Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Quote of the Day (Fredric March, on Relaxation and Acting)

“What I enjoy is working on a scene until I finally get it right. It's fun to know you're hitting it. There are advantages in being in a long run. You should see plays after they've been around for a while if you want to see the best performances…. The actors are more relaxed in their parts. When I first consider a part, I find myself judging the play as a whole. Simultaneously, I try to decide whether I can play the part, whether it's dramatically interesting, whether I feel I can make it make sense. It's a mistake, I think, to go for parts, as some actors do, instead of for the play as a whole. I'll never do a part in a play or a picture that makes me lose my self-respect…. In a way, though, I've liked everything I've been in. I'm kind of a dimwit. I just like to act.”—American screen and stage actor Fredric March (1897-1975), quoted in Lillian Ross and Helen Ross, The Player: A Profile of an Art (1962)

Two-time Oscar-winning actor Fredric March was born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickelin in Racine, Wisc., 125 years ago today. Over a long career on the big screen and the stage, he seldom if ever had to worry about losing his “self-respect.”

It wasn’t enough that the enormously versatile star could do comedy (Nothing Sacred, I Married a Witch) as well as tragedy (the original A Star is Born, Anna Karenina), that his Academy Award performances in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Best Years of Our Lives still stand the test of time, or that he segued expertly from a matinee idol of the Thirties and Forties into an adept ensemble player from the Fifties to his death in 1975.

No, when it came time for directors to find a leading man unafraid to take on two highly demanding properties by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights—Thornton Wilder (The Skin of Our Teeth) and Eugene O’Neill (Long Day's Journey Into Night)—they turned to March. He did not let them—or audiences—down.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Quote of the Day (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, on How Invention Occurs)

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.”—English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851), Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

The wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—and creator of the paradigmatic sci-fi/horror novel Frankenstein—was born 225 years ago today.

While staying at a villa by Lake Geneva in Switzerland with her husband, the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley engaged in a contest with him and his friends (including Lord Byron) for the best ghost story by relating her tale of a scientist and the creature he made in a lab. Obviously, posterity regards her as the winner of the contest.

But the “materials …[to] be afforded” to create her novel did not come from a “void,” but from her own intellectual research into what was happening in the world of science, including Sir Humphrey Davy’s experiments with electricity, according to this article from Mental Floss Magazine.

For a fascinating discussion of the circumstances behind this dramatic creation, I urge you to read Australian artist-writer Kirsten Mills’ blog post from four years ago.

Monday, August 29, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Addams Family,’ As Uncle Fester Offers To Teach Lurch About Women)

[The family decides to make over Lurch.]

Uncle Fester [played by Jackie Coogan]: “And after a couple hours with me, why, he'll know all there is to know about women.”

Gomez Addams [played by John Astin]: “What do YOU know about women, Fester?”

Uncle Fester [a little affronted]: “Well, I had a mother, didn't I?”— The Addams Family, Season 2, Episode 29, “Lurch's Grand Romance,” original air date Apr. 1, 1966, teleplay by Gene Thompson and Arthur Weingarten, directed by Sidney Lanfield

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Augustine of Hippo, on How Christ Draws Us to Him)

“Offer a handful of grass to a sheep and you draw it after you. Show a boy nuts and he is enticed. He is drawn by the things he is running to take, drawn because he desires, drawn without any physical pressures, drawn simply by the pull on his appetite. If, then, the things that lovers see as the delights and pleasures of earth can draw them, because it is true that ‘everyone is drawn by his delight’, then does not Christ draw when he is revealed to us by the Father?” —St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), homily on St. John’s Gospel, in Ordinary Graces: Christian Teachings on the Interior Life, edited by Lorraine Kisly (2000)

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Photo of the Day: Pascack Brook County Park, Bergen County, NJ

Nearly two weeks ago, I drove about 25 minutes from my home in Bergen County, NJ, to Pascack Brook County Park on the border of Westwood and River Vale.

It struck me full force, almost as soon as I parked my car, just how much the “moderate drought” in this area is affecting this 79-acre space. Like other walkers that day, what I saw stretching out in all directions was an expanse of brown rather than green grass. It hasn't improved since.

