-Water’)

Nov. 24, 1960—Eleven years after angrily abandoning short fiction after a negative review in the principal outlet for his work, The New Yorker, John O’Hara marked his return to the form that was his strength (and to the magazine’s fold) with a boxed set of three novellas, Sermons and Soda-Water.

From his first (and usually considered best) novel, Appointment in Samarra, in 1934, O’Hara had brought an excellent ear for dialogue and an encyclopedic knowledge of his characters that helped him depict class distinctions with pinpoint accuracy. But a decade’s departure from the short story brought with it new strengths: a renewed commitment to “get it all down on paper while I can,” a greater desire to depict the social circumstances of his time for a new generation, and an empathy enhanced by the losses and misfortunes of friends.

The collection’s title, derived from Lord Byron’s Don Juan ("Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, / Sermons and soda-water the day after"), suggests its subject: the journey of O’Hara and his generation from their riotous youthful excess in Prohibition through the cataclysms that brought them up short: the Depression and World War II.

Though I consider O’Hara’s novels in his last two decades to be, at a basic level, pleasurable, they were not always consistent, and many critics regard them far more skeptically, as loose, baggy monsters.

But it is hard to find fault with his short stories of the 1960s, which, for breadth of characters and depth of social observation, is virtually unrivaled in American literature.

In a post from nine years ago, on O’Hara’s 1961 story collection, Assembly, I discussed how more fully the nature of this achievement, as well as the nasty Brendan Gill review that precipitated his break from The New Yorker and editor William Maxwell’s shrewd judgment in securing his services again.

The story that convinced Maxwell that the notoriously touchy O’Hara was worth dealing with again was one of the novellas from Sermons and Soda-Water, “Imagine Kissing Pete,” a kind of American “Scenes From a Marriage.” A union begun as an act of spite (sexy Bobbie Hammersmith weds possibly the least desirable member of her circle, Pete McCrea, to get back at a former beau) is followed by mutual infidelity, arguments and straitened circumstances. Yet against all odds, after 30 years, the couple arrive at not merely accommodation but respect and even affection for each other.

As I discussed in this post from 12 years ago about Robert Montgomery, O’Hara missed out on a chance to have that talented writer-director adapt “Imagine Kissing Pete” because of a boorishness that often alienated many admirers.

The other two novellas in the trilogy, "The Girl on the Baggage Truck" and “We’re Friends Again,” though not as superb as “Imagine Kissing Pete,” are similarly distinguished by an elegiac tone and compassion for how his characters dealt with fate that was missing from his earlier short stories.

Typical in this regard is the conclusion of “We’re Friends Again,” in which the narrator ponders what he has learned about his best friend and the latter’s wife:

“I realized that until then I had not known him at all. It was not a discovery to cause me dismay. What did he know about me? What, really, can any of us know about any of us, and why must we make such a thing of loneliness when it is the final condition of us all? And where would love be without it?”

The linked trilogy also marked a return of O’Hara’s alter ego, Jim Malloy, a hard-drinking young writer who had appeared in the 1934 coming-of-age novella “The Doctor’s Son” and the novels BUtterfield 8 (1935) and Hope of Heaven (1938). He is not unlike Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman—a reappearing literary stand-in for the author who, having experienced his own reverses (controversial books, failed relationships, brushes with mortality), functions as a moved observer of friends over time.

The comparison might seem surprising at first, but the turn that O’Hara took in his short fiction in his fifties resembles in some ways that of Henry James:

*Both were writers of manners who, in the fifties, began to write longer fiction as their literary ambitions expanded;

*Both used their disappointing attempts to break into the world of entertainment (James, on the London stage; O’Hara, on Broadway and in Hollywood) as fodder for character creation; and

*Both, terribly saddened by the deaths of loved ones (O’Hara, second wife Belle and close friends Robert Benchley, James Forrestal and Philip Barry; James, sister Alice and brother Willkie), increasingly considered mortality in their work; and,

*Both found the novella an artistically satisfying vehicle.

 Good introductions to both writers can, in fact, be found in such collections (Great Short Novels of Henry James and The Novellas of John O'Hara). They allow for extended treatment of character and theme without the elaborate plot requirements of a longer novel. Above all, they exhibit his sense of verisimilitude, the sense of authority and honesty conveyed by what he called “special knowledge” of social customs.

