The Moment

The Moment
[Photo by Michelle Agins]

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Anglocat at Sea

Yes, we're doing something different this year for vacation--we are off on a cruise.

La Caterina and I will be on the bounding wave, each of us with books we have long meant to read, relaxing from what has been a very good year, but a tumultuous one. It's a little over a year since I changed jobs, and since Phineas at Bay came out. But since then, there's been so much: speaking at the Trollope Society annual dinner, and finding a good number of Trollopeans who genuinely enjoyed the book, but even bigger than that, a many years long process ended with my ordination to the vocational diaconate. I'm still getting used to it, and never enter St. Barts these days without thinking I've won the jackpot.

But a year of change, even when it's good change, requires some down time. So it's time to unwind; after all
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset,
--admittedly in considerably more comfort than did Ulysses.

I may post while away, but if not, thank you for coming on the prowl with me, and for reading along. See you in September!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Lester's Four Musketeers Revisited

I'm re-watching The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge (1974), the darker, if still comic, sequel to the 1973 film The Three Musketeers. It's easy to forget what a superb concoction this movie is--leading off with Frank Finlay's opening narration, in the best Flashy style, moving into the horrible end of the Athos-Milady marriage, with the ever-darkening tone leading inevitably to tragedy. The comic moments are less dominant than in part 1, but still present throughout. As above, where the mix of Raquel Welch's spunky feather-headedness, Richard Chamberlain's mugging, and Oliver Reed brutally kicking the hell out of the yelping Cardinal's guard tasked with guarding Constance, all to a delicate piece of music served up by Lalo Shiffrin, had me snuffing with laughter as though I hadn't seen the movies at least 8 times previously.

Surely so good natured a movie could not follow to Dumas's bitter end?

Update, August 25

I knocked off part-way through the joie last night, and am watching the end now. I love how the comic tone almost completely disappears after the Bastion St. Gervais breakfast scene. The music grows increasingly somber, the comic bits of Planchet hurrying to England are mere pauses to indicate time passing, while Felton (a superb Michael Gothard falls under the spell of Milady, Faye Dunaway, at her hypnotic, passionate best. Dunaway's performance finally kills the comedy. We've previously seen her in roustabout comic dueling with Raquel Welch, slow-burning at Kitty, her semi-competent maid. But here, at last, Milady takes center stage. Back to the wall, threatened with transportation to America (Dunaway's disgusted repetition of the word "America" is quite funny), Milady is no longer doing a job and amusing herself. We've seen flashes of this--her cold anger when Athos takes her authorization from Richelieu from her--but she's genuinely dangerous from here on in a way she hasn't been. And notably, the Musketeers are on the back foot for the rest of the movie--d'Artagnan's effort to save Buckingham fails, the Musketeers effort to get to Constance first fails, and their efforts to save her fail. Milady is entirely victorious in her revenge, so they take theirs. She brings our heroes (already flawed by their elitism and irresponsibility) to her level, at least momentarily. And, as readers of Twenty Years After know, she haunts Athos for years thereafter.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

In Defense of Alice More

This isn't an in-depth analysis, or anything, just a subjective reaction to chapter XIV ("A Jolly Master-Woman") in Peter Ackroyd's Life of Thomas More, which reminded me of an aspect of More's character that has always set my teeth on edge: He was consistently quite nasty about his second wife, Alice Middelton, making sure that all his circle of friends perceived her as a shrew; as Ackroyd puts it "Certainly [More] himself seems to have encouraged the impression that he had married a woman whose temperament lay somewhere between the Wife of Bath and Noah's Wife in the guild pageants."

Now, that's not just in Ackroyd; pretty much every account of More's life, from "Son Roper's" account to Robert Bolt's hagiographic play, A Man for All Seasons, agree on this unpleasant aspect of More. (In fairness, I should note that one revisionist effort, by Ruth Norrington exists, but it's pretty much an outlier.) Richard Marius quotes a contemporary (Nicholas Harpsfield) who describes More chiding Alice for vanity: "Forsooth, Madame, give you not hell,if God he shall do you great wrong, for it must needs be your very own of right, for you buy it very dear, and you take great pain therefore." (The fact that Alice was eight years older than her husband and mocked by his friends for her age is noted by Ackroyd, and may explain her efforts to be attractive; Marius takes Alice at More's measure.)

Alice came of a higher social status than did More--she was distantly related to the King--and brought him her fortune from her first marriage, aiding him both socially and financially. She was loyal to him to the death. Her return was to be reduced to a comic caricature by the man she stuck to with courage and pertinacity.