After a while, I came to a halt and concentrated on the parts of the park that have drawn me up here every once in a while the last few years: not just the reflections in the water that you can see in this picture I took, but also the patient fishermen and water creatures who have made a way of life by this tributary of the Hackensack River.

Quote of the Day (Theodore Roosevelt, on ‘The Men of Mere Wealth’)

“The men of mere wealth never can have and never should have the capacity for doing good work that is possessed by the men of exceptional mental training; but that they may become both a laughing stock and a menace to the community is made unpleasantly apparent by that portion of the New York business and social world which is most in evidence in the papers.”—Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States, “The College Graduate and Public Life,” originally printed in The Atlantic Monthly, August 1894, reprinted in American Ideals, and Other Essays, Social and Political (1897)

TR explained further about the dangers of “malefactors of great wealth” in a speech 13 years after the publication of the above article. I considered his prescient warning about these men who hoped to “enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil-doing” in this post from 14 years ago.

Friday, August 26, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘Gilmore Girls,’ on Jennifer Lopez, Once and Future Wedding Maven)

“Mom, it’s a pretend wedding. J-Lo has them all the time.”—Lorelai Gilmore [played by Lauren Graham], reassuring Emily (nervous about renewing her marriage vows), in Gilmore Girls, Season 5, Episode 13, “Wedding Bell Blues,” original air date Feb 8, 2005, written and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino

It’s amazing how some sitcoms just feel really dated, while the jokes in others have a habit of coming around again. Jennifer Lopez is the gift that keeps on giving.

When the episode from which this joke was taken first aired, Facebook had only gone public within the past year and was still unknown to many members of the public. Alexa, Netflix “streaming,” “Grubhub,” TikTok, Instagram were not around at all.

But audiences then and now would nod approvingly and chuckle at “J-Lo.” The year before Lorelai Gilmore tried to cheer up her mom by invoking her name, the actress-singer had broken off her engagement up with Ben Affleck.

Recently, you may have heard, “Bennifer” reunited and married. It’s hard not to escape the suspicion that she wed the Oscar-winning actor-writer-director-producer on the rebound from her broken engagement to former baseball slugger Alex Rodriguez.

In case you’re not keeping count, this is J-Lo’s fourth marriage. She’s also been engaged six times. Don't ever try to keep track of the men she's been with in between.

No wonder she confessed eight years ago to being a "love addict."

Many economists tell us that a recession is around the corner. But, as long as Ms. Lopez is around, it’ll always be full employment for entertainment reporters working the celebrity matrimonial beat.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Quote of the Day (Edith Wharton, on Starved Imaginations in Her New York Childhood)

“I have often sighed, in looking back at my childhood, to think how pitiful a provision was made for the life of the imagination behind those uniform brownstone fa├žades, and then have concluded that since, for reasons which escape us, the creative mind thrives best on a reduced diet, I probably had the fare best suited to me. But this is not to say that the average well-to-do New Yorker of my childhood was not starved for a sight of the high gods. Beauty, passion, and danger were automatically excluded from his life (for the men were almost as starved as the women); and the average human being deprived of air from the heights is likely to produce other lives equally starved—which was what happened in old New York, where the tepid sameness of the moral atmosphere resulted in a prolonged immaturity of mind."—Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937), “A Little Girl’s New York,” Harper’s Magazine, March 1938

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Quote of the Day (Bernard Malamud, on a Restless Young Man on a Hot Summer Night)

