April, 2017

Easter Eyases

April 15th, 2017 4 Comments

About a week ago, perhaps two, I first saw a large nest at the top of a very tall oak a few hundred yards away. I was on the side of a hill, which put me at the same elevation as the nest, but it was so much a part of the tree, made out of large twigs from the self-same tree—an oak that has clumps of mistletoe in it—that I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it hadn’t been for movement. I got my binoculars and saw Mrs. Red-tail’s head sticking up, and while at that distance even ten-power binoculars couldn’t get me close enough to say for certain, I can guess that she had very much the same resigned and long-suffering look of all mothers who are approaching end of term and very much ready for the next phase of events. I made a note to keep an eye open for the next phase. It has now occurred.

I went out with the binoculars yesterday and could see two downy white heads sticking up above the nest while mom (or dad; I couldn’t tell the difference at that distance and might not be able to tell the difference unless I had one on each shoulder; females are larger) sat on a nearby branch doing guard duty.

And guard duty is very much a critical constant. Ravens and, I assume, other birds of prey, possibly even other red-tails, are an unending threat, as too, I suppose, would be any raccoon ambitious enough to climb that high. Fifteen or twenty years ago I was out walking with one of my dogs when I witnessed a raven make a very ill-advised and badly-timed attempt to raid a red-tail’s nest. How the raven thought he was going to get away with it, or how he was myopic enough not to have noticed mom sitting on the nest, I can’t say, but I actually saw the damn fool descend, feet first, as if he planned to sit on the nest himself. The next moment he wanted very much to be anywhere except where he was, because mom had grabbed one of his legs in her beak and for the space of almost a minute I was treated to the spectacle of one of the most intelligent birds on earth behaving like a moron, frantically and stupidly flapping his wings in an effort to get away, and screaming his fool head off. Of course, if a red-tail grabbed my leg in its beak, I’d probably scream my head off too, but it certainly didn’t show the raven off to best advantage.

Baby hawks and falcons are called eyas, the plural being eyases or possibly eyasses. The Oxford Unabridged tells me the word comes from the Latin and is one of numerous words that originally had a “n” in front, a “n” that got dropped, much as adder used to be “nadder,” and apron used to be “napron.” To be honest, I only know the word, eyases, from Hamlet, because Rosencrantz uses it to describe child actors in the scene where he and Guildenstern tell Hamlet the players are coming to Elsinore. Otherwise I would have been content to call them baby hawks. Since Shakespeare spells the plural with one “s,” that’s good enough for me, and don’t bother telling me Shakespeare’s spelling is suspect at best, and frequently attributable to someone else entirely. The Yale Shakespeare has him spelling it that way, Shakespeare’s good enough for me, and that’s that.

They are cute little beggars. As I watched them, dad (or possibly mom) came home with groceries and was immediately greeted with open beaks. It was impossible to tell, at that distance, precisely what the groceries had once been, but the odds are good it was either a gopher, a very small ground squirrel, or a chipmunk, but I’m basing that solely on size. Whatever it might have been, I watched for a while as mom (or dad) tore off junks and thrust them into waiting beaks.

Feeding one’s children is always a lot of work, for every species that actually devotes some care to its offspring, including humans, but baby red-tails must count as some of the most demanding. They grow very quickly: within six weeks they are ready to leave the nest, which seems like an exceptionally rapid rate of growth for a bird that can live to be twenty-five years old in the wild, and that much growth in six weeks requires a lot of fuel.

Red-tails are technically considered migratory birds (at least, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Act) but throughout virtually all of the lower forty-eight states they tend to live in one area year-round, and that one area encompasses almost every kind of habitat we have in America, as long as there is some open area for hunting and as long as there are some high perching spots for nesting, so you can find red-tails in heavily forested areas, in open prairies, in the mountains, and in the deserts of the Southwest.

