Saturday, December 31, 2022

Flashback, December 1922: T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ Reflects Disillusionment of an Age—and Its Creator’s

Six years ago, as the hours of the old year ticked away, I rushed to finish writing about a significant literary milestone: the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. That book was so influential—such a revolution in the history of Western thought—that it would have been shameful nor for me to take note of it.

I feel the same way about The Waste Land. While More dared to imagine an ideal society of the future, T.S. Eliot anatomized his contemporary world—a post-WWI environment with its illusions of peace, safety, and even belief in a higher spiritual power rudely dashed.

In his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot propounded his belief that poetry should be “impersonal”—i.e., for a separation of a poet as a man and a poet as an artist. But the personal drama in his own life inevitably colored the atmosphere of his most famous poem 

At the time of the composition and publication of The Waste Land, Eliot was involved in a train wreck of a marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. In 1921, following stress occasioned by tensions between his wife and his visiting mother, Eliot suffered a nervous breakdown.

It was during the period of recuperation under psychiatric care that Eliot was able to complete his poem. In the process, he grafted his own disgust, sense of sexual disruption, and emotional and spiritual depletion onto an entire culture.

Google “The Waste Land’ and “humor” and numerous hits will come up in the search. But whatever comedy exists in the poem is of a very black kind indeed.

That may mark its major difference with another modernist masterpiece published in 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel that encompasses parodies, puns, and sometimes laugh-out-loud snatches of dialogue as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus trek in 24 hours across an all-too-earthy Dublin. 

In contrast, “The Waste Land,” with its nightmarish evocation of the “Unreal City” of London, is about as funny as a heart attack.

The great turning point in Eliot’s occurred five years later, with his conversion to the Anglican Church. But he had to hit rock bottom before he could make this decision that, he felt, saved his life.

The Waste Land anticipated this turn through its cycle of life, death and rebirth, especially in repeated references to water. (In the section “A Game of Chess,” a husband believes that “The hot water at ten” is just the thing to calm down his wife.)

Writers as various as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Derek Walcott, and Bob Dylan have incorporated Eliot’s themes and concerns into their own work.

Not all this poem’s influence has been benign: Eliot’s textual pyrotechnics—literary allusions, symbolism, untranslated foreign phrases, fragmented conversational slang—have inspired countless dissertations. And Ezra Pound’s major surgery on the manuscript—half left by the wayside after his aggressive editing—probably only succeeded in making a demanding work even more opaque.

At the same time, writing-workshop imitators have seen some of its more arcane passages as a license to conflate obscurity and profundity. The accessibility that poets in the public eye once enjoyed has, not surprisingly, been significantly undermined as a result.

In the end, little of this diminishes the achievement of this ambitious poem. In his 1948 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Eliot said that “while language constitutes a barrier, poetry itself gives us a reason for trying to overcome the barrier…. Partly through his influence on other poets, partly through translation,…partly through readers of his language who are not themselves poets, the poet can contribute toward understanding between peoples.”

Open Plan Offices: Weighing Their Effectiveness

“For decades, research has found that open plan offices are bad for companies, bad for workers, bad for health and bad for morale. And yet they just won’t die. Human beings, if they are to thrive, need a bit of privacy — walls and a door. And yet employers, decade after decade, neglect to give workers what they need, refuse to do what’s in their own self-interest.”— Columnist and TV commentator David Brooks, “The Immortal Awfulness of Open Plan Workplaces,” The New York Times, Sept. 9, 2022

New York City was utterly transformed by a number of the projects begun or completed under former three-term mayor Michael Bloomberg (pictured): the High Line, a rebuilt World Trade Center and its surrounding Lower Manhattan neighborhood, Hudson Yards, East River Park in Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, Long Island City in Queens, 400 miles of bike lanes throughout the five boroughs. 

No mayor has left such an imprint on the look of America's largest city since Fiorello LaGuardia (with the help of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal) in the Great Depression.

Bloomberg supporters fervently wished he might have similarly altered the landscape of The Wall Street Journal if he had successfully achieved his rumored interest in purchasing Dow Jones. (The Washington Post had also reportedly caught his eye.) That hope was dashed (at least for now) when a Bloomberg spokesman quickly tweeted that he had no such interest.

