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.
At the core of this grim film about pain, loss and revenge, The Revenant is a story about steel-cored adventurers whose every day is full of extreme but self-imposed hardships. This film, a fictionalized account of the story of actual 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, shows better than any other the brutal conditions under which fur trappers lived on North America’s frontier. Nature is a living, breathing, bloody-clawed character in this film, as much a part of the cast as Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Hardy. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is stunning: he captures both nature’s grandeur and man’s brutality in this film.
Stories in which characters face extreme adversity allow actors to emote more dramatically, showing not only their acting ability but also their willingness to suffer for their art. When an epic is directed, shot, acted and edited this masterfully, the arc of the story, the flow of action, the building of character and the depth of each loss all reverberate more intensely within the viewer’s heart.
The Revenant overflows with evident extremes: constant cold (which left the actors courting hypothermia and frostbite more than once); bloody brutality; heaving, spitting, screaming vengeance; terrifying physical danger; a highly protective mother bear; hand-to-hand combat between invading white trackers and indigenous Native Americans; horses undergoing the worst possible disasters; even creatures seeking respite in the dead bodies of other creatures. It is to the great credit of the cast, and DiCaprio and Hardy in particular, that these characters feel not like strutting caricatures of good and evil but like actual human beings.
The scenes involving closeups that show flickers of the subtlest emotions are as thrilling as those involving CGI bears, horses or eviscerations. Hardy is almost unrecognizable, not only because of the facial hair and prosthetic scalped pate but also because of his quirky accent with its unexpected twangs and turns. His character is thoroughly unlikable, but also so uneasy that we can never trust ourselves to know him or anticipate his next move. Despicable as his actions may be, his motivations are clear, yet he leaves us perpetually off our guard. This keeps this long, intense movie from sinking under the weight of his character’s badness. In a year that also saw him give laudable performances in Mad Max: Fury Road and in Legend, the brutal but entertaining story of London’s deranged mobsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, Hardy’s stunning portrayal of brooding, bloody John Fitzgerald in The Revenant is a career highlight.
After giving so many fine performances in his long career, Leonardo DiCaprio truly earned his Oscar for The Revenant. I was first moved by him when he was a talented teen giving stunning performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and This Boy’s Life. With the exception of Titanic, which I thought elicited some of his and Kate Winslet’s worst performances, I’ve watched his career unfold with great pleasure. His role in The Revenant has all the Oscar-friendly elements—the physical hardship, extremes of pain, fear, loss and vengeance—but it also requires that we utterly believe in the living, breathing reality of his character’s plight, and that we want to stay with him through each new horror despite our own great discomfort.
If the story were just about a wronged man seeking vengeance, we might grow tired of the chase or grow to hate the man who seeks revenge, but this long saga, which focuses heavily on DiCaprio during long solitary scenes, lets us feel and sympathize with the reasons behind his vengeance. We sense his great pain, his loss and his essential decency because Leo insists that we do. DiCaprio’s character must impress us with his fortitude and his ability to surmount the nearly insurmountable, time and time again, but in order to care about him we must be constantly reminded of his vulnerability, and no actor today is better able to display alternating vulnerability and quick-on-his-feet mental resourcefulness than Leonardo DiCaprio.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s treatment of the story incorporates scenes of silent, lyrical natural beauty in the sweeping manner of director Terrence Malick. The two share the ability to step back from an engrossing, intense situation and remind us of the environment in which it takes place, allowing the audience to breathe. They let us rebalance ourselves to better evaluate the mental states of the characters to whom we feel so closely drawn. These directors share a penchant for magical realism and sensual naturalism, something that was evident in Iñárritu’s award-winning direction of the fantastical (and Oscar-winning) film The Birdman. That film was alternately claustrophobic and expansive, with the most explosive and off-putting scenes taking place within the confines of a theater, and the true expression of the main character taking place during bursts of real or imagined flight. In The Birdman, Iñárritu allows us to believe that a man can feel trapped and caged while alone in a barren landscape or free to fly while sitting cross-legged in a tiny theater dressing room, his mind miles away from his levitating body.
The Birdman threatened always to drift away into the realms of the irrational while simultaneously forcing the audience and the characters to face life’s real limitations and gravitational pull. The Revenant explores what it’s like to be bound to earth by pain, determination and oppressive nature while being urged forward by elements of the indomitable human spirit that are eternal, ineffable and stronger than gravity: one human being’s love for another, and a determination that even death might be conquered in order to honor and hold onto the spirits of those whom we have loved and lost.
When I was a child growing up in the San Francisco suburb of Livermore, the publication of photographer Bill Owens‘s exploration of Bay Area suburban life, Suburbia, was a big deal in my home town. His book of photojournalism, published in 1973, garnered significant media attention; it was even written up in Time magazine. The book was of particular interest in Livermore because its stars were our town’s own citizens. The Tupperware ladies, toy-gun-toting little boys, Barbie-collecting girls and block party barbecuers whose black-and-white portraits filled the book lived in the Livermore-Amador Valley. Several of my mother’s friends and our own family doctor appeared in its pages.
Even now, historians, postcard manufacturers and bloggers republish photos from the book. Art galleries, major museums and other institutions around the world include Owens’s photos in exhibitions. Gallerists and pop culture historians point to his work when they want to expose the supposedly tacky superficiality of American suburban life during that awkward period between the clean-cut, rule-following fifties and the shaggy, sexy, if-it-feels-good-do-it seventies.
Photo of six-year-old Richie Ferguson by Bill Owens from Suburbia
Bill Owens took these now-iconic photos when he was a staff photographer at the Livermore Independent News starting in 1968. My mother’s boyfriend at the time was himself a reporter at the Independent who worked alongside Owens, so I met the photographer at a party shortly after the publication of his book. He had the no-nonsense confidence of a man who is used to sizing up a situation quickly, figuring out the most visually compelling elements, and getting in and out of an event in a hurry, before his subjects have a chance to become too self-conscious or studied in their poses. News photography has always required such skills, but in the days of film photography, there was a pressing need to be able to edit one’s work on the fly and be quick about it. Film was costly, and all photos needed to be developed and cropped by the photographer on short deadlines if they were to make it into the next day’s paper. Taking too many shots or too much time was a luxury that local papers and their staff photographers could ill afford.