They also have a wide range of plumage, including a melanistic variation which I have seen in my neck of the woods. By melanistic I mean very, very dark brown, almost black, and almost completely devoid of any markings. It took me a long time to realize what I was seeing when that particular bird appeared near our ranch, but regardless of coloration, they are breath-takingly beautiful and I get a thrill every time I see one sailing majestically along or taking his ease in a tree. Or sitting on a nest with babies in Easter week.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

The Windhover, To Christ Our Lord, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

At the Movies: The Best Years of Our Lives

April 9th, 2017 3 Comments

 

I’m reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It is considered to be one of the greatest novels in the English language, but what drew me to it was a comment ascribed to V.S. Pritchett (I think) who called it “unsurpassed in its depiction of human nature.” I take exception to that. Think of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, William Trevor, Tolstoy, Roddy Doyle, Julian Barnes… Oh, I could go on at length, naming authors ancient and modern, alive and dead, classic and casual, whose books have characters that so epitomize aspects of humanity that those characters’ very names have become bywords for real and enduring qualities of human nature, both good and bad.

But it was that description, “unsurpassed in its depiction of human nature,” that came back to me as I watched The Best Years of Our Lives the other night, because that movie is, if not unsurpassed, certainly up there at the top of the heap in its depiction of human nature. It is rich, complex, tragic, funny, multi-layered, compelling, but above all very real, real in its humanity, real in its understanding of the difficulties soldiers faced returning to civilian life following the horrors of World War Two, real in their hopes and dreams and disappointments, real too in each one’s final tenuous and ambiguous triumph over his own personal adversity.

Ambiguous? So, is there a happy ending or not? Yes, there is, to the same extent that you can say The Graduate has a happy ending: Dustin Hoffman gets the girl and they escape on a bus, but the final shot of Hoffman and Katharine Ross shows both of them beginning to comprehend the uncertainty of their choices, and the fragility of their future. So too in The Best Years of Our Lives, when Dana Andrews takes Theresa Wright in his arms at the end and kisses her rapturous face, a part of you thrills for them, but you also hear Andrews lay out succinctly and brutally just how difficult their life together is going to be.

I think movie-making may be the single most vulnerable art of all precisely because it is such a collaborative effort. Writing, directing, acting, cinematography, sound mixing, editing, lighting, art direction, set decoration, props, make-up, all these and more have to come together perfectly, and any weakness in any one of them can tweak the whole production enough to reduce potential greatness to mediocrity. (If you should doubt me, I will cite as an example a 1950’s-era mystery I tried to watch recently that had such stark and garish lighting, as if every Manhattan apartment was lit by Klieg lights, that I turned the thing off.) But it all starts with the script, and in this case Richard Sherwood’s script is simply perfect. He won an Academy Award for it, and the movie also raked in awards for William Wyler (directing), Fredric March (best actor), Harold Russell (best supporting actor), best film editing (Daniel Mandell), best score (Hugo Friedhofer), and then topped it all off by winning best picture.

In addition to Andrews, March, Wright, and Russell, the film also stars Myrna Loy, about whom Jimmy Stewart once said: “There ought to be a law against any man who doesn’t want to marry Myrna Loy.” That pretty much tells you all you need to know about her personally, and it shines through in her acting.

But what gives the film its humanity is the very real, three-dimensional depth of all the characters. There are no heroes here away from the battlefields and jungles, beyond the extraordinary heroism shown by practically all of the Greatest Generation, nor are there any villains. The only “bad” person (played by Virginia Mayo) is bad only to the extent that she is vain and vapid, shallow and narcissistic, and people like that are on every street corner; in fact, who among us has not been all those things at one time or another? The good guys and gals make stupid mistakes that are little better than the deliberate selfishness of Virginia Mayo and all of them have to live with the consequences of those mistakes.