If Bloomberg could only get his mitts on Rupert Murdoch’s most influential business print publication, the thinking in some quarters surely went, maybe he could return the Journal to something like the separation of news and opinion that largely held sway before the Australian media baron bought the company from the Bancroft family in 2007.

I won’t comment on the political change that might occur under such a scenario. What I’m concerned with here is a physical environment far different from what he left Gotham: the office space that would become part of his media empire. My apprehension arises because few other American corporate titans have trumpeted open-space offices as tirelessly as Bloomberg.

I don’t know if the Murdoch family follows this office model. Maybe they consider it an outgrowth of Bloomberg’s hated RINO outlook.

Judging by the impact Hiz(former)zoner has had on American office design in general, I’m afraid he’ll exert a baleful influence on the health and creativity of any Dow Jones workers that could come into his fold.

I don’t always agree with David Brooks’ views on politics, but his analysis of the controversial and crazy American corporate embrace of Bloomberg’s “open office” is spot on. I just wish the Times columnist would have mentioned Bloomberg by name in the article, so that the debate on this could get the thorough airing it deserves.

In his otherwise excellent piece, Brooks notes the dangers that open-space offices pose to employee health, but dwells on one aspect (stress) without mentioning the one that’s become ubiquitous since late-winter 2000: airborne illnesses like COVID-19. 

Even urging workers to stay home if they feel something coming on is not likely to be helpful if they have insufficient sick days. (And COVID—not to mention a COVID rebound—can exhaust that supply quickly.)

Brooks rails against cubicles, but I’m afraid those units have long since become staples of the modern workplace. At least they could, at their best, provide a modicum of physical separation from adjacent workers.

But I am aware of at least one employer, just before the COVID outbreak, which implemented a renovation that did away even with that. Instead, workers were herded together in triangles, with no partitions between.

Did I mention that this design model became obsolete within just a few months after the COVID outbreak?

How much do you think that America’s C-suites have invested in up-to-date ventilation systems? Your guess is as good as mine. As Liz Szabo’s article nine months ago from Kaiser Health News noted, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers published updated recommendations in 2020 not only for limiting indoor odors and dust but control viruses like COVID-19.

But, because those guidelines are voluntary, there’s no way of telling how closely the business world is adhering to them—anymore than we know right now they are following up on the White House’s initiative (again, voluntary) encouraging schools and workplaces to improve ventilation.

Companies’ best-laid plans for a return to the office—and, let’s be frank, a return to traditional top-down control—keep getting upended by a disease that evolves and adapts to new environments far faster than corporate heads ever have done.

The move towards a more open environment often rests on the contention that it fosters creativity and managerial transparency. That would send great—if corporate heads were willing to accept ideas other than their own, let alone dissent.

But, before Elon Musk started going seriously off the rails with managing his new toy, Twitter (like firing janitors, thus forcing workers at two locations to bring their own toilet paper to the office!), more than a few other CEOs were not only rooting for his return-to-the-office mandates but implementing their own.

Employers are anxious to herd their workers back to the office. If various Amenities of the Month can’t lure them back, then diktats from Human Resources will have to do.

Unfortunately, the types of layouts in Bloomberg L.P. that have been copied elsewhere don’t inspire workers to rush back to their cubicles—and, if those employees find any kind of alternative arrangement out there in the market, they will seize it.

I suppose that if there’s any good outcome from the turbulence that has roiled American politics over the last several years, it’s that Mike Bloomberg never won a Presidential election so he could implement his 2019 plan to make the East Room of the White House into another showcase for theopen office model he followed in his own company.

(The image accompanying this post of Bloomberg, speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Warehouse 215 at Bentley Projects in Phoenix, Ariz., was taken by Gage Skidmore on Feb. 1, 2020.)

Quote of the Day (Jonathan Galassi, With a Poetic Plea for ‘Some New Year’s Sense’)

“The tree is down, the star is stored,
the groaning at the groaning board
is over: no more rancid nog
or smoky, still-green Yule log.
Out, false cheer and de trop expense!
It’s time we showed some New Year’s sense.
Last year’s booty’s shook its shake,
so sniff the air, take a break—
at least until the bills arrive.”—American editor, poet and novelist Jonathan Galassi, “Greetings, Friends!,” The New York Review of Books, Feb. 5, 2015
Longtime readers of The New Yorker will notice that the rhyme scheme, the antic tone, and even the title of this poem is a tip of the hat (or, for the more cynical among us, a slavish imitation) of a popular holiday tradition at the magazine dating back to 1935, maintained (with only a 13-year gap) by writers Frank Sullivan, Roger Angell and Ian Frazier.
(In fact, it was during this gap that this particular poem was published in that other publication for what passes for the American intelligentsia, The New York Review of Books—perhaps a nudge to The New Yorker’s editors and writers to revive the tradition.)
Nevertheless, when I came across this by chance yesterday, I was struck, seven years after it appeared, by what a time capsule this represented. Jonathan Galassi mourned the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer, Mike Nichols, and Joan Rivers. 