Quote of the Day (Alice Munro, on the Constant Changes During Childhood)

“Every year, when you're a child, you become a different person. Generally it's in the fall, when you reenter school, take your place in a higher grade, leave behind the muddle and lethargy of the summer vacation. That's when you register the change most sharply. Afterwards you are not sure of the month or year but the changes go on, just the same. For a long while the past drops away from you easily and it would seem automatically, properly. Its scenes don't vanish so much as become irrelevant. And then there's a switchback, what's been all over and done with sprouting up fresh, wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it's plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done.”—Canadian Nobel Literature laureate Alice Munro, “Child's Play,” in Too Much Happiness: Stories (2009)

Monday, November 23, 2020

Photo of the Day: Korean Hornbeam, Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh PA

When I visited Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens on a trip to Pittsburgh a year ago, I was enthralled by the vast variety of flowers and plants in this wonderful site. One of the visual delights that I photographed then was the Korean Hornbeam, a deciduous tree native to North America and Asia. Slow-growing, this is considered a fine specimen for beginning bonsai enthusiasts.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Duck Soup,’ As Groucho Demonstrates a Unique Diplomatic Style)

Ambassador Trentino [played by Louis Calhern]: “I didn't come here to be insulted!”

Rufus T. Firefly [played by Groucho Marx]: “That's what you think!”— Duck Soup (1933), story by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, directed by Leo McCarey 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Photo of the Day: Gray Skies and Fountain, Roosevelt Common, Tenafly, NJ

Though I live more than two miles away, Tenafly’s Roosevelt Common has been a constant in my life for 45 years. The site’s memorial to Theodore Roosevelt holds its interest, but above all, its pond has been a source of tranquility and even beauty for me.

The fountain at the center of the pond especially drew my interest today—enough, obviously, that I photographed it.

The thermometer may have read 49 degrees but with no sun, it felt cooler. Elsewhere in town, even as seats and tables remained in place for outdoor dining, they were largely unused, with potential patrons no doubt discouraged by the plunging mercury.

The gray sky seemed an appropriate reflection of the gray spirits so many have felt in this region of the Northeast in recent days as COVID-19 cases increase, along with the probability of tighter restrictions on business and private gatherings.

Given these circumstances, then, seeing this pond and fountain didn’t make my heart soar. But it was a sign of life, the way water always is, even amid a contraction of nature that has felt more severe this year than ever before.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Mark Twain, on Dominican Bravery During a Cholera Epidemic in Italy)

“I have heard of many things that redound to the credit of the priesthood, but the most notable matter that occurs to me now is the devotion one of the mendicant orders showed during the prevalence of the cholera last year. I speak of the Dominican friars—men who wear a coarse, heavy brown robe and a cowl, in this hot climate, and go barefoot. They live on alms altogether, I believe. They must unquestionably love their religion, to suffer so much for it. When the cholera was raging in Naples; when the people were dying by hundreds and hundreds every day; when every concern for the public welfare was swallowed up in selfish private interest, and every citizen made the taking care of himself his sole object, these men banded themselves together and went about nursing the sick and burying the dead. Their noble efforts cost many of them their lives. They laid them down cheerfully, and well they might. Creeds mathematically precise, and hair-splitting niceties of doctrine, are absolutely necessary for the salvation of some kinds of souls, but surely the charity, the purity, the unselfishness that are in the hearts of men like these would save their souls though they were bankrupt in the true religion—which is ours.”—American humorist Mark Twain (1835-1910), The Innocents Abroad: or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869)

As a religious skeptic for much of his adult life—and particularly in the case of Roman Catholicism—Mark Twain would have been among the last people I would expect to include in my Sunday “Spiritual Quote of the Day.”

But the circumstances surrounding the package tour to Europe that inspired his Innocents Abroad were extraordinary, as was the courage of the Dominicans he encountered in Naples, Italy, during a cholera epidemic in 1867. In a season when the COVID-19 pandemic rages again worldwide with renewed force, it does not hurt to pay tribute to an earlier group that many people a century and a half ago regarded as “essential workers.”

In Italy as a whole, an estimated 100,000 people died of cholera in 1867. The fear and frustration were particularly virulent in Naples, where mobs, enraged at prior broken pledges to improve the city’s sanitation and infrastructure, attacked government offices.

In March of this year, a Charles Collins post on the Catholic Website Crux Now gave further details on the trip in which Twain saw how the Dominicans bore witness to their faith. It is well worth reading.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

This Day in Baseball History (Birth of Stan Musial—Batter of Consistency, Model of Decency)

Nov. 21, 1920— Stan Musial, who through 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals earned the respect of teammates and opponents alike with consistent ferocity at the plate and unwavering kindness to those in contact with him, was born in Donora, Pa.

