A Blog by Jameson Parker
The Span of Life
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
I had to clean out the gutters the day after Thanksgiving, one of the routine chores of late fall, after all the leaves have finally fallen. The good news is that we live in a one-story house, so for the most part it only involves my getting up about ten feet on a ladder. In fact I don’t even have to extend the extension ladder, except for the area over the entry which is about twenty feet up. The bad news is that we live in a one-story house, so it means there is a lot of roof and miles and miles of gutter, making it pretty much a day-long job, between dried leaves and dried mud which must be scraped out. But except for the raised entry area, it’s also a relatively safe job.
So of course I was up on the ladder at the highest point when a golden eagle went past. He was so big and so close to me and going so fast that for a wild moment I thought I was under attack by a B-52 bomber. (“Bombing Run Goes Awry; Local Man Vaporized; Details At Eleven.”) We have a healthy local population of golden eagles, so it’s not unusual to see one. Thrilling, always; unusual, no. But normally I see them hundreds of feet up in the air, riding the thermals with stately elegance. Once, Darleen and I came upon two on the ground eating something they had killed. They had progressed to that point in their meal where I could no longer tell what it had been before it became dinner, but we reined in the horses about fifty yards away and watched as the massive talons held down the bulk of the meal while the formidable beaks tore off chunks.
They are awe-inspiring predators. Steve Bodio has written a magnificent, fascinating book, Eagle Dreams, about his travels to western Mongolia to hunt with the Kazakh horsemen who ride out with their eagles after no less a prey than the wolf, and it includes a photograph of wolf skins hanging from the home of one of the hunters. I’ve never personally met a Mongolian wolf, but I don’t imagine they’re that much smaller than our wolves in North America, which is to say they’re probably just about the size of a former middleweight perched high up on a ladder.
There is thrilling, and then there is thrilling.
In this case, the eagle passed about twenty feet over my head, going at Mach speed with a family of red tail hawks (three of them, so I assume it was a family unit) in hot pursuit, followed by an large extended family of ravens (mom, dad, kiddies, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, even that embarrassing old great-uncle who always tells such inappropriate jokes at family gatherings), though it was hard to tell if the ravens were pursuing the eagle or the red tails, the red tail and the raven being, shall we say, uneasy neighbors. They went by in a noisy woosh! (ravens are noisy fliers) at such great speed that they vanished over the nearest hill almost as quickly as they had appeared, leaving me clinging to the ladder and wondering if I should seek shelter.
My God, what a magnificent bird!
Though it is about a kestrel, not eagles, I’ll leave you with The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet from the God’s Grandeur series. A Roman Catholic convert and Jesuit priest, Hopkins dedicated the poem, To Christ our Lord, and while it may be a difficult read that begs to be read aloud, it needs no explanation beyond that to make it accessible. However, to clarify, I will add that “sillion” is an archaic spelling of “selion,” meaning a furrow turned over by the plough.
The Windhover, To Christ our Lord
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 valor 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-vermillion.
I went deer hunting in Texas week before last. It was a trip arranged by Weatherby, the firearms manufacturer, and it was intended to give me and a few other writers a chance to test some of the new rifles the company is offering. From the point of view of companionship, hunting, and testing, the trip was wildly successful and a lot of fun. Good people, good times, good guns, good hunting.
But what I really want to tell you about was a small incident that was a first for me.
Hunting in Texas is completely unique. First of all, there is almost no public land in Texas. There are only two national parks that I know of (Big Bend and Guadalupe) and only a few state parks, so all hunting must be done on private land. Deer and exotics are the backbone of Texas hunting. There is great waterfowl hunting along the coast, and in the moist, sweltering areas of eastern Texas they are so overrun by wild hogs that if you knock on a farmer’s door and ask permission to hunt, he’s likely to offer you his youngest daughter’s hand in marriage. There is even a national television show about a, uh, highly colorful family that makes its living hunting hogs down there. (“Colorful! It’s what you get when you’ve lived in Bolivia for twenty years. You get colorful. Bingo!”) But it is deer and exotics that bring in the big bucks (you should pardon the expression) for private ranches in the Lone Star State.