Frankly, I think she was worth ten of him.

Friday, August 21, 2015

As From the Grave...

In the first volume of 1the 1924 edition of "Mark Twain's Autobiography" (to use the title employed by his editor, Albert Bigelow Paine used for his edition), a little preface begins the work:

In this Autobiography I shall keep in mind the fact that I am speaking from the grave. I am literally speaking from the grave, because I shall be dead when the book issues from the press.

I speak from the grave rather than with my living tongue, for a good reason: I can speak thence freely. When a man is writing a book dealing with the privacies of his life--a book which is to be read while he is still alive--he shrinks from speaking his whole frank mind; all his attempts to do it fail, he recognizes that he is trying to do a thing which is wholly impossible to a human being. The frankest and freest and privatest product of the human mind and heart is a love letter; the writer gets his limitless freedom of statement and expression from his sense that no stranger is going to see what he is writing. Sometimes there is a breach-of-promise case by and by; and when he sees his letter in print it makes him cruelly uncomfortable and he perceives that he never would have unbosomed himself to that large and honest degree if he had known that he was writing for the public. He cannot find anything in the letter that was not true, honest, and respect-worthy; but no matter, he would have been very much more reserved if he had known he was writing for print.

It has seemed to me that I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was writing would be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware, and indifferent.

Despite this, preface, the Autobiography is not as confessional as all that. Oh, a bit here and there--more so in the (at last!) unexpurgated edition University of California Press has been publishing--than in Paine's edition, and as to the sanitized, anecdotal, de-fanged botch released by Charles Neider--well, the less said the better. But there is a mystery at the end of his life--his relationship with Isabel Lyon--and Twain's long-suppressed account will be included in the forthcoming volume 3:
The surprising final chapter of a great American life.

When the first volume of Mark Twain’s uncensored Autobiography was published in 2010, it was hailed as an essential addition to the shelf of his works and a crucial document for our understanding of the great humorist’s life and times. This third and final volume crowns and completes his life’s work. Like its companion volumes, it chronicles Twain's inner and outer life through a series of daily dictations that go wherever his fancy leads.

Created from March 1907 to December 1909, these dictations present Mark Twain at the end of his life: receiving an honorary degree from Oxford University; railing against Theodore Roosevelt; founding numerous clubs; incredulous at an exhibition of the Holy Grail; credulous about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays; relaxing in Bermuda; observing (and investing in) new technologies. The Autobiography’s “Closing Words” movingly commemorate his daughter Jean, who died on Christmas Eve 1909. Also included in this volume is the previously unpublished “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript,” Mark Twain’s caustic indictment of his “putrescent pair” of secretaries and the havoc that erupted in his house during their residency.

Fitfully published in fragments at intervals throughout the twentieth century, Autobiography of Mark Twain has now been critically reconstructed and made available as it was intended to be read. Fully annotated by the editors of the Mark Twain Project, the complete Autobiography emerges as a landmark publication in American literature.
The closing words--published as The Death of Jean by Paine, wisely added to end the Autobiography by Neider, in his one improvement to the text, is heart-rending. Seriously, almost everybody who thinks they know Mark Twain--or Samuel L. Clemens, for that matter--is about to learn something.

I've pre-ordered my copy. This is the big one.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Be Not Another. . .

Well, here's a new one:
I was the envy of my 30-something friends in Palo Alto, Calif. I had my own law office right on California Avenue. People charged with crimes handed me cash, in advance, over a big oak desk. Occasionally, I’d make a couple of grand in an afternoon.

But soon, my body started giving out one part at a time. First a shoulder, then my lower back, knee cartilage, neck vertebrae. Two groin hernia surgeries later, at 33 years old, I could not lift a bag of groceries, or sit without an orthopedic pillow. After 10 years as a law student and lawyer, working in a profession I didn’t like was taking its toll.

I sold my practice and fled to San Miguel de Allende in the Mexican state of Guanajuato.
And, ultimately, found his bliss in the right profession:
Studying want ads one evening, the one that got my blood moving promised to train me as a party clown, and send me out at $25 per show. Years earlier, I’d dreamed of becoming so weightless that I bounced off the ceiling. I could see myself in a billowy clown suit. After a free training session, I purchased the starter kit for $59 and waited for them to call.

