Category Archives: History

Emotionally Scarring Toys

Pooduck

In December 2005 researchers at England’s University of Bath released the results of a study that found that children, especially girls, see torturing and mutilating their Barbies as a common and enjoyable form of play. An article in the London Times stated that “mutilation ranged from cutting off hair to decapitating and putting the dolls in microwaves.” Children ages seven to eleven were said to “see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a ‘cool’ activity,” according to the article. The children were aware that they were being exploited by “over-marketing and over-charging” and that rejecting the doll was a “rite of passage” engaged in by children who felt they’d outgrown their Barbies. “Barbies are not special,” said the researchers. “They are disposable, and are thrown away and rejected.”

I’ve thought about my history with Barbies, and my daughter’s, too, and I take issue with some of the article’s findings. Cutting Barbie’s hair isn’t really an act of mutilation in the way that putting her in the microwave is. Children know that cutting their own hair gets them in trouble, and cutting Barbie’s hair gives them the satisfaction of distorting her appearance and messing with the standard and approved way of viewing her, it’s true—it also lets them know what it feels like to cut hair without getting in trouble. The Barbies I grew up around often had missing toes; this is not because we wanted to bind their feet golden-lotus–style and further fetishize their sexual-fantasy-based bodies, but rather because chewing the rubbery plastic felt good. Gnawing away at them resulted in their coming off completely in the mouth in a pleasant if slightly disturbing fashion. Pulling Barbie heads off was common when I was a child, not because we were acting out scenes from Robespierre’s Reign of Terror but because we wanted to trade them around among dolls with different features and outfits. We also pierced our dolls’ ears (leaving them looking grey and infected) and bent their knees back and forth so much for the sheer pleasure of hearing the click click click of their joints that their skin tore.

But do people take pleasure in creating their own torture tableaux featuring Barbie, Ken and all their plastic molded-bodied friends? Of course. Their constantly perky expressions and injection-molded perfection do invite children to challenge their prefab poise. They look so inviting in the box, but take them out of the vivid fuchsia packaging and their clothes are hard to put on, and their hair gets bunched up and never lies flat again and gets permanently dull and stringy when Barbie is invited to play in the bathtub. Ken’s spray-painted hair wears off and he ends up with flesh coloring showing through in patches that have nothing to do with standard male-pattern baldness. Barbie is not only free of genitalia, but sometimes has molded skin-colored patterns simulating underwear built right into what would be her buttocks if she had any gluteal musculature.

Barbie’s original design was based on that of the Bild Lilli, a sexually suggestive German doll from the 1950s. A German brochure from the 1950s states that Lilli was “always discreet,” and that her wardrobe made her “the star of every bar.” When Barbie debuted in 1959, many parents found her obviously sexual nature disturbing. Of course, this aspect of her is partly what has always made her so alluring to children. She’s the premiere socially sanctioned sexualized plaything, and she allows young children to engage in pre-sexual roleplay and pretend to embody the roles they think are expected of them as they mature. Children live out stereotypes with Barbies, but they also challenge and laugh at them.

The widespread delight that children take in trashing their Barbies when they feel they’ve outgrown them might be a reaction to the stereotypes, the expectations and the mass-merchandizing overconsumption extravaganza that Barbie represents, at least in part. But often Barbie’s mutilation is an unintentional byproduct of trying to personalize her and make her more interesting and individual. When such an attempt results in a Barbie who is less appealing, her loss of allure and inability to be made into something uniquely appealing make Barbie a sorry remnant of a time of earlier naivete, as well as a reminder of failed attempts at creating more individualized beauty. Rather than feel bad every time we see what our attempts at beautification have done, it’s easier to dissociate her from her former status as beauty icon if we take her destruction even further. If she’s ugly and all the gloss and perfection that we once admired in her is gone, why not turn her into a doggy chew toy, or see what happens if we take nail polish remover to the paint on her face? If we turn her into a science experiment, we feel less disappointed in her lost glory.

Barbie’s reputation for mindlessness was bolstered by the 1992 release of Teen Talk Barbie. This talking Barbie spewed forth phrases like “Math is hard!” and “Will we ever have enough clothes?” A group calling itself the Barbie Liberation Organization soon became famous for engaging in acts of Barbie sabotage, exchanging Barbie’s talking guts for the voice hardware found in Mattel’s Talking G.I. Joe dolls. The BLO repackaged three hundred dolls and slid them back onto store shelves. When unsuspecting little girls tried their new Barbies at home, the fashion dolls grunted out “Vengeance is mine!” and “Dead men tell no tales,” while little boys’ new G.I. Joes cooed “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”

Of course, some toys are less than glorious to begin with, and only become more disturbing or ridiculous with time. Others begin attractively and grow frightening with disuse or misuse. Such are the toys found at DisturbingAuctions.com. The site’s home page states that Disturbing Auctions “is dedicated to the research and study of the most bizarre items found for sale on Internet auction sites. Not the obviously fake auctions, like the infamous human kidney, but truly tacky stuff that people really, honestly, believed that someone would (and in some cases did) buy.”