Because whitetail deer and exotics represent big dollars to private landowners, just as black angus do to cattlemen, a lot of time and effort and money is put into maximizing both the quality of the animals and the quality of the hunting of those animals.
Ranches are completely high-fenced. Think about that for a moment. The ranch where we hunted, a relatively small one by Texas standards, is twelve-thousand-plus acres, cross-fenced into pastures of about a thousand acres each. I happen to know what regular horse-wire fencing costs per foot (which is why I had to do almost all of it on my little ranch myself), so I can only guess at the millions of dollars in fencing alone that have been invested in this ranch. I was told by the ranch manager that there was a permanent two-man fencing crew, whose sole job it was to build and repair fence, day in, day out, all year long. Sort of like painting the Golden Gate bridge.
Then there is the deer-breeding program. Yes, deer-breeding. The first thing a deer needs to grow large antlers is good genetics. Breeding deer is, by itself, a significant economic enterprise in Texas, where artificial insemination is done on scientific principles in facilities that make most hospitals look poor and slovenly, and breeder bucks with good genetics are treated with the kind of care and respect normally accorded to famous stallions. For reasons neither I nor anyone else on this hunt understands, this is only possible with whitetail deer. Mule deer cannot be bred successfully in captivity. We had a lot of debate about this while I was down there, and while mule deer seem to have somewhat larger spatial requirements than whitetail, they are just as adaptable and just as capable of living in close proximity to humans as whitetail are. Just ask anyone—my wife, for example—who has tried to grow roses or apples or just about any kind of garden in these mountains. So I don’t know why mule deer are different.
The second requirement for large antlers is good nutrition, and there are companies that specialize in the development of nutrient-rich feeds specifically for deer. I know what I pay to supplement my two horses, so I shudder to think what a hunting ranch must pay to put nutrients out for literally thousands of deer. Which, of course, raises the question of how you feed wild animals. Scores of feeders, perhaps hundreds, are spread across the ranch. They run off of solar-powered batteries, but like anything made by man, they are subject to inexplicable breakdowns and must be checked regularly. While I was there, the young hand (guide, if you will) I was with found three feeders that needed fixing. It’s a labor-intensive industry.
(Photo courtesy of Brad Fitzpatrick)
Why a guide for something as inherently private and solitary as deer hunting? Apart from the fact that this was all new land to me and they didn’t want anyone getting lost, the third factor that influences antler size is age. The ranch does not allow any buck (other than obviously deformed bucks that must be culled) under the age of five to be shot, and the guides are there to both judge the age of bucks and to enforce the rule. It turned out to be very instructive; I’ve been hunting deer for almost forty years, but I learned a lot about details of aging that I had not known.
Texas-style deer hunting is done out of blinds over feeders. This is a fact many people find repugnant, but consider that in almost every state where I have hunted whitetail in the East or Midwest, it is legal to plant feeder crops out in the middle of the woods to attract the deer and to hunt over those crops. In the parts of the West where water is scarce, mule deer, elk, and pronghorn are frequently hunted over waterholes. So the bottom line is that I don’t see much of a difference. As it happened, this particular ranch also runs black angus, and both the deer, and my guide and I, got run off the feeders by greedy cattle, so I ended up hunting by glass-and-stalk (and taking a dandy buck), but that was just an accident, and I spent the first two days happily and optimistically sitting in a blind.
And it was in one of those blinds, on the second day, that I got my first good long look at a gray fox.
We have gray fox in the mountains where I live in California, but very few of them. (We also have kit fox down in the Central Valley at a much lower elevation.) If you have a lot of wolves, you won’t have many coyotes. If you have a lot of coyotes, you won’t have many fox. In California we have coyotes coming out of our ears, so there are very few gray fox. In twenty-two years up here I only seen tracks, one dead one by the side of the highway, and one flash of a live one running across the road late at night, so I was delighted to see a gray fox hunting his—or her—way delicately toward the blind.