His speculation about what might happen in the Presidential campaign nearly two years away (about Hillary, “Jeb the Stealthy,” and the “the toxic three/new tenors of the GOP:/Chris, Rand, and Marco”) can only make you shake your head about the black-swan event of November 2016.
And yet, so much of this poem still doesn’t date. Bill Cosby is threatening to make a comeback, and “Netanyahu, what a cad” already has.
Above all, Galassi's review of the prior year will bring a shock of recognition for those who’ve lived through 2022 (“Friends, last year was just the pits,/a conga line of slurs and snits”). And, though we will inevitably hope for moments of grace ahead, I believe his last rhyming couplet has more than a little truth to it, too:
Keep trying, friends, ’cause never fear,
it’s going to be a trying year.”

Friday, December 30, 2022

Movie Quote of the Day (‘The Producers,’ on Actors)

Leo Bloom [played by Gene Wilder]: “Actors are not animals! They're human beings!”

Max Bialystock [played by Gene Wilder]: “They are? Have you ever eaten with one?”— The Producers (1967), written and directed by Mel Brooks

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Quote of the Day (Aesop, on a Creature Appearing as Something He Isn’t)

“An Ass having put on a Lion's skin, roamed about, frightening all the silly animals he met with, and, seeing a Fox, he tried to alarm him also. But Reynard, having heard his voice, said, ‘Well, to be sure! and I should have been frightened too, if I had not heard you bray.’"—Fable 336 in Aesop’s Fables, edited by Karl Halm, translated by Thomas James, part of An Argosy of Fables; A Representative Selection From the Fable Literature of Every Age and Land, edited by Frederic Taber Cooper (1921)

An “Ass” trying to appear like something he’s not—it sounds like the very definition of a politician, doesn’t it?

But one with his continual talk of being “strong,” trying to scare everyone in sight, but continually giving himself away despite his best efforts: I can really think of only one these days. Are you thinking of the same person?

No wonder that one very credible translation of the tale’s moral goes: A fool may deceive by his dress and appearance, but his words will soon show what he really is.

The image accompanying this post is by the English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘Northern Exposure,’ on Human Wants, Needs and Desires)

Ruth-Anne Miller (played by Peg Phillips) to Maurice J. Minnifield (played by Barry Corbin): “You know what Oscar Wilde said? He said, 'nothing human is alien to me'. It's just human. We all have the jungle inside of us. We all have wants and needs and desires, strange as they may seem. If you stop to think about it, we're all pretty creative, cooking up all these fantasies. It's like a kind of poetry.”— Northern Exposure, Season 5, Episode 12, “Mister Sandman,” original air date Jan. 10, 1994, teleplay by Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, directed by Michael Fresco

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Ann, who adored this offbeat series—one that, even in the context of current network TV, remains highly unusual in content.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Jack Benny Program,’ As Jack Demands Top Service for His Money)

Jack Benny: “I’ll have a haircut.”

Harry, the Barber [played by Richard Deacon]: “Will you roll up your sleeves, please?”

Jack: “What? Roll up my sleeves for a haircut?”

Harry: “Don’t you want your Novocaine?”

Jack: “Don’t be so funny! Just give me a haircut.”

Harry: “Yes, sir.”

Jack [calling for the owner]: “Andre?”

Andre [played by Rolfe Sedan]: “Yes, Mr. Benny?”

Jack: “While I’m having a haircut, I’ll have a manicure, too.”

Andre: “A manicure? Certainly. I’ll get one of the girls.”

[Andre asks the trio of women in the shop, each of whom refuses.]

Andre [pleadingly]: “Now, girls, you’ve got to help me through this. Who took care of him last time?”

Helen: “I did. For a dollar and a half, I worked on his nails for an hour.”