The son of a Polish immigrant who died from breathing fumes from a local zinc factory, Musial was used to personal setbacks. That might be why, when he damaged his left shoulder as a young pitching prospect in the Cardinal minor-league system, he accepted his manager’s advice and transitioned, like Babe Ruth two decades before, into becoming an outfielder.

In St. Louis, Musial became the linchpin in the best years of the franchise between the Dizzy Dean’s “Gas House Gang” of the 1930s and the Bob Gibson-led team of the 1960s. From the early-to-mid 1940s, that squad won four National League pennants and three World Series titles. During those appearances, Musial established a reputation for clutch hitting, batting .315,.357, .347 and .365 in the “Fall Classic.”

Even as he established a reputation for geniality in St. Louis, Musial filled opposing fans with dismay for the way he crushed the hopes of their hometown heroes. That was especially the case in Brooklyn, where Dodger diehards groaned at what “that man” was doing to their pitchers. That gave rise to the affectionate nickname he kept for the rest of his life: “Stan the Man.”

(Such was the reverence felt in St. Louis for “Stan the Man” that in 2012, the mainstay of the franchise for the prior decade, Albert Pujols—now relocated to the California Angels—objected to the title bestowed by his new team’s marketing department: “El Hombre.” "No, I'm not comfortable with that, because I believe there's one Man and, believe it or not, it's God," Pujols said in an ESPN “SportsCenter” interview. "God is the Man and there's another Man, Stan 'The Man' Musial in St. Louis. I know six years ago, when people first started making jerseys, I wasn't comfortable with that because of the respect I have for Stan Musial.")

In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the statistics maven compared Musial with Carl Yastrzemski, another All-Star of Polish descent who spent two-thirds of his career in left field and the rest at first base. But the most interesting similarity between the two Hall of Famers is that they began as contact hitters before experiencing power surges at age 27, when they achieved career highs in home runs. Each remained a power hitter throughout the rest of their long careers.

Time—and let’s be frank, players’ increased use of performance-enhancing drugs—has decreased the number of major league records (55) held by Musial upon his retirement in 1967. But the following statistics testify to his extraordinary consistency:

*His 3,630 hits (still fourth overall, behind only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron) were divided exactly between home and the road;

*He walked more than twice as much as he struck out (696 times vs. 1,599 times)—and most contemporary players would kill to strike out so little while hitting his number of home runs (475);

*Even when not clubbing homers, Musial made outfielders sweat, as he earned more than 900 doubles and triples (a total exceeded only by Tris Speaker);

*His 24 All-Star Game selections are second only to Hank Aaron;

*He was named Most Valuable Player three times and was among the top five in the vote counts another five times.

His inside-out swing and “corkscrew” stance (in which his back actually faced the pitcher) were, to say the least, unusual. But it didn’t matter: As teammate Joe Garagiola once joked, “Musial could hit .300 with a fountain pen.”

Nobody could play like this without a burning rage to compete, but Musial never took it out on opponents or umpires. (Astonishingly, he was never thrown out of a game.)  He was held in such high regard by teammates that second baseman Julian Javier named his son Stan after him.

Yet even rivals benefited from his kindness. Chuck Connors recalled how, during his 1951 season with the Chicago Cubs, he followed up on teammates’ suggestion that he ask Musial for advice on how to break out of a slump.

“I was a bum of a hitter just not cut out for the majors,” Connors—later famous as a TV actor— remembered. “But I will never forget Stan’s kindness. When he was finished watching me cut away at the ball, Stan slapped me on the back and told me to keep swinging.”

In 2011 Barack Obama awarded Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the United States can bestow on a civilian. The great slugger passed away in 2013, mourned by true aficionados of the National Pastime.

(For the best short treatment I have come across on “Stan the Man,” I urge you to read this November 2012 post by blogger Joe Posnanski on Medium.)

Quote of the Day (The ‘Mayflower’ Pilgrims, With an Early Model for American Self-Government)

“Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”—Text of “The Mayflower Compact,” signed by 41 males aboard the Mayflower, Nov. 21, 1620

Next week, as they have taken to doing each year at this time since Abraham Lincoln, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. The holiday will serve as a kind of wish fulfillment for a country that looks to a past event—aid from Native-Americans that helped the Pilgrims survive hunger in their settlement in Plymouth—as a celebration of how different races, ethnic groups and religious sects can live together in harmony.

