Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Our Titanic Catharsis

I've felt some connection to the Titanic my whole life. I have an early memory of my dad in the kitchen filling the old metal ice cube trays. He brought it up, for no particular reason, saying that the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable because of its watertight compartment, but that they didn't have tops, like this tray.

"Nearer My God to Thee" was in my Magnus Organ book. I knew those words and that tune since I was 6, and later learned it was what the musicians played as the Titanic sank. (Apocryphal or not, the NY Times had the music for "Autumn" on their page as part of their coverage the next day in 1912.)

It happened that I went to college in Southampton, England, where the Titanic started her voyage with such hope. I visited the small museum they had in the 1980s, but they have just opened a new, more elaborate center. Later I moved to 106 Street and Broadway, where Straus Park is. It has a memorial called "Memory" to Isidor and Ida, the Macy's magnates, who died together rather than being separated. The sculpture is by Augustus Lukeman, and this line from 2 Samuel 23 is etched into the bench: "Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in their death they were not parted.” The original reflecting pool has been replaced with a flower bed. (My photos above and below.)

I remember weeping through A Night to Remember when I saw it as a kid. It was directed by Roy Baker, who went on to direct 8 of the best 1965/66 Avengers episodes, another connection!

Daniel Mendelsohn opens his excellent New Yorker article with the quip from some historian that the three most written about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic.

Here are some of the usual reasons pointed to:
*The hubris of declaring a ship "unsinkable" was just begging for karma to act; naming the ship after the gods was bad enough

*"Tall as an 11-story building and constructed from 46,000 tons of steel, it was the largest moving object on earth" -- so what was it doing trying to float?

*The Carpathia steaming to the rescue, but too late for most, the much closer California tragically asleep

*Captain Edward Smith going down with the ship but the ship line owner J. Bruce Ismay jumping into a lifeboat and surviving to a lifetime of shame

*The New York Times has pdfs of their original coverage, all of which is fascinating. It started the reports of the first time "women and children" had been given as an order, and the first time SOS is actually used for distress, in addition to the longer standing CQD [ based on the French for secur, help, then the word distress].

But somehow the place Titanic has had in our minds for generations since April 15 is more than all those points.

My Titanic Thoughts:

*People had been crossing the Atlantic commercially since the mid1800s. They were on the boat for vacation, to see the world, to join family, to go to a new job, to start a new life. It's every circumstance of living in one defined place subjected to the cruelest way to die: unexpectedly, and in great pain.

•A ship on the ocean is powerful and vulnerable at the same time. It is a floating small city built not on concrete, but on the Archimedes principle: "Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid. " Buoyancy is great while it works, until it doesn't.

*Then what seemed as solid as Manhattan is but a speck easily swallowed up by the might of the world's oceans.

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport

*What haunts my mind is the overwhelming force of the water filling the ship, taking over every physical space where there once was oxygen, including in the lungs of those on board. The men in the engine room, who worked the brutal job of keeping the boilers stoked to make the steam, died first . . .

*That horrible feeling the moment something has happened: like hearing your knee pop and knowing that it's going to need surgery. The captain and senior officers knew from the moment of the ice on the foredeck that the ship was going to founder. 

*The scenes all the movies portray of the panic of the third class/steerage passengers struggling to climb to deck level, some finding passage ways locked. It is a nightmare come to life.

*Doesn't everyone wonder: what would I have done on the Titanic? Would I have been smart and lucky enough to survive?

*Rearranging the chairs on the Titanic is generally an idiom for futility, but I once read a scientist argue that if you were able to strap enough chairs together you might make yourself something to float on.

In the hundred years since, there have been thousands of maritime disasters including ferries with the death toll in the tens of thousands.

But it's impossible to empathize with all of that. And that's what the Titanic provides us: a story that connects us to our collective vulnerability and mortality. That's why we need it. The photo that I took of the Straus memorial shows someone had recently put a bouquet in her hands.

And then the myth takes us even further: it has allowed generations to feel a cathartic grief for the suffering and death of more than a thousand people dying at once, in daily life (not on a battlefield). Sadly, not for the last time.

Roy Baker, A Director to Remember

The British director Roy Baker died on October 5, 2010, at the age of 93. The Telegraph obituary summarized the eclectic career, from second assistant to Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes to directing Marilyn Monroe in the studio’s early attempt at “yes, she can really act” film Don’t Bother to Knock, to the strange Singer Not the Song with Dirk Bogarde in leather pursuing John Mills as a priest.

That is all eclipsed by his sterling direction of A Night to Remember, the most engrossing, poignant, heart wrenching depiction of the sinking of the Titanic ever filmed. The entire production—-from the book by Walter Lord to the script by Eric Ambler to Geoffrey Unsworth cinematography-—is a dream team of talent who put the most affecting verisimilitude of that horrific night and early morning death 102 years ago--onto celluloid.

