Friday, November 27, 2015

Where is your Darwin Now?

Twelve-year-old Tertius challenges science:

"How can I be 95% ape when I'm 75% water?"

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Well, it is a Steinway.

Tertius picking out simple tunes on the piano. Nails "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

"How does that other one go? You know, 'Croissants.'"

"'Croissants?'" I echo.

"Isn't it 'Croissants'?"

Pause for thought. Then it clicks. "Ah, you mean 'Hot Cross Buns.'"

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Who else are you wearing?

It's the last full day of sixth grade for Tertius. As he gets ready to leave, I compliment him again on his sneakers (because I like these silver-gray Nikes with red trim, and not because I'm trying to reinforce his satisfaction with shoes that cost less than $100 a pair).

He looks into them. "I've just noticed that the insole is red, too," he comments. "That means everywhere I go, I'm walking on red carpet."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

What Would Clooney Do?

In Murdering Ministers, I had Oliver silently sum up a new acquaintance, a mother in her thirties, by guessing she'd never owned a pair of jeans in her life. The judgment was meant to be shorthand for the kind of restricted English upbringing that Joan Quarterboy had been condemned to by her puritan, lower-middle-class parents.

Now my Dad never owned a pair of jeans in his life either. His casual pants were strictly gray flannel, identical to the ones he wore to his factory job. He never owned a polo shirt or a tee-shirt either, his only concession to the elusive English summer being a "sports shirt," a short-sleeved version of the collared dress shirts he wore all year. On Saturdays, maybe a v-neck pullover would replace the weekday sports jacket and tie, always visible at the neckline of his overalls. Sundays meant Church. Church meant a suit.

Me aged 10, Dad aged 49. At home. Ignore bad haircut.
When I was born, Dad was already older than the perennially thirty-ish Joan, frozen by fiction. But he came two generations before her, and my jeans comment is, in his case, a matter of social history. (Dad would have been 98 this year.) When I was a teenager in West London, all the men of his age wore the same uniform. You'd see them in flannels and Marks and Spencer windcheaters, wearing ties to go to the supermarket. "Casual" was a shelf of light-weight clothes that might as well have lived in their suitcases, because they were only sported during those two-week vacations on the South Coast. Of England. The rest of the time, the only casual was business casual. There was no dressing down, only dressing up.

Why bring this up? Well, the prodigiously funny and thoroughly naughty Amy Schumer did a skit in her Comedy Central show a week or so ago about a group of women solemnly visiting the Museum of Boyfriend Wardrobe Atrocities ("Heather dated Mark in his bowling shirt for two years" begins the downbeat audio tour.) It culminates with a display of 5,200 pairs of Crocs. "Did this really happen?" asks a horrified little girl, whose coat stays bright red as the rest of the image fades to black and white.

Here's my problem. The camera scans down one exhibit -- woolly hat, Beats, red striped polo, roomy black khakis, red Converse sneakers. "What you see before you may not look so bad," says the narration, so far confirming my opinion (although the hat is mistake, as hats usually are), "until you know that it was worn by Simon . . . aged fifty-five."

Gasps of horror from the mainly female museum-goers. Gasp of horror from a middle-aged male member of the viewing audience, too. Okay, I mentioned the hat, I use buds,not Beats, and my polos are never crested. But as for the rest . . . (I have a pair of purple Converse, I use them to accessorize a black suit.)

Just add purple Converse . . .
I'm north of fifty-five. All my post-teen life, I've stuck to the narrow pathway of The Gap, never veering into parachute pants or butt-cleavage baring baggies or pastel T-shirts under Armani. My very occasional baseball caps are never worn backwards. I'm a winter. My biggest fashion dilemma in thirty years has been pleated v. flat front.

But it seems even this level of caution is not enough. So now what do I do?

I can't dress like a 20-year-old.

I can't dress the way I did when I was 20.

I can't dress the way my Dad did when he was my age.

What do baby boomers switch to, when their hair also goes winter and their reading glasses stay on all the time?

Where do we go to learn this stuff, Amy?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Daily Insult Rides Again.

Over the dinner table this evening, I express my ignorance of some flimsy piece of teenage slang, which Secundus explains before warning me never to use it.

