Monday, December 26, 2011

For Sunday Scribblings and Three-Word Wednesday

(Also submitted to Magpie 97 and ABC Wednesday.)
"X" is for "Xanax"

Since New Year’s eve is close upon us, my resolution is to tell the story of how I was once living on a Pacific isle with Marilyn Monroe.
How many bloggers can make that claim? :-)
I never thought of Norma Jeane Baker – which is what her real name was – as sexy.

She had such an incredibly miserable childhood, which later became a miserable adulthood, that I found I could feel only compassion and sympathy for her.
(Yes, she spelled it “Jeane,” with one “n.”)
As a child, she was bounced around from orphanage to various depressing foster homes and back again; her mother, Gladys, was, as the saying goes, mentally unstable. It might seem that she would have been a candidate for the drug Xanax, but it didn't exist at that time. (I had to work an "x" in here somewhere.)
When Norma Jeane was six, living with foster parents, Gladys showed up and insisted on taking her away. Since she was shouting and acting unhinged, the foster parents refused to turn Norma Jeane over to her.
Gladys ran into the house, stuffed the screaming kid into a duffel bag, zipped it up and tried to run away with her. The bag split open and the child fell to the ground.
In her autobiography, Norma Jeane wrote that it was not long after this that her mother, "screaming and laughing," was forcibly removed to the state hospital. All this pretty well demolished anything resembling a chance at a normal life for young Norma Jeane.

Somehow the girl lived through this dismal childhood; here she is getting ready to enter Van Nuys High School.

It was there that she met Jim Dougherty. They were married in ’42.

Quick segue to an entirely different story.
At about this time, soon after Pearl Harbor, young Berowne went down and patriotically enlisted, primarily because he had to. :-)
My boot camp was on Catalina Island, which had been transformed from a vacation paradise off the Southern California coast to a huge wartime training camp.
Turned out, Jim Dougherty had become a section leader there, training the boots, and I was one of the boots. He lived on the base with his wife, a very young Norma Jeane Dougherty.

There you have it: Marilyn Monroe and I were together on a Pacific island. Note her big smile: she’s possibly saying, “Wow! I’m going to be with Berowne on this Pacific isle!”
But then again, maybe not. :-)

She later, after Dougherty left, got into war work back on the mainland, spraying airplane parts with fire retardant. Long story short, a “Yank” magazine photographer took her picture; as a result she ultimately wound up with a 20th-Century Fox film contract at an impressive $125 a week.
Which was a helluva lot more than I was making at the time. :-)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday, ABC Wednesday and Magpie 96

"W" is for "Whim"
In the old days, when my son was young, we tried home-schooling. A typical class would go like this…
“Did you find the play difficult?”
“Not really, Dad. I got through it okay.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Well, it’s about this couple, Lady Macbeth and her husband, Mister Macbeth.”
“That’s a good start. Go on.”
“They’ve got this friend – wait a minute, I’ve got his name here somewhere – yeah, it's Duncan; I knew it had something to do with donuts. Anyway, they’ve got this friend named Duncan who comes to visit. Didn’t turn out well. He sort of checked in and didn’t check out, if you see what I mean.”
“You mean he was killed?”
“You could put it that way.”
“And who did the killing?”
“Well, that’s the thing. They both were in on it, Lady MacB and her old man. Both of ‘em. At first it was just a whim; something they talked about, but then it got serious. Actually, MacB had a firm belief that you didn’t do stuff like that – kill your best friend -- but she egged him on. ‘You can do it! You de man!’ she’d yell at him, and like that.”
“So he went along and committed the murder?”
“Exactly. Here’s a picture of the couple after the killing.”

“H’mm. Some picture. She looks a bit rumpled, and he’s just a shadow.”
“You gotta remember that photography was very new in those days.”
“What about motive? Why did they kill Duncan?”
“Well, you see, Macbeth had a title; he was Thane of Cawdor. Now I guess Cawdor wasn’t much of a town so being Thane of it was sort of small potatoes, if you see what I mean. He wanted something better.”
“As did Lady Macbeth?”
“Oh, man, did she ever! She figured that if they offed Duncan she could wind up as First Lady. She’d be able to throw all the festive parties and so on. Which is exactly what happened.”
“But later she had a change of heart?”
“You’re assuming she had a heart to begin with. But yeah, after a while she began to feel pretty crummy about having liquidated their friend. In fact, it seems she was totally heading over to the unhinged side of town, if you follow my meaning.”
“You do have a novel way of putting things.”
“Show you how crazy she was, she had a dog named Spot. An indoors-type of pooch; never liked the outdoors. She’d yell at him: ‘Out, damned Spot!’ but he wouldn’t budge.”
“I see. A bit of humor.”
“Gotta do something to liven up these lessons.”
“What later happened to Macbeth?”
“Well, actually, I didn’t read any farther than this. As I get it, the dude wound up in a forest named Dunsinane, or something like that. Probably got lost in it. Things like that happened a lot in those days.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday

(Also for Magpie 95 and Sunday Scribblings)
"V" for "Victory"

The above picture might rather nicely, if surreally, suggest a war adventure ol’ Berowne had a few decades ago.
You see, truth is, ol’ Berowne is just that: ol’. He’s been on this earthly planet for an impressive number of years. He served, perhaps not as heroically as some of the others, but he nevertheless served in World War II.
And that war adventure took place in the South Pacific in 1943.

