Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Flashback, June 1971: Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ Sets New Artistic Standard

With her fourth studio album, Blue, released 50 years ago this month, Joni Mitchell pushed against the conventional boundaries of the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement.

She would explore new musical textures through the end of the decade in LPs such as Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Mingus. But I don’t think Mitchell was more daring than she was when she poured out her anxiety, depression and fears about the costs of her total artistic commitment.

Commercial success was not her goal with this release, and in any case it would not come until Court and Spark three years later. (The major single, “Carey,” rose no higher than #93 on the Billboard charts.) But the astonished awe of her contemporaries arose rapidly.  Over the years, they—and the following two generations of musicians—have covered virtually all the songs in this collection.

Fragile, even depressed, over the increased expectations placed on her by fans, critics and her music company, in addition to ennui over balancing relationships against creative freedom, Mitchell sought an acoustic safe place—A&M Studio in Hollywood, where she was accompanied by only a handful of trusted musicians, including Russ Kunkel (drums and percussion), Stephen Stills, and James Taylor, with whom she had had a passionate affair in the summer of 1970.

From these often spare aural textures from piano, guitar and Appalachian dulcimer, lyrics emerged unsparing in their emotional honesty. One admirer, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson—himself no stranger to hard self-examination in tunes like “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night”—cautioned her about too much public exposure, urging her to “save something for yourself.”

Among the few things she may have saved for herself—at least at the time—were the identities of males who figured romantically in her life to that point, including Taylor, ex-husband Chuck Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Leonard Cohen.

But the most daring subject—one she had been unable to address on prior albums, because of the ferocious pain involved—was her decision to give up for adoption the baby girl she had out of wedlock before her relationship with Chuck Mitchell. “Little Green” dealt with her hopes for the girl’s future—and the lingering ambivalence that Mitchell (so young at the time she thought of herself as a “child with a child pretending”) felt about her decision:

Like the color when the spring is born
There'll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow
Just a little green
Like the nights when the northern lights perform
There'll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there'll be sorrow. 

Inevitably, the songs are less affirmative anthems than arrivals at a tentative musical equilibrium. In “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” she depicts the creative death-in-life of the male who had warned her that “all romantics meet the same fate someday” (Richard “drinks at home now most nights with the TV on/And all the house lights left up bright”), but her own resolve to push on against the odds is darkened by uncertainty (“Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings/And I fly away/Only a phase, these dark cafe days”).

In recent years, the song that may have received the most airplay, particularly during the Christmas season, has been “River.” The initial invocation of a festive season (a few bars of “Jingle Bells” on the piano, the mention of cut trees and reindeer) before long gives way to Mitchell’s deep melancholy over rejecting a marriage proposal by a lover (“Oh, I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad”). It has become the holiday theme song for everyone unable to summon a sense of joy in the season, for whatever reason. 

With time, I have come to regard “A Case of You” as my own favorite song from the album, in no small part from Diana Krall’s stunning rendition of it in her Live in Paris LP. (Hear it for yourself on this YouTube clip.) But many other singers have covered it, too, including Aoife O'Donovan, Tori Amos, Betty Buckley, Phoebe Snow, Nancy Wilson, Jane Monheit, k.d. lang, and most unusually, Prince, just before his Purple Rain tour.

Decades after its release, according to Sheila Weller’s collective biography of Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King, Girls Like Us, a pair of female fans told Mitchell, “You were our Prozac.” That kind of comment had the kind of outsized fan reaction that had made Mitchell anxious so many years before.

More recently, however, with the 50th anniversary of Blue, Mitchell has come to value the fact that so many ordinary people have found comfort in her masterpiece. “When it was first released, it fell heir to a lot of criticism,” she noted in a recent video. “So, 50 years later, people finally get it, and that pleases me. Thank you.”

One of the many musicians influenced by the album was Jewel, who, in a tribute to Mitchell for Rolling Stone’s 2011 ranking of “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” commented on the artistic process behind her idol’s confessions:

“I could tell that Joni was a painter by the way she wrote lyrics. She describes smells and sounds and uses fewer words to transmit more feeling. Her melodies are about shapes. The singing lines are slow, steep plateaus. One of the things I learned from Joni: If you can tell the story and keep things moving, you don't need to return to the chorus on time.”