Given that the three males (Andrews, March, and Russell) are all thrown back into normal, everyday, middle American, big town/small city life after four years of unparalleled hell and horror, it is small wonder that they make bad choices and stupid mistakes. Given that the women who love them (Wright, Loy, Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell) have no training or experience to prepare them for helping or even dealing with their wounded men, it is small wonder they make bad choices and stupid mistakes. Not as many as their men, but they too stumble and fall. Being women, they all—with the exception of Mayo—pick themselves up more quickly and gracefully than their men. Loy’s character in particular epitomizes the wisdom and patience we all wish all women had all the time, yet she also has just enough humorous annoyance to make her maternal paradigm as believable as she is engaging. It is a remarkable performance, and it should have earned her an award. The scene where she tells her daughter of all the times she and Fredric March had to struggle to keep their marriage intact could be a masterclass in the very best kind of acting, where all the pain and all the tears are only subtly hinted at, resonating beneath the surface of the calm and beautiful face. It’s human nature at its best.

The other parallel I could make to Middlemarch (and I’m only comparing it because of the accidental juxtaposition of taking a break from the book to watch the movie) is that each of the returning soldiers in The Best Years of Our Lives represents a different socio-economic level, just as each of the primary characters in Middlemarch represents a different level of England’s rigidly stratified society. The problems Andrews, March, and Russell have to deal with are the same in terms of wounds, physical or psychological, but greatly different in terms of the reaction and support of their families and loved ones.

One last note: watch for Hoagy Carmichael’s compelling turn as Uncle Butch, the owner of the bar where the three soldiers congregate to lick their wounds and drown their pains. He radiates the same kind of quiet strength and wisdom that Myrna Loy does, asking the right questions at the right time, giving the right direction at the right time, without ever being overbearing, all of it while playing the piano and listening, listening, listening. Listening, after all, is the actor’s most important job.

Africa and Golden Joys

April 5th, 2017 22 Comments

I received an email here, on this website, offering me an unparalleled opportunity. I post it here, unabridged and uncorrected, with my responses in italic font.

 

From Sandra Elizabeth David

Abidjan. Cote d’Ivoire,

West Africa.

 

Hello Dearest.

I always respond favorably to endearments, especially from unknown women.

I deep it a respect and humble submission, I beg to state the following few lines for your kind consideration, I hope you will spare some of your valuable minutes to read the following appeal with sympathetic mind. I must confess that it is with great hopes, joy and enthusiasm that I write you this email which I know and believe by faith that it must surely find you in good condition of health.

Well, thank you, Sandra Elizabeth. We oldsters just love yammering on about our health, and guys like me who used to be pretty athletic really love going on at length about what tough SOB’s we are. So, after three years of various issues and surgeries to fix said issues—all of them caused by a horse wreck that you can read about right here on my website under the heading, “Fistfuls of Balloons”—I’m at last doing pretty well health-wise. Heart pumps, bowels churn, kidneys distill, and following pretty extensive spinal surgery that left me with the bottom four inches of my spine made out of titanium, I’m even back to walking my dogs and trying to regain some muscle in the gym. By golly, Sandra Elizabeth, if and when you come stateside, I’ll have to show you some of my scars. I probably have more than anyone in your neck of the woods who doesn’t actually still participate in ritual scarification, if they still do that sort of thing in your country.

My name is Sandra Elizabeth I am the only child of my late parents Chief. David Joseph. My father was a highly reputable business magnet who operated in the capital of Ivory Coast during his days.

You can probably forget the part about ritual scarification: I doubt highly reputable business magnets do that sort of thing, being too busy snapping together when their ends touch, or getting stuck to pieces of metal all over the place. By the way, I’ve forgotten what the capitol of the Ivory Coast is. Do tell. Would that be Abidjan?

It is sad to say that he passed away mysteriously in France during one of his business trips abroad through his sudden death was linked or rather suspected to have been masterminded by an uncle of mine who travelled with him at that time. But God knows the truth! My mother died when I was just 6yrs old, and since then my father took me so special.