But 400 years ago today, an even more auspicious event occurred: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, America’s first experiment in self-government. That document was the product of desperate improvisation in a strange, perilous new country.

The Pilgrims—or, as they were known (more properly) then, “Separatists”—had been ceded land by King James I. Better to have them halfway around the world, he figured, than closer to home (even if, in this case, they had felt it expedient to migrate to Holland to escape his persecution of them), where they could spell trouble with their agitation for removing all traces of Roman Catholicism from the Church of England and the government.

But bad storms blew the Mayflower away from their destination: territory claimed by the Virginia Company near the mouth of the Hudson River. Assessing what passenger and future governor William Bradford called “dangerous shoals and roaring breakers,” the captain decided to disembark at Plymouth Rock, in modern Massachusetts.

The original signed in Europe, then, was null and void, and the group called the “Strangers”—the merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers and indentured servants, and several young orphans on board that were unrelated to the religious sect—were making noise about breaking off on their own.

To increase the new colony’s chances of success, the Pilgrims needed to keep the “Strangers” in the fold. The Mayflower Compact, with its 41 signers—virtually the entire adult male population on board—sought to cool these tensions while giving the majority Pilgrims the most significant voice in the settlement.

A “democracy” as we know it was the last thing on these settlers’ minds. But thousands of miles away from the authority they took for granted, they needed to create their own structure. The practical experience in self-government that took root then—a secular covenant—led eventually to the notion of the “consent of the governed” in the Declaration of Independence.

(For a concise but informative account of the circumstances surrounding the Mayflower Compact, see Melissa Love Koenig’s November 2010 post on the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.)

(The image accompanying this post is Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, an 1899 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.)

Friday, November 20, 2020

Will the Fox ‘Twin Galahads’ Lay Down Their Trump Lances?

Mr. [Seamus] Colonnity’s valiant colleague, Mr. Corky Fartmartin, was joining in Fox's defense of the president. So we had on our hands twin Galahads tilting lances. But Mr. Fartmartin's efforts to link Hillary Clinton to all of Mr. Trump's calamities weren’t quite getting traction. Still, one had to applaud the passion with which these two ‘Lions of Fox’ defended their president. If only more members of the media were as patriotic. Mr. Trump returned the favor by inviting them frequently to golf with him, and told me to comp them whenever they stayed at Trump properties. Naturally, the media even managed to make these friendly gestures by Mr. Trump seem criminal.”— American author and political satirist Christopher Buckley, Make Russia Great Again: A Novel (2020)

Among the many joys of Christopher Buckley’s fake memoir by "Herb Nutterman"—President Trump’s seventh chief of staff—are the hilarious names created for their very thinly disguised, real-life counterparts. (Do I really need to tell you that Colonnity is Sean Hannity and Fartmartin is Tucker Carlson?)

The difficult aspect of writing this satire, though, lay in spinning out a plot more absurd than what has been happening in the Age of Trump—very much including at the media outlet that helped propel him to the White House.

The irony in Buckley’s passage above extends well beyond those names for the Fox prime-time stars. As any fan of Lerner and Loewe (or, for that matter, T.H. White and Sir Thomas Malory) would remember, pure-hearted Sir Galahad was loyal to King Arthur, a wise, judicious monarch who ruled Camelot with wisdom.

But “Colonnity” and “Fartmartin” follow—for reasons best known to themselves and their boss, Rupert Murdoch—a President governed not by reason but by rampaging resentment.

Like Facebook, Fox News has fashioned a monster out of Frankenstein: an audience that has turned angrily on its creator. A quarter century after Murdoch gave free rein to Roger Ailes to whip viewers into a lather of bitterness over the liberal elite, the network’s prime-time pundits have not seriously tried to convince them that Donald Trump lost the election fairly and that no amount of challenges based on nonexistent evidence can reverse that outcome--even as many of their colleagues have admitted the obvious.

How dismally they must have felt over a week ago to hear crowds in Washington chant, “Fox sucks!”—all because the network finally attempted to live up to its “Fair and Balanced” moniker by calling Arizona for Joe Biden.

As my friend Joe Ferullo noted in a recent piece for The Hill, Fox is hardly alone as a channel that traded objectivity for editorializing—it is part of a larger trend towards “the tribal journalism of cable news,” mirrored on the left by MSNBC and CNN.

But, in the current needlessly fevered transition, Fox bears unique responsibility for the belief of 70% of Republican voters polled by Politico/Morning Consult that Joe Biden's victory was not "free and fair." Their evening stars—Hannity, Carlson, and Laura Ingraham—have been particularly reckless in giving a forum for the Presidential voter fraud narrative.