In the seventies, there were few television channels or news radio stations, and of course there was no Internet with which individuals could share news directly, so the local newspaper was the primary source of in-depth information on all things regional. Newspapers had to report on crime, business, sports, laws, fashion, civic and social events, so photographers like Bill Owens had to get in and out of multiple places and events daily. But while Owens came from that journalistic tradition, in his photoessays he took the time to focus not only on what people did, but also on how they felt about their lives and suburban surroundings. He let his subjects express their pride, ambivalence and concerns about living in a growing, post-war, middle-class community. It was a time of prosperity and expanding social and sexual openness, but also a time of war, increasing crime and political unrest. Our town was largely insulated from the drama and violence that was shaking bigger cities at the time, but middle-class angst and drama were plentiful.
In his photographs and in the commentary his subjects provided, Owens caught suburbanites in private moments. They questioned whether they were capable parents, or took pride in living what they considered to be the good life. Some admitted that while they’d found the money to buy a house, they couldn’t afford to furnish it. People opened up to him, agonized over whether they were setting good examples for their kids, beamed as they showed off their prosperity, or sat half-naked on the edge of a bed daring the world to judge them for being comfortable with themselves.
Photo of Livermore’s Ozzie Davis Toyota dealership by Bill Owens from his book Suburbia
The world was used to urban photographers like Diane Arbus or Gordon Parks taking awkwardly intimate photos of people looking embarrassingly real in big, gritty cities like New York. Time and Life magazines brought images of war and rioting into our homes each week in full-color photo spreads. In comparison to large-scale photojournalistic works about the Great Events of Our Time, a photoessay treating the inhabitants of a middle-class enclave near San Francisco as if they were significant enough to be worthy of their own project was a fresh and intriguing idea. It was exciting to be in the spotlight after always feeling like we had been on the edges of things.
Livermore is less than an hour from San Francisco, which was the hippie movement’s Ground Zero during the 1960s. Though only a half-hour from Berkeley, scene of some of the nation’s most bitter and frequent anti-war protests during the years when these photos were taken, Livermore had for many years been a bastion of traditional conservative values.
A wine-growing community dotted with ranches, Livermore was known as little more than a cow town until the early 1950s. My high school’s mascot was a cowboy, and the street behind the main school building is still called Cowboy Alley. But while the community had long been based on rancho culture, by the 1960s and 1970s Livermore’s biggest employer was what was known as the “Rad Lab,” rad being short for radiation: Livermore was and is the site of one of the nation’s largest national nuclear weapons laboratories. What is now known as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory opened its doors in 1952, and by the time Bill Owens’s book was published two decades later, the laboratory directly employed about 10% of the city’s population.
For six decades, Livermore has had one of the largest concentrations of top nuclear physicists in the world, meaning that my town was home to a huge number of highly educated, fact-loving scientists, their well-educated spouses, and their smart and skeptical kids. Most of those who worked at the lab were strong believers in the theory that the specter of “mutually assured destruction” by the Soviet and U.S. superpowers in case of a nuclear war would keep either side from initiating war as long as both sides kept designing, building and stockpiling more and more threatening, long-range and expensive weaponry.
The Cold War-era belief that spending billions on the development and creation of weapons of mass destruction was necessary to keep us safe from communists (who were building their own gigantic nuclear arsenal on the other side of the world) sounds like a conservative stance to us today, but there were plenty of political moderates and even liberals working at the lab. Democrats like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were staunch anticommunists who had instigated and escalated our involvement in wars meant to stop the spread of communism. Fear of communist expansion and take-over was by no means a solely Republican fear. Engineers and physicists who prized rational thinking above all were often open-minded and modern in their thinking in many fields and they came in many political flavors, not just conservative ones.
By the time that Bill Owens set about photographing our city’s denizens, formerly rural Livermore’s population included many erudite, cultured people of all political persuasions who were curious about the world in general. Many of the problem-solvers who had descended on Livermore from around the globe brought with them great worldliness and interest in culture and erudition. Though Livermore had once been thought of as a quiet farming community out in the boonies, by the 1960s it was surprisingly full of eclectic amateur theatrical events, excellent public schools with award-winning musical ensembles and a community symphony. An ambitious annual cultural arts festival takes over much of the downtown corridor during early October every year to this day.
However, because of the popularity of Bill Owens’s book, the place where I grew up became famous for people who represented everything superficial and embarrassing about suburban American culture. The real Livermore was a lively mixture of experts in fields from agriculture and livestock to nuclear weaponry to the arts. The book that both celebrated and embarrassed us was on the coffee table of every hip and educated family in town, and we felt both pride and chagrin over the images shown within its pages. There was delight over the fame the book brought us, and recognition of ourselves in the photographs and stories told in the book, but also a bit of shame over the parts of the book that made us look like overconsuming, self-absorbed buffoons.
Another understandable but misleading aspect of the book was the fact that the long agricultural history and natural beauty of the place got lost in the focus on the tract housing developments and accoutrements of post-war Northern Californian living, so the richness of the culture and the long history of people living close to the land in Livermore and the surrounding valley all but disappeared.
Big cities like New York can handle having people think a large proportion of their citizenry is odd or tacky, but Livermore has suffered unfairly over the years by having people choose the least flattering photos and stories from our signature photoessay to represent our whole populace. Although those of us who lived in the Bay Area in the early seventies grew used to hearing that our region was rife with proto-New Age philosophies, encounter groups, redwood hot tubs, free love experimentation and all varieties of omphaloskeptic behavior, for many people (like my self-righteous hippie father) Bay Area suburbs like Livermore came to represent not the cool, sexy, mind-expanding elements of the Age of Aquarius but the shallow, consumerist, un-self-aware aspects of modern living.
