Sunday, January 31, 2021

This Day in Theater History (Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ Gets Mixed Reception in Moscow Premiere)

Jan. 31, 1901—The three title characters at the heart of Anton Chekhov’s newest play may have yearned endlessly to go to Moscow, but the playwright himself might have been forgiven for wanting to stay as far away from the city as possible when news reached him while he was touring Italy of the dismaying reaction to The Three Sisters.

The audience’s wintry reaction may have been sparked to no small degree by the theater company tasked with giving life to the playwright’s words, the Moscow Art Theatre. The troupe had been instrumental in steering audiences to Chekhov’s attempts at a “new drama” with The Seagull and Uncle Vanya.

But this latest “drama in four acts”—even less dependent on plot and more reliant on character and atmosphere than his two recent successes—was proving harder for him to write, even though—perhaps even because—he had molded the character of the talented but moody middle sister, Masha, on an actress in the troupe with whom he was romantically involved, Olga Knipper (who eventually became his wife).

When the actors and producers gathered to read the just-finished play, then, they shook their heads. How were they going to work with this? This was unplayable, with “no roles, only hints.”

Once they swallowed their misgivings and sought to stage it, the results seemed to bear out their skepticism. At this first performance, there were 12 curtain calls after Act I but only a half-hearted one after Act IV. Critics expressed mysticism about the central dilemma of the play: Since the sisters were wealthy enough, why couldn’t they just buy tickets and go to Moscow instead of complaining about not doing so?

Chekhov had his own ideas of what the matter was with the play. Though it admittedly had a longer-than-usual gestation period, he attributed most of the production’s problems to the Art Theatre’s co-founder, K.S. Stanislavsky. While the playwright preferred that the poignancy of situations emerge from understated acting, Stanislavsky wanted those scenes overplayed.

It would help, Chekhov decided, if he were on hand to right the production. Returning from Italy, he revised where he thought it appropriate, but placed much of his effort on attending rehearsals, where he could explain his intention and conception of how the roles should be played. He took a particular hand in producing Act III.

That September, the revamped production of The Three Sisters opened to a far more enthusiastic reception, with Chekhov especially gratified for receiving two curtain calls right after the section he had handled, Act III. Twenty-two years later, the Moscow Art Theatre brought it to the United States in another ecstatically received production.

Since then, the play has joined The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard as his most performed—and most artistically successful—plays.

None of this is to say, however, that the problems inherent in staging The Three Sisters have been permanently solved. Much of this difficulty stems from the acute perception by Adam Versenyi, dramaturg of the PlayMakers Repertory Company of the University of North Carolina, that The Three Sisters “has its own geometry that uncovers its chain-of-events, its ideological orientation, its characters but does so beneath the surface by presenting us with the cycles of the seasons, and the continuous movement from day through night that defines our daily lives, not their exceptional moments.”

Not all productions have been unable to navigate that landscape. I found Laurence Olivier’s movie adaptation from the 1970s, for instance, to be inert. At the other end of the extreme was a performance I saw a decade ago at the Chautauqua Institution (reviewed here) that was filled with bizarre directorial encrustations.

Perhaps the happy medium was achieved in an all-star Roundabout Theatre Co. production from 1997 featuring Amy Irving, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Lily Taylor as the title characters, with other roles fully inhabited by Billy Crudup, Calista Flockhart, Paul Giamatti, Jerry Stiller, Eric Stoltz, and David Strathairn. In it, the dilemma of characters trying to break free of their enervating provincial lifestyle emerged in all its quiet but devastating melancholy.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Fr. John Welch, on St. Francis and the Language of Creation)

“St. Francis was not being romantic when he praised ‘brother sun’ and ‘sister moon.’ He understood that the stars, trees, rivers, and all the elements of creation are a language God speaks to us. Some saints claim God communicated with them through visions and voices. With the perspective of faith, the entire world becomes voice and vision. Any bush can be the burning bush through which God is present.” —John Welch, O. Carm., “Catholic Imagination,”
Carmelite Review, Fall 2013-Winter 2014 issue

The image accompanying this post, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, was painted from 1297 to 1299 by the Italian Renaissance artist-architect Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337).