(Even the image accompanying this post—obviously, the cover of the classic album—marked something of a departure for Mitchell. Her three previous LPs—Song to a Seagull, Clouds and Ladies of The Canyon—featured Mitchell’s own paintings. In contrast, Blue contained a photograph of the singer by Tim Considine—by this time in the early 1970s, making his mark as a photographer, but better known to baby boomers as oldest son Mike Douglas on the Sixties sitcom My Three Sons.)

Quote of the Day (Mary-Louise Parker, on the Chance to ‘Go Deeper’ in Theater)

“There is relief in the fact that on my worst day backstage in a theater, I at least know where I am. I hear ‘places, please’ and know how to get there, which is somewhere. Theater is this amazing metaphor: You get another chance to un-know stuff and go deeper. When you hit on something true and leave yourself behind, it is freeing in a way that renders you weightless. That feels worthy traversing any steep ladder within yourself, until you say your humble prayers to whomever and then dive.”— American film, TV, and theater actress Mary-Louise Parker, “The Very First Time…I Had Actual Egg on My Face,” The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2016

(Photo of Mary-Louise Parker at the 2010 Comic-Con in San Diego by Rick Marshall)

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Quote of the Day (Marcus Aurelius, on ‘The Only Rewards of Our Existence’)

"Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverent, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. Fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you. Revere the gods; watch over human beings. Our lives are short. The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts." —Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), Meditations: A New Translation, translated by Gregory Hays (The Modern Library, New York, 2003)

The image accompanying this post shows Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius—as good an example as you can have of a “philosopher-king”—in the Oscar-winning epic Gladiator. I have no idea what Aurelius looked like, let alone whether Harris resembled him physically.

But then again, I doubt whether the statues of Aurelius that I have seen in photos were created from life, either. And at least with Harris, we can behold a face not still and lifeless, but filled with the kind of emotions that made this emperor’s attempt to control and master them all the more poignant.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Quote of the Day (Joe Queenan, on Why No UFOs Would Ever Go Near the Bronx)

“Deep down inside, extraterrestrials, like North Koreans, are wusses. The last thing they want is to get into it with us….[W]hen UFOs do come to places like New York, they briefly hover on the horizon in tony suburban towns like Briarcliff Manor just to give the locals a scare. But there is no credible evidence that they have ever dared to turn up in the Bronx. And there’s a good reason for that: The Bronx would wipe the floor with them. If Kim Jong Un or E.T. ever touched down on the Grand Concourse, that’d be the last cup of upscale coffee either of them would ever drink.”—Humor columnist Joe Queenan, “Are UFOs Just Aliens Looking for a Cup Of Coffee?” The Wall Street Journal, June 26-27, 2021

You can bet residents of this borough already knew this, even before the U.S. intelligence community released an unclassified report to Congress on UFOs. They are made of tough stuff!

(The image accompanying this post comes from the 1951 sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still.)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Soren Kierkegaard, on Christ’s Love and Forgiveness)

“Christ speaks of two debtors, one of whom owed much and the other little, and who both found forgiveness. He asks: Which of these two ought to love more? The answer: The one who has forgiven much. When you love much, you are forgiven much—and when you are forgiven much, you love much. See here the blessed recurrence of salvation in love!” — Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), “Two Discourses at Friday Communion” (August 1851), in The Essential Kierkegaard, edited by Howard and Edna Hong (2000)

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Quote of the Day (Honore de Balzac, on How a Parisian Vamp Can Torment a Powerful Man)

“Valerie [Marneffe] wished to be found in an atmosphere of sweetness, to attract the chief and to please him enough to have a right to be cruel; to tantalize him as a child would, with all the tricks of fashionable tactics. She had gauged [Baron Hector] Hulot. Give a Paris woman at bay four-and-twenty hours, and she will overthrow a ministry.” ― French novelist Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), Cousin Bette (1846)

One hundred and seventy-five years ago this month, Honore de Balzac—one of the most astonishingly prolific novelists of all time—set to work on not one, but two novels of “poor relations”: Cousin Pons and Cousin Bette. The latter is probably the better known of the two, as it was adapted for television (first airing 50 years ago this August, as a miniseries in the Masterpiece Theatre franchise), with Margaret Tyzack in the title role, and a less faithful and less accomplished 1998 film starring Jessica Lange.