My ship, which was heavily loaded with huge drums of aviation-octane gasoline, was scheduled to leave Australia for New Guinea, where large numbers of aircraft were waiting for us so they could get on with the war.
However, we had earlier on this assignment committed the faux pas of running smack into the Great Barrier Reef, leaving our vessel with an enormous hole in the bow that you could have driven a jeep into. This rendered us almost immobile; actually, it meant that we were forced to creep along at about three knots – about the speed of a tired man walking – to return back to our Australian port.
I was just a kid then and, along with the other crew members, we weren’t feeling all that bad about the hole in the bow. After all, it meant the ship would have to go down to Sydney into drydock while they fixed things, and that meant the crew could enjoy a week or two of Sydney high life while the war was put on hold.
However, an official, some sort of grand panjandrum who was in charge of things, came aboard with news. It seems, he said, they were so desperately in need of our drums of gas up there in New Guinea that authorities decided to send us anyway.
This seemed, to everyone on our ship, simply insane.

Not only did that hole in the bow slow us to three knots, but the Australian coast at that time was looked upon as a happy hunting ground for Japanese submarines. They were sinking ships there in '43 about as fast as they could be built.
And did this geezer realize what our cargo was? This was before jets; warplanes then used gasoline – and aviation-octane gasoline was one of the most volatile and dangerous substances on earth. A sub wouldn’t even have to use a torpedo; one well-placed machine gun bullet could easily blow up our ship.
Well, it seems he had thought of that.

They were going to provide us with our own personal Australian corvette. A corvette was like a small destroyer and its job was to hunt subs. Usually, since they were in short supply, they were restricted for use only with large convoys; however, in this special case – i.e., a ship with a vitally important cargo that could only limp along at three knots – they’d let us have one.
He thanked us all for volunteering for this dangerous mission. None of us could remember having volunteered, and we didn't quite know how to un-volunteer. :-) He made the V for Victory sign and left.
The plan was for the corvette to tightly circle our ship continuously, 24 hours a day, while we crept north. Having a corvette in such close proximity to our ship would hopefully discourage any ambitious Japanese sub commander from trying anything.
It seemed to work. We inched our way along without being attacked. How those Aussie corvette guys must have hated us: endlessly having to circle, circle, day after day.
Anyway, long story short, we finally arrived at the harbor in the New Guinea jungle and anchored. Our captain went ashore to report to the general. Loud shouting was heard from his office.
Seems the two-star guy was angry. Why did they keep sending him all that gasoline? He already had plenty and he didn’t have a fuel depot or any other way to keep more in the jungle. He ordered our skipper to turn around and take it all back to Australia.
The cap’n pointed out we had this big old hole in the bow, and the Aussie corvette had taken off in a hurry once we got there. The general wasn’t interested. “Take it back!” he said.
The skipper, pretty angry himself when he came back aboard, seemed to be bent on retribution. He had us take off the hatch covers and fire up the winches. He began to pick up the drums, one by one, and just dump them in the harbor. (Gasoline floats.) Once the army saw this happening they had a change of heart and sent ducks – the large amphibious trucks – and we loaded it all on to them.
The above may seem to be fiction, an old guy's fairy tale, but it's what happened.
At any rate, I didn’t get to Sydney on that trip but I did on several others. That city was then, I can personally assure you, paradise for an American serviceman. Ah, those beautiful Australian girls; they're grandmothers now. I’d like to think that a few of them look back and remember Berowne fondly, just as he fondly remembers them.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday

(Also for ABC Wednesday and Magpie 94)
"U" is for "Unforgettable"

This week’s prompt illustrates beautifully how the custom of communal dining, which ideally should be a chance for people to come together to enjoy delicious food, good company and conversation, is so often merely the process known as eating.
A meal with others can be a communal event, a sharing of both time and space, something as old as the discovery of fire when presumably prehistoric types sat around the cave near the single heat source that was used to cook their food.
In other words, a shared meal can have meaning; a chance to strengthen bonds or perhaps get to know someone better. In this week’s prompt, possibly a hurried lunch, that meaning is lacking.
I suddenly remembered how important a meal was to one of William Shakespeare’s most unforgettable characters, Shylock.
You see, when it came to communal dining, Shylock was against it.
This was not just because the food the Christians of his city ate was different from his Jewish fare; it was because he would go only so far in his relations with them.
He is blunt about it. “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, but I will not eat with you.”
I think it’s quite possible that Will Shakespeare never met a Jew, which is a bit odd when you realize that he created possibly the most famous Jew in all of English literature. For centuries, Jewish characters had appeared in various types of productions as villains, existing in Elizabethan England only as stereotypes and evil, mythical figures. These stereotypes were the playwright’s source for his play.
So the general understanding of that time was that Jews, first and foremost, hated all Christians, and might go to great lengths, if given the opportunity, to do harm to them.