"You're a good dad," he says, "but not a cool dad."

I take this as a great compliment. Two compliments in fact, because parents simply shouldn't be cool, even if they are. (Hint: they aren't.) But then S. elaborates. "With your British accent and your gray hair, you come across to my friends as my laid-back grandfather."

Uh-huh. Still, with those attributes, I'm apparently two-thirds of the way to qualifying as a wizard in their eyes. I just lack the beard.

Of course, at Christmas, I did have the beginnings of the necessary facial fungus, but I shaved it off before the new year. Just think, I could have been Dumbledore if it weren't for the itchiness.

Monday, March 16, 2015

In beagle years, I'm over four hundred.

To White Plains this morning for my seventh appearance at the annual Young Authors Conference, this year bringing in about 250 talented students from eighteen high schools around Westchester county. Our hosts were the nice people of Pace University, because our customary haunt in Valhalla was being used for something else.

But as if looking at all those bright teenage faces wasn't enough of a reminder of my advancing years, there was a jarring lesson in my workshop.

To set up a prompt for a writing exercise -- come up with an intriguing and magnetic opening line for a story -- I put up a slide with this immortal phrase:

"It was a dark and stormy night."

Now I'm aware not one of them is going to know that its first major appearance was on page one of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (I only know because I have to.) 

These days, we remember Bulwer-Lytton best because of the annual bad writing awards named in his honor. But in his time, he was a best-selling author who grew phenomenally rich from his work and gave us the phrases "the pen is mightier than the sword" and "the almighty dollar." Edward was also an English member of parliament, ended up in the House of Lords, and is buried in Westminster Abbey, so no slouch. He had his ex-wife committed to a lunatic asylum because she wouldn't stop slanging him off, even after their divorce (although public opinion released her), and in 1862 he was offered the crown of Greece, when the previous King Otto abdicated. (He demurred.)

Anyway, as I said, I didn't expect Bulwer-Lytton's name to be thrown out when I casually asked if any of my young audience had come across the phrase before.

But surely, surely, at least one of them recognizes the work of Snoopy?

Not so. I feel old.

P.S. Happy birthday, Gilly.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lewis and me.

Not what it seems. Read on.
This year, we're celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

I love Lewis Carroll. My first published mystery opens in the middle of a Snark Hunt. This Private Plot uses both "Tweedledum and Tweedledee" and the Hatter's rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" as clues. I composed a setting of "The Walrus and the Carpenter," and as a student, I adapted and acted in Alice's Adventures (and I insisted on including the elusive "Adventures") for Oxford's University Players. Good Lord, I've even read to the end of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded.

But even a fan and apologist such as myself can't escape the fact there was something a little, well, questionable about Charles Dodgson's relationship with children, an issue thoughtfully and sensitively covered in a recent BBC television program "The Secret Life of Lewis Carroll," hosted by Martha Kearney. Now, I'm not going to rehash all the biography and psychology here -- even the very distinguished clutch of Carrolleans interviewed for the program couldn't agree on a characterization of Dodgson's interest in little girls, or indeed if his chosen companions were as "little" as we've assumed.*

And that's because the latest wave of LC/CD research is now seeking to undo the glib generalizations washed over us by earlier Freudian waves and other schools of thought that encouraged us to leer up Victoria's voluminous skirts. Dodgson's too-easy branding as a pedophile is now rightly seen as short-changing a unique and highly complex character, and may even be based on incorrect assumptions and biographical data. (And sometimes a rabbit-hole is just a rabbit-hole.)

Since my own interest in Carroll goes back to my teenage years, I've heard a lot of that knee-jerk labeling over the years -- "Lewis Carroll liked little girls, nudge nudge" -- usually from jerks who are suspiciously keen to rush to a prurient judgment.

So what do you make of this? Google "Lewis Carroll." Go to images. I guarantee that, not too far down, you'll see the picture at the top of this post. "Carroll-and-Alice-kissing" is its file name. The image seems to have first appeared on Pinterest, but has been picked up by more than one blog, completely at face value. An innocent moment of Victoriana or something a little more revealing?

It doesn't matter. Because the picture is a fake, and a remarkably bad one for something that's frequently reproduced with no comment.