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Photo of the Day: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Englewood NJ

I took the attached photo in the first week of December, on an extended walk around my hometown of Englewood.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—i.e., the Mormon Church—opened a facility elsewhere in Englewood in 2001, but this faith community required a new location because of inadequate parking and an expanded congregation. The site in this picture, on East Forest Avenue, was dedicated in 2012 and opened a couple of years later.

The meetinghouse is environmentally friendly, including energy-efficient rooftop gardens, a recycling system that reduces wastewater, and advanced control systems for lighting and thermal comfort. Its members come not just from Englewood, but also Englewood Cliffs, Teaneck, Hackensack, Fort Lee, Bogota, Leonia and Ridgefield Park.

Quote of the Day (Samuel Butler, on ‘The Oldest Books')

''The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not read them.''—British author Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Samuel Butler's Note-Books, edited by Geoffrey Keynes and Brian Hill (1952)

Friday, January 29, 2021

Quote of the Day (H.L. Mencken, on What He Learned From Cops in His Youth)

“It took a young reporter a little while to learn how to read and interpret the reports that cops turned in, for they were couched in a special kind of English, with a spelling peculiar to itself. If a member of what was then called ‘the finest’ had spelled larceny in any way save larsensy, or arson in any way save arsony, or fracture in any way save fraxr, there would have been a considerable lifting of eyebrows….

“But…their innocence of literae humaniores was not necessarily a sign of stupidity, and from some of them, in fact, I learned the valuable lesson that sharp wits can lurk in unpolished skulls. I knew cops who were matches for the most learned and unscrupulous lawyers at the Baltimore bar, and others who had made monkeys of the oldest and crabbedest judges on the bench, and were generally respected for it. Moreover, I knew cops who were really first-rate policemen, and loved their trade as tenderly as so many art artists or movie actors.”—American editor, columnist, and philologist H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), “Recollections of Notable Cops (1900-1910),” in Newspaper Days: Mencken's Autobiography: 1899-1906 (1942)

The iconoclastic journalist H.L. Mencken died on this day in 1956, eight years after a stroke left him unable to read, write or speak. But before his condition forced him into retirement, he had written over 100,000 letters, 30 books, thousands of articles, daily diary entries—all while editing two magazines.

Those who read him hold forth on multiple topics with his high literary style were astonished to discover that he had never been to college. That might have accounted for part of the reason why this polymath had such respect for policemen—men whose street smarts continually enabled them to outwit educated elites.

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ As the Sheriff Plays a Joke on His Deputy)

[Deputy Barney Fife has just been on the phone in the Mayberry jail, using as much charm as he possesses to get a date with Juanita. After hanging up, he tests out a cologne when Sheriff Andy Taylor enters, surprising him. Despite Barney’s frantic efforts, Andy sniffs out the source of the scent, then picks up and reads the bottle label before his squirming deputy.]

Sheriff Andy Taylor [played by Andy Griffith]: “‘Nuits de Paris—or—Paris Nights.’”

Deputy Barney Fife [played by Don Knotts] [sheepishly]: “Well, it's famous stuff. A lot of celebrities use that... radio announcers and everything.”

Andy [continuing to read]: “Capturing the fragrance of Riviera rose-petals and the passion of the Mediterranean moon in a rugged, he-man scent.” [Pausing slightly] “Caution: user should wear gloves.”

Barney [grabs bottle and checks label for that last part, as Andy laughs hysterically]: “You're funny, aren't you, boy? You're really funny. Give you a hundred on the laugh meter!”— The Andy Griffith Show, Season 3, Episode 3, "Andy and the New Mayor,” original air date Oct. 15, 1962, teleplay by Harvey Bullock and R.S. Allen, directed by Bob Sweeney

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Quote of the Day (Tracy Morgan, With Good Advice)

“We all make mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up. But if you must beat yourself up, don’t use a bat, be gentle, you’ll hurt yourself with that bat. Lorne Michaels told me that one day. I felt really bad on SNL and I was beating myself up, and he started laughing. He grabbed me by my shoulders and said that. And that’s why I love Lorne Michaels like I love my daddy—because he let people do that, and I want to pass that onto others. Don’t beat yourself up, we all make mistakes. You’re only human.” —Comedian/actor Tracy Morgan, interviewed by Brady Langmann, “Tracy Morgan on Why Life Isn’t Always Funny,” in “Sane Advice for Crazy Times: Esquire's 85th Anniversary Issue,” Esquire, October 2018

(Photo of Tracy Morgan taken at New York City's Union Square Barnes & Noble to discuss his book I Am the New Black, Oct.22, 2009, by David Shankbone.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Photo of the Day: Yugoslav Room, Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh PA

Previously, I posted about the Irish, Turkish, and African Heritage rooms in the Cathedral of Learning, on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. But I also felt the need to take this picture of another “Nationality Room” there, the Yugoslav Room, when I visited in October 2019.