So Shylock, though seemingly a passive man, was actually a cruel and miserly figure, and this would have fitted the usual, sereotypical view of a Jew of that era. But Shakespeare created a character who was also a devoted family man, a person of intelligence, someone even with a sense of humor – and someone who was not afraid to raise his flag against perceived enemies. Shylock was, in short, a human being whose behavior was the result of decades of cruelty by Venetian citizens. Above, Shylock with his daughter, Jessica.
As you undoubtedly know, in the play, during the famous trial sequence, Shylock is stymied when he tries to cut his pound of flesh from Antonio. The beautiful Portia, the play’s heroine, transmogrified into a lawyer, plays her ace: the contract didn't say anything about blood and it's against the law for a Christian's blood to be spilt.
As a result, because he had attempted murder, Shylock is stripped of all his wealth.
Then something interesting happens. The court, showing great magnanimity, will allow him to convert to Christianity.
No one of that time – and perhaps this was true of Shakespeare, too – seems to have realized that this great gift couldn’t have been regarded as such by Shylock.
He had lost his case, lost his fortune, even lost his daughter – who had married, to his disgrace, a Christian – and now he had nothing. He just wanted to get out of there.
“I pray you give me leave to go from hence,” he says. “I am not well.”

(By the way, I posted about Al Pacino’s “Merchant of Venice” a couple of months ago, but I thought I could refer to the play again because the character Shylock is one of Shakespeare’s most interesting, most complex and most challenging.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday and Sunday Scribblings

(Also submitted to ABC Wednesday and Magpie 93)
"T" is for "Tape" - Audio Tape
Try to picture this scene. I was young – this was years ago - and I was working at a New York radio station.

At that time, audio tape was very new; it had just come on the scene. For the broadcasting business, audio tape’s ability to reproduce music and speech in high fidelity was a fantastic breakthrough.
And now our radio station had received one of the very first audio tape recorders that was portable. The word “portable” wasn’t exactly accurate; you couldn’t carry the thing. It was huge. It was, in fact, a kind of blunderbuss. But it had wheels so you could lug it around.
(Today, of course, you can record with a device about the size of a pinhead.)

A press agent learned our station had this remarkable portable machine. He phoned one of his clients, famed movie star Ginger Rogers, who was then living at the Waldorf-Astoria, and told her she wouldn’t have to go to radio stations any more to do interviews. She could sit at her leisure at home, or at her hotel, and an interviewer would come and record her, and what she had to say would be on the air the next day in excellent high fidelity.
She thought it was a fine idea and was all for it. Previously she had phoned in interviews to radio stations from time to time but the voice quality of a phone line was very poor.
At the station, I had learned as much as I could about this new tape recorder. I could take it apart and put it together without a problem. So, callow youth though I was, I received this important assignment.

As you may imagine, this was about the biggest thing that happened to me during my time as a beginner in radio. Ginger Rogers! True, she wasn’t the world-famous star she had been a decade or so earlier -- the Fred and Ginger whose marvelous dancing brought joy to millions around the world -- but she was still a major celebrity; she commanded an imperial suite in the Waldorf. It was a fantastic assignment for a young guy.
I showed up, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, right on time, lugging the huge recorder behind me. She greeted me in a friendly way, obviously pleased to be taking part in this marvelous new technological adventure.
(I knew how to behave with celebrities; I didn’t want her to think I was just part of a mob of fans. And I made sure I didn’t commit the faux pas of saying I had been interested in her career since I was a little kid.)
I was a bit surprised that she had chosen, of the various rooms of her suite, the smallest one for our interview. I guess it was because it was where she felt the most relaxed.
The room was full, chock-full, of literally hundreds of knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, gewgaws, curios – evidently just about everything in the form of an award or memento she had ever been given. The items ranged from the obviously expensive to junk that would have been jettisoned except that it was probably kept for sentimental reasons.

This small room was not only jammed full of stuff; there was only one place to sit – on something that used to be known as a settee. This small sofa, very much like the one in the prompt, was evidently also a memento of some kind. It was not new, not in good condition; perhaps the reason she kept it was that it had been part of her youth, a reminder of her home back in Missouri, where she was raised.
At any rate, it was a strange situation. I was sitting with her on this small couch, trying to rig up the equipment for the interview.

No one had told her that the recording machine for her interview was, as far as she could see, as big as a small house. Or that it took quite a while to assemble before it could operate.
So I began the process of setting it up. She sat next to me, still trying to smile pleasantly, though I sensed that she was beginning to wonder if this was such a great idea after all.
Perspiring a bit, I took the whole contraption apart, got out my eleven-inch reels, installed them, threaded the tape in the intricate manner of that time, unpacked the mike, attached it to its stand, found the power supply, made all the connections, did a test or two, etc., etc.
As I say, this went on for quite a while. The smile disappeared from her face.
Anyway, we finally got to the interview. I asked the questions and she answered. She covered the usual celebrity topics: she talked about her film career, her travels, her friends, how in Rome Alfredo had invented a special sauce for her, etc.
I then began the lengthy process of closing the infernal machine up for travel.
After I finished this, finally, I bade her adieu – she didn’t seem all that sorry to see me go – and I headed out the door.
As I mentioned, her room was absolutely stuffed with all these gewgaws and mementos. It was a place where no one should ever enter if you were lugging a large blunderbuss with you. As careful as I was, a portion of the huge tape recorder managed to bump against a couple of the items on display and knock them off.
Disaster. At least two, possibly three, of these bric-a-brac pieces broke into – to use a technical scientific term – smithereens.
I felt terrible. I had no way of knowing if I had busted something of monetary or of sentimental value, or both. I apologized profusely.
You could see she was angry but was trying to hold it in. She didn’t start yelling at me, though I’m sure she felt like it. I got out of the place as fast as I could.
Years later, to show my grandkids their granddad had hobnobbed with the stars in his youth, I told them about my adventure with Ginger Rogers. They were impressed.
“Who’s Ginger Rogers?” they asked.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday and Sunday Scribblings