The image accompanying this post comes from the miniseries, with Helen Mirren, still early in her long, distinguished career, as Valerie, the beautiful, greedy wife of a War Office clerk. (Elisabeth Shue played a courtesan, based on this character but inexplicably renamed, in the movie.) Bette, a poor, aging spinster, uses her young friend to wreak vengeance on rich relatives, the Hulots, for unknowingly depriving her of the young artist she has come to love.  

Seldom has literature seen an irredeemable roue undone by his own folly like Baron Hulot (played in the miniseries by Thorley Walters, who appears in this photo with Dame Mirren). Bad enough that this department head in the War Office squanders money on a mistress at the start of the novel, or that he (like three other men, simultaneously) is seduced by Valerie.

But, even when he pays dearly for that most recent dangerous liaison, Hulot is so incorrigible in his lust that he begs his saintly wife to allow him to bring home another, younger (15 years old) mistress. The result: disgrace and financial ruin for his family.

With penetrating insight into the male psyche, Balzac demonstrates a lesson as applicable in 21st century Washington, London, Berlin—and, I suspect, even Moscow—as it was in 19th-century Paris: a middle-aged high government official or businessman, no matter how much money or influence he wields, is a mere toy in the hands of a wily, pretty young thing.

As rich in irony as it is relentless in pessimism, Cousin Bette is a masterpiece of 19th-century literary realism.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Quote of the Day (Megan Amran, Imagining What Astronauts Might Find on Planet 'XJ9358')

Dec. 16. We now understand why, throughout our history, we received no transmission from this planet: the inhabitants were extremely unsophisticated. They utilized fossil fuels and nuclear power, but wasted their solar energy and failed to employ methane dams to capture the nearly infinite power potential of flatulence. They apparently let the precious gases just dissipate into the air! Furthermore, they appeared to have many different languages and alphabets. The one in our current location uses twenty-six letters, except in a mysterious temple labelled ‘IKEA,’ where some of the letters have dots over them.”— American comedy writer, producer, and performer Megan Amran, “Shouts and Murmurs: Captain’s Log,” The New Yorker, Apr. 30, 2018

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Quote of the Day (John Updike, Inside the Mind of an Unusual Lifeguard)

“Beyond doubt, I am a splendid fellow. In the autumn, winter and spring, I execute the duties of a student of divinity; in the summer I disguise myself in my skin and become a lifeguard. My slightly narrow and gingerly hirsute but not necessarily unmanly chest becomes brown. My smooth back turns the colour of caramel, which, in conjunction with the whipped cream of my white pith helmet, gives me, some of my teenage satellites assure me, a delightfully edible appearance. My legs, which I myself can study, cocked as they are before me while I repose on my elevated wooden throne, are dyed a lustreless maple walnut that accentuates their articulate strength. Correspondingly, the hairs of my body are bleached blond, so that my legs have the pointed elegance of, within the flower, umber anthers dusted with pollen.”—American man of letters John Updike (1932-2009), “Lifeguard,” originally printed in The New Yorker, Aug. 24, 1960, reprinted in Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962)

Okay, I don’t think Sam Elliott (pictured) is what John Updike had in mind for his cerebral lifeguard. As a matter of fact, after seeing him in prominent roles in westerns as his hair turned gray and his skin grew more weather-beaten, I have trouble thinking of him in the title role of the film Lifeguard. But at its release in 1976, he—like all of us alive then—was far younger than now.

In an case Elliott is, for me, a far more palatable option than perhaps the most famous image of a male lifeguard: David Hasselhoff of Baywatch. Over the years, “The Hoff” has generated enough publicity without requiring any more from me, thank you.

