Monday, February 18, 2013

The old gray mare she ain't what she used to be

We have had three days of very cold and windy weather, here in central Maine.  Saturday night, all day Sunday, and Sunday night it was a matter of “gale force winds,” as they say, up to 51 miles an hour in nearby Augusta.   Even today, though it has been sunny (Saturday and Sunday It was overcast, and on again off again snow) it has remained cold and windy.  A number of the windows in my house have improperly-fitting storm windows, that have rumbled mournfully; and at times the house has even shaken.  I’ve been very glad that I went out early Saturday morning and stocked up on groceries, so that I didn’t have to go out at all yesterday or today.  (It’s been a three day weekend – God’s gift to the working stiff – which is why I didn’t have to venture out to work today.)

However.  I’ve been cold.  My little house appears to have virtually no insulation; it only feels warm while the furnace is running.  And I had checked the oil tank on Saturday, and was dismayed to see that the indicator hovered just above 1/8 full.  I had oil delivered less than a month ago, and while I didn’t have it filled (no way I could afford to have it filled), I would have expected the 100 gallons that were delivered to last longer than this.  So I was trying to be frugal Saturday and Sunday, not pushing the thermostat too high, wearing my wool leggings under my jeans, and two sweaters on the top half of me, in an effort to keep warm.  I was hoping to be able to avoid calling for more oil until Thursday (the company delivers to Gardiner on Mondays and Thursdays), but by last night I knew this was unrealistic.  A Starving Librarian I might be, but it was ridiculous to be freezing in my own home, when I wasn’t living in Afghanistan, or on welfare in this country.  

So early this morning I called Augusta Fuel, and ordered 200 gallons.  And since it was delivered I haven’t hesitated to turn the thermostat up.

But here’s the thing.  It seems to me that in general I am feeling the cold more than I used to.  It’s always been an obvious chilly in this house, in the wintertime, but I don’t recall being made as uncomfortable as I’ve been this winter.  I have two sets of friends who, years ago, fled the cold and snow of the Northeast for balmy California.  But I have always felt comfortable with both cold and snow, and have had no desire whatsoever to relocate to more temperate climes. But in the last couple of years serious, heavy-duty snow-shoveling has simply gotten beyond me – thank the gods for the rather creepy young man who knocked on my door one day last year and offered to dig me out; he has continued to do so, at $10 a whack – and now I’m finding the cold harder to deal with.  The Aging Body Syndrome, asserting itself in a new and exciting way?   Malta, here I come?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The last one to go

A very old friend of mine died a couple of weeks ago.  He was old in both senses of the word: he was 92 ½, and I had known him since the day I was born.  He was one of my father’s three oldest friends – they had known each other since 7th grade.  On the day I was born, Clifford and the other two old friends, Frank & Albert – both of whom died some time ago – brought a big, pale blue stuffed bear to the hospital.  My first gift, which I still have, though it is much flattened – has been restuffed more than once – and a faded gray.

A life-long bachelor, Clifford was a familiar figure throughout my childhood, but especially so once my father and stepmother settled in Ft. Worth, and so did Clifford, in a small house not far from theirs.  This quiet, mild-mannered man would often visit, occasionally staying for dinner, not infrequently joining us on family jaunts.  I remember being impressed by the snappy little MG he drove for a while, and amazed when I was visiting him once, and he proceeded to cook us a large steak in a big metal bowl.  As a bachelor, he could obviously do things in unconventional ways.

Clifford served as an Army photographer during World War II.  In the last few years I was privileged to see some of the photos he took in that capacity.  There were a number of bombed-out towns, the inhabitants standing and staring as the Americans rolled into town in their trucks and jeeps.  He told me that one photo, of a medic working over a fallen soldier in the field, was purely staged.  “The guy was already dead,” he said; “but they wanted me to take the picture for a story about the medics.” Like much of the photography done during the war, most of the pictures Clifford took were intended to bolster morale within the army (many of his pictures appeared in Stars and Stripes), and increase support for the war on the home front.

Though he worked as a surveyor for oil companies for much of his adult life – until he took early retirement, convinced he could make more money wisely managing his investments than working at a job -- Clifford never stopped taking pictures, until a couple of years ago, when his sight began failing him.  He also painted, and wrote a number of quite excellent short stories.  He was, in short, a very creative man, something I never realized until we became closer over the past ten years.  He was a perfect example of how little we may know someone we think we know very well.  And he was one of the few people in my life who was actively supportive of my writing.

Clifford and I had very different opinions on almost every subject.  Perhaps inevitably, given his generation, and where he grew up and lived virtually all his life (i.e., Texas), Clifford was extremely politically conservative, whereas I am your basic liberal.  Besides politics we argued about the Civil War (which Clifford insisted on referring to as the War of Northern Aggression), race, evolution, even music (we agreed about Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, disagreed about the Beatles and Al Jolson).  But the nice thing was, we could have these vigorous disagreements, and still remain fond of one another.  It was refreshing to me to find a member of my parents’ generation who was willing to discuss all these different matters, and I think Clifford enjoyed having somebody to talk to!