(Also submitted to ABC Wednesday and Magpie 92)
"S" is for "Special"

Me: You’re finally here? I thought you had forgotten all about me and gone off for good.
My Muse: No, no; I’ve just been busy. We had our national muse convention last week. You called about something?
Me: Well, it’s the usual. As you know, Tess K posts a prompt each week and I’m supposed to come up with some brilliant ideas, remarks, observations, bon mots, whatever, in response. So I could use your help.
MM: Ah, yes, the Magpie prompt. I see it’s about love this week. I have the feeling that’s a subject you don’t know much about, not being all that lovable yourself. (Laughs)
Me: Please, forget the jokes. You’re my muse; you should avoid wounding my ego, not to mention my amour propre.
MM: “Amour propre,” eh? If I’m not mistaken, that’s the only kind of amour you’ve been getting any of for the past few years.
Me: You really are annoying. How does one go about asking for a change of muse?
MM: Oh, it’s complicated. Wouldn’t do any good anyway. All the good muses are working for important people -- me, I wind up with someone like you.
Me: I’m warning you; one of these days I’m going to try writing without you.
MM: That’ll be the day. All right, I'll put you out of your misery; I’ll toss you some quotes and you see if you can do something with them.
Me: Fire away.
MM: How about this? “True love is like a ghost; everyone talks of it, few have seen it.”
Me: You made that up?
MM: Well, no. It’s by a buddy of mine, Frank. I call him that but his full name is Francois de la Rochefoucauld.
Me: Yes, but that’s so seventeenth century. You got anything a bit more modern?
MM: How’s this? “Love is an electric blanket with somebody else in control of the switch.”
Me: A bit hollow but I like it. However, this is the 21st century. I don’t mean to be shallow but have you anything with more emphasis on, say, carnality?
MM: You should like this. It’s Woody Allen’s. “The last time I was inside a woman was when I went to the Statue of Liberty.”
Me: Great. Now we’re really cooking.
MM: As usual, I do the cooking and you get the credit. But that’s what it means to be a muse.
Me: Right. If you don’t like it you can always go into some other line of work. Now, how about something special -- a sad quote for instance?
MM: Well, this is by another friend of mine, Anon. “The saddest thing in the world, is loving someone who used to love you.”
Me: That’s really fine. Actually, we seem to be getting along okay. Maybe I’ll vote to keep you as my muse.
MM: I’m overcome with gratitude.
Me: Now something appropriate for a closer?
MM: Well, this is by that ancient philosopher, F Sinatra:
“Who knows where the road will lead us
Only a fool would say,
But if you let me love you
I'm sure to love you…All the Way.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday and Sunday Scribblings

(Also for ABC Wednesday and Magpie 91)
"R" is for "Revolutionary"

The prompt this week struck me with force. It’s as though it could easily serve as illustration of a famous event that happened on one hot July day in Russia back in 1918.
The girl stares about her, unable to comprehend the enormity of an incredible catastrophe. The empty chairs represent the members of her family, all slaughtered by revolutionary Bolsheviks. She alone survived.
For me, this provided the impetus to write the following story. Since it was posted almost two years ago, I thought folks might not mind if I submitted it again. Here ‘tis…

: I’ve told you before, I don’t like doing this.
Mike: I know, but this is something special. I really need your help. An expert like you can tell me if this thing is worth real money. If so, well, there’s a big chunk of dough in it for you.
Victor: All right, let me have a look at it.

Mike: There. What do you think? Somethin’, isn’t it? Go ahead, take your time, no hurry. Look it over good.
Victor: I don’t need to look it over. I know exactly what it is.
Mike: You do? You mean it’s famous?
Victor: You could say that. How did you get this?
Mike: There are two young men who sort of work for me. They – er – acquired it.
Victor: You’re a fence, aren’t you, Mike? And the two young men are punks who steal stuff for you, right?
Mike: Now, wait a minute. How they got it or how it got here isn’t the question. All I want to know from you is, what’s it worth?
Victor: What did you pay for it?
Mike: Well, I figured I could always sell it for fifty dollars – a hundred if I’m lucky. So I gave them thirty-five bucks for it.
Victor: Thirty-five bucks. Unbelievable…
Mike: It’s worth more? A lot more?
Victor: To you it’s worth nothing. You wasted your thirty-five bucks.
Mike: What are you trying to pull? It’s gotta be worth something.