By the way, for those of you wondering: the Elliott movie was not an adaptation of this Updike short story. The film, with a script by Ron Koslow, actually has something that at least passes for a plot. In contrast, Updike’s offers a Joycean reverie that delights in language and—naturally, given its divinity-student narrator—features an epiphany:

“We enter the sea with shock; our skin and blood shout in protest. But, that instant, that leap, past, what do we find? Ecstasy and buoyancy. Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Quote of the Day (Margaret Atwood, on Hope as ‘Part of the Human Tool Kit’)

“Hope is part of the human tool kit. We need it to go on in the face of negative odds. I’m probably an inherently hopeful person. If I weren't, why would I write? Think how much hope is involved! You hope your book will be good. You hope you will finish it. You hope it will be published. You hope the perfect reader will come across it, and find all the breadcrumbs you've dropped in the forest, and also find some meaning or delight in them. That's a lot of hope.” —Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, “Margaret Atwood on the Wages of Whining” (part of the “Sane Advice for Crazy Times” article cluster), Esquire, October 2018

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Quote of the Day (F. Scott Fitzgerald, on Life ‘Beginning Over Again With the Summer’)

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”—American novelist and short-story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), The Great Gatsby (1925)

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Quote of the Day (Pat Conroy, on How ‘Books Are Living Things’)

“Books are living things and their task lies in their vows of silence. You touch them as they quiver with a divine pleasure. You read them and they fall asleep to happy dreams for the next 10 years. If you do them the favor of understanding them, of taking in their portions of grief and wisdom, then they settle down in contented residence in your heart.”—Novelist Pat Conroy (1945-2016), My Reading Life (2010)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Quote of the Day (Alice James, on a Landmark Year for Her Literary Family)

“Within the last year [Henry] has published The Tragic Muse, brought out The American and written a play, Mrs. Vibert . . . combined with William's Psychology, not a bad show for our family! especially if I get myself dead, the hardest job of all.”—Alice James (1848-1892), entry for June 16, 1891, in The Diary of Alice James, edited by Henry Edel (1964)

Brothers William James and Henry James Jr. became famous in their lifetimes for their powers of observation as respectively, pioneering psychologist-philosopher and fiction writer. It took over 70 years after her death, with the publication of her diaries, for the world to know that their younger sister, Alice James, had her own penetrating vision of the world, albeit one experienced from the bed where she languished as an invalid recluse.

The diary entry above conveys her pride in her two older brothers’ literary achievement in the prior year, as well as a gallows sense of humor bordering on stoicism in the face of the declining health that finally claimed her life a year later.

Alice was the youngest child of Henry James Sr., a wealthy, one-legged philosopher whose eccentricities affected, for good and ill, the lives of his five children—perhaps none more so than his daughter.

"In our family group, girls seem scarcely to have had a chance," Henry Jr. wrote. Irritated and uncomfortable because their father felt that women were mere appendages of men, Alice fell ill or sometimes pretended to be ill, with fainting spells or headaches. Some doctors diagnosed the underlying ailment as suppressed gout, others as “wandering womb.”

But the one applied most commonly to her (a particular favorite of male doctors of the time) was known as “neurasthenia,” a form of what European doctors saw as “hysteria.” We know recognize what she had as a depression so devastating that Alice became suicidal. “A hoop skirt is a death trap,” she would observe.

Oddly enough, perhaps because Alice finally felt she could be useful, the one period of her life when these conditions abated was when she had to care for her father when his health started to decline. But with his death in 1882, her condition worsened again.

Even confined to her bed, Alice missed little. The diary entries she began writing in 1889 (dictated to her longtime companion, Katherine Loring) were sometimes sharp, often funny, and usually unconventional.

Anglophilic Henry Jr., for instance, was astonished to discover, when Loring presented to him a copy of the diary after Alice’s death, that his sister “was really an Irishwoman.” It wasn’t simply because she ardently believed in Home Rule, but that she had assessed Britain’s role in fostering the conditions for this rising movement—and found their disclaimers of blame all too wanting:

“The behaviour of the Unionist and Tory is simply the bete carried to its supreme expression. It is truly a great misfortune for a people to be so destitute of inspiration, and so completely without honour, as to be left absolutely naked to itself. If you could read, too, the chorus going up to heaven on all sides over the love of manliness and fairness in the Briton's bosom! — those qualities of which they are always assuring the rest of the world they hold the monopoly. The Englishman, however, should not be held accountable for being mentally so abject before the Irishman; he is helpless, for there is absolutely nothing in his organization wherewith he can conceive of him, and his self-respect naturally has no other refuge save in loathing and despising him. He has no wings to his mind to bear him whither his leaden feet are inapt for carrying him; so that it is only now, at the end of seven centuries, that he is beginning faintly to divine that in Ireland, above all other lands, there are impalpable spiritualities which rise triumphant and imperishable before brutalities.”