DisturbingAuctions.com features home furnishings including the velvet painting of Jesus blessing an 18-wheeler; accessories like the purse made of a bull’s scrotum; clothing like used gym shorts and a matching used jock strap; and haute cuisine, including 200 freeze-dried pork chops. But nothing can compare to discovering the hideous figurines, including the “Check Out My Ass Clown” (make sure to look at the optional magnified view for ultimate flamboyant clown perusing pleasure), the items classified as Terrifying Dolls, or, my favorites, the Emotionally Scarring Toys.

The Terrifying Dolls category features the pained, shriveled and body-part-challenged Puppet Assortment, the pinheaded Li’l Head Doll, and Baby Tears-Your-Flesh, a.k.a. Little Dolly No-Head. Big Hands Baby and the Saddam Hussein puppet also get honorable mention.

Clowns have a special place on Disturbing Auctions; here you’ll find a clown brooch, a clown ashtray and a vicious Cranky Clown Lava Lamp, among other items. Dead stuffed frogs also have their places, as does the stuffed and mounted genuine Deer Butt. The Clark Gable candle puts one in mind of a wax-covered severed head, and why the seller of the Inflatable Ladies’ Legs had to mention that they fit in the mouth when not inflated is anyone’s guess.

Still, the Emotionally Scarring Toys is the biggest, juiciest treasure trove of outrageous kitsch. From the Dean Martin Hand Puppet to our beloved Big-Ass Donkey, from Darth Small to the marvelously named Pooduck, it’s hard to find an entry that isn’t deeply, horribly, hideously wrong down to its very core.

While most of the site has stayed static for years, there is a related site, DisturbingAuctions.com/daily, where visitors can post their own horrific online auction discoveries and attach their own witty (or, more frequently, just vulgar) commentaries. There are occasional gems to be found here, but the older, original DisturbingAuctions.com site has the most consistently hideous and perfectly captioned offerings. All hail the Pooduck!

[Revised from an article which originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

The Boys in the Band

 

Boys in the Band

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Some years ago, while staying up till the wee hours while organizing something or other, I turned on the TV and flipped channels till I could find a good movie to keep me entertained while I worked. I happened to catch the beginning of a film that I’d never heard of before that night, and it turned out to be a milestone in gay-themed filmmaking, a cult classic that alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) delighted and appalled New York theatrical audiences in 1968 and then moved to the screen in 1970. That film was The Boys in the Band.

Written by gay playwright Mart Crowley, the play attracted celebrities and the New York in-crowd nearly instantly after it opened at a small off-Broadway theater workshop in 1968. The cast of nine male characters worked together so successfully that the whole bunch of them made the transition to the screen in 1970, which is nearly unheard of. Crowley had been a well-connected and respected but poor young writer when his play became a smash in 1968. While still a young man, he knew how the Hollywood game was played and how to jockey his success into control over the casting of the film. Working with producer Dominick Dunne he adapted his script into a screenplay and watched director William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, lovingly keep the integrity of the play while opening it up and making it work on the screen.

It’s hard to believe that the play opened off-Broadway a year before the Stonewall riots that set off the modern-day gay rights movement in New York and then swept across the country. The characters in the play, and the whole play itself, are not incidentally gay—the characters’ behavior and the play’s content revolve around their homosexuality. For better or worse, the characters play out, argue over and bat around gay stereotypes: the drama queen, the ultra-effeminate “nelly” fairy, and the dimwitted cowboy hustler (a likely hommage to the cowboy gigolo Joe Buck in the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy, which was made into a remarkable film by John Schlesinger in 1969). The play also features straight-seeming butch characters who can (and do) “pass” in the outside world, and a visitor to their world who may or may not be homosexual himself.

The action takes place at a birthday party attended only by gay men who let their hair down and camp it up with some very arch and witty dialog during the first third of the film, then the party is crashed by the married former college pal of Michael, the host. A pall settles over the festivities as Michael (played by musical theater star Kenneth Nelson) tries to hide the orientation of himself and his guests. That is, until the party crasher brings the bigotry of the straight world into the room, and Michael realizes he’s doing nobody any favors by keeping up the ruse. During the course of the evening he goes from someone who celebrates the superficial and who has spent all his time and money (and then some) on creating and maintaining a reputation and a public image, to a vindictive bully who lashes out at everyone and forces them all to scrutinize themselves with the same homophobic self-hatred he feels. He appears at first bold and unflinching in his insistence on brutal honesty, but he goes beyond honesty into verbal assault, while we see reserves of inner strength and dignity from characters we had underestimated earlier in the play. Though The Boys in the Band isn’t the masterpiece that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, I see similarities between the two in the lashing out, bullying and name-calling that alternates with total vulnerability and unexpected tenderness.