The land on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau in Texas is rolling savannah dotted with live oaks, mesquite trees, prickly pear, and pockets of brush, and this fox emerged quite suddenly from some heavy brush just north of the blind. He was small, elegant, beautiful, and had that typical vulpine air of confidence in his own native wit. I half expected him to stop, look up at us in the blind, and make a sarcastic and insulting remark. (This is a somewhat inaccurate bit of anthropomorphizing on my part, since the gray fox is scientifically named Urocyon cinereoagenteus, not Vulpes.) As it was, there was something I couldn’t see there in the grass (mice? voles? insects? a little of each?) he found to his liking, so for about twenty minutes he hunted happily within ten feet of where we sat, sometimes making a quick darting snap with his muzzle, sometimes making the lovely arching pounce I associate with foxes, rising up on his hind legs, jumping into the air and landing on his prey with both front paws. He evidently felt quite safe and at home, never pausing to check for any other predator (primarily bobcat in that part of the state), never paying the slightest attention to the cattle stealing grain out of the feeder one hundred yards away, or the unhappy deer circling cautiously around watching the cattle steal their dinner. At one point he came so close to the blind I could have dropped my notebook on him. Then he gradually hunted his way into a tangle of brush and live oak on the south side and vanished.
If I were a Howard Pyle, I would have drawn him with boots on and a battered cap, a game bag over one shoulder, rifle on the other, a happy fellow hunter on a glorious winter day.
I’m not going to really review Bringing Up Baby, partly because it’s a classic that needs no review from me, but also because I’m more interested in getting some information, some answers to a question.
Bringing Up Baby is one of the classic screwball comedies that emerged during the Great Depression. One could say the screwball comedy emerged as a result of the Great Depression, or as a panacea to the Great Depression, and both statements would be true. It Happened One Night is generally considered to be the first of the genre which featured witty dialogue spoken at lightening speed (and why, I hear myself cry, are there no writers with that wit and urbanity today?) in a battle of the sexes in which the male of the species is usually completely out of his league, outmatched and outwitted by the female who desires him. Sort of like real life. Think of My Man Godfrey, which ends with a totally befuddled William Powell getting married to Carole Lombard completely against his will. Think of Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, speaking of the wildly outclassed Henry Fonda: “I need him like the ax needs the turkey.” Think of Bringing Up Baby, in which Katherine Hepburn says at one point, “He’s the man I’m going to marry. He doesn’t know it, but I am.”
As a genre, the screwball comedy only lasted until about the end of World War Two, though there were movies both before and after that decade (approximately) that contained a lot of the traditional elements. In fact, there are a lot of movies before, during, and after the approximately ten-year span that are generally lumped into other categories altogether that have included witty repartee and the battle of the sexes and great writing. Another element that characterized the screwball genre was economic inequality: Henry Fonda is the heir to a fortune and Barbara Stanwyck is a grifter; William Powell is (ostensibly) a bum and Carole Lombard is an heiress; Claudette Colbert is an heiress and Clark Gable is an impoverished working-class reporter. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant is a professorial paleontologist try to secure a grant, while Katherine Hepburn is the heiress of the lady offering the grant. That economic element of poking fun at the stinking rich may be one reason why the genre faded after the war—America in the fifties launched into a period of unprecedented prosperity—but it is also one reason why it should be resurrected today. Who more deserving to be mocked and ridiculed than the Wall Street grifters who managed to put middleclass America out of their homes? But as I said, unlike the thirties, we no longer have writers capable of that quality of writing.
Consider this marvelous non sequitur as an example: Charles Ruggles, as a rather timid and diffident big game hunter, is walking at night in the garden of his lady friend’s estate when he spots the leopard. Desperate to get her—and himself—back in the house without alarming her, and befuddled by fear, he says: “Don’t you find a bit chilly without a gun?”