Alice James died in 1892 of breast cancer. Although her brothers sensed her keen intellect, even they must have wondered at times what to make of her. We may be only coming to terms with her now.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Quote of the Day (Carlos Fuentes, on FDR and the ‘True Greatness’ of America)

“[T]he United States in the thirties went far beyond my personal experience. The nation that [Alexis de] Tocqueville had destined to share dominance over half the world realized that, in effect, only a continental state could be a modern state; in the thirties, the U.S.A. had to decide what to do with its new worldwide power, and Franklin Roosevelt taught us to believe that the first thing was for the United States to show that it was capable of living up to its ideals. I learned then — my first political lesson — that this is your true greatness, not, as was to be the norm in my lifetime, material wealth, not arrogant power misused against weaker peoples, not ignorant ethnocentrism burning itself out in contempt for others.

“As a young Mexican growing up in the U.S., I had a primary impression of a nation of boundless energy, imagination, and the will to confront and solve the great social issues of the times without blinking or looking for scapegoats. It was the impression of a country identified with its own highest principles: political democracy, economic well-being, and faith in its human resources, especially in that most precious of all capital, the renewable wealth of education and research.

“Franklin Roosevelt, then, restored America’s self-respect in this essential way, not by macho posturing.”—Mexican novelist-essayist Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012), “How I Started to Write,” in Myself With Others: Selected Essays (1988)

Monday, June 14, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘M*A-S-H,' on Marriage and Divorce)

Major Franklin Marion Burns [played by Larry Linville] [to Margaret Houlihan]: “Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.” —M*A*S*H, Season 3, Episode 16, Bulletin Board,” original air date Jan. 14, 1975, teleplay by Larry Gelbart and Simon Muntner, directed by Alan Alda

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Kathleen Norris, Redefining Sin)

“Like many Americans of my baby-boom generation, I had thought that religion was a constraint that I had overcome by dint of reason, learning, artistic creativity, sexual liberation. Church was for little kids or grandmas, a small-town phenomenon that one grew out of or left behind. It was a shock to realize that, to paraphrase Paul Simon, all the crap I learned in Sunday school was still alive and kicking inside me.  I was also astonished to discover how ignorant I was about my own religion.  Apart from a few Bible stories and hymns remembered from childhood I had little with which to start to build a mature faith.  I was still that child in The Snow Queen, asking, ‘What is sin?’ but not knowing how to find out.  Fortunately a Benedictine friend provided one answer: ‘Sin, in the New Testament,’ he told me, ‘is the failure to do concrete acts of love.’ That is something I can live with, a guide in my conversation.  It’s also a much better definition of sin than I learned as a child: sin as breaking rules.”— American poet, essayist and memoirist Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993)

Saturday, June 12, 2021

This Day in Senate History (Robert Byrd Becomes Longest-Serving Member)


June 12, 2006—Having already occupied the most powerful leadership posts in the upper chamber of Congress, Robert Byrd surpassed Strom Thurmond as the longest-serving member in the history of the U.S. Senate. 

By the time he died four years later, at age 92, the Democrat from West Virginia had also become the longest-serving member in the history of Congress as a whole; had cast more votes than any other member; and had won an unprecedented ninth term for his office.

If Byrd had completed only his second, or even third, term as Senator, he might have been remembered far more negatively. In an entry for October 2, 1971 that was posthumously included in The Haldeman Diaries, H.R. Haldeman, chief of staff for Richard Nixon, recorded that his boss, annoyed that a potential Supreme Court nominee, Richard Harding Poff, was withdrawing from consideration for a Supreme Court vacancy, had decided to “really stick it to the opposition now”:

“On the court, he came up with the idea of (Robert) Byrd of West Virginia because he was a former KKK’er, he’s elected by the Democrats as Whip, he’s a self-made lawyer, he’s more reactionary than Wallace, and he’s about 53.”