The self-loathing, high-camp hijinks, withering bitchiness and open ogling made many audience members uncomfortable, a number of homosexuals among them. Some felt the story and the characterizations were embarrassingly over-the-top and stereotyped. They thought that having the outside straight world peek in and see these characters up close would only make them disdain homosexuals even more. This is a legitimate criticism; the nasty jibes, pointed attacks, and gay-baiting that goes on among and against gay characters here is the sort of in-fighting that could encourage bigots to become more entrenched in their prejudices when seen out of the context of a full panorama of daily life for these characters.

However, the play and film were also groundbreaking in that they depicted homosexuals as realistic, three-dimensional men with good sides and bad. Even as we watch one character try to eviscerate the others by pointing out the supposedly gay characteristics that make them appear weak and offensive to the straight world at large, there is also a great deal of sympathy and empathy shown among the characters under attack, and even towards the bully at times. Sometimes this tenderness is seen in the characters’ interactions, and sometimes it is fostered in the hearts of the audience members by the playwright. He has us witness people behaving badly, but we recognize over time how fear and society’s hatefulness toward them has brought them to this state.

These characters may try to hold each other up as objects of ridicule, but the strength of the dialog is that we in the audience don’t buy it; with each fresh insult, we see further into the tortured souls of those who do the insulting. We see how, as modern-day sex columnist Dan Savage put it so beautifully in an audio essay on the public radio show This American Life in 2002, it is the “sissies” who are the bravest ones among us, for they are the ones who will not hide who they are, no matter how much scorn, derision and hate they must face as a result of their refusal to back down and play society’s games. Similarly, to use another theatrical example, it is Arnold Epstein, the effeminate new recruit in the Neil Simon 1940’s-era boot-camp play Biloxi Blues, who shows the greatest spine and the strongest backbone in the barracks when he does not hide who he is, and he willingly takes whatever punishment he is given stoically and silently so as not to diminish his honesty and integrity or let down his brothers in arms.

The situation and premise of The Boys in the Band are heightened and the campy drama is elevated for the purposes of building suspense, rather like the action in a Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill play, where the uglier side of each character is spotlighted and the flattering gauze and filters over the lenses are stripped away dramatically as characters brawl and wail. The emotional breakdowns are overblown and the bitchy catcalling is nearly constant for much of the second half of the film, which becomes tiresome. However, the play addresses major concerns of gay American males of the 1960s head-on: social acceptability, fear of attacks by angry or threatened straight men, how to balance a desire to be a part of a family with a desire to be true to one’s nature, monogamy versus promiscuity, accepting oneself and others even if they act “gayer” or “straighter” than one is comfortable with, etc.

It is startling to remember that, at the time the play was produced, just appearing to be effeminate or spending time in the company of assumed homosexuals was enough to get a person arrested, beaten, jailed or thrown into a mental institution, thrown out of his home or job, even lobotomized or given electroshock therapy in hopes of a “cure.” In 1969 the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village by gay men fighting back against police oppression was a rallying cry and gave homosexuals across the nation the strength to stand up for their rights and refuse to be beaten, threatened, intimidated, arrested or even killed just for being gay. However, anti-gay sentiment in retaliation for gays coming out of the closet and forcing the heterosexual mainstream to acknowledge that there were homosexuals with inherent civil rights living among them also grew.

Cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York and L.A. became gay meccas that attracted thousands of young men and women, many of whom were more comfortable with their sexuality than the average closeted American homosexual and who wanted to live more openly as the people they really were. There was an air of celebration in heavily gay districts of these cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the heady years before AIDS. It was a time when a week’s worth of antibiotics could fight off most STDs, and exploring and enjoying the sexual aspects of one’s homosexuality (because being a homosexual isn’t all about sex) didn’t amount to playing Russian Roulette with one’s immune system, as it seemed to be by the early to mid-1980s. Indeed, of the nine men in the cast of the play and the film, I was shocked and disturbed to learn that five of them (Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux) died of AIDS-related causes. This was not uncommon among gay male theatrical professionals who came of age in or before the 1980s. The numbers of brilliant Broadway and Hollywood actors, singers, dancers, directors and choreographers attacked by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is staggering.