In the decades since I left Livermore, the city has nearly doubled in size thanks to its proximity to the tech boom in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. My home town has long been one of the more affordable corners of an outrageously overpriced region. It is still home to one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons laboratories, as well as to Sandia National Laboratories, which develops, engineers and tests the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. But its economy and culture are no longer quite so closely tied to the nuclear research culture as they were when I lived there. Yet echoes of that culture reverberate in modern literature and film: the writer of the popular science fiction novel The Martian,Andy Weir, grew up in Livermore. He went to my high school, worked at Livermore’s Sandia Labs, and he is himself the son of a particle physicist who worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It’s likely he had a literature or composition class with my mother at some point; I like to fantasize that she may have encouraged his considerable writing talent in some small way. Though Weir wasn’t even born when the first of the photos in Suburbia was taken, the influence of Livermore’s science-friendly, intellectual, problem-solving culture helped to nurture his curiosity and imagination, just as it did my own.
As Hardy himself said in the Daily Beat interview, “What [Daily Xtra reporter Graeme Coleman] had to talk about was actually interesting, but how he did it was so inelegant. And I appreciate that I could probably have more grace as a human being, but I’m just a bloke. I’m just a man. And I’m just a man doing a job. I’m not a role model for anyone, and you’re asking me something about my private life in a room full of people. I don’t want to discuss my private life with you. I don’t know you! Why would I share that with a billion people? Also, if you felt it was so important for people to feel confident to talk about their sexuality, why would you put somebody on the spot in a room full of people and decide that was the time for them to open up about their sexual ambiguity? There’s also nothing ambiguous about my sexuality, anyway. I know who I am. But what does that have to do with you? And why am I a part of something now that, however legitimate, I haven’t offered my services for? It’s not about what he and his publication stands for, none of that is offensive, and on the contrary, it’s very admirable, and an important issue. But how I was asked was incredibly inelegant, and I just thought it was disrespectful and counterproductive to what he stands for.”
Hardy is a thoughtful, articulate, well-spoken man who often plays taciturn, difficult or broken people. (See (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Legend” for examples.) In the Daily Beast interview, Hardy expresses beautifully how frustrated he was to be grilled about his sexuality in what he called an “inelegant” fashion because he sees nothing wrong with people embracing who they are and sharing their truth about their sexuality in their own time and in their own way, but only if and when they wish to. Mr. Hardy felt the interviewer who pushed his own agenda undermined his own worthy cause by refusing to recognize actors’ rights to privacy. I agree with him.
The interview is full of fun tidbits, such as Hardy’s love of dogs’ sincerity and stories about going to drama school with Michael Fassbender. Hardy is a feminist and supporter of strong roles for women in film, and is also a noted animal lover and anti-poaching advocate, and the interview touches on these aspects of his personality briefly.
Despite Hardy’s huge success in film and on stage, he seems surprisingly humble when comparing himself to other actors with whom he has worked and studied. upcoming dual roles as London’s notoriously murderous twin brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray in “Legend” and as Elton John in a biopic about the musical icon both promise to be exciting. I look forward to watching his career continue to bloom.
My daughter, Lily Rodseth, is a graphic designer who creates infographics, typefaces, typographic art, bookcovers (this one won the Bookbuilders of Boston Student Competition at the New England Book Show) and beautiful art prints. Her latest design, “Bless All Dogs,” is now available for sale in her online shop on Society6.com. There you can order art prints, T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, pillows, phone cases, even shower curtains featuring her charming canine design and have them shipped directly to you by Society6. Click here, or look up Lily’s handle, Glossy Starship, on Society6.com to see her new design in all its darling. dog-filled detail.
Fashion designer and Academy-Award-nominated actress Melissa McCarthy, second from left, shows off pieces from her new 7Seven fashion line, Summer, 2015
When gifted comic actress Melissa McCarthy was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, she went searching for an appropriately elegant evening gown to wear to the ceremony. “I asked five or six designers,” she told Redbook magazine. “Very high-level ones who make lots of dresses for people — and they all said no.” The designers demurred because Ms. McCarthy does not conform to the fashion world’s size-two-to-size-six ideal. Designers had no interest in having her wear their dresses, even though over 40 million people in the U.S. alone saw Ms. McCarthy on their TV screens in one night, because designers feared that being seen to create clothing for larger women would actually harm the reputations of their design houses.
It’s ironic that designers think designing for women size 14 and up degrades and debases their brands since fully two-thirds of women in the United States fall into that category. Over 90 million women in the U.S. alone wear size 14 or larger, yet they are relegated to smaller, sadder “plus-size” clothing departments. They are made to feel that they are not only unimportant but not worthy of attractive, comfortable clothing even though they purchase and wear billions of dollars worth of clothing and accessories each year. They are shut out of many stores and designer’s lines completely, and stores that cater to them often offer them less flattering products for more money. The funny but maddening WTF Plus Tumblr blog shows the range of hideous, sexless, embarrassing clothes designed for larger women that smaller women would never be expected to buy, let alone wear.
While Emmy-winning actress Melissa McCarthy is best known for being a popular comedian who is willing to bear the brunt of jokes about her large size, she actually started out as a fashion and textile design student at New York’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology before her career in entertainment took off. In August 2015 her new line of clothing, 7Seven, debuted a line of clothes ranging in size from 4 to 28. The line is in a relatively affordable price range that matches or meets the prices of retailers like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. With her inaugural collection, McCarthy shows a great eye for proportion, fit, pattern and texture. Her designs are fashion-forward and very wearable.
McCarthy dislikes the term “plus-size.” “Seventy percent of women in the United States are a size 14 or above, and that’s technically ‘plus size,’ so you’re taking your biggest category of people and telling them, ‘You’re not really worthy.’ I find that very strange,” she says.
In response to the news of her fashion line’s availability, Internet trolls came out en masse on social media and news sites to denigrate McCarthy and others for “enabling” and celebrating larger women’s rights to enjoy their bodies. As always happens when women with bodies larger than a size 6 dare to show comfort or confidence in their appearance, people took to their computers to accuse McCarthy and others of glamorizing unhealthy lifestyle choices. Those self-elected arbiters of appropriate body shape and size would like all people size 8 and above to go about in sack cloth and ashes until they starve themselves down to a single-digit dress size.