But what I will remember the talented Mr. Baker for best is the 8 episodes he directed during the black & white Mrs. Peel era of The Avengers.

The Cinematic Look of The Avengers

I don’t know if it was producer Albert Fennell or writer/producer Brian Clemens who brought Baker on, but whoever did it was a brilliant move that meant a visual film sense would grace the early small screen phenomenon. This changed when the series went into color in 1966/67, and it went back to having that thinner look of video, however offset by the Sixties Mod coloring, sets, and costuming, which was lovely too. But Baker's talent brought the distinctive look of Ealing Studios and the Rank Organization to television and left a distinction mark on the innovative spy series.

These 8 episodes he directed are a high point of the entire series:

1. The Town of No Return (28 September 1965)
2. Two's a Crowd (18 December 1965)
3. Too Many Christmas Trees (25 December 1965)
4. Silent Dust (31 December 1965)
5. Room Without a View (8 January 1966)
6. The Girl from Auntie (21 January 1966)
7. The Thirteenth Hole (29 January 1966)

From the man walking out of the sea to Steed's full high tea on a train in Town of No Return  to Steed and Emma punting on an idyllic canal to investigate “where have all the martlets gone?” in Silent Dust (a nod to Rachel Carson)  to the stylized dream sequences and Dickensian Christmas nightmare of Too Many Christmas Trees, Baker made a huge contribution to the early success of The Avengers. He brought that certain wry British sensibility that fans for several generations have found simply irresistible and have long remembered.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

April Is National Poetry Month: Robert Frost in Orange Is the New Black and More

April is National Poetry Month! From the poets.org website: Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.

I encourage everyone to look at the 30 Ways to Celebrate, with a month of poetic activities. My offering is "Revisit a Poem."

The poem is Robert Frost's much anthologized "The Road Not Taken." What prompted the choice is I recently stumbled upon my retort poem—doesn't everybody have one?—which I wrote when I was 13. I had a very poetic yearnings in junior high school, before the angst set in.

I'm not entirely at his "ages and ages" hence stage, but far enough along to appreciate the energy and optimism of early the teen years, and to smile at the ability to mirror the original cadence and rhyme scheme pretty well.

In Defense of the Road Less Traveled

They say the man who had the task
To choose of two roads, when he was asked,
Chose the one traveled upon less.
(I would think that this is best.)

Then they contend that he did sigh
A lament of regret before he died.
To this I say I cannot see
How from his words they hold this to be.

Perhaps my eyes are too new yet
To recognize the anxiety and regret
That they can see and identify;
Through personal experience they sympathize.

To prove them wrong I pray to hold
To this less traveled, regrettable road.
Then show my contentment ages hence
And declare: it did make all the difference.

M.A. Peel, 13-year-old poet

Revisiting the Original
Frost's 1916 poem entered pop culture consciousness last year in Orange Is the New Black in the episode "Blood Donut." On that occasion, Slate's David Haglund wrote a great current-day summary of the nearly century-old debate about the poem's meaning, and dare we say, Frost's intention (paging W.K. Wimsatt's Verbal Icon).

"Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) makes a passing reference to “the road less traveled,” prompting a brief, agitated lecture from her fellow inmate, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). “You know,” Piper says, “that doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means.” snip 
"But Piper is essentially right about the “The Road Not Taken,” which has long been one of the more misunderstood chestnuts in American poetry. In the first three stanzas, the speaker of the 1916 poem looks at one road, then another, which he calls “just as fair.” This second road, he thinks, has “perhaps the better claim,” because it appears less trodden. But he quickly corrects himself, noting that the “passing” of people to and fro “had worn them really about the same.”

Lots of good links in Haglund's piece to voices explicating in various directions, although many back the 'there-is-no-difference-in-the-paths' meme based on the line "had worn them really about the same."

What strikes me now is, how is everyone missing the grassy knoll:

"Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black."

One side was "grassy and wanted wear" and then he completely contradicts that when he says "Had worn them really about the same."  So what seems like a sweet pastoral poem really has a serious World War One-like disjunction at its core—is anything what we thought it was; dulce est decorum est, pro patria mori?—which gets compounded as we progress to the sigh and beyond.

The other thing that strikes me is the title. He did not title it "The Road Less Traveled" i.e., the chosen path.  His title focuses us first on the unknown, the empty cipher, the path not taken, starting us off immediately with the wistful. He was 42 when he wrote the poem, and he knew a thing or two how these things go.

And Now for the Designers
Chip Kidd did the National Poetry Month poster for this year, focusing on Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Sure. Making the other dominant image just a hand, Whitman's actual hand to size from a cast. Hmm. No comment.