When the film was made in 1970, all of the actors were warned by agents and others in the industry that they were committing professional suicide by playing openly gay characters, and indeed, several were typecast and did lose work as a result of their courageous choices. Of those nine men in the cast, the one who played the most overtly effeminate, campy queen of all (and who stole the show with his remarkable and endearing performance) was Cliff Gorman. He was a married heterosexual who later won a Tony playing comedian Lenny Bruce in the play “Lenny,” which went on to star Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Gorman was regularly accosted and accused of being a closeted gay on the streets of New York by both straights and gays, so believable and memorable was his performance in The Boys in the Band.

The play is very much an ensemble piece; some actors have smaller and more thankless roles with less scenery chewing, but it is clear that it was considered a collaborative effort by the cast and director and that the enormous mutual respect and comfort of the characters with each other enriched their performances and made the story resonate more with audiences than it would have otherwise. The actors saw the film and play as defining moments in their lives when they took a stand and came out (whether gay or straight) as being willing to associate themselves with gay issues by performing in such a celebrated (and among some, notorious) work of art. When one of the other actors in the play, Robert La Tourneaux, who played the cowboy gigolo, became ill with AIDS, Cliff Gorman and his wife took La Tourneaux in and looked after him in his last days.

In featurettes about the making of the play and the film on the newly released DVD of the movie,  affection and camaraderie among cast members are evident, as is a great respect for them by director William Friedkin. Those still alive to talk about it regard the show and the ensemble with great love. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating documentary on gays in Hollywood which is sometimes available for streaming on Netflix, The Boys in the Band offered “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”

According to Wikipedia, “Critical reaction was, for the most part, cautiously favorable. Variety said it ‘drags’ but thought it had ‘perverse interest.’ Time described it as a ‘humane, moving picture.’ The Los Angeles Times praised it as ‘unquestionably a milestone,’ but ironically refused to run its ads. Among the major critics, Pauline Kael, who disliked Friedkin and panned everything he made, was alone in finding absolutely nothing redeeming about it. She also never hesitated to use the word ‘fag’ in her writings about the film and its characters.”

Wikipedia goes on to say, “Vincent Canby of the New York Times observed, ‘There is something basically unpleasant . . . about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.'”

“In a San Francisco Chronicle review of a 1999 revival of the film, Edward Guthmann recalled, ‘By the time Boys was released in 1970 . . . it had already earned among gays the stain of Uncle Tomism.’ He called it ‘a genuine period piece but one that still has the power to sting. In one sense it’s aged surprisingly little — the language and physical gestures of camp are largely the same — but in the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that’s a good thing.'” Indeed it is.

 

[Originally published in August, 2014]

How Xenophobia Destroys Us from the Inside

A model member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology community, a hardworking go-getter who regularly works 16-hour days to support his family (which includes two daughters—both U.S. citizens—and a wife who is eight months into a high-risk pregnancy), is likely to be deported this summer. Does he have a criminal record? No. Is he a leech on the public welfare system? No. Francisco Rodriguez not only works full time as a custodian at MIT but also runs a carpet-cleaning company, and he pays income taxes on both jobs.

Did he lie to the government and try to sneak in? No; he applied for asylum when he moved here from El Salvador just over a decade ago. A mechanical engineer in his native country, his success made him a target of gangsters who shook him down and threatened him with murder if he didn’t pay them even more. He has been up-front with the Department of Homeland Security all along the way. The U.S. would not give him asylum, but until recently they would not begin deportation proceedings, either, since it was clear that Francisco was not a risk to our nation—indeed, he was a taxpayer and a job-creator, he supported his family and was active in his children’s school, his church and his union. But on July 13, he will meet with representatives of ICE, possibly for the last time before he is forced to leave his family, his job, his business—everything—behind in the U.S., the country he has served so well for over a decade.

So what changed? Our nation is now led by a man who sees all born outside of our borders as lesser beings, and he sees those who were born in countries below our southern border as especially dangerous and worthless, with inherent violent and immoral tendencies, no matter how clearly the facts prove otherwise.

Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t targeted for deportation because he’s a danger to society; he was chosen because his honesty made him easy to find, and his lack of criminality made him highly unlikely to cause a fuss when he was singled out for removal from his home, his family, his job and his community. If Francisco is deported, he and his wife will not be allowed to travel between the U.S. and El Salvador to visit each other for at least ten years.

The true cost of Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee policy is this: families are torn apart; honest and hardworking people are forced to give up everything to go to countries where their safety is at risk; taxpayers are taken off the rolls, so the IRS loses out on revenue; and formerly independent families are forced to ask for assistance during and after family crises (in this case a high-risk birth with no father present—a crisis completely manufactured by the U.S. government).