As a movie, Bringing Up Baby is not the best of the screwball genre. (I know, I know. I said I wasn’t going to review it, but I can’t help myself.) Gary Grant was better in His Girl Friday, much of the acting is over the top, some of the situations stretch even our willing suspension of disbelief, the hollow echoing of sound reminds us it was filmed on a stage somewhere in Burbank, and director Howard Hawks drastically blurred the line between urbane wit and slapstick. It was not a great success when it was released, but today it considered one of the funniest movies of all time.
But the part that really mystifies me, the part I truly do not understand and would love an answer to, is the use of the leopard. Today, all those sequences would be done with a computer-generated animal (think Hildalgo or The Life of Pi), but back then it all had to be done with a real live honest-to-God leopard. Or two leopards, at the very least, since two are featured in the film. How the hell did they do that? I know one of them was supposed to be a tame leopard, and I know there was a trainer there at all times, but if there is one thing you can say about leopards, it is that “tame” can only be used to describe them in the most loose and relative way. How the hell did they do all those sequences? As an art form unto itself, that kind of training seems to have vanished along with the writers.
And as long as we’re talking about the danger factor, kudos to Grant and Hepburn for sailing right in there and working so gamely with the cat. On a trip to Africa many years ago, Darleen and I were invited into the fenced compound where a mother cheetah had just given birth to kittens. We were able to pat the mother and play with the babies, and it remains one of the highlights in my memory bank. In our group on that trip was a Household Name Movie Star, an award-winning character actor famous for his tough-guy roles and persona. He refused to go into the compound with the cheetahs because, and I quote, “My God! What would happen if one of them scratched my face? It might ruin my career!” Okie dokie. But cheetahs are relatively docile and amenable to training. Leopards not so. How on earth did they do it?
Does anyone know?
I’m reading a book called A Story like the Wind, by Laurens van der Post. If you are unfamiliar with Laurens van der Post, as I was until I was given this book and several others by him, it’s hard to explain who he really was. During his life he was an Afrikaner, author, farmer, conservationist, philosopher, humanitarian, journalist, educator, war hero, prisoner of war under the Japanese, Commander of the British Empire, explorer, advisor to multiple British prime ministers, and a friend of many talented and famous people, from Carl Jung to Prince Charles. After his death, people raced to tear down the image, as people love to do, and he may or may not have “embellished” the truth in some of his memoirs and travel books, and he may or may not have fathered a child by a fourteen year old ballerina who was in his care while he was in forties.
For the first, I would point out, as my mother frequently did, that absolute truth should never take precedence over a good punch line, and then go on to quote Mark Twain speaking of himself in the voice of Huck Finn: “That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another…”
And for the second, if it is true—and it may well be, for he was, by all accounts, a man with a powerful weakness for ladies—I would quote Jesus: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…” An admonition that, God knows, will save my pitching arm a lot of wear and tear.
Whatever the truth, he was an extraordinary man who clearly admired and did his best to help indigenous people in his native South Africa, primarily the San—or Bushmen—of the Kalahari desert, believing they had a spiritual identity and connection to the earth that civilized man has lost to… Oh, where to start? Technology, arrogance, competitiveness, bloodthirstiness, greed, laziness… The list goes on. Certainly it is true that the more we insulate ourselves from nature, the more we lose our understanding of certain phenomena that may be spiritual, or even our ability to recognize those phenomena, and that theme runs through van der Post’s writing.
(To give you an idea of the extent of disconnectedness between what we laughingly refer to as “civilized” man and “primitive” man, I saw in South Africa many years ago, an old hunting license from around 1900 that included in the permissible bag, two lions, two buffalo, one rhinoceros, two Bushmen, four springbok, three wildebeest… As casually as that.)
But what caught my eye the other night, during the insomniac hours, was a passage where François, the young protagonist of A Story like the Wind, walks outside into the “…impact of African night which one still believes to be the greatest of all the many forms darkness can assume on this insignificant planet.”