Victor: Let me give you a bit of history. Way back in 1918, the Russian royal family, the Romanoffs, may have begun the year thinking they were firmly established as rulers of Russia. But that year they were brutally voted out: the entire family was assassinated by revolutionary Bolshevik secret police. You’ve heard about this?
Mike: Sort of.

Victor: Then maybe you also heard that one of the daughters, Anastasia, managed to live through the assassination attempt and escaped. She later lived in Europe for years under the name of Anna Anderson. The word got around in recent years that she had moved to the States and spent the rest of her life here. Nobody could verify this; instead of seeking vindication, all she wanted was to avoid all publicity.
Mike: And this thing belonged to her?
Victor: You guessed it. She had this magnificent ceremonial Easter egg with her at all times as a kind of solace, and it was the only thing she had been able to save.
Mike: And you’re trying to tell me it isn’t worth anything?

Victor: It isn’t worth anything to you. That girl, just a teenager at the time of the assassination attempt, was a royal princess: the Grand Duchess Anastasia. If you could put this up for auction now I imagine the bidding would begin at around twenty million dollars.
Mike: Holy smoke!
Victor: But if you tried to sell it you’d have cops and FBI and Interpol and God knows who else after you. Your life would be in danger. And the law would learn a lot about your operations you’d just as soon they didn’t know.
Mike: You wouldn’t consider buying it, would you?
Victor: I would not. There’s never going to be anything but headaches with this. Way I see it, the person who owns it – or owned it before it was stolen from him – was keeping it very quiet, and probably for good reason.
Mike: So what am I supposed to do?
Victor: I’ll tell you what you should do. Pay the two hoodlums who stole this to carefully take it back to the home they stole it from. Leave it on the doorstep with a note saying “Easter egg. Happy Easter!”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday and Sunday Scribblings

(Also for ABC Wednesday and Magpie 90)
“Q” is for “Quotation”

This week’s Magpie prompt reminded me of a Shakespeare play, one I’m sure you’re familiar with. And of course when I think of Shakespeare I think of quotations.
Before we get to the quotation in question, let me set the scene.

The story really begins with a huge ball, an elegant party Old Man Capulet throws because he’s going to marry off his daughter Juliet to a man he has chosen for her.

But there’s a hitch: Juliet falls in love with another, a chap named Romeo, a Montague who showed up at the party uninvited.
The Capulets hate the Montagues and have for many decades. (No one alive remembers the reason for this feud; it just keeps rolling along under its own power.)
As you might imagine, everyone drank too much at the party, which happens at quite a few parties, I am informed. Old Man Capulet feels that life is good. However, he isn’t aware that his daughter has not only fallen in love with this Romeo fellow but is actually married to him.
Juliet knows her dad is going to insist she marry the other man; she’s despondent, wants to end it all. However, she is given a secret potion that will simulate death but allow her to regain consciousness later, and then she and Romeo can, hopefully, go off and live together.
She musters up the courage to drink the potion. The Capulets are overcome with grief at the news of what they believe is their daughter’s death and she is interred in the family’s burial vault.
A message is sent to Romeo to make sure he understands that the potion Juliet has taken will allow her to recover consciousness later. Unfortunately, tragically, he does not receive the message; he believes that Juliet has died and her body is in her family’s vault.
When he arrives he delivers these powerful lines (and this is the quotation I had in mind):
“Here lies Juliet,
And her beauty makes this vault a feasting presence full of light.
O my love, O my wife,
Death, that has sucked the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.
I will stay with thee,
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again.”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday and Sunday Scribblings

A few years ago a New York theatre critic wrote: “A snoozy Broadway season has been bolted wide awake by the arrival of a play drenched in juicy timeless issues -- racism, revenge and romance for dollars.”

“Forget that the work is 400 years old. The cause for cheers is the stirring version of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ starring Al Pacino, a supernova you already know, as the moneylender Shylock.”

No matter what you think of Al Pacino playing Shakespeare, “Merchant” is a fascinating play. But what the play means is even more interesting.
After all, the plot is fairly well known. Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who lends dough to a Christian, Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan isn’t repaid on time.

Later Antonio, bankrupt, can’t pay back the loan so Shylock, acting like what we today might call an awful jerk, demands his pound of flesh. At the trial, the beautiful leading lady of the play, Portia, switches gender to play a “doctor of law” who tries to save Antonio’s life, arguing for mercy in a famous speech:
“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Shylock, however, “wins” the case and gets set to collect his pound of flesh. But Portia, at the last minute, punctures his balloon; she points out that the contract only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, and not one drop of blood, so the carnage is avoided. Antonio’s life is saved and the money-lender is defeated.
(By the way, the actual “merchant” of Venice is Antonio, not Shylock.)
As I suggested, what the play “The Merchant of Venice” has meant to audiences throughout the past few centuries is kind of fascinating. Is it an anti-Semitic play? Does it reflect not only the general anti-Semitism of the Elizabethan age but Will Shakespeare’s own anti-Semitism?
Or is it Shakespeare’s plea for tolerance?
The history of the play’s productions is interesting. In some versions Shylock has been presented as a cruel caricature: heartless, hateful, greedy. In others, he is a more sympathetic character.
The Nazis, by the way, loved the play. At the beginning of World War II, “Merchant” was playing in numerous German cities. They changed it a bit: Shylock’s daughter, who was of course Jewish, did not marry a Christian, as Shakespeare had written.