Within a week, the company dispatched me to a party for a 7-year-old at a Ground Round restaurant in Yonkers. I applied colorful makeup, donned oversize shoes, orange wig, bag of tricks. It took a minute to decide on “Bobo” as my name. I silly-walked up to a table of children in the party room. By the end of the performance, the birthday boy said to me, “Bobo, I love you.” In the car later, I rested my head on the steering wheel. An unexpected feeling surfaced: happiness.
Right, you're all expecting me to have a little fun with this guy, right? A sarcastic jibe, perhaps, a little sly humor?


Well done, Robert Markowitz. Really, I mean it. There are far too many miserable lawyers out there. Many are trapped in jobs that aren't right for them, but could be happier in a better fitting position (I myself was miserable as a big firm attorney but have loved my public interest work--and even then, other things have called to me to supplement that career--the diaconate, writing, to name the two most important), but a lot shouldn't be lawyers at all.

Seriously, I mean that. If you don't love legal practice, it'll kill ya. It requires a lot of steady hard slog, wading through materials that are very dry, and gratification is delayed for years. If you aren't a natural born lawyer, if the stuff hasn't got a hold of your heart for whatever reason (la Caterina is one, too, but somewhat differently than me)--get out and save yourself, like Robert Markowitz did. Because life's too short.

In his excellent novel The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies quotes Paracelsus: "Be not another if thou canst be thyself."

Good advice, very good advice.

So bravo to Robert Markowitz, and best wishes for another 20 years of success to Bobo the Clown.

As long as nobody expects me to don the red nose, that is.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"Everybody Knows it's Me or You..."

The story on Amazon's work environment has drawn a great deal of attention, and some pushback. It's a sobering account of workplace trends that asks just who we are as a culture, and what kind of lives we intend to lead. Because the story isn't just about the lower level employees, but its high-flyers. And is an ever-intensifying, cutthroat-competitive pressure cooker with data as the fuel really where we need to go as a society? Because some of the employees sound downright embracing of just that. And so I say the article raises questions of our aspirations, for ourselves, not just of market pressures.

It strikes a bit close to home, in that I published Phineas at Bay through an Amazon company, CreateSpace, and I was very pleased with the care and creativity they invested in supporting my book. The physical book is attractive, the Kindle edition as well, and the result was most gratifying. But even more than that, the fact that the team was available for questions, hand-holding, and concerns (rational or not), was a comfort. They made the production of the edited manuscript into a book easy. I'm uneasy at the thought that I may be complicit in so all-consuming an atmosphere.

Some will speak in defense of the company, and point out ameliorating factors--policies not followed, anecdotes of supportive managers and co-workers. Others may defend the stark nature of the workplace depicted in the article, whether true or not, and valorize its efficiency. I have no easy answers, here. But I am reminded of the ending to the book Cheaper By the Dozen, the story of the family life of the early efficiency experts Frank Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth:
"Someone once asked Dad: But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it? "
For work, if you love that best, said Dad. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. He looked over the top of his pince-nez. For mumblety-peg, if that's where your heart lies."
We must not become so efficient and single-minded that we lose all the time we are saving.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Serial Crimes

The Oxford Comma, also known as the "Serial Comma," has been on my mind today. That's because I have had, in my day job, to go over our style and usage manual--who said there's no adventure in law?--and determine what we would change and what we would keep.

Ah, the Oxford Comma. Embraced by the APA, The Chicago Manual of Style, The MLA Style Guide, Strunk and White's Elements of Style (at p. 3!), and the U.S. Government printing Office Style Manual (Rule 8.42, at p. 201).

In England, though, Oxford University stands alone in its defense.

Now, I admit it, I like the Oxford Comma. First, because--well, sorry; Anglophile here, and still have a sentimental attachment to Oxford University Press, the first institution that sent me mail from England--the Barset novels and Palliser novels of Anthony Trollope, when they were out of print in the US, and my heart would thrill a bit at getting mail from England, Actual English books, not American editions. "Colour" not "color." And the Oxford Comma.

But that's no real reason. No, the real reason is that if you leave it out, you can write absurd sentences that make you look gormless.

A few examples:
"She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president."
This example from the Chicago Manual of Style shows how the comma is necessary for clarity. Without it, she is taking a picture of two people, her mother and father, who are the president and vice president. With it, she is taking a picture of four people.

"This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God"
A probably apocryphal book dedication, this example has been a favorite of pro-Oxford comma language blogs for a while. Without the comma before "and," you get a rather intriguing set of parents.

"By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."
Languagehat dug this gem out of a comment thread on the serial comma. It's from a TV listing in The Times. It supports the use of the Oxford comma, but only because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector. However, even the Oxford comma can't keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod. There's only so much a comma can do.
The Oxford Comma: More necessary than an umbrella.