My favorite remains Paul Sahre from 2009 and the brilliant visualization of my pal T.S. Eliot.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Man on Wire" Becomes "Men with Parachutes": Nothing is "Defiled"

 "The Port Authority joins the NYPD in condemning this lawless and selfish act that clearly endangered the public," Port Authority Chief Security Officer Joseph Dunne said in a statement. "It should be clear that the PAPD and NYPD will go to any length to bring those who defile the WTC site to justice."

Joseph Dunne's statement on the three men who base jumped from One World Trade Center is one of the most depressing things I've read in a long time.

And competition for 'most sad and depressing things' is pretty high right now. 239 people vanish in a jumbo airplane that went wildly off course into the devouring expanse of the Indian Ocean--one of the closest realizations we have for "the middle of no where." 14 people have died horrific deaths in a mudslide in Washington, and 179 are still missing. Russia is trying to annex Crimea as though we were in the 19th century. And yet, the official condemnation of the jump from 1 World Trade Center ranks right up there.

September 2013
The topping off ceremony for 1WTC was on May 10, 2013. Four months after that, on September 30, at 3:00 am, four young guys climbed through a hole in a fence, made their way to the top of One World Trade Center, and three of them base jumped onto the West Side Highway. It was a caper. They admit to being thrill seekers, who saw a challenge.

‘It's a fair amount of free-fall time,’ said Andrew Rossig, one of the jumpers. ‘You really get to enjoy the view of the city and see it from a different perspective.’

They filmed the event, but as a private moment. At 3:00 in the morning, they knew there was almost no traffic on the West Side Highway, and as expert jumpers, no one was really endangered.

'Our intent was never for this to go public. We never posted the video footage. People didn’t know about it. We kept things quiet. As far as we were concerned, no one ever needed to know,' he added

They only posted their video after the police arrested them on Monday—six months after the jump—a week after the 16-year old kid from Jersey made his way to the top of the building too. So security is definitely something that the authorities need to look into. Right now. No question.

August 1974 . . . An Earlier Crime
On August 4, 1974, Phillipe Petite, a French high-wire artist, pulled off a stunt to walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Since he first read about the building of the towers at 17 he was obsessed with the idea of walking between them, and for 45 minutes, just before his 25th birthday, he did it.

He called it "the artistic crime of the century." And yes, it was a crime. No question. He trespassed, endangered others, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The title of the documentary Man on Wire that tells the story of how he did it comes from the police report that was filed: it was the best way the cop could think of at that moment to describe the crime. Yup, a man was on a wire.

And then people started marveling. What beauty. What positive imagination. What spirit of soul. What skill.

Ultimately the district attorney dropped all formal charges of trespassing and other items relating to his walk. In exchange, Petite was required to give a free aerial show for children in Central Park and other acts of community service.

And then the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey gave Petit a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck. Of course they thought it would be Petite's lifetime, not the towers.

Back to the Present
And now we have a new caper. Same beauty. Same inspiration, Same positive imagination. Same spirit of soul. Same crazy amount of skill. It's still a crime. And of course the site is changed forever since Phillipe's crime by the victims of the terrorist attacks.

These guys were not out to make a grand statement. They are thrill seekers. But life and spirit and imagination are the BEST weapons against the nihilism and death and hatred of terrorists. And to reclaim a site of such horrific death by something that makes the spirit smile is the best we who continue can do.

I LOVE seeing their film.  I love experiencing the fall vicariously, seeing the moment when the parachute opens. Seeing the landing, and running away to hide the parachute. I am so happy to have had this tiny little experience.

And this feeling of admiration sits along side the current day Port Authority guy calls it "defiling" the WTC.

So make the guys teach safe bicycling, or skateboarding, whatever to children, insisting that they wear helmets. And show them that there are consequences to actions.

But most importantly: show them that their spirits can never be destroyed by others who hate, and that they will be fine as long as they have friends who have their back.

(top photo: my copy of The New Yorker from 2006 with one of its all-time great covers.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Yeats, the Gaol, and Thin Lizzy: Happy St. Patrick's Day!

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride  
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:  
A terrible beauty is born.

These words from Yeats's masterful poem "Easter, 1916" rumbled through my head last month when I visited Dublin, and Kilmainham Gaol, because of the strange beauty of its architecture.

The gaol was a place of unmitigated suffering from its opening in 1796 through to the
famine year 1845–1852, when the poor were truly incarcerated for stealing bread, to the early 20th century when the leaders and followers of the 1916 uprising—fourteen at least— were shot by firing squad on the grounds.

Here's the thing about being an American visiting Ireland: We were a colony of England, and when that no longer felt tenable, we had a Revolution. It was bloody, and lasted 8 long years, April 19, 1775  until the surrender at Yorktown, September 3, 1783. Then it was over and we were free of British Crown Rule.