This was hardly the best-lit of the rooms I saw that day, but it is a miniature jewel because of its combination of wood carving, weaving and lace making. I am sure that the Yugoslav immigrant community in Pittsburgh took special pride when the room was dedicated in March 1939.

Start with the chairs, which were carved by students at the International Art School in Zagreb. The director of that school, Vojta Branis, journeyed over to the U.S. twice during the room’s construction to supervise the work.

But take a look at the woodwork on the walls (paneled in Slavonian oak) and ceilings. Believe it or not, that was done back in what was then Yugoslavia, all with small pocket knives.

The two portraits above the blackboard depict Vuk Karadzic and Bishop Josip Strossmayer, who compiled the Serbian dictionary.

Quote of the Day (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on Friends Recalling ‘Many a Vanished Scene’)

“We sat and talked until the night,
      Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
      Our voices only broke the gloom.

“We spake of many a vanished scene,
      Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
      And who was changed, and who was dead;

“And all that fills the hearts of friends,
      When first they feel, with secret pain,
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
      And never can be one again.”—American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), “The Fire of Drift-wood,” in The Seaside and the Fireside (1850)

Remarkably, Longfellow wrote this scene, of two friends in a farmhouse somberly summarizing the passage of time, when he was only 43—more than a decade away from when he would lose his second wife in a fire, and when friends would die quietly of heartbreak, having sent their sons off to perish in a civil war of unforeseen carnage.

Over the years, improved life expectancy had kept many Americans from facing the same grim death counts that Longfellow’s characters quietly lamented. But over the last few months, as COVID-19 has struck at a wider swath of people, that blessing has increasingly vanished. 

Last spring, it was not uncommon to be asked how many people one knew had contracted COVID-19, or even died of it—with the implication being that, all things considered, it really wasn’t that bad. Today, more and more people would answer both questions in the affirmative.

In addition, indirect deaths are resulting from the pandemic: doctors’ appointments and elective surgery delayed because of fear of coming down with the virus, as well as rampant isolation, depression and substance abuse.

There is also the “secret pain” glimpsed by Longfellow, the unspoken sense between once-intimate friends that they “never can be one again.”

In his time, it would have meant the separate paths people took in terms of earning a living, family life, perhaps relocation. Today, another element has been introduced into the equation: politics, which increasingly infects what was once considered the private realm. Social media have made obvious what people seldom if ever spoke about before.

The result is that, if they don’t un-friend each other on Facebook and Twitter, old friends will likely stay silent about what now divides them. Peace may be maintained, but the ease in another’s company once enjoyed has faded, like the faces of Longfellow’s friends in the evening light.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Quote of the Day (Patricia Highsmith, on January, ‘A Two-Faced Month’)

“January. It was all things. And it was one thing, like a solid door. Its cold sealed the city in a gray capsule. January was moments, and January was a year. January rained the moments down, and froze them in her memory: the woman she saw peering anxiously by the light of a match at the names in a dark doorway, the man who scribbled a message and handed it to his friend before they parted on the sidewalk, the man who ran a block for a bus and caught it. Every human action seemed to yield a magic. January was a two-faced month, jangling like jester's bells, crackling like snow crust, pure as any beginning, grim as an old man, mysteriously familiar yet unknown, like a word one can almost but not quite define.”—American novelist and short-story writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), The Price of Salt (1952)

Last week marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Patricia Highsmith. For the longest time, she was known for two psychological thrillers adapted into classic films by Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train) and Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley).

Yet only over time—and especially after intrepid biographers worked mightily through her abundant published and unpublished writings, separating fact from fiction—would the outlines of an author as tortured in her private life as Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, or Shirley Jackson emerge.  

Five years ago, a novel in a far different vein from her best-known novels of suspense, featuring a lesbian romance that she wrote under a pseudonym, was translated to the big screen: The Price of Salt, retitled Carol, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. 