As it happened, shortly after reading that, my eyes became too tired to read any more, and I switched off the light and wandered around in the dark that is not dark, and was struck by the absence of darkness we live with and take for granted: the many lights of houses and small ranches scattered around the valley; the school on the far side where the road comes down the hill; the ambient light from the town over the hill; more ambient light from a small community at the far end of the valley; the faint green light of the clock/timer on our stove; the green lights of the smoke detectors; the flashing blue lights of the sleeping computers; the hideous round chartreuse glow of the alarm clock’s face; the faint yellow glow of a light switch; the bright red of an electrical strip; a cacophony of light that makes a lie of any thought of dark.
If you’re a certain age, and were lucky enough to have grown up in the country, think back to what dark was like once. I can remember a blackness so complete, so absolute, that I relied on my own hearing, like a bat, to know where I was and what obstacles I had to avoid. As an adult I have been lucky enough to experience that complete absence of any artificial light that makes starlight almost painful to look at. A small island off the coast of Kodiak Island in Alaska (where a trip to the outhouse at night in brown-bear country was made a lot less unsettling by the presence of a hundred pound Chesapeake Bay retriever); deer-hunting camps in the mountains of Colorado and Utah; mountaintops in central Nevada in the heart of the Great Basin, the single most light-free area in America on those satellite maps done at night, like the one above; the mountains of Sonora, Mexico; a small sailboat during a night passage in the Caribbean; a hunting camp in the bush in South Africa (where the professional hunter assured us the lion we heard was about a mile away even though he sounded as if he were in my tent); a camping trip in the mountains of northern Vermont; a beach on the Skeleton Coast, south of Walvisbaai in Namibia; a hunting camp in the Kalahari (where I had to sleep with a revolver under pillow because a leopard had been making a nuisance of himself); and once, long ago, a deck passage on a small freighter in the Aegean, where it was possible to see the world very much as Ulysses must have seen it. It’s still possible, occasionally, in certain places, to experience the world as it was from the beginning of time until very recently, but it’s getting harder, rarer, more to be cherished.
The coyote piece evidently resonated with some readers, in particular the painting I used for illustration. It is by a man named Tom Quinn (if you do an internet search of his name, be sure to add “wildlife artist” to the search, because there are several other people out there with the same name, including another artist) and I just sent in a profile of him to one of the magazines I write for. As soon as they publish it, I will put it up on this site. In the meantime, he is, hands down, the greatest living wildlife artist alive today. Anywhere. Period. Unlike so many artists who become successful and then try to capitalize on their success by replicating the qualities that made them successful (a specific topic, a specific place, whatever) Tom fights very hard to make each watercolor new and unique and individual, and when you add to that the fact that he does not mass-produce prints of his work (he only does occasional limited runs, and sometimes won’t even sell certain paintings he especially loves) he is not as rich as he should be in any right-thinking society that puts proper emphasis on art. His wife, Jeri, is equally gifted; the difference between them is that she works in oils and concentrates on magnificent landscapes of the northern California area where they live. (I tried to buy one of her small landscapes, but a slew of bills—medical, veterinary, tax, insurance, yadayadayada—came in and the project had be postponed.)
I have known Tom—in a long distance mail-and-telephone way—for about twenty years or more, ever since I bought a book he wrote on dogs (The Working Retriever: the Training, Care, and Handling of Retrievers for Hunting and Field Trials)
and if you can get your hands on a copy, either the original first edition or the reprint, snap it up at any price, if you can possibly afford it. It is one of the best training books I have ever read, and it is illustrated with his own art, making it the kind of book you will spend happy hours drooling over, simply enjoying his work. He also has an art book out (The Art of Thomas Quinn) that has the kind of paintings that will fill you with wonder and delight. He really is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind genius. And a damned nice man.