Andre: “An hour for a manicure? Why so long?”

Helen: “When I got through with his nails, he took off his shoes.”— The Jack Benny Program, Season 11, Episode 4, “Jack’s Hong Kong Suit,” original air date Nov. 6, 1960, teleplay by Sam Perrin, George Balzer, Al Gordon, and Hal Goldman, directed by Frederick De Cordova

Monday, December 26, 2022

Photo of the Day: Ice in Pools

“Before the ice is in the pools,
      Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
      Is tarnished by the snow,
Before the fields have finished,
      Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
      Will arrive to me!”—American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), “XLV [Before the ice is in the pools]
This afternoon, temperatures rose to just below the freezing mark—a marked change since this past Friday, when they dropped 50 degrees within a few hours (and felt worse with the wind chill factor).
I took the opportunity to walk around Overpeck County Park, a few miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ. 

Though it felt more inviting to walk around, even in the half hour just before sunset, the ground still felt crunch rather than soggy—and, as seen in this photo I took, the 10 or so other walkers in the park and I have to be careful in spots, where the water from last week’s dense rainstorm had collected to form a Dickinson-style ice pool, just in time for Christmas.

Quote of the Day (Noel Coward, on an Easy Casting Decision for One of His Shows)

“The girl who plays Nancy is quite remarkable. She can neither sing, dance nor act, has a lisp and no top to her head! I left terse orders for her to be replaced.”—English playwright, singer-songwriter, and director Noel Coward (1899-1973), on an inadequate cast member in an Australian production of his musical Sail Away, June 6, 1963 letter to private secretary Lorn Loraine, in The Letters of Noel Coward, edited by Barry Day (2007)

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Photo of the Day: Christmas at St. Cecilia’s Church, Englewood NJ

Yesterday I attended a Christmas vigil Mass at my parish church, St. Cecilia’s in Bergen County, NJ. For me and my family—as well as, I suspect, for more than a few of my readers—this venerable, beautiful building holds a lifetime of memories.

Those memories continued to warm my heart even on a hideously cold day outside.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. John Henry Newman, on the ‘Humble,’ ‘Ordinary’ Lot of Jesus at the Incarnation)

“We are reminded that though this life must ever be a life of toil and effort, yet that, properly speaking, we have not to seek our highest good. It is found, it is brought near us, in the descent of the Son of God from His Father's bosom to this world…. No longer need men of ardent minds weary themselves in the pursuit of what they fancy may be chief goods; no longer have they to wander about and encounter peril in quest of that unknown blessedness to which their hearts naturally aspire, as they did in heathen times. The text speaks to them and to all, ‘Unto you," it says, ‘is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.’

“Nor, again, need we go in quest of any of those things which this vain world calls great and noble. Christ altogether dishonoured what the world esteems, when He took on Himself a rank and station which the world despises. No lot could be more humble and more ordinary than that which the Son of God chose for Himself.”—English theologian, writer, and Catholic convert St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), “Sermon 17: Religious Joy,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 8 (1908), in The Newman Reader

The image accompanying this post, The Nativity, is a 1523 oil on panel painting by Italian Renaissance artist Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1556/1557).

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Appreciations: Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Markheim,’ on Christmas Crime and Conscience

“As he continued to fill his pockets, his mind accused him with a sickening iteration, of the thousand faults of his design. He should have chosen a more quiet hour; he should have prepared an alibi; he should not have used a knife; he should have been more cautious, and only bound and gagged the dealer, and not killed him; he should have been more bold, and killed the servant also; he should have done all things otherwise. Poignant regrets, weary, incessant toiling of the mind to change what was unchangeable, to plan what was now useless, to be the architect of the irrevocable past. Meanwhile, and behind all this activity, brute terrors, like the scurrying of rats in a deserted attic, filled the more remote chambers of his brain with riot; the hand of the constable would fall heavy on his shoulder, and his nerves would jerk like a hooked fish; or he beheld, in galloping defile, the dock, the prison, the gallows, and the black coffin.” —Scottish fiction writer, poet and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), “Markheim” (1885), collected in The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887)

Certain filmmakers gravitate towards projects that run perversely counter to the traditional good cheer of Christmas. They don’t offer the kind of well-made crime fiction that Dame P.D. James offered late in her illustrious career in The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, nor even the ghost stories that Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies offered Massey College students each Christmas (later collected in High Spirits). Nor do these dark cinematic visions turn towards redemption, as with A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life.