“In the evening after supper George left the house and wandered in the neighborhood.  During the sultry days some of the storekeepers and their wives sat in chairs on the thick, broken sidewalks in front of the shops, fanning themselves, and George walked past them and the guys hanging out on the candy store corner.  A couple of them he had known his whole life, but nobody recognized each other.  He had no place special to go, but generally, saving it till the last, he left the neighborhood and walked for blocks till he came to a darkly lit little park with benches and trees and an iron railing, giving it a feeling of privacy.  He sat on a bench here, watching the leafy trees and the flowers blooming on the inside of the railing, thinking of a better life for himself.  He thought of the jobs he had had since he had quit school - delivery boy, stock clerk, runner, lately working in a factory - and he was dissatisfied with all of them.  He felt he should someday like to have a job and live in a private house with a porch, on a street with trees.  He wanted to have some dough in his pocket to buy things with, and a girl to go with, so as not to be lonely, especially on Saturday nights.  He wanted people to like and respect him.  He thought about these things often but mostly when he was alone at night.  Around midnight he got up and drifted back to his hot and stony neighborhood.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and short-story writer Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), “A Summer's Reading,” originally published in The New Yorker, September 22, 1956, collected in The Magic Barrel: Stories (1958)

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Quote of the Day (Edna Ferber, on an Adonis in a Dirty Baseball Uniform)

“Any man who can look handsome in a dirty baseball suit is an Adonis. There is something about the baggy pants, and the Micawber-shaped collar, and the skull-fitting cap, and the foot or so of tan, or blue, or pink undershirt sleeve sticking out at the arms, that just naturally kills a man's best points. Then too, a baseball suit requires so much in the matter of leg. Therefore, when I say that Rudie Schlachweiler was a dream even in his baseball uniform, with a dirty brown streak right up the side of his pants where he had slid for base, you may know that the girls camped on the grounds during the season.”—American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Edna Ferber (1885-1968), “A Bush League Hero,” in Buttered Side Down: Stories (1912)

If the name “Edna Ferber” is recognized nowadays, it’s less because of her once-wildly-successful novels and plays than how often Hollywood saw them as hot properties worthy of adapting to the screen—works like Giant, Cimarron, Saratoga Trunk, Dinner at Eight, Show Boat, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning So Big. Many of these are regional works, ranging from Texas to Alaska.

That’s why I was astonished to find that Ferber had written a much less sprawling work—a short story—and even, God help me, a short story about baseball. I’d have understood it about her contemporary, Ring Lardner, who started out as a sportswriter, but Ferber is a different matter.

I still don’t know enough about Ferber to tell you whether she was a fan, but judging from this excerpt from her work, she sure noticed things (like that “Micawber-shaped collar”).

I suspect that the allure of an Adonis, even in a dirty business uniform, remains compelling to many a female fan more than a century after Ferber wrote these words. That would account for the matinee-idol status accorded, at least for a while, for Yankee shortstops Bucky Dent and Derek Jeter.

It’s even more the case for a movie baseball player: Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs in The Natural (in the image accompanying this post)..

I couldn’t find a shot of Hobbs’ uniform beginning to seep with blood from a terrible past wound reopened, but I’m presenting the next best thing for my female readers: his face dirty, sweating and tense, as he awaits a pitch that can redeem a season and even his own life.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Tweet of the Day (Pete Lynch, on Vacation Bible School)

“ ‘Vacation Bible School’ is a phrase that gets less exciting for kids as each word is introduced.”—" @PJTLynch” (i.e., humorist Pete Lynch), tweet of July 16, 2017

At this time of year, that prospect recedes for millions of kids. But any exhalation of relief is short-lived because of what will soon replace it: real school. And no vacation.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Leonard Cohen, on the Soul and Longing)

“I’ve heard the soul unfolds
In the chambers of its longing
And the bitter liquor sweetens
In the hammered cup
But all the Ladders
Of the Night have fallen
Only darkness now
To lift the Longing up.” —Canadian poet-singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), “Born in Chains,” in The Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings (2018)

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Quote of the Day (Wil Wheaton, on Nerds and a Changing World)

“[W]hen I was growing up, being a nerd meant that I liked things that were a little weird, that took a lot of effort to appreciate and understand. It meant that I loved science, playing board games, reading books, and really understanding what went on in the world instead of just riding the planet through space.

“When I was a little boy, people really teased me about that and made me feel like there was something wrong with me for loving those things. Now that I’m an adult, I’m a professional nerd, and the world has changed. I think we have realized that being a nerd is not about what you love but about how you love.”— Actor-writer Wil Wheaton, “Why It’s Great To Be a Nerd,” Reader’s Digest, January 2014

I hope that elementary and high school students read this quote and come to understand, sooner rather than later, than it’s okay to be yourself, even if it does mean that some others may regard you as a nerd.