Disapproval and disrespect shown toward plus-sized people doesn’t obviate their need to find clothes that fit, feel good and look attractive. Those who respond to Ms. McCarthy’s new business venture by denigrating those who are larger than themselves are essentially saying that allowing people to clothe themselves attractively, affordably and comfortably is the wrong tack—that we should instead shame them into looking the way we want them to and tell them that having the bodies they have is a moral failing. I wonder whether these self-appointed body shamers go out of their way to shame smokers and alcoholics, too. Those who drink or smoke bring on early death from their habits in even greater numbers than overeaters do, but our society shows them more understanding. They have the option of giving up their habits and avoiding people and places that trigger their dangerous behaviors, but EVERYONE has to eat, and every metabolism is different, so larger people can’t just stop the behavior (i.e., eating) that disrespectful trolls find offensive.
Many larger people are actually regular exercisers who are quite healthy—you can’t tell from looking who is truly unhealthy inside. Large people have higher rates of some deadly diseases, but so do coal miners, house cleaners and beauticians because they choose jobs that expose them to carcinogenic chemicals. Police officers and soldiers die in greater numbers and intentionally choose work that causes great stress that often requires taxpayer-funded medical and psychological intervention later. Do we judge them for putting their lives at risk? Do we denigrate them for their choices?
Melissa McCarthy is a multitalented woman who designs chic, comfortable and fashion-forward clothing, much of it aimed at a market that comprises over two-thirds of the nation’s adult female population. People who want to shame those women into conforming to their personal preferences are nothing more than hateful bigots who spew venomous tirades in the self-righteous belief that their discomfort over seeing bodies larger than those featured in Vogue magazine justifies their using their supposed concern about health and setting bad examples for youth so they can clobber those with different body types and sizes over the head, shaming and shunning them and telling them that they are unlovable, undisciplined and unimportant, none of which is true.
An ever-growing body of scientific literature points toward the fact that people who are deemed overweight to obese usually have very different gut biomes (intestinal ecosystems) than thinner people do, and that the varieties and sizes of bacterial colonies in their guts have an enormous impact on the speed and effectiveness of their bodies’ metabolic rates, the intensities of their cravings for food, the ways in which they metabolize medicines, and their propensity toward depression, anxiety and other emotional and psychological disorders that may manifest in a compulsion to eat in order to find comfort.
In short, the gut biomes of larger people may send intensely powerful and frequent signals to their brains telling them what, when and how much to eat. We live in a culture in which almost everyone has taken multiple types of antibiotics that distrupt gut biomes, sometimes with disastrous, even deadly results. We are also regularly bombarded with ads for unhealthy foods and drinks that further disrupt our gut biomes and our endocrine systems, making permanent weight loss exceptionally difficult for even the most determined people. But we are also surrounded with Photoshopped images of impossibly thin, unrealistically proportioned people on TV, in movies, in pornography and in computer games, making it easier to believe that there are actually many more “perfect” bodies in existence than actually occur on this or any other planet. So we compare ourselves to these pretend people we keep seeing, and to make ourselves feel less bad about our own imperfections, we glom onto the perceived failures of others and build ourselves up by ripping them apart and smarmily saying that we’re shaming and shunning them for their own good. How preposterous. It’s cruel, and it doesn’t help people to lose weight.
What does help? Making people feel confident and attractive enough to get up, get out and exercise and take good care of themselves. Helping them to feel less anxious or depressed about themselves by giving them access to clothes and accessories that allow them to feel more attractive, confident and appealing. Success breeds success; those who feel shame are more likely to retreat into self-defeating behaviors that compound difficult habits, while those who believe in their inherent worth and who have hope for a positive future are more likely to get up and take the actions that lead to healthier, happier lives. Shaming and shunning those who are heavy tends to push them toward habits that make them heavier still. Helping them to find attractive outfits for every occasion, including athletic and exercise wear, gives them ways to love the bodies they have and helps them to believe that their bodies are worth effort and care.
Should we encourage healthy dietary and exercise habits throughout society? Yes! Should we work to eliminate junk food dispensaries from schools and increase the quality of school lunches and discourage teachers from using sodas and snacks as rewards for good work? Yes! But it does not follow from these societal goals that encouraging health requires disparaging and defaming those whose habits or bodies don’t conform to cultural ideals.
Rather than fat-shaming those among us with larger bodies, let us celebrate women like Melissa McCarthy who make larger women feel freer to be active, positive and comfortable in their bodies while living happy, productive, healthy and engaged lives.
If William Shakespeare were alive today and writing lyrics to pop anthems, what would they sound like? Thanks to Erik Didricksen‘s Pop Sonnets blog, we now know. Pop Sonnets (popsonnet.tumblr.com) has given the Shakespearean treatment to dozens of tunes from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“My fate now seal’d, ’tis plain for all to see: The wind’s direction matters not to me”) to Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” (“While ladies dance away the night for sport / So shall we too, their favor sweet to court”), to the lyrical demands of the Spice Girls, whose “Wannabe,” incorporates much spice-related wordplay:
Hast thou a hunger to hear the plaintive wail of Steve Perry exhorting, cajoling, nay, demanding that all and sundry hold fast to hope? Then thou art most fortunate, for Pop Sonnets doth present a poetic parody of “Don’t Stop Believing” which beginneth in this fashion:
A lonely maiden from a hamlet small— A boy within a woeful city reared: They both at midnight left their port of call T’ward any destination volunteered.
Pop Sonnets is available as a tumblr blog, but it will also be released in book form on October 6 in the US and Canada, October 8 in the UK. Think what a delectable gift the book would make for thy nearest and dearest!
Before you do depart, O gentle men and ladies fair,
Think not that I’ve no heart and would not leave a treasure rare.