Byrd indeed was “a former KKK’er,” a recruiter and organizer in the 1940s (though never a Grand Wizard, as some recent GOP misinformation states), as well as an advocate for racial segregation and a supporter of the Vietnam War. 

But the need to secure votes among non-Southern colleagues for Senate leadership offices led him over the years to moderate old positions. Eventually, Byrd backed renewal of voting-rights legislation—a stance that won him praise from civil rights icon John Lewis and Barack Obama, the first African-American President—and he opposed both Ronald Reagan's aid to the contras in Nicaragua and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

As alluded to by Nixon, Byrd defeated the incumbent Democrat whip, Ted Kennedy, in 1971, shocking many political observers of the time. Thereafter he was elected twice as Senate Majority Leader. 

“I ran the Senate like a stern parent," Byrd recalled in his memoir, Child of the Appalachian Coalfields. He had little time for small talk or glad-handling, as, for instance, the convivial Kennedy had. But his mastery of Senate rules gave him an unrivalled ability to rack up votes.

Unsurprisingly, then, despite his reputation for oratory (with speeches often studded with references to Roman history or literature), Byrd made a more lasting mark as a legislative technician.

Sanford Ungar’s 1975 Atlantic Monthly profile demonstrated how Byrd structured (or restructured) the Senate business on his way up the hierarchy (including shortening the chamber’s “morning hour” and moderating who could speak on the floor). 

Were he alive today, Byrd might not recognize the political climate in either his native state or the Senate he had served so assiduously. Joe Manchin has been the only Democrat to hold a statewide office in the last four years, forcing him to tack to the right—a far cry from the days when Byrd regularly romped to landslide victories in the general election, or even ran unopposed. (Donald Trump took the state with nearly 69% of the popular vote in both the 2016 and 2020 Presidential races.)

Particularly during his two decades as chair or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd earned the nickname “The King of Pork” for the enormous federal largesse he secured for West Virginia--$1.2 billion through the Senate from 1991 to 2006, largely due to his efforts, according to an analysis by the nonprofit group Citizens Against Government Waste.

Though the use of earmarks is now being revived in Congress, the odor of illegality and ethical misdeeds continues to cling to the practice a decade after its use was banned. That complicates Senators’ hopes of proving their value to constituents—and the bargaining leverage for complex, often controversial bills that prior Senate leaders like Byrd would have possessed.

Finally, one suspects that Byrd—an institutionalist who defended the use of the filibuster in the Senate—might have lifted his eyebrows, annoyed at how Ted Cruz and his GOP colleagues have weaponized the practice. Rather than totally ban the filibuster, however, Byrd would probably have tried to punish Cruz for his showboating—perhaps by using an arcane parliamentary rule to stall a pet project—while warning Democratic colleagues against outlawing a procedure that they might find handy to use someday, albeit less frequently.

Quote of the Day (Shirley MacLaine, With a Realization From Her Travels)

“The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” —Oscar-winning actress and dancer Shirley MacLaine, Don't Fall Off the Mountain (1970)

(The image accompanying this post is a studio promotional photo of Shirley MacLaine, taken in 1960.)

Friday, June 11, 2021

Quote of the Day (Robert Benchley, on Living the Lives of His Characters)

“When I am writing a novel I must actually live the lives of my characters. If, for instance, my hero is a gambler on the French Riviera, I make myself pack up and go to Cannes or Nice, willy-nilly, and there throw myself into the gay life of the gambling set until I really feel that I am Paul De Lacroix, Ed Whelan, or whatever my hero's name is. Of course this runs into money, and I am quite likely to have to change my ideas about my hero entirely and make him a bum on a tramp steamer working his way back to America, or a young college boy out of funds who lives by his wits until his friends at home send him a hundred and ten dollars.”— American humorist and actor Robert Benchley (1889-1945), “How I Create,” in The Best of Robert Benchley: 72 Timeless Stories of Wit, Wisdom and Whimsy (1983)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Quote of the Day (Eve Babitz, on Gossip and Why ‘You Have to Care in New York’)