And now that he is gone, my family has lost the last member of our own Greatest Generation.  Clifford Owen Bell, I and my brothers and sisters, who saw you as all-but-family, honor and salute you.  And we will miss you.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The play's the thing

I have unintentionally found myself immersed in Shakespeare over the past few days.  First, when I tuned into PBS the other evening they were showing something called "Shakespeare Uncovered."  Various of the Bard's plays are being discussed by a famous actor or director who has appeared in or directed the play under discussion.  That first one I stumbled upon was hosted by Derek Jacobi, one of my all-time favorite actors, whom I have actually managed to see live in a total of four plays, one of which was Shakespeare ("Much Ado About Nothing," Broadway, 1984).  However, the play he was taking us on a tour of was "Richard II," which he appeared in for the BBC in 1978 (and which I also saw, on television). Besides clips from that production, we saw bits and pieces of other productions, which made for an interesting comparison.  And we learned about not just the play, but the king whose story was told in the play, who so believed in his divine right to be king, and to do whatever he chose, as king, that ultimately he alienated enough powerful men to have his throne taken from him. 

Jacobi also inserted an interesting note by questioning whether Shakespeare even wrote Richard II, or for that matter any of the plays attributed to him.  There has, of course, been a lot of discussion on this topic for a long time -- a discussion I never really paid much attention to, putting it down to academics in need of a controversy.  But I had to admit that the points made by Jacobi in favor of the real author having been Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, made me at least want to know more.

What was especially interesting on this score was that the following evening, again while essentially channel-surfing, I came upon an episode of Michael Wood's "In Search of Shakespeare," which originally aired in 2004, but you know how PBS recycles programs ad infinitum.  I had actually seen this 4-part series a while back, but now found this particular episode interesting, because Wood was busy explaining what Shakespeare might have been doing -- where he might have been -- between the time he was a teenaged father with an older wife he'd "had" to marry, in Stratford, and his first appearance in London (at least by 1592, and probably by about 1589). The possibilities Wood came up with -- off in Lancashire, which was the seat of much of the Catholic resistance to the Protestant reign of Elizabeth I (Shakespeare's family had been staunchly Catholic, and had been
persecuted as a result) -- seemed a bit far-fetched to me.  What the episode mainly shows is how much about the life of Shakespeare is pure speculation, at best, educated guesses.

Immediately following on the heels of Derek Jacobi's examination of "Richard II" came Jeremy Irons' episode on the Henrys: "Henry IV," Parts I and II, and "Henry V."  Irons appears as Henry IV -- an aging version of the young Henry Bolingbrook who had stolen Richard II's crown -- in Parts I and II, made for the BBC in 2012.  So we saw clips from that telecast, as well as interviews with the young actor (Tom Hiddleston) who played Prince Hal, who eventually becomes Henry V, and goes on to be Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branaugh, in the best-known filmed versions of that particular play.  We got lots of psychological analysis on the importance of the father/son relationship in these plays.

An interesting aside: Irons played Richard II in a production of the Royal Shakespeare Co. that I saw in 1986 in Stratford.  I remember not being particularly impressed by his Richard, who didn't just seem weak, but totally ineffectual.  By contrast Jacobi's Richard was full of energy.  Irons does not go in much for energetic performances, but rather a kind of languid elegance.  But how would someone who was languidly elegant manage to hold people in thrall for as long as Richard did?  Yes, well.  A question for the critics.

So after watching these two programs on Friday night, and catching some of Wood's search for Shakespeare the following day, it seemed only a natural progression to decide to watch my video recording of "Shakespeare in Love," which I saw and loved on the big screen when it came out in 1997.  And which I loved all over again when I watched it late Saturday night.  It really is a perfect movie.  Perfect casting, with everyone turning in superlative performances, perfect looking -- you would just swear that that was exactly what rough and tumble London looked like in the 1590s -- wonderfully funny, and romantic, and absolutely full to the brim with fine renderings of the words of Shakespeare.  A movie that reminds you of the importance of theatre, in the lives of human beings.

Which takes me to the main point of this posting.  All of this -- the watching of these very interesting programs, and then this wonderful movie, as well as, no doubt, the making of these shows, acting in them, directing them, being any part of the various productions -- all of this is so much more enjoyable, so much more satisfying, than almost any aspect of our current reality that you can name (this country's disfunctional Congress, the divisive gun control controversy, not to mention the almost daily shootings taking place in this country, the ever-worsening economic situation in Europe, which besides being very hard on all those out-of-work Europeans, could adversely affect the U.S.'s tentative economic improvement, the ever-worsening political situation in Egypt, the never-ending and seemingly hopeless enmity between Israel and the Palestinians, ones own problems with health/work/lack of money) that one has to wonder: why bother with that reality?  Who needs that stuff?  Let's go to a play.  Or...hey gang, let's put on a show!