Leafing through the book recently in a larger anthology of Highsmith’s work, I was much taken by the above description, and thought it would use it while I still had the chance this month.

For a fascinating overview of the multiple treatments of her work by Hollywood, please see this blog post from the American Film Institute from a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Photo of the Day: ‘And the Sky is Gray’

A humorous meme of the past week reminded me of a popular song of the mid-1960s that baby boomers will recognize. (For the rest of you: Just Google it, okay?) That line lingered in my mind out here in northern New Jersey as I looked out over the Hackensack River from Foschini Park.

This past summer, even with COVID-19 raging, the park was heavily used by walkers. It was a different story late this afternoon, with only three other people around while I was there. (One, oddly enough, was practicing his golf swing in the gravelly parking lot.)

The emptiness was borne in on me as I walked on the wooden planks that formed the path on the riverfront park’s perimeter. With nobody near me, the sound of my footsteps echoed all the more loudly around me.

TV Quote of the Day (Jack Benny, on the Impact of Glasses)

Jack Benny [admiring a photo]: “What a dollface! Such a beautiful complexion, lovely lips, sparkling eyes...”

Rochester Van Jones [played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson]: “Yeah, boss. That's the best picture you ever had taken.”

Jack: “I'm looking at Miss Livingston, for heaven sake! How could I say that about my picture?”

Rochester: “Without your glasses on, you could say that about a garbage truck.”— The Jack Benny Program, Season 4, Episode 8, “Jack Dreams He's Married to Mary,” original air date Feb. 7, 1954, teleplay by Sam Perrin, George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg, and John Tackaberry, directed by Ralph Levy

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Thomas Merton, Praying for ‘Prudence in Proportion to Our Power’)

“Grant us prudence in proportion to our power,
Wisdom in proportion to our science,
Humaneness in proportion to our wealth and might.
And bless our earnest will to help all races and peoples
to travel, in friendship with us,
Along the road to justice, liberty and lasting peace.” —American Trappist monk, theologian, memoirist and poet Thomas Merton (1915-1968), “Praying for Peace,” in A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell (1996)

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Tweet of the Day (Chipper Jones, on Hank Aaron’s ‘Class and Integrity’)

“I can’t imagine what Hank Aaron went through in his lifetime. He had every right to be angry or militant.....but never was! He spread his grace on everything and every one he came in contact with. Epitome of class and integrity. RIP Henry Aaron! #HammerinHank”—Former Atlanta Braves All-Star third baseman Chipper Jones, tweet of Jan 22, 2021

I agree with this well-meaning tribute by Chipper Jones to fellow Braves great Hank Aaron, except for that second sentence. The African-American slugger was indeed “angry” about the torrential abuse rained on him by bigots for breaking Babe Ruth’s career record for home runs.

Wouldn’t you be, if the FBI needed to investigate death threats against you and kidnapping threats against members of your family?

Wouldn’t you be, if you had obeyed one of the cardinal rules of American society—to succeed, work hard—only to grasp that for countless unseen cowards, this was not enough?

Wouldn’t you be if, decades after praising two of your heroes (Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella) for proving to the world that “a man’s ability is only limited by his lack of opportunity,” major-league baseball was still making painfully slow progress in placing minorities in managerial and front-office positions?

It would have been more correct for Jones to tweet, then, that Aaron was not as angry as he had every right to have been about the rancid racism he experienced for decades

I not only, like Jones, “can’t imagine” what Aaron went through, but how he restrained himself from saying anything more scathing about John Rocker’s 1999 Sports Illustrated interview than that he had “no place in my heart” for the prejudiced pitcher's infamous comments about gays and minorities.

In other respects, Jones is correct: Aaron did epitomize grace, class and integrity—and so much more. Though physically gifted (the young Alfonso Soriano was praised for strong, quick wrists that reminded many of “Hammerin’ Hank”), he realized it wasn’t enough.

This meant that, as teammate Dusty Baker told the New York Daily News’ Jesse Spector in 2007, Aaron exercised “total recall” on how he had fared against every pitcher he ever faced—"line out, walk, all kinds of stuff.”

And so, quietly, without the flair for the moment displayed by contemporaries Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, Aaron mounted his inexorable assault on Ruth’s hallowed career HR record. (By the way: Aaron achieved that mark in an era of pitcher dominance and competition from African- and Hispanic-American players excluded in Ruth’s era—and without the performance-enhancing drugs used by Barry Bonds.)