Here's the original of Dodgson, a self-portrait, flopped for the forgery, although he noted that, since he asked Alice Liddell's older sister Lorina to uncap and then recap the lens, Ina claimed she was the true photographer in this instance.

Now, here's the source of Alice. Carroll's group shot of the three Liddell sisters (hence the pun in the three "little" sisters of the Dormouse's sleepy tale) in a tableau called "Open Your Mouth." Alice's mouth is open, not for a salacious smooch with an Oxford don, but for the cherries that Ina is dangling, their poses stiff and awkward because of the long exposures required by mid-nineteenth century photography. (Younger sister Edith looks on.)

I'm not going to attempt to identify the source of Carroll's claw-like hand that was Photoshopped into the fake. The whole exercise is disturbing enough.

But this isn't the only case. Take a look at this image, also found on Google images, again of Dodgson and Alice, in a marginally less scandalous arrangement. At least he's keeping his visible hands to himself this time.

Another fake, of course. (There are very few pictures of Dodgson, who protected his privacy and tried to hide his alter ego from the adult world, and only one or two that include him with other people.) Here's the original:

It's a picture by Dodgson of a fellow clergyman, nursing a small child that, according to the record, is oddly no relation whatsoever to the man of the cloth. The face of Alice that's been badly pasted over the other girl seems to be a flopped cut-out from this picture of the three girls.** (Dodgson's face clearly comes from the same self-portrait, shown above.)

Is any of this frankly too-easy research going to stop the proliferation of these concocted images? Of course not. The same deeply unpleasant impetus that led to their creation is going to keep them circulating around the internet for years, no doubt joined in time by dozens of suspiciously "rediscovered" pictures of nude girls, supposedly taken by Lewis Carroll, that notorious child-molester and pervert. Ah, what a world. We're all so bloody sophisticated, aren't we?

 *Nonsense. Of course I'm going to throw in my own observations. First, a biographical note that is rarely given enough weight. Charles was the third child of the family. He had two older sisters and was followed by two further girls before the next boy emerged. He grew up surrounded and worshiped by little girls, and as the oldest boy and his father's namesake was very much the leader in play and family entertainments. He acknowledged his rural childhood as idyllic, but the final step into adulthood -- his permanent relocation to starchy, celibate, serious Oxford when he was a stammering 19-year-old -- coincided almost to the day with the sudden death of his beloved mother. Surely then, the company of young children, especially girls, was as much a connection to a childhood curtailed by tragedy as any suppression of a newly discovered sexuality.

Second, the BBC program brought up the observation that Carroll/Dodgson's first biographer, his nephew Stuart Collingwood, may have stressed his uncle's fascination with younger girls in order to draw attention away from his interest in older girls. The famous rift with the Liddells seemed to revolve around his attention to Lorina, not Alice -- Ina was no longer considered a "child," being past the age of consent. Whether or not a contemporary photograph turns out to be Dodgson's nude study of the teenage Ina, which was freshly considered in the BBC program, his later diaries are full of smug references to his habit of inviting unchaperoned "child-friends" who were actually in their late teens and twenties -- but still far less than half his age at the time -- to visit him at Oxford or stay in his lodgings during his summer vacations in Eastbourne. Even his spinster sisters berated him about the appearances of this behavior, but he boasted that he was defiant of popular moral convention, which he personified as "Mrs. Grundy."

Scandalous maybe -- and to say that none of these young ladies ever reported any misbehavior may not cut it in the days of Operation Yewtree and Cosby -- but a different sin from the one people have been trying to pin on him, and a an alternative viewpoint that's been well covered by some recent biographies.

**In an earlier version of this blog, I thought Alice's face came from a picture of Alice alone, posed in her best clothes in the Deanery garden, a companion image to the familiar portrait of her as a beggar. I've changed my mind.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Word to Husbands
by Ogden Nash

To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.

Patient followers of this blog (and, look, sorry about the hiatus, but stuff happened) will know of my adoration of Ogden Nash, not merely because of his wit, dexterity, and rampant humanity (which, as he might have said, is devoid of hue-vanity), but because he's a native of Rye, New York, my current dwelling place.