“[Y]ou have to care in New York or you’ll die. It's not like L.A., where you can go around with your purse unsnapped or lost in thought even on the freeway. In New York, the gossip will get you if crossing the street doesn't: for the gossip is so dense and thick that it hovers over the entire city like an enraged bear, ready to snap its teeth on anyone who isn’t fast enough to cover herself with alibis, low profiles, or return red herrings aimed strategically somewhere else. The gossip is like a lightning game of backgammon with rolls of dice leaving behind broken hearts, the dissolution of entrenched power, and awkward guest lists. Everyone (who's left) waits for the next roll, eyes glued to the die. You cannot not care in New York. Even I know that. You’ll die just crossing the street. It’s exciting.” —American artist, author and muse Eve Babitz, “A Californian Looks at New York,” in I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz, edited by Sara J. Kramer (2019)

This paragraph gives a pretty good idea of the sit-up-and-take-notice quality of Eve Babitz’s prose. For anyone who hopes to get a sense of California from the 1950s to the 1990s (when a freak accident left her with third-degree burns and effectively ended her writing career), I can hardly imagine a more compelling guide.

But, reading this now, in a time of isolation (even as so many hope that era is coming to an end), the quote above feels disconnected from our time. Gossip thrives on society: not merely secrets shared between two people at minimum, but entire occasions that bring people together, encouraging loosened inhibitions and unexpected shared confidences. We have had little to none of that in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maybe New York will be returning to a recognized form of normality when gossip (as delicious as it is, in Babitz’s words, “dense and thick”) comes back, in the way we once remembered.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Quote of the Day (Bina Venkataraman, on the Need to ‘Prize Bravery Over Bravado’)

“Prize bravery over bravado. Prize all moments of bravery, even the small and unrecognized ones. You can be heroic whenever you choose, whoever you are, without being perfect or celebrated or superbly talented.”— Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman, commencement address at the University of Southern California, May 17, 2021

(The image accompanying this post shows Bina Venkataraman at the New America Foundation, Sept. 24, 2019.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Quote of the Day (Amanda Mull, on the Limitations of Remote Work)

“Workers who value day-to-day flexibility in their schedules are ideal work-from-home candidates; those who like strict boundaries between their professional and personal lives, not so much. Career positioning also matters—people who have already built strong social and professional networks may not suffer much from the lack of face-to-face contact at the office, but for those still trying to make such ties, remote work can be alienating.” —Amanda Mull, “A Cubicle Never Looked So Good,” The Atlantic, October 2020

Monday, June 7, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘Yes, Prime Minister,’ on Surviving in Diplomacy and Politics)

Sir Humphrey Appleby [played by Nigel Hawthorne]: “Diplomacy is about surviving until the next century—politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon.” — Yes, Prime Minister, Season 1, Episode 6, “A Victory for Democracy,” original air date Feb. 13, 1986, teleplay by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, directed by Sydney Lotterby

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Sister Helen Prejean, on Humility)

“I think the root word is humus, from the soil. It's not unrelated to ecology, to [one's] place among things. You don't exaggerate it; you don't put it down…. You know, Jesus, if people hadn't known him, you'd think he was a farmer. A farmer is humbled because the farmer obeys the seasons, puts the seed in the ground and recognizes that things have to grow and that there's a time for harvest. It's that recognition that things are going to happen outside of us, that are bigger than us, but we just play a little part.”—Catholic nun, social activist and Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean, quoted in “Soapbox: The Columnists—WSJ. Asks Six Luminaries To Weigh in on a Single Topic; This Month: Humility,” WSJ.  Magazine (the monthly magazine of The Wall Street Journal), June/July 2021

The image of Sister Helen that accompanies this post was taken on Sept. 19, 2006 by Don LaVange from Pleasant Grove, UT.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Quote of the Day (Edgar Allan Poe, With Verses Used by Bruce Wayne to Woo Catwoman)

“And all my days are trances,
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy grey eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances,
By what eternal streams.”—American short-story writer, poet, literary critic, and editor Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), “To One in Paradise” (1833)

Amid all the “POWS!!,” Robin’s “Holy…” exclamations, and cruising around the Batmobile, cultural references like this slyly inserted into the Sixties “Batman” franchise flew right over my head when I was a little kid.