Along the way, he not only posted other offensive records (most RBIs, total bases, extra-base hits, and All-Star Game appearances) but demonstrated excellence in other aspects of the game, stealing 20 or more bases six times and winning three Gold Gloves for his defensive play in the outfield.

Hank Aaron was enshrined in Cooperstown because of these astounding career totals. But he is universally mourned because he was a model of dignity, dependability and perseverance. I am just sorry for younger fans who, unlike me and others of my generation, were not fortunate enough to see him play.

Song Lyric of the Day (Joni Mitchell, on the ‘Little Left of Wild Eden Earth’)

 “And everyone's a victim!
Nobody's hands are clean.
There's so very little left of wild Eden Earth
So near the jaws of our machines.” — Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, printed as the poem “Bad Dreams Are Good” in The New Yorker, Sept. 17, 2007, and as the song “Bad Dreams” from her CD Shine (2007)

(The photo of Ms. Mitchell accompanying this post came from an Asylum Records ad from 1974.)

Friday, January 22, 2021

Quote of the Day (Bruce Schneier, on How ‘Everything is Turning Into a Computer’)

“Just like that, everything is turning into a computer….Your phone is a computer that makes calls. Your car is a computer with wheels and an engine. Your oven is a computer that bakes lasagnas. Your camera is a computer that takes pictures. Even our pets and livestock are now regularly chipped; my cat is practically a computer that sleeps in the sun all day.”— American cryptographer, computer security professional, and privacy specialist Bruce Schneier, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and ControlYour World (2015)

What’s your cat’s name, Bruce? HAL?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Quote of the Day (Anton Chekhov, on Suffering)

"There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries. But now we must live."—Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), Three Sisters (1901)

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Photo of the Day: Woman’s National Democratic Club, Washington, DC

I had no idea what this building was about when I visited Washington back in November 2015; I merely thought the exterior would make for an interesting photo. I did not have an opportunity to enter the building. But a plaque in front of this structure on New Hampshire Avenue, just off DuPont Circle, gave me some clues to its history and its present purpose.

The Woman’s National Democratic Club (WNDC) is located in the Whittemore House, which, like much of the surrounding neighborhood, began as an elegant 19th century mansion. Whittemore House takes its name from Sarah Adams Whittemore, a descendant of President John Adams.  An opera singer, she had enough wealth to create a home to accommodate her passion, so the acoustics inside are reputedly first-rate.

The home was built between 1892 and 1894 by architect Harvey Page, who also reconfigured another DuPont Circle residence, the Phoebe Hearst House. Over the next three decades, Whittemore House was rented by several prominent Washingtonians, including Sen. John Dryden, a founder of Prudential Insurance; banker John W. Weeks, who became a Republican congressman, senator and Secretary of War; and Ms. Whittemore’s son Walter Wilcox, an explorer, travel author, and photographer.

In 1927, Whittemore House was purchased by the five-year-old WNDC, the first socially acceptable meeting place for Democratic women in the nation’s capital. It has continued its mission to “provide a forum where Democrats meet to study, discuss and act upon current issues, to further the participation of women in the political process, and to help build an effective and compassionate political party.”

Amid a setting furnished with antiques, art and political memorabilia, club members over the years have been able to attend twice-weekly programs featuring speakers such as Madeleine Albright, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tom Daschle, Jim Lehrer, Vernon Jordan, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Loretta and Linda Sanchez, Mark Kennedy Shriver, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

The library, on the second floor, is of particular interest to aficionados of First Ladies, as it was the site where Eleanor Roosevelt held women-only press conferences at a time when female journalists battled discrimination.

Whittemore House, listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1973, was granted museum status in 2000. It has been used for a variety of events, from conferences to weddings—and, of course, to empower women.

Quote of the Day (Abraham Lincoln, on the ‘Virtue and Vigilance’ of the American People)

“By the frame of the Government under which we live this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.”—President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

Like many people who have read this relentlessly logical address by Abraham Lincoln, I much prefer his ringing, eloquent conclusion:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This spirit of generosity and reconciliation will surely be much on the mind of Joe Biden today as he attempts to close the divisions open for all the world to see in the storming of the Capitol two weeks ago. Let’s hope that some of his countrymen take to heart his Lincolnesque message of unity and a common patriotism.