A question that has often been asked is, what did Will Shakespeare feel about the character he created named Shylock? Will lived in a society – 16th-century England – that was, from our twenty-first century standpoint, almost incredibly anti-Semitic. So his Shylock was seemingly greedy and heartless, as his audiences would have expected, but it’s worth noting that the playwright created a character, the money-lender, who also had pride, energy, even a sense of humor. He could be seen as an omen, what happens to a person who is scarred by years of never-ending persecution and discrimination.
Shakespeare wrote some of his best-known lines for Shylock to deliver:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
An anti-Semitic play or a plea for tolerance? What’s your opinion?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

For ABC Wednesday and Magpie 89

(Also for Three-Word Wednesday and Sunday Scribblings)
"P" is for Phone Conversation

I had sat at the typewriter for over an hour, trying to figure out what to write. (This happened back in the days before I got around to email.)
I had received an extraordinary letter. It was from a man up in Rhode Island, a man I had known in the old days.
It was a delicate matter; I had known him and also known his wife, back before they were married. I had known her, actually, rather well.
In his letter he said she had left him and he thought I might be able to help him find her. The problem of what to write was suddenly solved because the phone rang. Since he hadn’t received an answer to his letter he decided to call me directly. He got right to the point.
"Reason I wrote you, you went with her for a year or so back then, before we got married."
“A year or so? It was actually a few months. And ‘went with her’ isn’t really accurate; we were friends.”
“That ain’t what I heard.”
“So, well, anyway, how is Marilyn? Okay I hope.”
“Marilyn? You don’t even remember her name. It’s Maureen.”
“Oh, right. You know, it was a long time ago; I was just out of college. I don’t remember everyone I knew in those days.”
“Well, as I wrote you, she left. Just got up and left.”
“Yes, I was sorry to read that.”
“It got me upset; my whole family is upset. It even got her family upset. A married woman. My wife. Just up and leaves. Anyway, I thought you might help.”
“Sure, if I can.”
“Here’s the thing. If she should ever contact you – you know, call on the phone to talk over old times or whatever – could you tell her that what she really ought to do is go back to her husband. And then let me know where she’s staying. It’s important that I find out where she’s staying.”
“Why do you think she left?”
“Who knows? Maybe she just don’t like Rhode Island.”
“She told me, way back when she was first talking about getting married, that she felt vulnerable, that you weren’t – well – all that nice to her.”
“That’s baloney. If she said anything like that, it was a figment of her imagination. As her husband, I worked hard, fifty hours a week sometimes, to get her whatever she needed. You can’t be much nicer than that.”
“But, you never – I’m just trying to figure out why she left -- you never abused her, never hit her or anything like that?”
“What’re you -- a shrink or somethin’!? I didn’t call you to get a lecture! I’m a husband from the old school. My whole family, we know how to treat women.”
“Well, I’m sorry I can’t be of much help. But I'll go along with you in this operation; if I should ever hear from her, I’ll tell her to go back to her husband. Goodbye.”
I hung up the phone.
“Was that him?” she asked.
“Yes. I just hope he stays up there and doesn’t come down here to New York. As I remember, he was a pretty big guy. I’d be inclined to avoid a confrontation.”
“Yes, we’ve got to be careful. When I mentioned divorce, he said he’d kill me first.”
“And that would mean me second. I guess this is what they call living dangerously. But it’s worth it, Maureen – to have you with me again.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

For ABC Wednesday

(Also for Magpie 88 and Sunday Scribblings)

O Mannahatta!
"I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name:
Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly,
musical, self-sufficient.
I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,
Because I see that word nested in an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded.
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies.
The down-town streets, the jobbers' houses of business, the houses
of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week.
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft.
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river,
passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide.
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form'd,
beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes.
Trottoirs throng'd, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows,
A million people--manners free and superb--open voices—-hospitality.
City of hurried and sparkling waters! City of spires and masts!
City nested in bays! Mannahatta, my city!"
Walt Whitman
(P. S. It's always been my backyard. --Berowne)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday

(Also for Magpie 87, Sunday Scribblings and ABC Wednesday)
"N" is for "Nice"

A few decades ago I had a great job, making motion pictures around the world for various national governments and American businesses.
One of the assignments was to make a film on Taiwan.

The island of Taiwan – (and, by the way, their preferred name is the Republic of China) – is a beautiful place, a perfect subject for a documentary film-maker.

I shot footage of the usual attractions, as might be expected. But the government agency I was working for wanted me to be sure to include a sequence on the food.
Because the food on Taiwan is really good.

There’s a solid historical reason for this. When the Communists took over mainland China, back in 1950, they closed down the great hotels and the fine restaurants; such things didn’t fit in with Marxist philosophy.

So the great Chinese chefs took off, along with everyone else who could get out, for Taiwan. Result: for many years the island had the best Chinese food on the planet.
My clients wanted me to show this in the film I was making for them, and especially to emphasize one of the great national dishes, Peking Duck.

I had heard about this dish, but I had never had a chance to taste it in its authentic form. It has been around for quite a while; some say almost a thousand years.