No, these films—“thrillers” or “horror films” would be putting it mildly—have something infinitely more gruesome in mind. You can tell by even by their titles: Violent Night; Silent Night, Deadly Night; Christmas Evil; The Gingerdead Man; and—God help us!— 13 Slays Until X-Mas.

Robert Louis Stevenson (in the image accompanying this post, a painting by John Singer Sargent) might be regarded as the literary ancestor of this species of renegade auteur. While he rejected the strict Calvinism and even Christian faith of his parents, their pessimistic outlook on the sin-touched nature of mankind left its mark in such macabre masterpieces by their son as “Thrawn Janet,” “The Body Snatcher,” and, of course, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the lesser-known “Markheim” is a study in dualism featuring a character riven by internal conflict and ultimately driven to violence. But, while respectable Henry Jekyll finds his evil doppelganger with a concoction from his chemistry lab, Markheim faces what may be a considerably more sinister force from the outside.

The voice heard in the first paragraph is not Markheim, however, but a curio dealer’s, heavy with dark insinuation:

"Yes," said the dealer, "our windfalls are of various kinds. Some customers are ignorant, and then I touch a dividend on my superior knowledge. Some are dishonest," and here he held up the candle, so that the light fell strongly on his visitor, "and in that case," he continued, "I profit by my virtue."

That “virtue,” it immediately becomes apparent, consists not of benevolence, but candor about his sharp practices—and a lifetime of insight about what could lead certain customers to his door on this of all days:

"You come to me on Christmas Day," he resumed, "when you know that I am alone in my house, put up my shutters, and make a point of refusing business. Well, you will have to pay for that; you will have to pay for my loss of time, when I should be balancing my books; you will have to pay, besides, for a kind of manner that I remark in you to-day very strongly. I am the essence of discretion, and ask no awkward questions; but when a customer cannot look me in the eye, he has to pay for it."

Markheim, who has little to show for his investments in the stock market, counters that he’s seeking “a Christmas present for a lady” and intimates that “a rich marriage” may depend on the right gift. 

But the state of mind of this unexpected customer is already murky: while he’s brought a dagger with him, it is only after being unsettled by his reflection in a mirror offered by the dealer (a "hand-conscience") that Markheim kills him and begins to look for valuables he can rob from the shop.

Peter Straub, in the Library of America anthology American Fantastic Tales, referred to a dominant theme of the horror genre: “the surrender or collapse of the individual will.” Once Markheim takes the irreversible step of not merely robbing the dealer but murdering him, Stevenson takes the reader on a journey through the “individual will” of this killer that encompasses regret, panic, paranoia, and the workings of the individual conscience.

First, Markheim must come to grips with the material fact of the corpse. At first, what remains of the dealer is a rapid reduction of what the robber-murderer confronted just a few minutes before: “both humped and sprawling, incredibly small and strangely meaner than in life. In these poor, miserly clothes, in that ungainly attitude, the dealer lay like so much sawdust. Markheim had feared to see it, and, lo! it was nothing.”

“Sawdust” is an echo of the familiar Biblical warning, “To dust you shall return.” But Markheim’s own actions are involved with this particular state: sawdust is produced by cutting, and cutting the dealer to death has produced Markheim’s current predicament.

But ultimately, the conflict in the story will turn on the question of what a human life consists of. And immediately after Markheim can only acknowledge the crumpled mass before him, far more comes to mind: “And yet, as he gazed, this bundle of old clothes and pool of blood began to find eloquent voices.”

Fear of discovery mingles with nostalgia for the season, as he imagines those in nearby homes “sitting motionless and with uplifted ear--solitary people, condemned to spend Christmas dwelling alone on memories of the past, and now startlingly recalled from that tender exercise; happy family parties struck into silence round the table, the mother still with raised finger--every degree and age and humour, but all, by their own hearths, prying and hearkening and weaving the rope that was to hang him.”

The physical world outside seems to conspire against the killer, as the tolling of the clock outside leads Markheim to long “to be home, girt in by walls, buried among bedclothes, and invisible to all but God.”

