Sunday, January 29, 2012

Magpie 102, ABC Wednesday and Three-Word Wednesday

"C" is for "Commentary"
Ah, free association - what a tool for a writer.
I took what clearly seemed to be an apple in an abstract work of art (above), thought about it for a bit, then combined that thought with all the political shenanigans going on these days, and suddenly remembered a phrase from the past:
“Politics is applesauce.”
Then I recalled who said it – Will Rogers, of course.
It’s kind of sad that there’s a generation of folks these days who don’t know who Will Rogers was.

Well, Will was a guy from Oklahoma who started out making a living as a sort of vaudeville cowboy doing rope tricks and other such cowboy-type stuff.
He came to learn that he got a much greater audience response when he talked, tossing off jokes and witty comment in a detached way, than when he relied on just action, trying to lasso something, for example. That’s when his career surged and took off.

He got on Broadway, then went off to Hollywood. He became a world-famous political wit, humorist and actor – he appeared in seventy-one movies. (!) In the thirties he was not only the highest-paid film star, he was loved by the American people.
I’m old enough to remember, back when Will was off on one of his round-the world flights – in a small aircraft; no 747s then – that it was quite a jolt for me and for the entire country to learn of his death when the plane crashed in Alaska.
I think it’s kind of amazing, and also funny, that Will – eighty years ago – knew all about our 2012 political scene. Here are some examples of his commentary:
"Everything is changing. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke."
“A fool and his money are soon elected.”
"Everybody says this here thing we're involved in ain't a real war. Congress says it ain't a war. 'Course the guys over there getting shot at say it's the best damned imitation they ever saw."
“If stupidity got us in this mess, why can't it get us out?"
“Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate, now what's going to happen to us with both a House and a Senate?”
And he could be serious too: "I hope there are some sane people who will appreciate dignity and not showmanship in their choice for the presidency"
Look out, Jon Stewart, Will’s gaining on you!
Free association; for a writer there’s nothing quite like it. It can turn Wassily Kandinsky into Will Rogers in a couple of minutes. :-)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

For ABC Wednesday, Magpie 101a and Three-Word Wednesday

I don't usually do reruns. But the prompt this week seems to demand re-posting the following from several years ago.
You see, I was once pleased to be given an interesting assignment: I was to make a movie about a top American corporation. The film would involve some shooting in Japan.

So I flew to Tokyo, ready to go to work. As I got off the plane, I believed that the Japanese were really taking this motion picture project seriously because they were giving me the finest welcome possible. I was surprised to see that I was being met at the airport by a large limo. And not just a limo; the car had a uniformed driver and another chap, also uniformed, who rode shotgun - though in Japan I suppose it would be shogun :-) - in the front passenger seat.
I was able to cruise through the world-famous Tokyo traffic jam in comfort. In fact, I had never had a job, of any kind, that started off so auspiciously. They drove me to their head office and I got to meet everyone. They were all friendly and welcoming; there was a lot of bowing, me doing my share, of course.

It was lunchtime, so they asked if I would prefer going to a steak-house or would I like to try some authentic Japanese food? Well, of course, we had steak-houses back in the Stytes and besides, I thought it would be a good political move to opt for the indigenous cuisine, so we headed off for what I would today recognize as a sushi place.

I say I would recognize it today; I didn’t recognize it then. Truth is, a few decades ago there weren’t many sushi joints in the U S of A, and you certainly didn’t see sushi for sale in just about any American grocery store. Most Yankees of that era didn’t know from sushi; the idea of eating raw fish was regarded as just sort of weird.
However I could see that this restaurant I was being taken to was elegant and upscale – i.e., expensive – so I looked forward to an excellent meal.
But there was a fly in the saki. Something had been worrying me, and it had nothing to do with raw fish. It had gradually dawned on me, as time went on, that I was inadvertently sailing under false colors.
The reason for the great welcome I had received? I came to realize that they thought that I, a humble artisan, a simple, rather impecunious documentary-maker, was actually one of the top executives of the American corporation in question. That explained the limo and its two charioteers.
That was bad enough. Just as bad was the question, how on earth do I go about bursting their bubble, telling them of the mistake? I had heard all about the importance of saving face in the Orient; would they think I had intentionally tried to trick them? Could it result in some sort of international train wreck? Would hara kiri knives be involved in any way?
At this point the waiter served the meal. I felt like I had just come into the big city from Mayberry; I recognized absolutely nothing that was being served. But one thing struck me forcibly. Among everything else on the plate there was a little creature there – who was walking around.
I had never gone in for ambulatory victuals. However, when in Rome… I took up my chopsticks and went after him. He valiantly fought off my preliminary attack. This was followed by a certain amount of thrusting and parrying. Fortunately, I remembered the rules of fencing from my college days. What was odd was that he seemed to know them too.
Then, while I sat there planning my next move, the little fellow climbed over the edge of the plate and lumbered off to the left. The Japanese are a polite people; the two guys with me were trying desperately not to laugh, but not succeeding. The waiter took pity on me and swooped the whatever-it-was away with a towel. In a way I was sorry to see the little chap leave; he had fought well, and with a certain panache.
Well, long story short – it’s been long enough – the gentlemen I was visiting took the explanation of the misconception well enough and, as that great Japanese playwright Shakespeare used to say, all was well that ended well.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