The knock-on effect of sweeping deportations to families, businesses, tax rolls and our culture in general is enormous and devastating. It will soon be felt strongly in the business world and will result in lower income tax revenues as well. The service and construction sectors rely heavily on undocumented labor and are fearful of the increasing costs of hiring citizens who want greater income and shorter hours. The agriculture sector is already feeling the pinch and is worried about how they’ll manage to find enough farm workers to bring in their crops. They can’t find enough citizens willing to work long hours in seasonal agricultural jobs in the blistering harvest-season heat, even as wages rise. Produce will rot before it can be picked and distributed when there are not enough workers to go around. Will our supposedly business-savvy president recognize the folly of his fear and hate then? It is doubtful.

These misguided policies fuel our growing xenophobia and will take a huge economic and emotional toll on our nation. It is never in our country’s interests to treat good, honest, hardworking people like criminals because of an accident of birth. Our moralistic pronouncements about the greatness of our country are hollow when we use our might to destroy lives, to vilify honorable people and to dismantle our social compact out of unearned self-regard based on birth and not innate worth. We harm ourselves as well as others when we let our fears and prejudices overcome reason, mercy and human decency.

Coretta Scott King’s Condemnation of Jeff Sessions

Coretta

Above is the beginning of the letter that civil rights leader (and widow of Martin Luther King Jr.) Coretta Scott King wrote to segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond about Jeff Sessions in 1986 when she was protesting his nomination for a position as a federal judge. On the cover page of her nine-page letter, Mrs. King wrote, ‘“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”

Thurmond was supposed to make the letter a part of the Senate record, but he failed to do his duty in an attempt to the hide the filthy history of a fellow believer in white supremacy. Thurmond’s action hid the fact of the letter from the public for 30 years. It was recently rediscovered and shared by the Washington Post.

Tonight Senator Elizabeth Warren was reading it aloud on the floor of the U.S. Senate when Republican Senator Mitch McConnell shut her down, saying she was breaking Senate rules against impugning the name of a fellow member of the Senate by sharing historical facts about his long history of racism, facts necessary to properly assess his worthiness for one of the most powerful posts in the nation.

Jeff Sessions has spoken on behalf of segregationists and white supremacists. He has gone out of his way to stand by bigots and against racial equality in his public as well as his private life. Now Donald Trump wants him to be our Attorney General.

Stand up to them, America.

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.

Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,”  “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.

As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.

Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.

Charles Dickens: “Mankind Was My Business”

Christmas Carol Cover

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

—A Christmas Carol

In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story.  Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.

When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.

This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.

In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.

Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published on this day, 143 years ago.

 

 

Stendhal Syndrome

caravaggio

Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus,” painted for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, 1601

When Stendhal, the 19th century French author, visited Florence in 1817 he became so overwhelmed by the city’s glorious art that, overcome by a surfeit of visual splendor, he had a temporary psychological breakdown. He’s not the only one to react to extreme beauty in this way. Art lovers have found being in the presence of tremendous beauty so moving and emotionally taxing that they’ve suffered confusion, tachycardia, dizziness and hallucinations in art museums frequently enough for psychiatrists to give a name to this cluster of responses: Stendhal Syndrome.

Tourists occasionally experience breakdowns while overcome by the beauty of Botticelli‘s paintings in the Galleria degli Uffizi or at the foot of Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Some are sent to Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital‘s psychiatric ward for evaluation. The syndrome was named in 1979 after an Italian psychiatrist observed more than 100 cases among tourists in Florence. Apparently American tourists are not known to suffer the syndrome as Europeans do; some say that perhaps this is because as a culture, we don’t experience the same immersion and attachment to masterworks of art as Europeans. As a rule, Europeans believe we derive neither the ecstatic joy in being surrounded by profoundly beautiful and important masterworks, nor the psychological trauma of being overwhelmed by it. When they find an American who is deeply touched by their heritage and art, most Europeans are surprised and delighted. I have found that many will go out of their way to help a visitor enjoy immersion in their glory.

Most U.S. tourists visiting Europe simply lack the frame of reference and familiarity with European art and history that Europeans have, and without such a frame of reference there is less build up of anticipation or depth of understanding, and these are the underpinnings of emotional reaction. Faced with the exhaustion of travel, the unforgiving pace and the breadth of new experiences that most packaged tours provide to Americans overseas, the majority of my compatriots can be forgiven for being too numbed and overwhelmed by the fatigue and novelty of European tourism for great meaning to sink in. It’s not that emotional reactions to beauty and meaning are lacking in our makeup, but that most of us have simply not been exposed to either the depth or breadth of art historical experience and understanding that many Europeans enjoy. This is, of course, partly because of our physical distance from the majority of masterpieces of Western art, and also because of the relative novelty of our national history and treasures.