The decisive turn in the story comes with a mysterious visitor to the shop. Perception and identity themselves now become fluid:

The outlines of the newcomer seemed to change and waver like those of the idols in the wavering candle-light of the shop; and at times he thought he knew him; and at times he thought he bore a likeness to himself; and always, like a lump of living terror, there lay in his bosom the conviction that this thing was not of the earth and not of God.”

The visitor, who insists that he knows Markheim “to the soul” and offers the kind of wheedling moral reasoning associated with Satan, warns that the dealer’s servant is returning early to the shop and that she, too, must be murdered to assure his escape.

When Markheim flinches from this alternative, the visitor delivers a devastating summary of his moral deterioration:

For six and thirty years that you have been in this world," said he, "through many changes of fortune and varieties of humour, I have watched you steadily fall. Fifteen years ago you would have started at a theft. Three years back you would have blenched at the name of murder. Is there any crime, is there any cruelty or meanness, from which you still recoil? Five years from now I shall detect you in the fact! Downward, downward, lies your way; nor can anything but death avail to stop you."

But Markheim will go no further on his path toward evil: “If my life be an ill thing, I can lay it down…. I have still my hatred of evil; and from that, to your galling disappointment, you shall see that I can draw both energy and courage."

The visitor’s features change yet again, softening “with a tender triumph”—suggesting that he is not a demon but maybe a guardian angel. With that, Markheim tells the incoming servant to call the police, as he has killed her master.

At the time he wrote this tale, Stevenson was close in age to his protagonist. Though never driven to the moral extremities of his murderer, he must have recalled his own spiritual upbringing with residual regret as he evokes Markheim, on this physically and morally cold day, imagining “the somnolence of summer Sundays, and the high genteel voice of the parson (which he smiled a little to recall) and the painted Jacobean tombs, and the dim lettering of the Ten Commandments in the chancel.”

Stevenson recognizes that evil does not cease to exist, even on one of the holiest days of the year. But neither do the operations of the conscience.

Christmas, as Charles Dickens demonstrates in “A Christmas Carol,” remains a time of year filled with regrets over bad choices and resulting loss and loneliness. “Markheim” operates on the same premise, but shows that some acts are too awful not to leave at least some damage. The best that can be hoped for, then, is a refusal to follow the nihilistic path that beckons.

It is that wintry recognition that has probably limited the number of times that “Markheim” has been dramatized, even though it is as powerfully atmospheric as any Stevenson tale. 

In 1953 Sir Laurence Olivier recorded it for the NBC Radio Anthology Series “Theatre Royal,” and three years later Fred Zinnemann presented it as a half-hour “Screen Director Showcase” 1956 episode starring Ray Milland as Markheim, Rod Steiger as the Visitor, and Jay Novello as the Dealer. (In the UK, it was remade in 1974, with Derek Jacobi as Markheim.)

More unusually, the American composer Carlisle Floyd adapted the story into a one-act opera in 1966. However, while regional opera troupes have occasionally mounted well-received revivals, more high-profile companies have not attempted to do so. They probably understand all too well that this gothic thriller is hardly warm, fuzzy holiday fare for conservative audiences.

Song Lyric of the Day (Dr. Seuss, on That ‘Mean One, Mr. Grinch’)

“You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch
You really are a heel
You're as cuddly as a cactus
You're as charming as an eel, Mr. Grinch
You're a bad banana with a greasy black peel.”—“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” lyrics by Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, music by Albert Hague, performed by Thurl Ravenscroft, from the animated TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, original air date Dec. 18, 1966
For some interesting trivia on this holiday special (so beloved by baby boomers, particularly), see this TV Guide summary on its 50th anniversary concerning “5 Things You Didn't Know About How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

Friday, December 23, 2022

Quote of the Day (John Updike, on ‘A Man of No Plausible Address’ at Christmas)

“A man of no plausible address, with no apparent source for his considerable wealth, comes down the chimney after midnight while decent, law-abiding citizens are snug in their beds—is this not, at the least, cause for alarm?”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and short-story writer John Updike (1932-2009), The Twelve Terrors of Christmas (2006)

The accompanying image, of a man dressed as Santa Claus on his sleigh aboard a holiday train in Chicago, was taken on Nov. 23, 2012.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Photo of the Day: Children’s Zoo Entrance, Van Saun Park, Paramus NJ

This past weekend, at the suggestion of a close relative, I took a walk in Van Saun Park, several miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ.

