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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

For Sunday Scribblings

(Also submitted to Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday.)
“I” is for “Its”

I recently learned that I seem to be suffering from a terrible illness: Punctuational snobbery.
You see, years ago I learned – (I’m not sure how I learned it, but I learned it) – when to use “its” and when to use “it’s.”
So now whenever I see the writing of someone who is still in the dark its-wise, who obviously has no idea when “its” is right and “it’s” is wrong, I’m embarrassed to find that I sort of look down on that unfortunate character, as I would if at an elegant dinner party he was a guy who ate peas with a spoon.
After all, a person can be a fine, upstanding individual, a credit to his community, kind to his mother and good to his dad, and still not grasp the grammatical niceties. So smug punctuational snobs have no right to look down on him.
Somehow, however, even if only a tiny bit, we do. It’s – (there, I just used it) – it’s as though we want to whisper to him: “The fork, buddy, use the fork for peas.”
But you can get the thing right with ease, because the rule is easy:
You use an apostrophe with “it’s” when it is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.” Examples: “It’s a nice day” or “It’s been great getting to know you.”
Otherwise, run with an omission of the apostrophe and write “its”; you can’t go too far wrong.
Punctuation shouldn’t be all-important; there should be no punctuational snobbery, discrimination of a person because he/she is a bit -- punctuationally backward, shall we say? :-)
It’s – (that thing again) – it’s as though we look down on a person at a job interview because he shows up wearing socks of different colors. Shouldn’t really matter, after all.

You know the famous panda story, the one about the murderous gun-toting panda? Seems a wildlife book had described the panda as a “large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” Just a misplaced comma, but it turned the peaceful panda into a wild gunslinger.

As you may be aware, Lynne Truss wrote a book about him, a book subtitled “the zero-tolerance approach to punctuation,” and it was a huge best-seller.
It’s – (there it is again) – it’s a fact that for a while she made punctuation popular. :-)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Magpie 82

I imagine most Magpie posts this week will have the tragedy of 9/11 in mind. I hope that something a bit different, my rather lighthearted piece on ghosts generally, may also be permitted.

You think of ghosts, you think of Shakespeare.
Or you should.
Because Will S. packed so many of these phantoms in his plays it almost seems they came out of the woodwork.
Which of course is what many ghosts do.
Look at the lineup:

First there is the specter who’s probably the most famous of the Shakespearean ghosts, Hamlet’s father. (His dad, by wild coincidence, was also named Hamlet.)

Then there’s the ghoul who wrecked Macbeth’s elegant dinner party, Banquo.

Of course we should also mention Julius Caesar’s pervasive spirit, in the play of that name, who comes back to remind everyone that he’s pretty ticked off about his assassination – as who wouldn’t be?
And we’ve got to add to the list the play about Richard III, Shakespeare’s Bad Guy par excellence, who pretty well hated everyone and who everyone, by the end of the play, pretty well hated him.

He had a whole platoon of ghosts come to torment him. (I counted eleven of ‘em.)
Some of these ghosts had lines; they had things to say. But there’s always been a question in my mind about these phantoms: who saw them?
Because Shakespeare wasn’t consistent. Sometimes the ghosts were seen by just one person; other times they were seen by many.
For example, Banquo, at the dinner party, is seen only by Macbeth; none of the guests at the banquet see him at all. Even Mrs. M – Lady Macbeth – doesn’t see him, yet she’s just as guilty of murder as her husband.
Hamlet’s father, on the other hand, is seen by the night watch at Elsinore castle, who then call this rather bizarre apparition to the young Prince’s attention. They all see the ghost.