If not, you can bet that what Gerald Ford called, at his own swearing-in, “our long national nightmare” will be far from over.

I worry about whether Biden’s expected appeal for bipartisanship will be enough at this unusually fearful inauguration. After all, Lincoln’s strenuous forswearing of any attempt to interfere with slavery in the states where it was already established was not enough to prevent southern extremists from pushing secession, instigating calamitous civil war.

Moreover, Lincoln’s confidence that no President could seriously harm the government in a single short term now seems, following the last four years, overly serene.

True, that time limit may be the optimum possible, given the need to allow Presidents the opportunity to look beyond short-term electoral considerations. But an office with so much potential for good possesses equal potential for evil, a negative capability demonstrated most dramatically by the latest outgoing occupant of the White House.

In the 20th century, historians used a short phrase, often picked up from inaugural addresses, to identify a President’s agenda: the Square Deal, the New Freedom, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier.

Given the lives lost in the COVID-19 pandemic and on January 6, historians might appropriately borrow a phrase from Donald Trump’s single inaugural address to characterization his administration: the American Carnage.

It feels like meager recompense to the nation he devastated that, through his own cupidity and madness, the outgoing President laid waste to "the Trump brand." He left divisions surpassed only by the one confronting Lincoln.

An “extreme of wickedness or folly” occurred over the past two months through patently false but endlessly propagated accusations of electoral fraud—charges now acknowledged to be untrue by the two leading Republicans on Capitol Hill, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy.

In the two-month interval between the election and the start of a new administration, Trump did nothing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 across the United States, choosing instead to transmit the virus of falsehood to nearly half of the American electorate.

That recklessness spurred the most serious insurrection on U.S. soil since the Confederacy that Lincoln had to destroy. That riot undercut America as an exemplar of democracy abroad, as the embodiment of what Lincoln called, nearly two years after he took the oath of office, “the last best hope of earth.” 

For whatever reason, far too many ordinary Americans were insufficiently vigilant four years ago in voting for a leader without the slightest electoral or national security experience. In the process, they also elected a man without the virtue that Lincoln mistakenly believed would be possessed by all of his successors.

Because of the vacuum of "virtue and vigilance" in the past four years, I am forced to agree with Garrett Epps’ contention in The Washington Monthly: “Until the nation receives a full accounting, and until criminality pays a suitable price, our institutions will lie open, undefended against those who openly aspire to break them up by force.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (Fran Lebowitz, on Dolly Parton and NYC’s Bill de Blasio)

“The present mayor, Bill de Blasio, is pretty much the most unifying politician in the country. Everyone hates him. Everyone. The city is as one in its hatred of de Blasio…. Rich people hate him, poor people hate him, white people, black people, young people, old people, men, women. He’s universally hated. He’s like the opposite of Dolly Parton. Like, everyone loves Dolly Parton and everyone hates Bill de Blasio. There’s no doubt in every New Yorker’s mind that Dolly Parton would be a much better mayor than Bill de Blasio.”—Humorist Fran Lebowitz appearing on Late Night With Seth Meyers, Jan. 8, 2021 episode

Even as I laughed hard at Ms. Lebowitz’s description of Bill de Blasio, I wondered: Is it that bad for him now? Surely his family are still with him, right? And doesn’t he have any remnant of the original coalition that brought him into Gracie Mansion?

As for Dolly Parton (pictured, of course)—who, incidentally, was born 75 years ago today in Locust Ridge, Tenn.—it’s only been in the last 20 years or so that I’ve come to appreciate her. But it really is rather hard not to love a woman who:

*can poke fun at herself with lines like, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap”;

*stole the film 9 to 5 right from under the nose of veteran actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin;

*not only made millions singing herself but made even more millions for others by writing songs covered by the likes of Whitney Houston, Olivia Newton-John, Merle Haggard, Skeeter Davis, and Tina Turner;

*boosted literacy among children by founding the Imagination Library; and,

*helped fund Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine through a $1 million donating this past spring.