While the U.S. has many European masterworks in museums, one must make an effort to visit them. We are not surrounded with them as most urban Europeans are. Turn a corner in any major European metropolis and you may find that treasure troves of art and architecture await you. In Italy especially, the sheer volume of exquisite historically and artistically important works is staggering. In Rome or Florence, it seems as if nearly any random block offers a world-class repository of culture to rival anything Americans could muster. One city after another (not to mention little villages and gorgeous hill towns) boasts ancient treasures, Roman monuments, priceless works of every kind. So it is no wonder that people steeped in stories and photos of such masterworks who enjoy and remember their history should be overwhelmed when immersed in the glories of Europe’s cultural centers.

I have never had a nervous breakdown in a museum (or anywhere else, for that matter), but I have several times been moved to tears and wonderment before a work of art which I have studied and loved from afar. Here is my favorite example.

When I was 21, my mother and I spent several hectic weeks traveling through the art centers of Italy together in honor of my having completed college. For both my senior theses (I wrote one for my history major and my art history minor) I wrote on art historical subjects. One essay was on 15th century Florentine architecture; the other compared the impact of different sources of patronage (e.g., Italian popes, Spanish monarchs, Flemish churches, Dutch merchants) on the styles and subject matter found in works painted or sculpted by major 17th century Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Flemish artists.

I took night school classes in Italian, since Mills College didn’t offer that language, to enrich my art historical studies. When I went to Italy with my mother two months after graduation, all my art historical research and Italian language studies were still fresh in my head, and I was aching to see all the pieces whose photographic representations I’d spent four years swooning over. I had been to Italy on multi-country package tours of Europe in my teens, but this time we were focusing on one country alone and spending days on end in magical cities where we had enough time to seek out the tinier churches that tours usually missed. We were women on a mission.

My mother was as crazy for 16th and 17th century art and architecture as I, and as determined to cram as many masterpieces into our free days as I was. On one swelteringly humid July day in Rome, she and I visited so many churches we lost count. We crisscrossed the city on swollen legs and blistered feet, determined to get one more painting in, view one more astonishing Bernini sculpture, admire another set of volutes or one more baldachin or another monument or reliquary or crumbling edifice. At last, dehydrated and aching, we dragged ourselves into Santa Maria del Popolo in search of a painting neither of us wanted to leave Rome without seeing: Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus.

We hobbled all around the church looking for the chapel we sought, so overwhelmed by pain and fatigue that we had to poke each other to make sure we admired and appreciated the other masterworks all around us. Then we walked around a corner and into the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo only to find St. Paul lying on the road to Damascus before us. The painting was darkened by time, covered in dust and obscured around the edges by layers of cobwebs. With one of the greatest paintings anyone will ever paint before us, enormous, filthy and exquisite, we simultaneously burst into tears and hugged each other in relief and delight. This painting alone was worth every blister, every step, every night of study, every set of endless marble steps we had climbed throughout the city for six long, hot days.

Finding my way to this painting distilled all I love about art into one perfect moment, just as Caravaggio distilled all that was important about Paul’s conversion into one perfect image. For Caravaggio, the moments of most pathos and meaning come when holy figures are brought down to their most elemental humanity and humility. He humbles Christ, the Virgin Mary (whom he painted as bare- and dirty-footed and swollen in death) and St. Paul in his paintings to bring their essential humanity closer to us, so we see that as we are now, so once were they. Unlike someone like Rubens, who elevates powerful human beings to lofty heights, Caravaggio brings holy personages down to the human level so we can empathize with them and love them in a more completely human and heartfelt way.

As painted by Caravaggio, Saul becomes Paul while lying in the dirty, dark road, nearly trampled by his oblivious horse. He is literally knocked off his high horse and blinded so he can be humbled enough that his soul might be exalted in times to come. My experience in making my way to the piece was similar on a small but meaningful scale; my little pilgrimage exhausted and humbled me so that in the midst of all the glories around me after days of being bombarded by the endless masterworks of Rome, I could still be touched profoundly by one old, dusty and perfect painting.

Other works of art have moved me to tears, but I think no first moment with any work of art can surpass the joy I felt in the perfection and purity of that moment with that work of art. Unlike Stendahl in the Uffizi Gallery, I did not need to fall to the floor with arms outstretched in my ecstatic moment. Paul did that for me in his eternal ecstatic moment on the wall of a dark Roman chapel.