L.B. is right when he says coyotes normally do not run in packs, but as he points out, “…coyotes regularly confound any and all established notions about them!” Making a long story short, I once (long ago when I was better able to do such things) had to go the rescue of a German shepherd who was attacked by coyotes. It was a long, confused fight that involved a gun, a baseball bat, three bull elk, three other dogs that had to be rescued first, and my covering a tremendous amount of rugged terrain on foot at high speed in my only good suit and my only dress shoes, all of which ended up considerably the worse for wear. But the point is, I knew back then, knew, for a calcified fact, that coyotes only ran in pairs, at most, but there were at least four and possibly a fifth involved in this encounter, and they were all coordinating very well with each other, thank you. Certainly, they were coordinating with each other far better than the German shepherd and I. Sometimes, when I watch the news and get spectacularly depressed at the cruelty and stupidity and cupidity of the human animal, it cheers me up to reflect that long after man has either reduced his numbers to Paleolithic levels or exterminated himself entirely, Br’er coyote will still be around, drinking and carousing at night, singing lewd songs off-key, and enjoying his Hasenpfeffer or Curried Rabbit or Braised Squirrel in Sauerkraut, and grinning as he lifts his leg on the bleached bones of Homo we-only wish-we-were-sapiens.
The painting immediately above is by Jeri Quinn; the others are by Tom. If anyone reading this has the financial wherewithal, contact one of the galleries that represent them (both he and Jeri are represented by Gerald Peters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Tom is also represented by Collectors’ Covey in Dallas, Texas) and snap up everything you can lay your hands on. You won’t regret it.
We’ve been having some of those glorious, God-given autumn days that make you feel that you’ll live forever. Crackling, crystalline air with a hint of cool in the wind, warm sun, and that indefinable something that only seems to come this time of year, that special quality that with each breath fills your corpuscles with health and well-being and longevity and a restless desire to be outside doing anything. Of course, in my case I don’t want to breathe too deeply because my ribs are still a little tender (the doctors say that can last for a year) but you know what I mean. It’s that divine discontent that Kenneth Grahame wrote about in The Wind in the Willows.
For some reason—possibly because they feel as good as I do at this time of year—the coyotes have been especially active lately, having wild parties at night, carousing and singing and carrying on in ways that—if they were humans—would tempt me to call the police and complain. But somehow, being woken up at night by drunken coyotes harmonizing off-key isn’t as annoying as it is when humans do it.
One large female in particular has been hanging around the place and hunting during the day. This is something I encourage. I know coyotes are the bane of cattlemen and sheepherders, but ground squirrels and rabbits are the bane of my life, and since coyotes eat more of those than any other predator, coyotes are always welcome at the Parker household. She walked across the hill behind the house yesterday, only about ten yards away, before finally angling up higher through the rocks and trees. For once the dogs seemed oblivious and slept right through her passing, not that their barking from inside the house would have particularly disturbed her, but it gave me a chance to admire her, sleek and elegant in her fashionable winter coat, eyes, ears, and nose all working toward a single end: Brandied Rabbit with Mushrooms and Cream; Squirrel Stroganoff with Mushrooms and Onions; or possibly Brunswick Stew, where I believe you can combine squirrel and rabbit and just about anything else your heart desires, though I’m not entirely certain which recipe coyotes prefer.
Watching her from the window, she was beauty and grace moving in silence, diminishing, to finally vanish in a few last glimpses—so wonderful. Of course, if I kept chickens, or sheep, or cattle, I might not think it so wonderful, but she was a good-looking girl.
I got my dates mixed up the other day. I rushed home to watch the final game of the World Series, only to remember it was a travel day, and I had to satisfy myself with the news. Then, as an after-dinner consolation prize, we watched Cabaret, and that juxtaposition of current politics and the Nazi rise to power in the waning days of the Weimar Republic (the movie takes place in 1931) gave much food for thought.
Cabaret is based on a Broadway musical of the same name, which is based on the play I Am a Camera, which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, which is based on Isherwood’s own experiences in Berlin from 1929 to 1933. Whew.
I had seen the movie when it first came out in 1972 or ’73, but I had forgotten what a brilliant piece of film-making it is. It won Bob Fosse an Academy Award as best director, making him the only man ever to win an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy in one year. The movie stars Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli (both of whom won Oscars) and Michael York who, despite an incredibly long and distinguished career, is one of the most underrated actors alive today, having—as far as I know—never won any major award, and having only been nominated for an Emmy. (I remember his “Tybalt” in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet as being spectacularly deserving of an award.)