Maybe you’ll even grow up to star in the next iteration of the Star Trek franchise, or even guest star in The Big Bang Theory: The Next Generation.

(The photo accompanying this post, of Wil Wheaton speaking at the 2012 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona, was taken by Gage Skidmore May 27, 2012 and posted on Flickr: Wil Wheaton.) 

Friday, August 19, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ With Her Latest Party Disaster)

[Mary Richards is anxious to make a good impression on a congresswoman coming to her dinner party. Unfortunately, the food is not cooperating.]

“Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens [played by Betty White]: “Mary, dear, do you have any idea what happens when you let Veal Prince Orloff sit in an oven too long?”

Mary Richards [played by Mary Tyler Moore]: “No, what?”

Sue Ann: “He dies.” —The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 4, Episode 10, “The Dinner Party,” original air date November 17, 1973, teleplay by Ed. Weinberger, directed by Jay Sandrich

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Quote of the Day (F. Scott Fitzgerald, on the Search for Love by ‘The Rich Boy’)

"I don’t think he was ever happy unless someone was in love with him, responding to him like filings to a magnet, helping him to explain himself, promising him something. What it was I do not know. Perhaps they promised that there would always be women in the world who would spend their brightest, freshest, rarest hours to nurse and protect that superiority he cherished in his heart." — American novelist and short-story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), “The Rich Boy,” in All the Sad Young Men (1926)

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Quote of the Day (Honore de Balzac, on Confiding in Inferiors)

“As a general rule, confidences are made to persons below one socially rather than to those above. Much more readily than we can employ our superiors in secret affairs, we make use of our inferiors, who consequently become committed sharers in our most hidden thoughts; they are present at our deliberations.” ― French novelist Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), Cousin Bette (1846)

As this passage indicates, Honore de Balzac had in mind social inferiors as the recipients of confidences. In a number of his novels, such as The Bureaucrats, he was sharp enough to realize that professional inferiors could also be aware of secrets.

Because legal equality of the sexes was decades away from becoming a reality, Balzac could not imagine a world where professional inferiors could be women—ones who could turn against a high-ranking businessman, say, or, better yet, a high-ranking businessman who goes on to lead a country.

Balzac was psychologically acute enough, however, to grasp why women, in any setting, could want to bring down those who unknowingly slight them. He demonstrated that insight repeatedly in his classic Cousin Bette, his story of a spinster “poor relation” who uses a lifetime of secrets bestowed unthinkingly by her aristocratic cousins to weave an inextricable web of revenge against them all.

(The image accompanying this post shows Jessica Lange as the title protagonist in the 1998 film adaptation of the novel.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Quote of the Day (Cecil Day-Lewis, on Defending ‘The Bad Against the Worse’)

“It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.” — Anglo-Irish poet (and British Poet Laureate) Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972), “Where Are the War Poets?”, in The Complete Poems (1992)

Monday, August 15, 2022

Quote of the Day (‘A.M. Juster,’ on Vacation Postcards)

“Bright postcards on a rack
    acknowledge what we lack.
The most we can express about our great vacation
    takes a few lines or less, and needs some illustration.”—Poet, translator, and essayist A.M. Juster (pseudonym for Michael J. Astrue, former head of the Social Security Administration), “Gift Shop Blues," in Sleaze and Slander: New and Selected Comic Verse,1995-2015 (2016)
The image accompanying this post is a postcard showing Disney World, at an unknown date.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Gregory the Great, on God and Good Will)

“There is nothing we can offer to God more precious than good will. But what is good will? To have good will is to experience concern for someone else’s adversities as if they were our own, to give thanks for our neighbor’s prosperity as for our own; to believe that another person’s loss is our own, and also that another’s gain is ours; to love a friend in God, and bear with an enemy out of love, to do to no one what we do not want to suffer ourselves, and to refuse to no one what we rightly want for ourselves; to choose to help a neighbor who is in need not only to the whole extent of our ability, but even beyond our means. What offering is richer, what offering is more substantial than this one? What we are offering to God on the altar of our hearts is the sacrifice of ourselves.”—Pope Gregory I (“Gregory the Great”) (c. 540-604), Doctor of the Church and saint, in Be Friends of God: Spiritual Reading from Gregory the Great, translated and selected by John Leinenweber (1990)