[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Eight Days a Week: On Tour with The Beatles

Tonight I indulged in an evening of nostalgia inspired by a viewing of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the satisfying and enjoyable new documentary about  directed by Ron Howard. Though no one can doubt Howard’s ability to present stories with energy and enthusiasm, I have often found his films too mawkish and obvious for my taste. Happily, it turns out he has a knack for creating a crackerjack musical documentary. He’s put together a jaunty but detail-rich story with the full cooperation of (and incorporating recent interviews with) living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and with help from the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Growing up during the 1960s and being steeped in Beatles music from birth, as I was, I have always seen The Beatles as my band and my musical family members, and I’ve viewed their music as a personal treasure that I just happen to share with the world. This film brings back the best moments of my childhood, reminds me of just how fresh and delicious their music was (and still is today). This documentary is a bright, shiny reminder that no, their power, talent and influence haven’t been overblown: they really were that good and that important to world culture in the 1960s. There was an open lightheartedness and sincerity about them which this documentary displays lovingly, but without treacly reverence or false heroism. They were a force to be reckoned with, but what they wanted most of all was not to be legends to millions of young girls or to worry about what their cultural legacy would be years hence; they just wanted to create really great music and bring joy. And they did.

As meaningful as my own relationship with The Beatles’ music feels to me, I know that I share my all-time-favorite band with a literal billion other people who love them, too, and this film makes that clear: the enormity of Beatlemania, the record-breaking crowds that showed up to see them, hurled themselves into fences and onto stages, and even broke through doors and windows to get to them are all on display here. But the nature of The Beatles’ electrifying and original music, as well as their enormous personal charisma and warm connection to each other and to their fans, is that we feel an intimate connection to them and to their music. After all, their songs have been part of our personal soundtracks for over a half-century. This film makes their charisma, their discipline and their energy feel fresh and palpable, and the large amounts of color footage and clever use of still photos and black-and-white film, along with surprisingly well restored audio tracks, makes them feel breathtakingly contemporary.

The Beatles were joyful, bracingly honest, and so cheerfully rowdy that they turned all stereotypes of British primness upside-down. They were also egalitarian, working class and, when it came to race, colorblind. In Eight Days a Week, Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a huge Beatles fan since childhood and who saw them at Shea Stadium when she was a girl, says in this film that when she saw and heard The Beatles, she felt like they were her friends, that their music spoke to her, that she didn’t feel like an outsider when she played their records. She felt like they would welcome her into their world if they knew her, which was unusual and deeply touching for a young black girl to feel about a group of white English guys in 1965. And she was right; when they went to the South, they were told they could only perform to segregated audiences, and they refused. They put an antisegregation rider into their contract, and once they broke the color barrier at their concerts, those stadium concert venues stayed desegregated for other performers who came after them. When they decided to augment their recordings with an outside keyboardist near the end of the band’s life, they chose megatalented black funk star Billy Preston to play keyboard for them, creating those iconic keyboard solos in songs like “Get Back.” You can see Preston, who was the only non-Beatle ever credited for performing on any of their albums, performing with them at the end of the film as they played their last-ever live concert together on the top of their office building, as can be seen in the concert film made of their final album together, Let It Be.

Those of us who were born in the 1960s grew up with Beatles music being a constant presence in our lives, and we who were most deeply touched by them can still sing dozens, even hundreds of their songs by heart, so catchy and fresh and powerful were their tunes, their lyrics and their arrangements. (And the documentary makes clear that they owed a great debt of gratitude to producer George Martin, who died this year and to whom the documentary is dedicated.)

To the people of the United States who were introduced to the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the radio in early 1964, The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and to be overnight sensations. Of course, we all know now that they’d spent years honing their craft in the underground bar in which they were discovered in Liverpool, The Cavern, and in the seediest nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, where they polished their performance skills, practiced and performed for up to eight hours a day, and all slept in one room together with their shared bathroom down the hall, like brothers. By the time they came to the U.S., they saw each other as brothers, as the film makes clear.

The overwhelming, relentless, exhausting quality of their life on the road is displayed and narrated by The Beatles themselves in this film, but their resilience, wit, energy and powerful loyalty to each other are also evident. The excellent footage and recordings, some only discovered recently after the filmmakers put a call out to Beatles fans via social media, are masterfully arranged and edited, and despite the extremely public nature of their lives and careers, the film feels quite intimate at times.