But later in his mother’s bedroom, while Hamlet is criticizing his mom for having had carnival knowledge of his uncle Claudius, the specter of his dad shows up again. What’s remarkable is that the old King’s ghost, this time, is seen (and heard) only by his son – his mother sees nothing.
All of which leads to an obvious question: Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts?
My guess (cries of “For what that’s worth!” are heard in the background), is no, he didn’t.
He wrote a lot about witches too, but scholars point out that this probably had a lot to do with the simple fact that Will’s king, James the One, who was the playwright’s patron -- and, let’s face it, his boss -- was very occupied with witches. So Our Will wrote a play that concentrated so heavily on witches it might as well have been titled “The Witches,” but wound up as “Macbeth.”
So I conclude Shakespeare didn’t believe in ghosts or witches or a number of other supernatural types. But truth is, no one knows, or will ever know, just what Will Shakespeare did believe in.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

For Sunday Scribblings

{Also submitted to Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday)
“H” as in “Hong Kong”

A number of years ago I was shooting a film in Hong Kong.
The script called for a sequence with a Chinese farmer and his son, to be shot on a farm well outside the city. I had permission to shoot on the farm for only one day, Sunday, so we had to start early Sunday morning.
The actor playing the farmer was already at the location. With my crew I was waiting for the arrival of the boy who had been hired to play the part of the farmer’s son and who was to come with his mother. The mom, luckily, spoke good English. She would spend the day taking care of the boy while we worked.
But they were late.
We sat there and waited.
Whoever first said that time was money must have been thinking about film production. We waited some more. My confidence began to erode; it was already late, and it was getting later.
Finally, I could see the two of them hurrying toward us. The mother apologized profusely; the lad had slept late. Fine, I said, get in. Let’s go.
As we started off, the woman had a request. Her son had had no breakfast. Couldn’t we get something? He could eat it while we drove to the location.

If you’ve ever been in a position to observe an early Sunday morning in Hong Kong, you’d have the sensation that the place was closed up tight as a drum.
However, I did espy a small hole-in-the-wall sort of place that seemed to be open. It had a sign in front that read “Portuguese Cakes.”
I had no idea what those were but any port in a storm, as the saying goes. I didn’t have the heart to continue the drive without some kind of petit dejeuner for the youngster, so I gave some money to my assistant and told him to get something for the kid’s breakfast.
We waited some more.
When the assistant showed up I was startled to see that he had a large tray loaded with half-a-dozen containers of the aforesaid cakes. It seems that a Portuguese cake, at least in Hong Kong, was a variation on the cream-puff theme: each container had a sizable piece of cake on the bottom with a whopping amount of thick whipped cream on the top. It was difficult just to have to look at such rich food early in the morning.
But that kid had evidently never tasted anything like those “cakes” before; he ate them all, and with gusto.

To get back to our production, no one had told me that the farm, our location, was on top of a hill. Nor that the only way to get to it was on a small winding road – which zigged off to the left, then zagged off to the right, etc., etc.
The inevitable happened.
Our boy actor suddenly let loose with a monumental upchuck, probably of a dimension never before seen in that part of the Orient.
The rear seat of our vehicle – and unfortunately not just the rear seat – was covered with gobs of partially-digested gateaux portugais, which had somehow become transmogrified into something rather like Elmer’s Glue, except that the smell was worse.
As we continued toward the location, I could only wonder if Martin Scorsese ever had problems like this. :-)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Magpie 81

Why did this week’s prompt hit me on such a personal level?
Because it’s about junk.
Worn-out, no longer used (and no longer usable) junk.
There was a time when the equipment in the photo was new and in excellent working condition. But old age set in, as it does with all mechanical equipment.
As it does, with all of us.
It was Robert Browning who wrote: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be!”
He could not have been more mistaken. :-)
You understand, I’m not complaining; I enjoy my life, even as a certified oldster. But I know that the best of life had to do with those earlier years.
Maxwell Anderson summed it up, in a magnificent, unforgettable lyric:

When I was a young man courting the girls
I played me a waiting game.
If a maid refused me with tossing curls,
I'd let the old Earth make a couple of whirls
While I plied her with tears in lieu of pearls,
And as time came around she came my way.
As time came around, she came.

But it's a long, long while from May to December
And the days grow short when you reach September.
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time for the waiting game.

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few,
September, November…
And these few precious days I'll spend with you.
These precious days I'll spend with you.
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