Wow. That’s a shame, Sandra Elizabeth. You sound sort of like a female version of Hamlet. Not the part about your mom, of course, Hamlet’s mom being alive and well in the play, as I’m sure you remember, but evil uncles and dead dads just litter the stage in “Hamlet.”

Before the death of my father, he called me and informed me that he has the sum of Three Million, Six Hundred thousand Euro. (€3,600,000.00) he deposited in a private Bank here in Abidjan Cote D’Ivoire.. He told me that he deposited the money in my name, and also gave me all the necessary legal documents regarding to this deposit with the Bank,

Cool! You’re all set, girl! Even in these troubled and uncertain inflationary times, 3,600,000.00 Euros ain’t to be sneezed at. You know, it’s just amazing how many young people just like yourself are the only children of wealthy Chiefs back in your part of Africa. When I say, “your part,” I’m speaking of course in general and broad—geographically speaking—terms, since most of them used to be in Nigeria, but if you take “your part” to mean West Africa generally, you really can’t swing a dead cat there without hitting a wealthy young orphan.

I am just 22 years old and a university undergraduate and really don’t know what to do. Now I want an honest and GOD fearing partner overseas who I can transfer this money with his assistance and after the transaction I will come and reside permanently in your country till such a time that it will be convenient for me to return back home if I so desire. This is because I have suffered a lot of setbacks as a result of incessant political crisis here in Ivory Coast.

Of course you do! When I was a 22-year-old university undergraduate, I too was dumb enough to reach out to total strangers in my search for an honest and God-fearing partner. And I’ll bet you do indeed have a lot of incessant political crises back there in the Ivory Coast, what with evil uncles running around all over the place and all. The problem is the “reside permanently” in my country part. See, we have a new president, Donald J. Trump, and he is making difficult for people to immigrate into the United States, even innocent young 22-year-olds with 3,600,000.00 Euros. (By the way, what business was your dad engaged in that earned him so much moola? I ask because writing doesn’t pay the way it used to, and I’m thinking of maybe dipping into some kind of business venture, anything to put beans and rice on the kitchen table. That’s a joke, Sandra Elizabeth. I’m really hoping to put some fat, juicy sirloins on the table, along with a bottle or two of a really good Zinfandel, since I’m an all-American kind of honest and God-fearing type.)  

The death of my father actually brought sorrow to my life. I also want to invest the fund under your care because I am ignorant of business world. I am in a sincere desire of your humble assistance in these regards. Your suggestions and ideas will be highly regarded. What percentage of the total amount in question will you take after the fund has being transferred to your account and I come over to meet you?

Well, I just bet the death of your father brought sorrow to your life! You’d be an unnatural kind of daughter if it didn’t, a sort of Goneril or Regen (to switch Shakespearean tragedies), and I’m sure an innocent and wealthy young girl such as yourself couldn’t possibly be a grasping, conniving, grifter trying to scam old fogies like me. The problem is that this old fogey is also pretty ignorant of the business world, and any assistance I gave you would, by definition, be very humble indeed. I doubt my suggestions and ideas would be highly regarded, even by a girl as young and innocent and wealthy as you are. As to what percentage of 3,600,000.00 Euros I would take, I would have say that’s an awfully tempting offer, almost irresistible, and I can resist anything except temptation. But since my business acumen is so feeble, indeed practically non-existent, I would have to give that percentage thing some thought. Though, 100% sounds awfully good to me.

Please, consider this and get back to me as soon as possible. Immediately I confirm your willingness, I will send to you my Picture and also inform you more details involved in this matter.

I just can’t hardly wait to see your picture! But the internet is so impersonal, and on-line photographs are so easily photo-shopped, so why don’t you send a hard copy—and the details you mentioned—to me at:

Jameson Parker

c/o FBI: Internet Fraud Division

11000 Wilshire Blvd.

Suite 1700

Los Angeles, CA 90024

 

Kind Regards,

All kinds of regards to you too, Sandra Elizabeth

Sandra Elizabeth David

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