Over the years, I’ve strolled frequently through this 130-acre-plus park. Although the picnic areas that are used most often in the summer (and the more temperate days of spring and fall), were quiet, as one might expect this time of year, the part where I entered was anything but.

That was because of holiday events that day or lasting throughout the season. On Sunday, the Friends of the Bergen County Zoo and the Bergen County Parks Department held “Holiday With the Animals,” in which the creatures received presents and kids got their pictures taken with Santa.

From November 10 to January 15, the Friends are also presenting “Let It Glow!”, featuring larger-than-life, hand-constructed lanterns that celebrate culture, animals, and the holidays.

Christmas is best seen through the eyes of a child—and outdoors remains the best spot to experience a winter wonderland.

Quote of the Day (Poet Patrick Kavanagh, With a Memory of an Irish Christmas)

“My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
“Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
“Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.”—Irish poet and novelist Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), “A Christmas Childhood,” from Collected Poems (2004)

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘Mad Men,’ on What a Top Client Can Expect for Christmas)

Roger Sterling [played by John Slattery]: “If Lee Garner Jr. wants three wise men flown in from Jerusalem, he gets it.”—Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 2, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” original air date Aug 1, 2010, teleplay by Tracy McMillan, Matthew Weiner, Brett Johnson, and Erin Levy, directed by Michael Uppendahl

Quote of the Day (Thomas Mann, on Christmas Season in 19th Century Germany)

“The great dining-room was closed and mysterious, and there were marzipan and gingerbread to eat — and in the streets, Christmas had already come. Snow fell, the weather was frosty, and on the sharp clear air were borne the notes of the barrel-organ, for the Italians, with their velvet jackets and their black moustaches, had arrived for the Christmas feast. The shop-windows were gay with toys and goodies; the booths for the Christmas fair had been erected in the market-place; and wherever you went you breathed in the fresh, spicy odour of the Christmas trees set out for sale.”—German novelist and Nobel Literature laureate Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Buddenbrooks (1901), translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter (1924

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Quote of the Day (Charles Dickens, on ‘The Christmas Spirit’)

“[T]he Christmas spirit… is the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance! It is in the last virtues especially, that we are, or should be, strengthened by the unaccomplished visions of our youth; for, who shall say that they are not our teachers to deal gently even with the impalpable nothings of the earth!

“Therefore, as we grow older, let us be more thankful that the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands! Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth.”—English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), “What Christmas Is As We Get Older,” in Christmas Stories (1871)

Monday, December 19, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents,’ on Unusual Entertainment at an Office Christmas Party)

Self - Host: [Hitchcock is putting up a display of glasses and bottles of alcohol on an office desk] “Good evening, fellow revellers. Tonight, we are indulging in an old city tradition. It is the event that turned a mild-mannered white-collar worker into a four-armed beast of prey…”

[shows off the display]

Self - Host: “…the office party. However, we had this room designed especially for the party…”

[looks back briefly]

Self - Host: “…by the girls in the office. It has no corners. I am in charge of the entertainment, which all should enjoy. After most of the hors d'oeuvres have been eaten, we're going to throw a company director to the lions. I realize it isn't much, but the lions are a great deal cheaper than the string quartet we had last year. They don't drink as much, either. And now, for the party.” [pours himself a drink]— Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 3, Episode 15, “Together,” original air date Jan. 12, 1958, teleplay by Robert C. Dennis, based on the story by Alec Coppel, directed by Robert Altman

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (First Letter of St. John, On How God’s Love Was Revealed to Us)

“God’s love was revealed among us in this way:
God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might live through him.
In this is love,
not that we loved God but that he loved us
and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” —1 John 4: 9-10 (New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition)

The image accompanying this post, “Madonna and Child,” was contained in a landscape by Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini (1480/1485).

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Quote of the Day (Charles Portis, on a Most Unlikely Western Hero)

“He stirred as I came through the curtain. His weight was such that the bunk bowed in the middle almost to the floor. It looked like he was in a hammock….The brindle cat Sterling Price was curled up on the foot of the bed. Rooster [Cogburn] coughed and spit on the floor and rolled a cigarette and lit it and coughed some more. He asked me to bring him some coffee and I got a cup and took the eureka pot from the stove and did this. As he drank, little brown drops of coffee clung to his mustache like dew. Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone.”—American novelist and journalist Charles Portis (1933-2020), True Grit (1968)

It can be pretty fascinating to see how two different actors portray the same character. Both John Wayne and Jeff Bridges kept Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn’s character-defining eyepatch. Both the 1969 adaptation of the Portis novel and the Coen brothers’ 2010 version featured this bedroom scene with the cat.