For here before you, friends, I place a gift as bright as gold:
And once you’re read it through, you’ll cry—
My witty, bright and difficult father would have been 76 today. He was creative and talented, and he had a way with words. He also had serious problems with alcohol and anger, and he treated his child, his wives and his siblings with sarcasm at best, with arrogance and disdain as a matter of course, and with violence at worst. He was very good at one thing, though: he was extremely generous to down-on-their-luck people to whom he owed nothing.
My parents met when they were students at UC Berkeley. When my father was a psychology teaching assistant at Cal, he worked with autistic kids before most people had ever heard of autism, but shortly after he married my mother he became disaffected with his professors and left his promising career in psychology behind. My parents fell in love and married quickly, before my mother realized what a volatile and combative man he could be. My father’s alcoholism became apparent as soon as they were married, but by the time my mother realized what sort of man she had wed, she was pregnant with me. His violence toward her began even before I was born. By the time I was four months old, he had already hurled his glasses across the room in a fit of rage when I, who had been born two months prematurely and was still tiny and fragile, would not stop crying. My mother had left me alone with with him for the first and only time during my infancy so she could go grocery shopping. She came home to find him fuming and holding his broken glasses. Mercifully, they separated shortly afterwards. His bad health and alcoholism were already losing him jobs by then, and he stopped paying child support forever shortly after my first birthday. But my mother realized that even without his help, raising me on her own was the best decision she could have made.
Yet my father was not always bullying, threatening, drinking or shouting. When my mom was pregnant with me, he made me a beautiful cradle out of an old barrel. He was good at making something useful and beautiful out of nothing. Years later, from discarded bicycle parts he created usable bikes for himself and his poverty-stricken friends so they could have free transportation to school and work. He was disabled by serious health problems and unable to work for more than short periods of time for most of his life, and the benefits he received for being a veteran with serious health problems (he’d lied about his age to enter the Navy at age 16) didn’t go very far. But out of a few hundred dollars a month in disability payments, he paid the rent for his room in a dingy, sad hotel and spent the rest on cheap canned foods, books and used clothes so he could keep himself and his neighbors warm, fed and educated. He fixed their broken appliances, helped them write their résumés, computed their taxes, babysat, and, occasionally, he hid their drugs for them when they were afraid of getting raided by the cops. He had almost no respect for authority, and this caused him enormous problems throughout his life but made him popular with his troubled friends.
My mom had wisely left him as soon as she realized that his violent streak made him a danger to me, but she welcomed him to our house to pay me visits once I was a precocious toddler who could talk and follow orders. She figured I’d be physically safe around him at that point, and I was. But sometimes he’d show up two hours late, other times not at all. His brother, my beloved Uncle Steve, drove across the Bay Area several times a year to retrieve and sober up my dad, who was sometimes still drunk at 10 a.m. Steve would make sure my dad took his desperately-needed medications, feed him and calm him. Then Steve chauffered my father to my home and chaperoned our meetings. Steve made jokes to lighten my dad’s spirits and distract me from my father’s dark moods and sarcasm, and he bought us deli sandwiches and took us to parks to walk and talk and look at nature. It was Steve who drove my dad back home and soothed him after we said goodbye. If it weren’t for my dear uncle, I would have almost no memories of my father, and my father would have had little idea of who his sensitive, expressive, hungry-for-approval daughter was.
Dad was angry, bitter, depressed and occasionally delusional, and for years at a time he’d refuse to see or talk to me when he was ashamed of his behavior. He would become angry at me for expressing dismay when he called me in one of his drunken stupors to promise things he would never deliver, to tease and sometimes mock me, and to tell me ugly stories about his raw adventures among the downtrodden. I had to trick him into seeing me and my daughter when she was a baby, and though he fell in love with her immediately, his mental problems caused him to withdraw from us again immediately afterwards. He died a few months later having only met her once. No matter how much I wanted to make him a part of my life, he usually refused. I tried to be as perfect, entertaining and gregarious as possible every time he showed up. I could not call him because he was often without a working phone, but I created elaborate cards and drawings for him, and spent hours decorating the envelopes I sent to him with intricate drawings to try to entice him to communicate with me. It rarely worked, and over time I finally realized that this rejection wasn’t about my value as a person but was based in his own fears, pain and self-loathing.
After he died, I spent a lot of time at the sad hotel in which his life had ended. He was a hoarder, so it took me weeks to clear out his single room of all the tall piles of possessions: the small appliances, the books that covered his bed two feet deep so that he was forced to sleep sitting upright; the canned goods and free weights and dressers full of warm clothes; the manuscripts and letters to the editor and the letters to himself that disclosed the depth of his mental illness to me after his death. But while clearing things out, I met several men who had lived in his building and valued his friendship immensely. They told me of the kindnesses he offered them, and after I’d donated most of his clothes to the thrift shop across the road, I realized I should offer everything else in his room to the men who lived alongside him. They were thrilled to have his typewriters, his radios, his food and books and Playboy magazines.
His friends spoke of him as being both cantankerous and immensely generous. My father’s siblings and my mother, who had known him in better times, were happy to learn that despite burning every familial bridge thoroughly and repeatedly, he had managed to salvage some essential good within himself and show it to a few souls even less fit for the world than he. These stories and his writings, which disclosed to us just how far his thinking had strayed from reality, helped us to recognize how much his retreat from us had been a response to his self-hatred and his fear of harming us again. Though he’d blamed us all for his distance and unkindness at one time or another, we knew that he was picking fights in part to have an excuse to keep away from us to avoid doing further damage to those whom he loved.
No matter how many years I spend trying to understand what made him break so many promises and do so many cruel things, I will never entirely understand what caused him to disintegrate so seriously. But I do know that within him was a man who cared deeply about the earth and about animals, who honored labor and learning, who championed progressive values and believed that we all deserved dignity and respect, even if he himself didn’t always treat others as he should have. He loved me as deeply as he could love anyone in the world, and he was delighted and soothed by having met my baby girl. And as hard as my life has been at times, I am still grateful that he and my mother gave this life to me, in all of its painful, scary, magical, beautiful glory.