The image accompanying this post, St. Gregory the Great, was painted by Spanish artist and printmaker Jose de Ribera (1591-1652) ca. 1614.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Photo of the Day: Overpeck Creek (NJ), Near Sunset on a Summer’s Day

Early tonight, wanting to take advantage of the respite from the intolerable heat and humidity we had recently, I went for a walk in Overpeck County Park, not far from where I live in Bergen County, NJ.

Even within a half hour of sunset, the parking lot was filled with others who had the same idea. I took this picture of the adjacent creek while circling the Leonia side of the park.

Quote of the Day (Motown Legend Lamont Dozier, on Writer’s Block)

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Stop feeding those lies about writer’s block. Writer’s block only exists in your mind, and if you tell yourself you have it, it will cripple your ability to function as a creative person. The answer to so-called writer’s block is doing the work. If you press on, the answers you need will come through. You have to show the muses that you’re capable and committed, then you’ll get the answers you need.”—Motown composer Lamont Dozier (1941-2022), How Sweet It Is: A Songwriter’s Reflections on Music, Motown and the Mystery of the Muse (2019)

(The photo of Lamont Dozier accompanying this post was taken July 10, 2009, by Phil Konstantin.)

Friday, August 12, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘Veep,’ As Her Personal Trainer Offers to ‘Normalfy’ a Speech)

Vice President Selina Meyer [played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus] [to speechwriter Mike McLintock]: “I want to talk to you about this speech for the World War I service, okay?”

Mike McLintock [played by Matt Walsh]: “Very proud of it, ma'am. I gave this one 100% effort. [pauses] As I do everything I write for you.”

Selina: “Okay, I'm not sure about this... ‘To honor all who fell in frozen Flanders Fields and hold their memory fresh.’ It's just a little bit too ‘F-fy’ for me, you know?”

Mike: “Well, that's kind of the idea, ma'am. I mean, it's poetic.”

Campaign manager Dan Egan [played by Matt Walsh]: “Yeah, but we're trying to appeal to the blue-collar demographic, right? Not the poets.”

[Having been sliding around in the background, Selina’s personal trainer and lover, Ray Whelans, hired by Dan to “relax” Selina for her Presidential campaign, suddenly moves to the front.]

Ray Whelans [played by Christopher Meloni]: “I agree.” [Ray takes paper, starts reading speech aloud.]  “So... ‘16 million perished.’ No, they didn't. They died, so just say that. ‘The loss, though impossible to adequately comprehend...’ That sentence is impossible to comprehend. Just say, ‘hard to understand,’ you know? Plain English.”

Dan: “I kind of agree.”

Ray [helpfully, to Mike]: “I could ‘normalfy’ this for you.”

Mike [horrified]: “No. No, no.”

Selina [to Mike]: “No, no, no. Just listen. He's got sort of a working-class touch, which is something that's valuable, and we should listen to it….”

Ray: “So, Mike, what's your favorite part of this speech?”

Mike: “Okay. This is like Gettysburg. ‘Beneath the...’ [Annoyed, tries to disentangle some wires tying him to Ray] ‘Beneath the dark soil of Passchendaele, 100,000 bodies still lie unaccounted for. Let today be their funeral service and we their mourners.’"

Ray: “How about this? ‘There's a whole lotta guys who never came home. Good guys. Here's to those guys.’”

White House Chief of Staff Ben Cafferty [played by Kevin Dunn] “Holy f-----g Christ. What is that, Ray?”