But, while Wayne embodied the character’s considerable heft, Bridges—at least as pictured here—depicted him as grungier. He’s not only got the mustache that Wayne decided not to grow, but a beard.

This Rooster Cogburn is just the kind of “billy goat” that the narrator of the above quote, Mattie Ross, would have recoiled from—if, that is, she wasn’t looking for the toughest U.S. deputy marshal in the district.

Cogburn, having killed more than a few men in the line of duty (all justified, he claims), more than meets her requirements—and then some.

Friday, December 16, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Big Bang Theory,’ In Which a Childhood Idol Assesses Sheldon’s Current Relationship)

Dr. Sheldon Cooper [played by Jim Parsons]: “It's been pointed out by my girlfriend that I may have been annoying to you.”

Arthur Jeffries, aka “Professor Proton” [played by Bob Newhart]: “She sounds like a keeper.” — The Big Bang Theory, Season 7, Episode 7, “The Proton Displacement,” original air date Nov 7, 2013, teleplay by Steven Molaro, Eric Kaplan, and Jim Reynolds directed by Mark Cendrowski

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Quote of the Day (Albert Camus, on the Need to ‘Favor Freedom’ Over Resignation)

“People are too readily resigned to fatality. They are too ready to believe that, after all, nothing but bloodshed makes history progress and that the stronger always progresses at the expense of the weaker. Such fatality exists perhaps. But man's task is not to accept it or to bow to its laws. If he had accepted it in the earliest ages, we should still be living in prehistoric times. The task of men of culture and faith, in any case, is not to desert historical struggles nor to serve the cruel and inhuman elements in those struggles. It is rather to remain what they are, to help man against what is oppressing him, to favor freedom against the fatalities that close in upon it.” —French Nobel Literature laureate Albert Camus (1913-1960), “Appeal for a Civilian Truce in Algeria” (February 1956), in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien (1961)

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Quote of the Day (Evelyn Waugh, on Civilization Under Siege)

“Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all ... If [it] falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.”—English novelist-travel writer Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object Lesson (1939)

You can add “cultural” and “political” before "achievements," too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Quote of the Day (Shirley Hazzard, on Confidence)

“ ‘Confidence is one of those things we try to instill into others and then hasten to dispel as soon as it puts in an appearance.’

‘Like love,’ she observed, turning to the door.

‘Like love,’ he said. ‘Exactly.’”— Australian-American fiction writer and essayist Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016), “The Party,” in Collected Stories, edited by Brigitta Olubas (2020)

(This photo of Shirley Hazzard was taken by Christopher Peterson at the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction's Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner, held at the New York Tennis and Racquet Club at 350 Park Avenue, in New York, on Oct. 29, 2007.)

Monday, December 12, 2022

Tweet of the Day (Andy Richter, on Getting Christmas Lights Out of the Garage)

“Every year when I get the Christmas lights out of the garage I am struck by how little respect last year’s me has for this year’s me.”— American actor, writer, comedian, and late- night talk-show announcer Andy Richter, tweet of Dec. 12, 2021

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Photo of the Day: Hackensack Meadowlands

I took this photo a couple of Sundays ago, from the farthest end of the of the parking lot at the Shops at Riverside.

The “river” part of the mall’s name comes from the Hackensack River, seen in the background. The river is a key part of the Hackensack Meadowlands (also called the New Jersey Meadowlands), stretching from western Staten Island and Carteret, NJ, north and slightly east through the part of New Jersey nearest to New York City.

The Shops at Riverside is just one example of the development that has occurred in the Meadowlands over the past several decades. Much of this growth has been far more egregious than this mall located a few miles from my home in Bergen County. I’m talking about landfills and MetLife Stadium (home of football’s New York Giants and Jets).

Over the years, volunteers have made valiant efforts to clear debris from the Meadowlands. The Clean Water Act of 1972 also helped protect these wetlands. But ecosystems are fragile, and it will take unceasing vigilance to keep the Meadowlands even in its present state in this heavily urbanized area of the Northeast.