For all his many faults, my father helped to teach me to love nature, wordplay, movies and pickles and storytelling. He helped me to always hold a place in my heart for those who falter, who fail and who are too afraid to reach out for help. He helped me to see why some people self-medicate and don’t communicate with those whom they love most in the world, even when they want to. Through his failures I learned to be more careful about judging those who screw up, to have more respect for those who live on government assistance of one sort or another, and to have sympathy for those who come back from military service plagued with violent thoughts and dangerous tempers. Even when such people disappoint or scare or frustrate me, I can usually remember that underneath it all, they are just fragile people with fears, troubles and pains I can’t understand that cause them to do harm when they want to be helpful, and to break things when they want to build them.
Every large city has parks or plazas where people in difficulty congregate. Some go there to commiserate with others who feel down and out; others go there looking for escapes from their pain. Drug deals clearly take place in these parks; it’s not unusual to find drug paraphernalia scattered around in some of them. Of course, not everyone who frequents such parks goes to them to break the law; people who gather there are looking for different ways to feel connected with others, to pass the time, to lessen their boredom or frustration or pain.
I rarely see women in these parks. It is easy to imagine that the men who spend their time there often feel disenfranchised and powerless, so when they gather in parks or plazas they often posture in front of others, commenting on the women who pass through their midst, calling out to females in the cars that drive past and generally making us feel, if not unsafe, then at the very least uncomfortable. There is a noticeably macho atmosphere in such places, so showing respect to women is less common there than are displays of sexual attention and bravado.
In Seattle, there are several downtown parks like this where a woman walking alone during daylight hours might feel uncomfortable. When I walk past them I don’t feel endangered, just conspicuous. When women walk by, all eyes turn to us. The men there make comments when I walk by, just as they do to most women who pass within a half block.
Last weekend I was in the part of the city that gave the world the term “skid row”—what is now Yesler Way in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle was originally a “skid road,” a path along which timber workers skidded logs in the 19th century. This part of town boasts many attractive Victorian buildings converted into art galleries; it also has many bars and missions that serve the large numbers of homeless and poor people in the area. While I was in a Pioneer Square building, I became flooded with difficult memories. I was so overcome that I needed to walk outside to avoid drawing attention as my face crumpled and tears began to well up in my eyes. There was no nearby alley to duck into, no public restroom, no bench to sit on or doorway to enter that wouldn’t expose me to strangers who would notice my distress. But there was a park a half-block away, and I walked toward it in hopes of finding an open bench where I could sit for a few minutes until I regained my composure.
This park is an open plaza without much in the way of benches since public seating tends to encourage homeless people to look for a place to sleep, and city governments tend to discourage such behavior. The only place I could find to rest that wasn’t taken was a large flowerpot with a rim big enough to lean against. I saw that there were clusters of men in the plaza but I assumed that if they saw me with my head down they wouldn’t bother to speak to me. I was wrong. One tried to make conversation with me from a distance but I didn’t look up from my handkerchief. He sounded slightly offended when I didn’t respond, as if he thought I’d entered his territory and then hadn’t had the courtesy to acknowledge him. He came closer and made another comment, this one about my looks. It was not unkind but not what I wanted. I realized that I’d entered his turf and I was the odd one out in that situation, and that if I didn’t respond in some way I might attract more attention or hear negative comments about what might be seen as my arrogance or contempt. So I wiped my eyes and looked up.
I said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble today.” With that, he and another young man walked up to me and immediately said how sorry they were, and how they hated to see me crying. One walked close to me, and as he spoke I saw that he was missing his two front teeth. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old; the other, taller man was about the same age. The toothless man said to me that he wished he could cry, but that he couldn’t anymore; he had clearly seen so much pain that he felt all cried out. I wiped my eyes and told him I was so sorry that he was hurting. He thanked me and nodded. I said, “There must be a lot of pain in this park, huh?” And he and his friend nodded and said, “Oh yeah, a lot of pain.” Then he said that I needed to know that things were going to be getting better, and that there were people who were going to be there for me, and he spread his arms wide, swooped in and gave me a big hug. I told him I wished things would get better for him soon and that I hoped he’d find comfort. Then he smiled and walked away, and his tall friend came closer. He said that he could see that I just needed to have faith, and that he could tell that things would be better for me soon, and he blessed me. I said “Thank you, sir, for your help. Bless you, too.” He said he was glad he could be there for me, and he wished me well as I walked away.
I keep thinking about those exchanges, and how for those moments in time, our ages, our races, our genders, our economic circumstances made no difference to us. These young men saw me hurting and came to comfort me. I acknowledged that their attention was kind, and they gave me respect and courtesy. They treated me not like an outsider who didn’t belong but as a human being who deserved dignity and help. In many places in this country they would be reviled and assumed to be thugs or criminals because of their appearance, but the men I spoke with were gracious and gentle. They’d seen trouble and understood sadness, and they didn’t judge me or assume that my difference in personal circumstances made me undeserving of sympathy. Our exchange was all about honoring the humanity and dignity in each other, recognizing that we have no right to judge what causes others pain, and that we can all do something to help others to bear their burdens. I felt a little embarrassed showing pain in their presence because it’s not hard to imagine that the circumstances of their lives have brought them more suffering and frustrations than I am ever likely to know. But not for one moment did I feel that they judged me unworthy of their compassion, nor did they ever show the slightest bit of disdain or outwardly assume that my troubles were less pressing than theirs.
These young men showed empathy in its purest form. They didn’t ask why I was sad; the reason didn’t matter. They didn’t need to figure out whether I was worthy based on my situation. To them I was worthy of help simply because I was a human being. They gave me, a total stranger, the most beautiful gifts they could: honor and compassion. Merely acknowledging the people around me in a public park elicited such kindness from them. I’m grateful that they were there for me and that they reminded me that my troubles were temporary, and that there are good people all around us.
At the end of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois descends into madness, and as she is being led away to the insane asylum, she famously, pitifully says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Don’t we all?