Ron Howard is known for being somewhat obvious and superficial in the way he treats historical subjects, and that holds true here: there are few, if any, surprising facts or original insights in this film, though hearing Paul and Ringo (and George and John, in long-ago interviews) recount their stories with some pleasure is a treat. In Eight Days a Week, Howard does what he is particularly good at, and that is creating an energetic, buoyant piece of visually attractive entertainment (with enormous help from talented editor Paul Crowder) that feels immediate and real, and that leaves the audience feeling hopeful. I saw it with a full house of people aged 18 to about 80, and the college-aged people laughed at and delighted in the Beatles’ talents and antics at least as much as those of us who have been listening to Beatles music for 50 years or more. The college students in the audience were the first to break into applause at the film’s end.

If you love The Beatles as I do, make sure to stay seated throughout the end credits so you don’t miss the huge bonus at the end of the film: a newly restored, half-hour-long edited-down version of their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which was at that time the largest rock concert in history. Their fan base was so enormous, and the risk to safety from the huge gatherings of fans was so great, that their U.S. tours eventually had to take place only in giant stadiums. Indeed, police forces across the U.S. were regularly overwhelmed when The Beatles came to their cities, so unprecedented were their appeal and the enormity of the crowds they attracted.

During the Shea Stadium concert Paul and Ringo say they couldn’t hear a thing over the deafening noise of the crowd; Ringo had to stay in sync with Paul and John by watching them for visual cues, primarily by watching their hips. Concert footage shows what enormous stamina and determination were necessary to perform on that scale and at that pace for years on end. Every day meant hours of being rushed through hordes of screaming fans who were trying to bash in their car windows; being dragged around to photo shoots or film sets; being grilled by reporters; having perhaps 90 minutes at a studio with George Martin to test out a just-written song and bring it to full fruition on tape; and then going off to play a concert. The lack of private time was wearying. In between all the very public appearances, they would often be stuck together in a hotel room to avoid having their hair snipped and clothes ripped away by mobs of fans should they go out in public. This film shows the weariness and joylessness that this kind of life ultimately elicited, and makes clear why they decided to stop touring in 1966 and spend all of their remaining energy writing and recording rather than touring for their final five albums together.

While my lifelong love of The Beatles keeps me from being impartial in evaluating this new documentary, I can say that I felt it captured their spirit, freshness, talent and liveliness in a more visceral and emotionally stirring way than any other documentary I’ve seen about the band, and that I’ll be able to hear and enjoy their music in a deeper and even more appreciative way as a result. Many thanks to Paul and Ringo and Ron Howard for making this lively, lovely appreciation of The Beatles’ early years possible.

How Shakespeare Sounded in Will’s Own Time

When I was a teen, I used to read Shakespeare plays aloud with my mother, a high school English teacher, for fun during summer vacations. Mom and I tended toward the tragedies, but when my own daughter and I read Shakespeare’s plays during her high school summer vacations, we read most of his comedies together. We’d take two different well-footnoted editions of his works and our dog with us on a walk to the park. There the three of us would sit in the sunshine while Lily and I read through an act or two of As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Lily and I usually only got through one act a day because as we read, we compared the footnotes in each edition to better understand the allusions and puns and to get pronunciation suggestions along the way. Together we delighted in just how funny Shakespeare’s plays really are—how bawdy, how full of puns and mischief and made-up words his plays are! Lily had a knack for understanding Shakespeare, but we both benefited greatly from reading the footnotes so we could catch the jokes and puns and historical background that we otherwise would have missed. Pronunciation and word meanings have changed so much over 400 years that even Anglophiles and literature fans can miss a great deal of Shakespeare’s naughty wit without a bit of context.

This fascinating little video featuring English linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, gives examples of how Shakespeare’s plays sounded when spoken during the playwright’s own lifetime, and explains some of the jokes that modern audiences miss. Give it a listen.

The Myth of the Ever-More-Fragile College Student

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Photo by Matthieu Spohn for New York Magazine: Science of Us

New York Magazine’s Science of Us website, which features articles related to human behavior, shared this article  by debunking what has been a creeping assumption among media outlets, college counselors and other alarmists that millennials are fragile, anxious and unfit for the “real world,” and have been coddled and weakened by our overweening, infantilizing society.

Cultural critics posit that today’s college-aged young adults are becoming more stressed, anxious, depressed and generally emotionally frail than ever before, and they say that colleges and society in general are babying them and causing increased neuroticism. This long, extremely detailed and well-researched article points to evidence that those who believe that today’s youth are going to Hell in a handbasket rely too much on their own confirmation bias; undervalue the importance of huge socioeconomic changes over the past decade (including a deep and damaging recession); and, most importantly, ignore actual metrics and provable data that show their negative assumptions about millennials to be overblown at best and highly inaccurate at worst.

Those who deride millennials are often extrapolating from small samples while ignoring actual, repeatable results from larger longitudinal studies at colleges across the nation. I highly recommend this article for a more factually based and nuanced perspective.