Ray: “I'm just spitballin'.”— Veep, Season 3, Episode 7, “Special Relationship,” original air date May 18, 2014, teleplay by Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, directed by Becky Martin 

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Quote of the Day (David McCullough, on ‘Where We Have Come From and What We Have Been Through’)

“How can we know who we are and where we are going if we don't know anything about where we have come from and what we have been through, the courage shown, the costs paid, to be where we are?”—Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough (1933-2022), Brave Companions: Portraits in History (1991)

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Quote of the Day (Hannah Arendt, on How ‘Anything Can Happen’ Without a Free Press)

“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows.

“And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”— German-born political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), to French writer Roger Errera in 1974, in “Hannah Arendt: From an Interview,” The New York Review of Books, Oct. 26, 1978

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Appreciations: John Cheever’s Tale of Midsummer Dissolution, ‘The Swimmer’

“It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. ‘I drank too much,’ said Donald Westerhazy. ‘We all drank too much,’ said Lucinda Merrill. ‘It must have been the wine,’ said Helen Westerhazy. ‘I drank too much of that claret.’” —Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and short-story writer John Cheever (1912-1982), “The Swimmer,” originally printed in The New Yorker, July 18, 1964, reprinted in The Stories of John Cheever (1978)

In the middle of yet another ungodly heat wave, there’s nothing like a nice, cool swim.

Well, even a good idea can be carried a little too far sometimes. Just how far—and how wrong—that kind of idea can be was conjured up by one of the great chroniclers of postwar suburbia.

A full immersion in the waters of John Cheever is enough to get you drunk by osmosis, and one of his most anthologized short stories, “The Swimmer,” wastes no time doing so, in this first paragraph.

Even on Sunday, a day not just of liturgical but recreational grace, inebriation cuts across vast cross-sections of the New York suburb in which this tale is set. Not only is the phrase “drank too much” used four times in the quoted paragraph above, but “drank” is italicized in each case.

Even before the title character is introduced, the major cause of his ultimate degeneration has been identified, albeit as a characteristic shared with the friends and ex-friends increasingly nettled by his presence.

“Drunk” is not the only word repeatedly employed throughout the story. So are “seemed” and “might,” with each use attached to an associated image indicating that the perceptions of the protagonist, Neddy Merrill, will be fragmented and unreliable.

In a 1971 essay, Cheever hailed F. Scott Fitzgerald for his “acute awareness of the meaning of time,” with characters who “lived in a temporal crisis of nostalgia and change.”

By the end of this story, the crisis that Neddy Merrill has been denying becomes increasingly apparent, despite his impulsive, startling decision to recapture his youth by swimming the eight miles from the Westerhazy’s pool to his own.

I haven’t yet seen the 1968 film adaptation of thisstory, but it’s hard for me to imagine a better actor to portray Merrill onscreen than Burt Lancaster (in the image accompanying this post). 

Two decades into his film career, the Oscar winner still showed the amazing physique he had achieved as a youthful acrobat. But few actors were better at depicting the complexity and insecurity below this kind of magnetic presence than he was.

Almost as soon as Merrill has conceived his almost surreal ambition, Cheever is undercutting him as a figure of epic self-delusion:

“He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda, after his wife. He was not a practical joker, nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure.”

The irony will only mount as Merrill stops periodically at one party after another, in the course of which he is not only stopped by one hostess but “slowed by the fact that he stopped to kiss eight or ten other women and shake the hands of as many men.”

Midway through his swim (after, not so coincidentally, about a half-dozen drinks), a storm breaks out, and Merrill’s temporal perceptions become progressively unsure. A neighbor had bought Japanese lanterns “the year before last, or was it the year before that?” It’s supposed to be midsummer, but Merrill finds himself shivering, as if it’s already autumn.

Before long, he is finding a less hospitable landscape: neighbors’ properties overgrown with weeds and the doors locked; jeering by passersby as he crosses a highway barefoot; sneers by another hostess at this “gatecrasher”; and remarks and gossip he doesn’t register about his “misfortune.”

While the story is seen entirely through the consciousness of Merrill, the voice of Cheever slips through at times, as when Neddy wonders if he was “losing his memory” or if his “gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and that his friend had been ill?” 

By the end, Neddy has been exposed as an alcoholic, a philanderer, and a spendthrift whose financial ruin has destroyed his family and left him friendless and locked out of his suburban paradise.