The Irish tried the same, and ended up with 800 years of bloodshed, and a third of their country still under the crown. Such different fates for two countries with the same goals.

We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English. Winston Churchill

Since the Good Friday Agreement, signed 10 April 1998, sanity returned to the two isles, and the daily/monthly killing of the 1970s was finally over. Economic prosperity has come and gone in the Celtic Tiger and the banking collapses.

Dubin Today: Irish Is Spoken & the English Like to Visit
What struck me most last month were the cultural things. For instance, the amazing resurrection of Irish, the Gaelic language.  The English language is so associated with Ireland through the brilliance of Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, Cavanaugh, etc., that it's easy to forget that it is the language of the conqueror. Forty years ago or so Ireland made a conscious effort to revive their native language. Today: official signs are in Irish first, then English; there are Irish language soap operas, sports shows, and talk shows, as well as columns in print and online; and you hear the Elven-sounding language spoken casually on cell phones.

I was also suprised how many young English guys and girls were visiting. At the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, at the dinner/show with traditional Irish music, there were lots of and lots of Englishmen. One couple was on their honeymoon. Seems that the progeny of the conquerors are lucky to be able to enjoy the extensive charms of the vanquished, who were never entirely done in.

And in fact, are the coolest, quirkiest bunch of people on the planet. Case in point: outside of my hotel was a statue of Phil Lynott, late of Thin Lizzy, Ireland's first great rock band to go international. He was born in England to an Afro-Guyanese father and an Irish mother, and went to live with an uncle in Dublin when he was 4. Friends said that he insisted on being called Irish and wiki lists his "origin" as Ireland. Below a smoking performance of "Whiskey in the Jar."

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday at the 2013 Venice Biennale

I am not much of a photographer, and my mind thinks in words before images. But these pictures I took at the 55the Venice Biennale have stuck with me. Sculptor Pawel Althamer installed Venetians (2013), life size sculptures of local Venetians, casting their faces and hands in plaster before joining them to bodies composed of extruded ribbons of gray plastic. Althamer: "It is a major achievement to realize that the body is only a vehicle for the soul."

Josef Koudelka's work in the historic first ever pavilion from the Vatican (Holy See). A look at the the decay of man's world. I get an Ozymandias vibe from the hand.

Mia Xiaochun of the People's Republic of China work The Last Judgment of Cypberspace is a virtual, digitzed version of Michelangelo's The Last Judgment. Xiaochun has replaced the 400 individual images of people in Michelandelo's with one cyber person.

"Thank God Christmas is over. I prefer Ash Wednesday." Waugh & T.S.Eliot

 "Thank God Christmas is over. I prefer Ash Wednesday."
So wrote the fevered Catholic convert, Evelyn Waugh, commenting on his children’s impertinence. A glib remark from a man who lived a privileged life.

The photo here is from my visit to Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. The stark cross is on the spot where 15 participants of the 1916 Easter Uprising were shot dead by firing squad, including all seven signatories of the Proclamation.

The exasperation of a pampered writer or a reminder of the tragic fate of a band of revolutionaries,  one can appreciate the austerity of Ash Wednesday, a time to think about the endgame, when our vessels of bodies will be returned to the earth.

The words that hang over the day are from the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer: while the earth shall be cast upon the body by some standing by, the priest shall say,

"Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ."

Based on: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” — Gen 3:19

And Then There's T.S.Eliot
I get called to jury duty every three to four years like clockwork. One time I was even sequestered on a jury. That’s a tale for another time.

A few years ago I was in a different room than my usual at 110 Centre street. This room had a white marker board behind the officers’ desk. On it were written quotes meant to be funny to those hanging out in the jury pool:

“They also serve who only stand and wait”

I recognized that quote. It's Churchill by way of Milton “When I consider how my light is spent”


“Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still”

Hmm. I didn’t recognize that quote. It really bothered me.

It happened to be Ash Wednesday. At the lunch break I made my way over to St. Andrew’s, the Catholic church near 1 Police Plaza.

Where, to my complete amazement, in the middle of the sermon, I hear the priest say “Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still”

And then go on to explicate some of the T.S.Eliot poem it is from, "Ash Wednesday."


That the homily would reference this quote on the day I saw it? And that somehow I had missed studying that poem in a fairly rigorous English lit education.

Sometimes the universe gives you what you need. I wanted to know where that line was from, and through no effort of my own, the universe tossed me the reference. I think of this every year on Ash Wednesday, that are lives are connected in many wonderful and amazing ways.

An excerpt from the last section of Eliot’s very ample poem meditation on Ash Wednesday, which he wrote after his conversion to Anglicanism.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn


Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.