So I arranged for a sequence for my film, shot in a Taipei restaurant. During the shoot, I had a brilliant idea.
(Like so many of my brilliant ideas, it didn’t work out too well.)
My view was that preparing Peking Duck wasn’t all that difficult. You see, back home in New York I had always wanted to be considered, by admiring friends and relatives, as a competent amateur chef. How satisfying it would be if I used what I learned here to prepare a really nice dish: Peking Duck. I could imagine a large, full-color photograph of me as a champion Peking Duck chef, with a note reading: "You Are Here."
Again, it didn’t look too hard. You just had to have, first of all, a duck – which would be sort of a basic requirement – and such stuff as scallions, hoisin sauce, etc., etc.
A small, tentative voice within me said, you can do this!
You’d think I would have learned never to listen to that small, tentative voice.
It was back home in New York that I was forced to face the basic fact about cooking Peking Duck – it ain’t easy.
Of course, some of the steps weren’t too difficult. Completely cleaning and eviscerating, the bird? Okay, I could do that. I began to get an idea of what a project this would be when I learned that I was supposed to hang it to dry for 24 hours.
I tried to think of what to say if other members of my condominium association dropped in and saw this small carcass hanging in my apartment - surely that might be regarded as a breach of condo rules? But the next bit was even worse: you were supposed to actually blow air through the crevices between the skin and meat; this would remove excess fat.
The reaction of those same folks who dropped by if they saw me blowing air into a duck – well, that could only be imagined.
At one point a sentence in the recipe caught my eye: "Total preparation time 11 hours and 20 minutes." It was around then the flame of ambition I had to be a Peking Duck chef became a dying ember.
Some folks, as it turned out, did drop by and we had a fine meal. I had phoned for Chinese takeout home delivery -- General Tso's Chicken. :-)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday

(Also submitted to ABC Wednesday and Magpie 86)
"M" is for "Monarch"

Finally – the news came with this morning’s paper.
I prepared to sit down to breakfast. My Ovaltine was at the ready, steaming hot and inviting.
(I gave up coffee some time back; trying to follow the current economic and political situation has just been too nerve-wracking.)
There could no longer be questions, arguments, accusations, disputes. The major question of the day had been answered and the answer was right there in the paper.
My political party, after months of submitting a seemingly endless list of potential candidates for the office of the Presidency – ranging from the barely acceptable through border-line deplorable, right on down to flat-out objectionable – had cut the Gordian knot and solved the problem.
It was an astonishing piece of news. Their decision: the person to be chosen at the next nominating convention would not be just someone people admire; the candidate would be something they desperately need:
A King.
After being nominated at the convention, our democratically-elected Monarch would be greeted everywhere throughout the land with great enthusiasm and with a cry similar to the one that has greeted royalty through the centuries:
“Vive le Roi des Etats-Unis! Vive le Roi!”

Sunday, October 2, 2011

For Sunday Scribblings

(Also submitted to Three-Word Wednesday, ABC Wednesday and Magpie 85)
"L" is for "Large-Eared"
: I didn’t think I could write something suitable for the Magpie 85 prompt this week.
My Muse: Why not?
Me: Well, it’s a picture of what appears to be an elephant that can fly. It’s a bit too obvious: a flying elephant? That means that other folks are going to be writing about that old Walt Disney movie “Dumbo.”

My Muse: Surely not everyone. But even if some do, you can come up with a different angle on the film. Write about the foreign situation at that time, World War II, the Great Depression…
Me: What does that have to do with a cartoon pachyderm that flies?
MM: A lot. Try to get people to imagine what it meant to be sitting in a movie theatre in October, 1941, watching that film. The film viewer doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself; a lot of people weren’t at that time. World War Two, the great conflict so many had feared for the past decade or so, had already begun.
Me: That’s true. In fact, in Europe it had been going on for two years. It depressed us in the States because it seemed inevitable that we were going to be drawn into it.
MM: And remember October, 1941, the date the movie opened. The attack on Pearl Harbor was just a few weeks away. What with the war going full blast overseas, it was a scary time for all. So it was natural that a lot of folks sought to relax at the movies – with a film about a cute little flying elephant named Dumbo.
Me: You may be right. Especially since the key fact about him was that he was – to use a technical scientific term – large-eared. The other animals made fun of him. He was afraid he might be ejected from the circus.
MM: But don’t forget, the fact that he was convinced he couldn’t do something – i.e., fly – and then it turned out that he could, well, it may have cheered some folks up who thought things were fairly hopeless then.
Me: Well, it cheered up Disney. Remember “Fantasia,” that blockbuster of the animation medium? It had opened the year before and didn’t come close to getting its investment back. You see, Walt Disney was tired of turning out nothing but short subjects of cute little cartoon animals; he felt a call to do something Important. So he went for broke with "Fantasia": it was for common folks of course, but with so much classical music and with numerous literate references, very unusual for a cartoon, it was also aimed at the intelligentsia.
MM: Right. And it was a techie breakthrough for the time. The sound track was recorded using multiple audio channels; it was the first commercial film ever to be shown in stereophonic sound, which had a great impact on movie-goers.
Me: But it meant that many theaters couldn’t play it. And of course the War cut out all foreign distribution, so the film lost a bundle. Disney then sought something much simpler to recoup his losses – enter “Dumbo.” I’ve always remembered that song in the movie about the little elephant flying. Most folks don’t realize that it was rendered by the Hall Johnson Choir, one of the finest choral groups of that time. It went like this:

I seen a peanut stand, heard a rubber band
I seen a needle that winked its eye.
But I be done seen 'bout ev'rythin’
When I see a elephant fly.