Over the years, Dolly has given people plenty of reasons to smile. These are just a few of them. But even one is enough to lead us to wish her a very Happy Birthday.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Quote of the Day (John Lewis, on the Press and the Civil-Rights Movement)

“If it hadn’t been for the press, the civil-rights movement, the whole struggle would have been like a bird without wings…. For the press, it was very dangerous, especially in the American South, to be a reporter, to be there with a pen and a pad, with a camera. I saw members of the Klan and racists turning on the media, beating people, leaving them bloody, and then turning on us.”—John Lewis (1940-2020), civil rights activist and Congressman (D-GA), quoted in Jamil Smith, “‘We Cannot Lose Hope’: John Lewis Looks Forward,” Rolling Stone, May 2019

In the last four years, the media faced new dangers, including crowds egged on by a President who called reporters “enemies of the people.” His undermining of those who dared to tell the truth culminated on January 6 with a mob aiming to overthrow the legitimate electoral victory of a multi-racial coalition.

One image lingering with me from that infamous day is of an African-American Capitol Police officer standing against an overwhelmingly white mob ready to breach the building. His presence would have been impossible without the similar courage shown decades before by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and, as the latter noted, the media that covered them.

Like many people, I have had my beefs with reporters from different outlets. But without media coverage—most crucially, during January 6 and its aftermath—most Americans would not have grasped the extent of the relentless assault on liberty occurring in the last four years.

For a long time, I have seen in local libraries a Library of America anthology, Reporting Civil Rights, containing roughly 200 eyewitness accounts of the movement from 1941 to 1973. Recent events have made it more imperative than ever, I think, that I read these two volumes.

(The image accompanying this post was Lewis’ official congressional photo, taken Feb. 13, 2006.)

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Quote of the Day (Richard J. Evans, on the Nazi Path to Power)

“By the time he came out of prison [in late 1924, for leading a coup attempt the year before to overthrow Germany’s Weimar Republic], Hitler had assembled the ideology of Nazism from disparate elements of antisemitism, pan-Germanism, eugenics and so-called racial hygiene, geopolitical expansionism, hostility to democracy, and hostility to cultural modernism, which had been floating around for some time but had not so far been integrated into a coherent whole. He gathered around him a team of immediate subordinates—the talented propagandist Joseph Goebbels, the decisive man of action Hermann Goring and others—who built up his image as leader and reinforced his sense of destiny. But despite all this, and despite the violent activism of his brownshirt paramilitaries on the streets, he got nowhere politically until the very end of the 1920s….In October 1929, however, the Wall Street crash brought the German economy tumbling down with it....The political effects of the Depression were calamitous. The Grand Coalition broke up in disarray; so deep were the divisions between the parties over how to deal with the crisis that a parliamentary majority could no longer be found for any kind of decisive action….The Nazis, then, as the elections of September 1930 and July 1932 showed, were a catch-all party of social protest with particularly strong middle-class support and relatively weak, though still very significant, working-class backing at the polls. They had broken out of their core constituency of the Protestant lower middle classes and farming community.”— Cambridge Univ. historian Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 (2005)

Unfortunately, the blueprint for Fascism remains fundamentally the same in the 21st century as it was in the 1920s and 1930s: the exploitation of multiple far-right ideologies by a single demagogue; the assistance of propagandists who tended to imagery; legislative deadlock; calamitous economic conditions; and then, seemingly out of nowhere, a political coalition with sudden breakout appeal.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Samantha Power, on Resilience and Her Faith)

“My faith doesn’t give me an optimism that things are going to turn out OK. I don’t think that’s something that comes naturally to me—to believe that everything’s going to just get back on track. Instead I think my faith gives me a necessary resilience. If something isn’t working, if the kind of cooperation that’s needed across borders is not happening or the policies by different actors are getting less humane, having this lodestar of Jesus’ teachings and life gives me an incentive to keep getting back up. Not because I think inevitably things are going to work out because God wants them to work out. But because I see that in order for anything to improve, it’s going to require individuals to dust themselves off and keep at it.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning human rights advocate, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—and lifelong Catholic— Samantha Power quoted in “How Faith Fuels Samantha Power’s Tireless Activism,” U.S. Catholic, January 2021

Thanks to my friend Rachel for bringing this article to my attention.

(The attached image of Ms. Power was the official White House photo taken when she was a member of the Obama Administration.)

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Photo of the Day: State House, Providence, RI

When I visited Providence in October 2015, the imposing State House of Rhode Island was just a few blocks from where I stayed. Whether or not it is the most beautiful state house in the nation, as locals claim, this white marble building is unquestionably designed to inspire awe, as one might expect from a structure created by the great American architectural firm of the late 19th century, McKim, Mead, and White.