So judge of my delight when I just discovered that, following a refurbishment last year, our local library, the Rye Free Reading Room, now has an Ogden Nash "Quiet Study" Room. And I'm sitting in it as I write this, in a sun-drenched corner of the building's second floor, overlooking the town square, with City Hall to the right and our historic Square House to the left. (George Washington did sleep there. Twice.)

Alas, although a framed calligraphy version of one of ON's verses hangs just inside the main entrance to this building, the room itself as yet bears no tribute to the great man. Unless, of course, you count the admonition: "Please, no talking and no audio," which might be a modernist rephrasing of the above advice for husbands. Hmmm. . . .

To avert assault and battery,
With words profane and bawdy, oh
Do refrain from chattery
And playing any audio.

Oh, I don't care. Look, one of the best days of my recent life was when I got to take Ogden's daughter Linell and his granddaughter Frances to lunch, just before they appeared at a celebration of ON at Rye's Arts Center. Frances was kind enough to say that the poem I'd blogged about my dog, Leila, was "Nashian" and that she was sure her grandfather would agree. Which is all the excuse I need for re-running it, here, as I sit in the Ogden Nash Quiet Study Room.

Our dog
Is not a possum.
When bigger dogs diss her in the street, she doesn't lie down and play dead till they go away, thinking she's just put one across 'em.
She fearlessly barks right back, which makes her

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Wanna see something really scary? Look at the calendar.

Halloween tomorrow, huh? I'll tell you what's scary.

I'm irritated by the speed of Hollywood "reboots." You know, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006)1 didn't exactly set the box office in fire, so we have to start the saga all over again with Zack Snyders' Man of Steel2 last year. Or the Spider-man trilogy begun by Zack Raimi only wrapped up in 20073, but a mere five years later we're heading back to the trough with the new Amazing Spider-Man series.4 Short-attention-span movie-making.5 (Ah well, at least it gives employment to all those British actors playing American icons.)

So I'm sharing my frustration with Primus on the way to school, this time in the context of this year's Godzilla,7 which in my opinion seems to have appeared before the ink was fully dry on the well-deserved death notices for the previous version starring Matthew Broderick.8

"Too soon?" echoes Primus. "Dad, that version came out before I was born."

Shit, he's right. What the hell happened? But on the other hand, sixteen years still isn't long enough to shake off the vision of a nest of dinosaur eggs in the middle of Madison Square Garden.

1Didn't see it.
2Didn't see it.
3Saw all three.
4Didn't see it.
5Okay, I know, I know, it's not without precedent: Bogart's 1941 The Maltese Falcon came only ten years after the first, overshadowed version of Hammett's novel, starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. Still, a good movie and worth a look. Dwight Frye of both Dracula and Frankenstein6 plays the gunsel Wilmer, portrayed by Elisha Cooke, Jr. in the later movie.
6See how I brought this Halloween-inspired rant about aging back to classic horror?
7Didn't see it.
8Saw it. Almost, but not entirely, a waste of time. But try to see the superb original 1954 Japanese film9, not the Americanized version which has a lot of Raymond Burr staring upwards.
9Did it again. You're welcome.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Big Brother is bothering me.

Phone rings. Long Island number. I pick up and mutter a "hello." Long pause and fuzzy background. Then a distant, accented voice says its "hello," as if it hadn't heard me.

"Yes?" I snap, now completely convinced that this is an illicit marketing call -- I am firmly on the Do Not Call register and these scofflaws piss me off.

"This is Winston Smith, may I speak to the homeowner?"

Aha, rookie mistake, Mr. Telemarketer, giving me the chance to say "no." So I say no and hang up. Ha! I could, of course, vent or string him along, but really, it's not his fault that his employer breaks the law and pushes him into firing line. If that's the only job he could find, he's already having a bad enough day. But my point is that these calls --

Hang on.

"Winston Smith"?

Winston Smith?

Makes me wonder now what he was trying to sell me. Surveillance cameras? Rodent spray? I mean, I know these guys use assumed names, but am I now going to be interrupted on a daily basis by a stream of characters from 20th century British fiction? Mrs. Dalloway doing kids' birthday parties? Leopold Bloom offering package tours to Dublin? Constance Chatterley plugging her live webcam?

If the next one claims to be Bertie Wooster, I'm staying on the line. I could use Jeeves's hangover cure.