All of this might be amusing, in its odd way, if Hannity and Carlson weren’t aware that Trump isn’t missing a few brain cells. But they are, and that knowledge opens them up to a charge of journalistic malpractice.

According to an article in Vanity Fair by CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter, Hannity has grown tired of the 24/7 burden of being on call as an off-camera sounding board and on-air booster of a President desperately needing attention. “Hannity would tell you, off-off-off the record, that Trump is a batshit crazy person,” one of his associates told Stelter.

But Hannity dares not say anything remotely like this publicly. Doing so would not merely end the friendship of the President with his “shadow chief of staff,” as Stelter suggests; it would also mean that progressives would remorselessly chide him for shameless cheerleading for the President, that the network would lose access to and patronage from a still-powerful figure in American politics, and that Hannity would open himself up to the same kind of retaliation experienced by two other media personalities formerly friendly with Trump, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

And so, Hannity tries to leave minimal daylight between himself and the President. "Americans will never be able to believe in the integrity and legitimacy of these [election] results," he told viewers as Joe Biden built an electoral and popular vote advantage that Trump did not enjoy in 2016 over Hillary Clinton. He has taken to retailing the President’s baseless charge that an electronic voting system used by election authorities across the United States has cost him millions of votes.

Carlson has had to perfect a similar balancing act of publicly embracing the President while privately stressing out over the President’s fecklessness. 

In early March, after backing Trump to the hilt during the impeachment fight, he felt compelled to fly down to the Trumps’ Mar-a-Lago resort to tell the President that COVID-19 really WAS a big deal. That warning, the commentator said, was based on a tip from a non-partisan figure in the U.S. government with access to intelligence, who claimed that the Chinese authorities were concealing the severity about the outbreak (advice, it should be noted, that the President could have availed himself of if he paid attention to his daily intelligence briefing).

The President’s shift in tone after their talk was short-lived, as Trump went back to downplaying the seriousness of a pandemic that, as of this writing, has claimed more than 250,000 American lives.

Nevertheless, Carlson feels obliged to give oxygen to the conspiracy theories of this lazy, lying excuse for a manager. The broadcaster has claimed that the "outcome of our presidential election was seized from the hands of voters" and put in the hands of "clearly corrupted city bureaucrats."

The problem is that Trump keeps devising wilder and wilder tests of the loyalty of his Galahads. One would have thought that Carlson, for instance, would have gotten a lifetime pass from the President by inappropriately comparing critics who think Trump contracted COVID-19 through his own reckless behavior with those who say women in provocative clothing ask to be raped.

(In a blog post right after that statement, Wonkette properly gave Carlson's insanely offensive analogy the back of her hand: “There is, in fact, no known outfit in the world that is scientifically proven to prevent sexual assault. Masks, on the other hand, are known to reduce the transmission of COVID-10. We all know this. It's been proven.”)

But Trump’s multi-state electoral challenges—knocked down, one by one, across the country—may be too much for even Carlson to stomach.

First, Carlson was embarrassed into offering an on-air apology about ballots illegally “cast” by dead people when one cited case, James Blalock of Georgia, turned out to be correctly—and legally—cast by his widow, Mrs. James Blalock.

Second, after offering Trump lawyer Sidney Powell as much time as she wanted to exhibit her “evidence” of voter fraud, she angrily declined, leading to Carlson’s on-air explanation of the brush-off.

It’s one thing when Fox personalities elsewhere on the schedule are finding it increasingly difficult to hide their impatience over the endless and pointless electoral lawsuits. It’s another entirely when even the “twin Galahads” are showing signs of cracking under the strain.

Yet Murdoch, Hannity and Carlson may have no choice but to follow through, as long as they can, with their daily nighttime charade, even as the most brazen challenge to Presidential election results in American history continues unabated.

Like any major company, Fox fears a competitor that can slice into its market share. Trump has already called on his supporters to watch Newsmax and One America News Network, two rivals that have been out-foxing Fox as purveyors of outlandish conspiracy theories.

The “twin Galahads,” then, may represent Murdoch’s best chance of warding off trouble from a President whose candidacy he endlessly promoted four years ago, despite privately dismissing him as an“[expletive] idiot,” according to an April 2019 article in the Daily Beast.

(The accompanying photo of Sean Hannity was taken May 29, 2014, by Michael Vadon; the photo of Tucker Carlson, speaking at the 2018 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, FL, was taken Dec. 22, 2018, by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ.)