Even those of us in penthouse suites or gated communities, ivory towers or walnut-paneled boardrooms depend on the social compact to keep strangers from breaking down our doors or threatening us on the street. To stay safe, warm, well-fed and employed and to get around and go where we must we depend on strangers not only to avoid harming us but to go out of their ways to help us do what we need to do. We worry about violence and tut over stories of criminal behavior that we hear on the news, but for most of us, being a victim of crime is an uncommon occurrence. We are sheltered, we are lucky, we are, most of us, trying hard not to hurt others or be hurt ourselves. We all depend upon the kindness of strangers. We just don’t realize how much effort is made by others every day to make room for us in a world that is more theirs than ours. We are each only one of seven billion, after all, and nearly all the others in this world have less invested in our health and happiness than we do. Yet, we we live alongside each other and make way for the needs of strangers every day.
This weekend two kind strangers proved how much invisible goodwill surrounds me. I was humbled by their kindness, but also elevated—by looking up into their faces I became part of something greater than myself. I felt disconnected and hollow when I walked into their park; they reminded me that even on Skid Row, one can find connection, beauty and mercy.
Recently I’ve been listening to a song that’s been around for a half-century but which was made fresh and new to me when I heard Alan Cumming sing it last June in the latest Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret. It’s a jaded, cynical song sung by a character who pretends to feel no pain and who appears to be inured to the ugliness of the world. But the power of the performance comes from the realization that, while the prostitute singing the song may no longer seem to care what he (or she) has to do to get by, that purported apathy comes after years of suffering and having experienced so much pain and loss that no longer caring almost seems like a blessing:
I don’t care much Go or stay I don’t care very much Either way Hearts grow hard On a windy street Lips grow cold With the rent to meet So if you kiss me If we touch Warning’s fair I don’t care very much
“I Don’t Care Much,” like other songs in that brilliant musical, underscores the desperation and fear that led people living in Berlin under Nazi rule to try to blot out reality with a bit of naughty pleasure, and sometimes to lose their hearts (and maybe souls) to apathy or pretense in order to try to imagine away evils that they couldn’t bear to fight or even face.
When performed in the 1993, 1998 and 2014-15 Sam Mendes-directed Broadway productions of Cabaret, the song is sung with great bravado by an actor in drag. When I sit down to sing it at the piano, I like to do it more quietly, with restraint and softness, to underscore the fact that the singer may no longer feel so much, but she or he recognizes the tragedy in the loss of caring. The person telling the story may not feel whole and complete anymore, but he does remember that once there was a heart beating within him that could care. There is still a soul within that registers the loss. I can never be a person who does not care much, so when I sing the song, I must be a person who pretends not to care.
After singing the song so much this week, I got to thinking about some of the classic popular songs I love that are sung by or about prostitutes. It seems an odd theme for a pop song, I know, but really, aren’t a vast number of popular songs about lost love and the pain that comes from longing? Think about how many songs are about people’s desperate search for an escape from loneliness, or about the bliss that comes from feeling a deep and true connection to another person after a tormented period of hopelessness. People often think of prostitutes as dirty, dangerous and jaded, but their profession exists to offer the promise of pleasure and escape from the pain of the world. Their job is to sell a bit of themselves for a little while to people who are desperate to connect, to feel something deep and real, to feel cared for and soothed and satisfied for a sliver of time before they go back out into the freezing night, rushing to their homes, hoping to avoid being seen by those who would crush and destroy them for having the audacity to believe in whatever pleasure and happiness they can find (or pretend to find) in a dark and dirty world.
Guilt, shame and social ostracism are braided into the fiber of their lives; they exist to provide comfort and to satisfy elemental longings, but they are despised and punished for providing services that are both desperately sought after and deeply reviled. Theirs is a jaded, bitter corner of the world of longing and desire, and that is what makes their songs and stories so dramatic and powerful a counterpoint to the light and airy songs we usually associate with love. Drama comes from contrasts. In order for the spotlight to shimmer brightly, it must be surrounded by dark shadows to set it off.
I first saw the film version of the musical Cabaret when I was just nine. My outgoing mother liked to take me along with her as often as possible when she socialized, so despite the adult nature of the film, she and a friend brought me along to see Cabaret. I dutifully covered my ears and closed my eyes on command whenever Mom turned to me and whispered “PG! PG!” or “Parental guidance time!” The whole film was infused with a bawdy, mysterious sexuality far beyond my understanding, but it was compelling and fascinating enough that I enjoyed every lurid, intoxicating moment of it. It cleverly incorporated stories within stories, and it was full of great Bob Fosse dance numbers and catchy, seemingly lighthearted nightclub songs that were invested with deeper, uglier meanings. The songs reflected and expanded on the stories of the main characters and had scary parallels to the Nazi-inflicted horrors going on in the streets of Berlin just outside the doors of the cabaret.
The story is essentially about the unwillingness of many Germans (and many foreigners then living in Berlin) to acknowledge the growing danger of Hitler’s leadership in the early 1930s, and about the political apathy and, ultimately, the fear that fueled German society’s acceptance of inhumanity and depravity. The musical play, which is based on John van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 book of stories called Goodbye to Berlin, is about the sickness that grows in a culture and in the hearts of its citizens when they refuse to see what is going on around them and refuse to look after each other out of fear for their own welfare. The musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb are perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of 1930s Berlin, and are gems in and of themselves. They also expand on, deepen and enrich the power of the story in ways that few composers for musical theater ever achieve.
The team of Kander and Ebb had a wonderful knack for drinking in the style and feel of the music of the past and then creating their own versions of those songs so that they felt completely authentic but were also entirely original. John Kander has said that when he was preparing to compose the music for plays like Chicago (which takes place in the 1920s) or Cabaret (which is set in the 1930s), he liked to immerse himself in the music of the time and listen to it so fully, deeply and constantly that it filled his brain. He then put it aside completely for a while and let it marinate and stew, and then when he began to write, the influences and motifs of that time period would wend their ways into his songs naturally, so he could compose comfortably in a fashion that had gone out of style forty years before. He was so masterful at it that a number of his songs, which seem so appropriate in the context of their original plays, went on to be popular standards that can stand on their own—songs like “Mein Herr,” “Cabaret,” Wilkommen,” “New York, New York” and “All That Jazz.”