Like the Lucinda River, alcoholism runs like a subterranean stream in a number of Cheever stories, such as “Reunion” and the novel Falconer. But seldom has the psychological dissolution it unleashes been rendered with such irony and phantasmagorical brilliance as in “The Swimmer.”

Cheever shared far more than a thirst for liquor and an equally desperate quest for grace with Fitzgerald: Both also have tempted filmmakers to create on-screen visual counterparts to prose whose shimmering effects are felt primarily in the imagination.

So it was with The Great Gatsby, and so it was in the late Sixties when the husband-and-wife screenwriter-director team of Eleanor and Frank Perry tried to adapt Cheever’s tale of altered consciousness. 

Frank Perry was fired midway through, and even a young Sydney Pollack, hired to complete filming, couldn’t steady a production that had become as uncertain as Neddy’s nautical journey home.

Despite a pleasant on-location experience in Westport, CT (where Cheever made a cameo appearance at a poolside cocktail party, where, Neddy-like, he marveled at a “terrific 18-year-old dish”), the author loathed the finished product of the troubled production. (I’ll have to wait till the next time it comes on TCM to assess the merits of his complaints.)

In a way, Cheever is the missing link between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mad Men (just a few of the many literary references on the late, great series examined in Jenny Tighe's post on the "Bloomsbury Literary Studies" blog). It’s apparent symbolically even in the opening credits of the classic AMC series, in the vertiginous fall suffered by its main character.  

Mad Men’s showrunner, Matthew Weiner, took his time (seven seasons) showing how ad man Don Draper hit rock bottom, just as Fitzgerald took an entire novel to detail the warped promise of its once-dazzling protagonist, psychiatrist Dick Diver.

In contrast, Cheever compressed the story of Neddy Merrill, but the result is the same in all three cases: men fooled by the shimmering surface of the American Dream, with not enough intestinal fortitude to survive the loss of their illusions.

Quote of the Day (Tom Petty, on Cowboys, Elvis and Guitars)

“I had always thought guitars were cool because of cowboys. Cowboys played guitars. And Elvis [Presley] played guitar, so I just thought, ‘Hell, I'm gonna need one of those.’ It wouldn't be until a few years later, I guess with the Beatles coming, [that] I really got serious about learning.”—American rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter Tom Petty (1950-2017), on what he thought when his parents got him his first guitar, quoted in Melinda Newman, “Tom Petty: A Portrait Of the Artist,” Billboard, December 3, 2005

Monday, August 8, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Honeymooners,’ on ‘The Biggest Thing’ Ralph Ever Got Into)

Ralph Kramden [played by Jackie Gleason]: “Two thousand dollars, Alice! That's big, big, big! This is probably the biggest thing I ever got into.”

Alice Kramden [played by Audrey Meadows]: “The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants.”—The Honeymooners, Season 1, Episode 7, “Better Living Through TV,” original air date Nov 12, 1955, teleplay by Marvin Marx, Walter Stone, and Jackie Gleason (uncredited), directed by Frank Satenstein

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Soren Kierkegaard, on Love)

“What is it that makes a person great, admirable among creatures, well pleasing in God’s eyes? What is it that makes a person strong, stronger than the whole world; or so weak as to be weaker than a child? What is it that makes a person firm, firmer than a cliff; or so soft as to be softer than wax? It is love. What is older than everything? It is love. What is it that outlives everything? It is love. What is it that cannot be taken away but itself takes it all? It is love. What is it that cannot be given but itself gives all? It is love. What is it that stands fast when everything falters? It is love. What is it that comforts when other comforts fail? It is love. What is it that remains when everything is changed? It is love. What is it that abides when what is imperfect is done away with? It is love. What is it that bears witness when prophecy is dumb? It is love. What is it that does not cease when visions come to an end? It is love. What is it that makes everything clear when the dark saying has been spoken? It is love. What is it that bestows a blessing on the excess of the gift? It is love. What is it that gives pith to the angel’s words? It is love. What is it that makes the widow’s mite more than enough? It is love. What is it that makes the speech of the simple person wise? It is love. What is it that never alters, even if all things alter? It is love.”—Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Spiritual Writings: Gift, Creation, Love—Selections from the Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by George Pattison (2010)