Completed in 1901, the building—330 feet long, 180 feet wide and 233 feet high—dominates Smith Hill, and is visible from most of downtown and many approaching highways..

There is plenty that could be discussed, from a historical and architectural viewpoint, about the State House, including the “Independent Man” statue at its top; the statues of two local military heroes, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and General Nathanael Greene; and an object that I discussed previously, its "Gettysburg Gun."

But the immediate, astonishing feature of the State House—one apparent in the photograph here that I took at the time—was its dome, the fourth-largest self-supporting one in the world, behind only St. Peter’s Basilica, the Minneapolis State Capitol, and the Taj Mahal. It’s so big that a number of cupolas surround this main dome.

Quote of the Day (Charles Dickens, on a ‘Thick and Fast’ Early Morning Rain)

“Morning drew on apace. The air became more sharp and piercing, as its first dull hue: the death of night, rather than the birth of day: glimmered faintly in the sky. The objects which had looked dim and terrible in the darkness, grew more and more defined, and gradually resolved into their familiar shapes. The rain came down, thick and fast; and pattered, noisily, among the leafless bushes.” — English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837)

Descriptions like this are part of the reason why Dickens has been adapted so often to the screen. All the images and sounds are here, ready for any screenwriter or director to use.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Quote of the Day (Todd Rundgren, on His Early Band, The Nazz)

“Well, the Nazz was a very peculiar and somewhat dysfunctional experiment. We were all very young and not especially politic with each other. There would be a lot of conflicts – some it had to do with the fact that I was a complete teetotaller at the time, and if one of the guys happened to get drunk I was kinda like an angry mom! Our manager had a peculiar philosophy about how to promote the band, and part of that philosophy was that we hardly ever played. We did have one gig that was like a real showcase, opening for the Bee Gees at Forest Hills stadium. We had special costumes made and stuff like that. But Robert Stigwood, who was managing the Bee Gees, didn’t like the idea of us trying to steal any of their thunder, so we got put on so early that half of the audience wasn’t even in the venue. The rest of the time we were making records, buying clothes, taking pictures, showing up to events in a limousine… and never playing anywhere! We were on the cover of 16 magazine before we had a record out. In the end we had a minor hit single and that was that.”—American rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter-producer Todd Rundgren, quoted in Sam Richards, “I Don’t Dwell on the Past: An Interview With Todd Rundgren,” Uncut, December 2020

TV Quote of the Day (‘Seinfeld,’ on Men’s Viewing Habits)

“Men don't care what's on TV, men only care what else is on TV.”—Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld, Season 5, Episode 20, “The Fire,” original air date May 5, 1994, teleplay by Larry Charles, directed by Tom Cherones

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Quote of the Day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on ‘This Time’)

“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”—American essayist-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), “The American Scholar,” delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College, August 31, 1837

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Song Lyric of the Day (Tom Petty, on Being ‘Far Away From Your Trouble and Worries’)

“Far away from your trouble and worries
You belong somewhere you feel free.”—American rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter Tom Petty (1950-2017), title cut of his CD Wildflowers (1994)

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Quote of the Day (David Foster Wallace, on Dangers in Different Forms of Worship)

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough…. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you….Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”—American fiction writer and essayist David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, reprinted as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (2009)

Thanks to my friend Holly for steering me towards this quote.

(The image accompanying this post, of David Foster Wallace at a reading for Booksmith at All Saints Church, was taken Jan. 16, 2006, and originally posted to Flickr by Steve Rhodes.)

Monday, January 11, 2021

Quote of the Day (P.J. O’Rourke, on Being a Child 'Jackson Pollock Without the Genius')

“I was a child whose finger paintings were all thumbs and whose attempt to stay inside the lines in a coloring book produced a Jackson Pollock without the genius. My plastic model airplane kit assembly went so wrong in its wing attachment that my innocently encouraging Dad said, ‘That's a fine little sailboat.’”—American humorist P.J. O’Rourke, “Scrapyard Sculptures,” The Financial Times (“How to Spend It” weekend supplement), Jan. 8-9, 2021

I can relate to this.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Paul to the Corinthians, on the ‘New Creation’ For All in Christ)

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”— 2 Corinthians 5:17 (New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition)

The image of St. Paul accompanying this post was painted by the Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco (1541-1614).