The song “I Don’t Care Much” was written for the original Broadway production of Cabaret, but it was cut from the film version. I saw a stage production of the show featuring Joel Grey (the Tony- and Oscar-winning original Emcee) over 25 years ago, but the song never stuck with me until I saw Alan Cumming sing it last June in full drag in the astounding revival of Cabaret that is currently finishing up its run at Studio 54. When he stood at the microphone in his shimmering dress and heavy makeup, he was mesmerizing. Previous Sam Mendes-directed revivals of Cabaret starring Alan Cumming were staged in London in 1993 and in New York in 1998; the video above was excerpted from the 1993 production. Mendes’s dark, lurid style of staging the show works splendidly to underscore the tatty, raw, dangerous quality of life lived by those who spent their time in Berlin’s dark underbelly during the 1930s. The costumes are ripped, the makeup is smeared, the voices are gritty and the desperate quality of the characters is more evident and affecting than in the prettier, cleaner film version and earlier stage productions.
Alan Cumming said in his excellent interview with Terry Gross on her NPR radio show “Fresh Air” that he came up with a back story for his Emcee character in which he started off as a young male prostitute and worked his way into the cabaret life, so as a former rent-boy he has no fancy graces, and no desire to hide his voracious sexual appetites or comfort with the seedier side of life. In earlier productions of the show, Joel Grey held every eye and commanded attention with his strange, sexless, voyeuristic portrayal of the Emcee: he was an outsider laughing and smirking at the performers and the audience in a detached, amoral way. Alan Cumming’s version is immersed in the world of the cabaret, reveling in it, tainted by it, and ravaged by sex and drugs and decadence. The outsider Emcee of Joel Grey acted like a Greek chorus, pointing us at the depths of degradation others went to to shield their eyes from the ugliness of the outside world. Alan Cumming’s Emcee is drenched in underworld decadence and is ultimately pulled down and destroyed by it, as are all the others who could not escape from the decadent, dangerous world they were trapped in.
Cumming stands at the microphone in the dark and sings the song of a weary, degraded prostitute stripped of feeling by a sick and dangerous world, no longer caring what he must do to make enough money to eat or pay the rent or buy a coat thick enough to keep out winter’s chill. At first, as he stands in a dress and full makeup, the audience sometimes laughs at his outlandishness, thinking this is just another lark, a humorous way to remind us of the fluid and open sexuality of decadent pre-World-War-II Berliners. But in short order, his rough voice tells us that his kisses mean nothing. His comforts can be bought as a way to keep shoes on his feet and food in his stomach, but they mean little more to him:
Words sound false When your coat’s too thin Feet don’t waltz When the roof caves in So if you kiss me If we touch Warning’s fair I don’t care very much
Love for sale, Appetizing young love for sale. Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled, Love that’s only slightly soiled, Love for sale. Who will buy? Who would like to sample my supply? Who’s prepared to pay the price, For a trip to paradise? Love for sale.
The song was banned from the radio in the 1930s, but it became a hit for multiple artists in the following two years nonetheless, and it has been recorded by scores of major singers in the decades since. Even k.d. lang and Fine Young Cannibals put their stamp on the song. The faded, jaded quality deepens as the song progresses:
Let the poets pipe of love in their childish way, I know every type of love Better far than they. If you want the thrill of love, I’ve been through the mill of love; Old love, new love Every love but true love.
During her 2011 tour, Broadway star Idina Menzel sang the song as a bored-sounding, lite-jazz mashup with another prostitution-related song, “Roxanne,” by The Police. Most of us know the driving, original version of the plaintive call by a lover to his streetwalker sweetheart to give up her career to be with him and him alone. However, my favorite version is a gorgeous, stripped down solo version sung by Sting in the filmed version of the 1981 Amnesty International benefit concert called The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. In it, Sting, accompanied only but his own spare, loose guitar playing, wails with so much more hopeless yearning than in the original song. His pain is greater, and his angst is so thick it hangs in the air and echoes along with his desperate voice. The performance is a tour de force that still gives me chills.
Elvis Costello is not the only musician in his family who can sing despairingly of the shattered dreams and desperate acts of those who walk the streets for money. His wife, jazz pianist and chanteuse Diana Krall, does a stunning version of the 1933 hit song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” No, not the song by Green Day—I mean the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic that starts like this:
I walk along the street of sorrow The boulevard of broken dreams Where gigolo and gigolette Can take a kiss without regret So they forget their broken dreams You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow When you behold your shattered schemes Gigolo and gigolette Wake up to find their eyes are wet With tears that tell of broken dreams
Gigolos and gigolettes were considered just one step, if that, from prostitution. A gigolo is, by definition, a man who seeks the company and monetary support of wealthy people (usually women) who pay him for his charms. The term came about in the 1920s as a back-formation from the term “gigolette,” which then referred to a woman hired to be a dancing partner (and sometimes something more). This song is often sung with swelling passion and force, such as in the 1952 version by Tony Bennett, but I think the slow, melting version sung by crackle-voiced alto Diana Krall is the most haunting version of them all. Its restraint is more inviting and much sexier than the bolder, brighter Tony Bennett version. As famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee said, always leave your audience wanting more.
It may seem contrarian of me to write about the darker, sadder side of love and desire just in time for Valentine’s Day, but so many of the richest, deepest songs about love are the ones based on loss and longing. If you find yourself feeling scarred or let down by life and love over the Valentine’s Day weekend, know this: you are not alone, and the pain of lost love will heal. Skip the new film about the sadist whose stalking, assault and abuse of a young virgin are painted as “romantic” by a passion-starved populace. Instead, drown your sorrows in a few of these songs about the darker side of love, and then get up, go out and be the loving, kind and openhearted sort of person you’re looking for. Acts of loving kindness set in motion by good-hearted people reverberate through time; they are carried in the hearts of the people whom we touch with our love long after we ourselves are gone. Enjoy these angst-filled musical gems, but don’t let yourself become jaded. Be your best self and keep loving.