Quote of the Day (Saul Bellow, on Hot New York Nights)

“On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok. The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the people, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazing profusion, climb upward endlessly into the heat of the sky."—American novelist and Nobel Literature laureate Saul Bellow (1915-2005), The Victim (1947)

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Photo of the Day: Farrell Woods, Closter NJ

It’s a bit surprising to find a set of woods behind a public library, even in suburban New Jersey. But that’s what I encountered a couple of weeks ago a few miles from where I live in Bergen County.

I was making a stop at the Closter Public Library when I decided to take a short walk around the surrounding area. That’s when I came across Farrell Woods and took this picture.

Quote of the Day (Jorge Luis Borges, on Events as a Writer’s ‘Clay’)

“A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one's art. One must accept it.”—Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet, translator and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), Seven Nights, translated by Eliot Weinberger (1977)

Friday, August 5, 2022

Quote of the Day (David Warner, on Not Being Choosy About His Roles)

“I said to him [actor Ian Holm], ‘What are you doing next?’ And Ian, who was always in the best way choosy, said he was doing the Kafka film with Jeremy Irons. Then he said, ‘So what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m doing a thing called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.’”—English actor David Warner (1941-2022), quoted in Neil Genzlinger, “David Warner, Actor Who Played Villains and More, Dies at 80,” The New York Times, July 25, 2022

The year he won the first of his two Best Supporting Actor Oscars, Michael Caine was unable to pick up his statuette for his Hannah and Her Sisters because he was on location for another, rather more forgettable, film: Jaws, The Revenge.

Caine, with more than 175 film credits (and counting) on his resume, might be in the best position to understand the attitude towards work and roles exemplified by the late David Warner.

Why are such actors so prolific, so accepting of whatever jobs they are offered? Do they like the chance to work with a certain director or co-star? Is the money irresistible? Is the job a nice change of pace from what they usually do? Do they just figure the hell with it—who knows how, when all is said and done, after the director and studio wrestle over the footage, the picture will turn out, anyhow? Or are they just fearful of never working again, and figure they’ll take what they can get?

With Warner, there might be another factor involved in all those movies: his relative lack of stage credits. After a sterling beginning in the Sixties, Warner came down with such a terrible case of stage fright that he did not appear in a theatrical role until he played munitions titan Andrew Undershaft in of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara.

I saw him in that Roundabout Theatre show back in 2001, but was so annoyed at the normally estimable Cherry Jones’ in the title role that I didn’t appreciate how lucky I was to catch Warner in such a rare appearance.

Whatever the reason or reasons involved, Warner certainly made his share of movies—about 225, or more than even Caine has appeared in so far. You might not recall his name, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen one of his films—or will soon.

In fact, the weekend following his death, I caught one of his appearances from quite a while ago: one of those Perry Mason made-for-TV movies that Raymond Burr made two decades after his long-running hourly series went off the air, now showing up again on MeTV.

In this case, Warner made a fast but memorable appearance as a not-very-likable murder victim in The Case of the Poisoned Pen. (Evidently, the experience was agreeable enough for both parties that he came back for another one of those Mason TV movies three years later.)

But the movies that cropped up repeatedly in his obituaries were The Omen (source of the still accompanying this post), Titanic, Tron, and various films in the Star Trek franchise. With that long, lean face, he was fated for character actor rather than leading man roles. It might not have made him the most prominent actor in Hollywood, but it did make him among those you’d see the most.

And sometimes, you didn’t even have to see him. His voice made him a natural not just for sci-fi and thrillers, but also voice-over work in animated movies and games, as discussed in this piece by Riordan Zentler of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

I’m sorry that Warner is gone now, besides the fact that one hates to see the end of a performer of such versatility. Remarkably for his profession—and especially for one admired so much by his peers—he seems to have had a refreshing lack of ego.

After all, he may have played countless villains, but anyone who can joke about being in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze can’t be that bad a guy.