Even now, more than five decades later (including college courses where I had to read poems, horror, sci-fi, and detective fiction by Mr. Poe), I came across this material entirely by accident, while researching actress Lee Meriwether. As a youthful fan of the TV show, I had caught Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar as Catwoman, but had missed the former Miss America (whom I saw onstage, decades later, in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music!) slipping into the slinky catsuit in Batman The Movie.

In the same film, the actress had even more fun putting on a Russian accent as “Miss Kitka,” a “reporter” for The Moscow Bugle (!!!!) exotic enough to lead Adam West’s Bruce Wayne to recite spontaneously this bit of Poe-try, as seen in this YouTube clip. 

Well, I guess it was a way to get Sixties audiences to view the writer as a romantic—rather different from the tortured soul whose more chilling tales were adapted into seven Roger Corman flicks that permanently endeared Vincent Price to horror fans.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Quote of the Day (Christopher Buckley, With a Satiric Mini-History of Irish Monks and Alarm Clocks)

“500-875—Irish monks introduce the concept of the ‘alarm’ clock during their missionary travels through heathen Europe, banging spoons on pots over their heads every morning precisely at 5:45 a.m., while simultaneously shouting biblical passages in Greek and Latin. The monks are able to reckon the time accurately by the morning steam rising off cow pies. This practice of ‘rude awakening’ (exsomnolentia molestias) is not broadly popular among their converts and results in a number of on-the-spot martyrdoms.”—American satirist Christopher Buckley, “A Short History of the Hotel Alarm Clock,” in But Enough About You: Essays (2014)

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Quote of the Day (E.E. Cummings, on Love, ‘The Voice Under All Silences’)

“love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear;
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
the truth more first than sun more last than star.” —American poet E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), “being to timelessness as it’s to time,” in E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962 (2013)

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Quote of the Day (Jerry Seinfeld, on Twitter, ‘A Horrible Performing Interface’)

“I don’t hear the laugh [on Twitter]. Why waste my time? It’s a horrible performing interface. I can’t think of a worse one. I always think about people that write books. What a horrible feeling it must be to have poured your soul into a book over a number of years and somebody comes up to you and goes, 'I loved your book,' and they walk away, and you have no idea what worked and what didn’t. That to me is hell. That’s my definition of hell." —Stand-up comedian and actor Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in Don Amira, “Talk: Jerry Seinfeld Says Jokes Are Not Real Life,” New York Times Magazine, Aug. 19, 2018

Hmm…Does this reflect his own experience with books, like Seinlanguage?

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Bonus Quote of the Day (Thomas Mann, on a ‘Luminous’ Munich on the First Day of June)

“Munich was luminous. A radiant, blue-silk sky stretched out over the festive squares and white-columned temples, the neoclassical monuments and Baroque churches, the spurting fountains, the palaces and gardens of the residence, and the latter’s broad and shining perspectives, carefully calculated and surrounded by green, basked in the sunny haze of a first and lovely June day.”—German Nobel Literature laureate Thomas Mann (1875-1955), “Gladius Dei” (1902), in Death in Venice and Other Tales, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (1998)

This quote was too beautiful not to highlight on this day.

Quote of the Day (Moliere, on How Women Can ‘Run Rings Around the Cleverest Man’)

“Yes, all these stern precautions are inhuman.
Are we in Turkey, where they lock up women?
 It's said that females there are slaves or worse,
And that's why Turks are under Heaven's curse.
Our honor, sir, is truly very frail
If we, to keep it, must be kept in jail.
But do you think that such severities
Bar us, in fact, from doing what we please,
Or that, when we're dead set upon some plan,
We can't run rings around the cleverest man?
All these constraints are vain and ludicrous:
The best course, always, is to trust in us.
It's dangerous, Sir, to underrate our gender.
Our honor likes to be its own defender.
It almost gives us a desire to sin
When men mount guard on us and lock us in,
And if my husband were so prone to doubt me,
I just might justify his fears about me.”—French playwright and satirist Moliere (1622-1673), The School for Husbands (1661), translated by Richard Wilbur (1992)