For Three-Word Wednesday, Magpie 100 and ABC Wednesday

"A" is for "AB"

It’s sort of astonishing that Tess Kincaid came up with the above prompt, which looks like it could well be titled “drowning,” at the same time that news of a spectacular shipwreck was filling the air waves and the newsprint.

I guess everyone is aware of the freak accident of the Costa Concordia during a Mediterranean cruise. The prompt this week hit me hard. You see, years ago I was involved in a shipwreck, and the reason I’ll never forget it is that I was the one who caused it.
To tell you about it, let me take you back to the days when I was just a kid, a humble able-bodied seaman, or AB.
I should also make a couple of points. One, a sailor who is steering a ship, the helmsman, no matter how able-bodied he may be, does not, can not, make even the sliver of an independent decision.
He’s there to steer the thing. He has been given the number of a course, which means he turns the steering wheel a little from time to time so the needle on the compass is constantly on that course heading.
That’s all he does. Turning the ship, even in an emergency, is not for him; that decision is to be made by the officer of the watch. That’s not just the ancient custom of the sea; it is the law.
I remember once I was at the wheel and I could see a small collection of fishing boats, five or six of them, up ahead in the distance just off our starboard bow. They were clustered together; maybe they were all going after the same fish. I believed that if we continued as we were heading we were going to plow into them. The second officer was out on the wing of the bridge; perhaps he hadn’t noticed this.
I could easily have twirled the wheel and swung our ship over to port and avoided the boats. But of course the law was the law; I had the right to call an officer’s attention to the situation but I couldn’t do anything about it.
So I shouted out to him about the collection of boats up ahead off our starboard bow. “I’m aware of it,” he replied.
He’s aware of it, I thought. But maybe he's too dumb to do anything about it.
Turned out, though, that he was smarter than I thought. He knew that the current, and the wind, were drifting from starboard to port. So he knew that by the time our ship got to that area, the little collection of fishing boats would have drifted across our bow and have wound up to the side, well out of harm’s way. So maybe the law made some sense.
Now. Quick segue to a different story.
Having had the sea-going experience, I wanted to try sailing on the Great Lakes.

The vessels on these bodies of water, many of ‘em, are known as “ore boats,” mainly because they carry ore – you see how logical things are in that part of the country?
As you may know, to a true seaman, there’s an important difference between the word “ship” and the word “boat.” It pains him to hear a ship called a boat. Generally, and very loosely speaking, a ship is something big and a boat is something that could be carried on a ship.

But still, they call those Great Lakers, though they may be as large as any ships, “ore boats.”
What can you do?

Anyway, to get to my shipwreck. It is quite tricky to steer one of these huge vessels among the rivers that lead to the Lakes, and to bring them “alongside” to tie up at all kinds of local docks and piers.
I was at the wheel one day while the captain was on the bridge with me. As far as I could see, everything was the same as with a ship at sea. But it wasn’t, as I was to find out.
I had been given a course to steer, but I suddenly noticed that the skipper had left the bridge. At sea, this would be a no-no; there has to be an officer on the bridge when under way. Again, the law.
So I was alone on the bridge and I had the feeling that everything was going downhill: the ship, or boat, or whatever it was, was heading right toward a dock.
I knew the law. I could do nothing but shout, in a kind of piteous cry, for the captain, or somebody, to get the hell up on the bridge or we were going to smash into that dock.
Which we did.
A large quantity of shouts and curses arose from all parts of our vessel. The skipper (finally) rushed up and asked me if I was crazy.
It turned out that things were much more relaxed on the Lakes. A helmsman could maneuver the ship if there was no officer around, and avoid trouble all by hisself.
Who knew?

My shipwreck wasn’t as big a deal, thankfully, as the wreck of the Costa Concordia, but I had destroyed quite a section of a dock, and it was decided that perhaps it would be better if I left the Great Lakes and got back to being an AB on seagoing boats – er, ships.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

For Sunday Scribblings and Three-Word Wednesday

(Also submitted to Magpie 99 and ABC Wednesday)

"Z" is for "Zenith"
A few decades ago, in Times Square, you could have seen a huge sign publicizing a musical starring one Yuliy Borisovich Bryner, known to film-goers around the world as Yul Brynner.
Then, glancing to the left, you could have viewed a true Broadway legend: an eight-foot bronze statue of George M. Cohan, the only statue, by the way, of an actor on Broadway.
They both reached the zenith, as far as their profession was concerned. But even though they belonged to the same show business tribe, they were a couple of very different guys. For years they and their diverse styles of production sort of summed up what the Great White Way was all about.