I seen a front porch swing, heard a diamond ring
I seen a polka-dot railroad tie.
But I be done seen 'bout ev'rythin’
When I see a elephant fly.

I heard a fireside chat, I saw a baseball bat
And I laughed till I thought I'd die.
But I be done seen 'bout ev'rythin’
When I see a elephant fly!

MM: There. So maybe there is something you could write about this week. And oh yes, don’t forget the Manhattan Bridge.

Me: Of course. Not every one knows that there’s an interesting neighborhood in New York City that came into being under the Manhattan Bridge. Above, the Brooklyn Bridge seen from under the Manhattan Bridge. The name of the neighborhood is Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, so everybody knows it as DUMBO. Many folks are proud to say they live in Dumbo.
MM: So the little pachyderm lives on, even today.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

For Sunday Scribblings

(Also submitted to Three-Word Wedneseday, ABC Wednesday and Magpie 84)

The woman in the picture above could very well be Violetta.
Violetta Valery was the lady’s full name and she was the star of Verdi’s opera “La Traviata,” perhaps the most-performed opera in history.
The prompt reminds us of her because it could well be a picture of someone who, like Violetta, is declaring her freedom. Other women were interested in such things as a guarantee of security -- marriage, family, home. Violetta was a person who wanted her independence. She lived a life that was a veritable kaleidoscope of adventures, a life dedicated to joy, beauty, pleasure and romance.

Above: Anna Netrebko, who's not just beautiful but is also one of the greatest sopranos of our present day -- she sang the role of Violetta.
In the opera she played what they used to call, a century and a half ago, a courtesan. It was not difficult to become a courtesan, actually. You just had to be extremely attractive, young, witty, charming, and you had to have a group of rich – and generous -- male friends who would cherish and support you.
Violetta had a life made up of all these and she gloried in that life. One of her best-known arias in the opera is titled “Always Free” – “Sempre Libera.”

Sempre libera degg'io
Folleggiare di gioia in gioia.
Always free, I frolic
From joy to joy.

Vo'che scorra il viver mio
Pei sentieri del piacer.
I run about to feel,
To taste every pleasure.

Nasca il giorno, o il giorno muoia,
Sempre lieta ne'ritrovi.
As the day is born, or as the day dies,
I’m always seeking gladness, happiness.

However, as you might expect, Violetta discovers true love; there’s a chap, a young nobleman named Alfredo Germont, who declares his love for her. At first she laughs him off. Serious love, commitment? She implies that she felt a tinge of nausea at the very thought of such a conventionsl, humdrum life. But of course she changes her mind (or there’d be no opera).

Today Giuseppe Verdi, one of the greatest composers who ever lived, would probably be surprised to learn that there are many women who also have lives dedicated to a kaleidoscope of happiness and beauty, as well as to home and family, and the key point is they have the freedom to do so.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

For Sunday Scribblings

(Also submitted to Three-Word Wednesday, ABC Wednesday and Magpie 83)

It took me a few moments before I realized just who that was in the above picture.
Why of course, it’s Caliban!
You remember Caliban, one of the “stars,” if I may so describe him, of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
There’s always been some question as to just who, or what, Caliban was.

You see, he had this unusual background. His mother, Sycorax, was sort of a – well, to come right out with it – a devil. Which means he was a kind of half-man/half-beast.
He existed on a beautiful island, living peacefully with the birds, the snakes, and all the other critters of the place. But his was a far from happy life because a man named Prospero had showed up, along with his daughter Miranda, on Caliban’s island. Prospero took charge, became master of the place -- and also master of Caliban.
Caliban, who had ruled the island almost as king before, soon became, in effect, Prospero’s slave. He was not treated well by his master.

Prospero explains his carefully thought-out judgment of Caliban by claiming that he had attempted to rape Miranda. Caliban confirms this gleefully, saying that if he hadn't been stopped he would have peopled the island with a race of little Calibans.
He seeks revenge, and he has a lot to say about it; life with Caliban was never dull.

“This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which you took from me! When you came first,
You stroked me and made much of me, would give me
Water with berries in't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night; and then I lov'd you,
And show'd you all the qualities o' the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.
Curs'd be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse."

For someone whose English wasn’t the greatest, Caliban was nevertheless capable of poetic language:

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”

For a couple of centuries, scholars, studying this play, have operated under several plans, as far as understanding Shakespeare's motivtions are concerned. Plan A: the playwright, with the character Caliban, was strongly attacking colonialism, racism, slavery – all of which were operating in full force in the playwright’s day.
But Plan B would have it differently. Shakespeare's reaction to such issues would actually have been just a big yawn. In other words, it could be that all he was doing was writing what he hoped would be a successful play.
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