George M wasn’t just an actor-producer-director, he was also a singer, lyricist, dancer and playwright; he turned out some 500 songs in his career and he wrote, produced and starred in many musicals.
Way back there, before World War I, he was known as “the man who owned Broadway.”
George M’s songs, like George M himself, often tended toward a kind of super-heated patriotism: “You’re a grand old flag, you’re a high-flying flag…”

He’d been on the stage since he could first walk: for years he was one-fourth of the vaudeville act known as “The Four Cohans.” (The other three were his parents and his sister.) Cohan, by the way, was pronounced Co-han.
Then, glancing over to the right in Times Square you would have come upon the huge sign for Yul Brynner’s “The King and I.” Yuliy’s life story wasn’t much like George M’s. It was a life of almost incredible adventures, forced travel and the occasionally brutal necessity of doing whatever he could to make a living.
Born in Russia, in Vladivostok, the boy was taken to China and then, years later, to Paris. He got work as a trapeze artist with the local circus.

He was a Romani – a Gypsy -- on his mother’s side; when he became a star he was named President of the International Romani Union and he proudly kept that office till his death.

For a few years he had small parts in the Broadway theatre. It was Mary Martin who recommended him for the part he would forever be known for: the King in Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I". It was a hit; he performed it almost 5,000 times on stage -- he must have gotten a bit sick of it. However, Brynner became an immediate sensation in the role, repeating it for film and winning the Oscar for Best Actor.

Yuliy was noted for his distinctive voice and for his shaven head, which he maintained as a personal trademark long after adopting it for his initial role in “The King and I”. Right, Brynner with a cigarette (which is what would kill him).

For several decades Yuliy maintained a starring film career despite his exotic nature. As an actor, he could be trusted to perform with solid professionalism in a wide range of roles from sullen Egyptian pharaohs to Western gunfighters, almost all with the same shaved head and that indefinable accent.

By the way, here’s his naturalization form when he applied for U S citizenship. Note: he had hair. :-)

Monday, January 2, 2012

For Sunday Scribblings and Three-Word Wednesday

(Also submitted to Magpie 98 and ABC Wednesday)
"Y" is for "Year"

It was on a riverbank just like the one above that there occurred one of the most tragic scenes in Shakespeare:
In the play "Hamlet," it was the year of Ophelia's death.
Not just a tragedy, it was a mystery.
She drowned, but was it an accident or was it suicide?
Surely you’re familiar with Ophelia. She was Hamlet’s true love – not that he really appreciated her.

A daughter of the Lord Chamberlain, she can hardly be said to have lived a normal life; she had been firmly sheltered.
Ophelia clings to the memory of the days when Prince Hamlet had treated her with respect and tenderness, and she defends him and loves him to the very end despite his harsh treatment of her. She is incapable of defending herself, but through her timid responses we see clearly her intense suffering.
Her innocence is not a tactic. She simply cannot cope with the unfolding of one traumatic event after another.
Hamlet causes her emotional pain throughout the play and when she learns he is responsible for her father's death, she has endured all that she is capable of enduring and goes insane.

There follows the scene when she, quite mad, appears before the King and Queen. Ophelia, the very symbol of innocence, sings naughty songs, ditties no one would have expected she would even have been familiar with. They may seem harmless to us, living our dissolute twenty-first century lives, but from Ophelia at that time they’re something of a shock.
For example, she sang:
“Then up he rose and donn’d his clothes,
And op’d the chamber door.
Let in the maid, that out a maid,
Never departed more.”

Her subsequent death by drowning is reported to the court by the Queen, whose announcement of Ophelia's death has been praised as a kind of literary zenith; it’s one of the most poetic reports of death in all literature.[9]

“There is a willow grows across the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name."

"Down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up, but long it could not be,
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch to muddy death.”

But there’s one thing that has always bothered me about this; it’s the mystery I mentioned earlier. The Queen makes the report as one who had been there, watching.
How could she have watched all this and done nothing to save the girl?
In addition, did Ophelia fall in or was it suicide?
Later, at her funeral, we see a sexton at the graveyard insisting she had killed herself and that the religious ceremony must be curtailed. Her brother Laertes is outraged by what the cleric says, and replies that Ophelia will be an angel in heaven when the cleric "lies howling in hell.”
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