If you simply watched it as mindless entertainment, Cabaret would be hard to beat, given the performances and the music and the choreography, but Fosse’s genius is to take that mindless entertainment and use it as part of his juxtaposition of all the many different kinds of evil that allowed the Nazi party—the ultimate evil—to rise and triumph. So what we see is the evil of decadence, the evil of moral turpitude, the evil of apathy, the evil of ennui, the evil of willful self-delusion, the evil of willing ignorance, the evil of thoughtless collusion, the evil of self-absorption, the evil of demonizing an entire people, all of it set against glimpses of the more obvious forms of evil: hatred, violence, lies, propaganda (which is just another form of lying). If it sounds like a morality play in musical form, to an extent it is, but like any work of art, it succeeds because of our emotional involvement. We care about Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and Brian Roberts (Michael York) and the two doomed characters of the sub-plot, the beautiful and wealthy Jewish girl and the impoverished Jew-pretending-to-be-an-Aryan who loves her. Kristallnacht and the concentration camps are still several years in the future, but their coming is foreshadowed in ways that make you long to step into the film and into the past and say, Leave! Go now! Run! There is one moment when you see Marisa Berenson’s beautiful face through a veil at her wedding and for a moment it hints at the winding sheet her violated young body will never have.
So what does all this have to do with American politics? The news was showing some of the hearings currently under way about the debacle of Obamacare. I have no idea whether Obamacare is a good thing for America or a bad thing. I suspect it is something well-intentioned but economically unsustainable, but whatever it may or may not be is beside the point. What one sees in the hearings, on both sides of the aisle, is a smarmy, self-serving litany of lies and distortions, each senator and each congressman breathlessly eager to demonize the other side, and each of them, in their different ways, offering a fool’s paradise they cannot possibly provide. Toward the end of Cabaret, there is a scene where Brian Roberts (Michael York) and the young Baron von Heune (Helmut Griem) stop at a country inn to have bite, and suddenly a young boy stands up and begins to sing a lovely song with lovely lyrics full of hope for the future, for a better world, for love and peace and prosperity. The song is lovely, the sentiments are lovely, the imagery is lovely, the boy is lovely, his voice is lovely, the rural setting of the inn is lovely, the weather is lovely, and gradually, one by one, the normal, average citizens eating their lunch get caught up in the beauty of the moment and join passionately in the singing. Only gradually does the camera pull away to reveal the boy is a Nazi offering a dream that will only be good for a select few. If I had been sitting in that Gasthaus, in that day and age, I too would have probably joined the singing. It’s a sobering thought.
Lately, every news organization that I follow (primarily CNN, PBS, and Fox) has been going on at length about all the problems people are having registering on-line for Obamacare. And within the last few days, the administration has admitted what everybody already knew, namely that there are problems, so that now the focus has shifted onto who knew what when. But what struck me about all this was that the company the government hired to set up the website, CGI Federal, is apparently a subsidiary of the Canadian company, the CGI Group, Inc. The reason this stood out as the salient fact for me is that, first of all, I thought it would be prudent, if not incumbent, for the American government to hire an American company. I mean, given the current unemployment numbers, shouldn’t the government encourage American enterprise and the American economy by hiring American companies? Isn’t that common sense? It’s a little like the news investigation a few years ago that showed all the souvenirs being sold in the Capitol Building gift shop were made in China. It’s… Embarrassing, that’s the word I was groping for.
Apart from patriotic aspect, American entrepreneurs and American enterprise are responsible for Google, Bing, E-bay, Amazon, the computerized logistical success of UPS and FedEx, as well as an uncountable number of other dot-com success stories, so why not hire one of them? Hell, there are probably hundreds of sixteen year old kids from San Francisco to Long Island who could have set up the website as part of their regular homework assignments. So why did the administration go north to wave the maple leaf? I decided to read a little more about it.
No one should ever believe more than about half of what any news organization states as gospel truth and calcified fact, but even taken with an entire salt block, there are an awful lot of accusations out there. Just to review the bidding, as it were, it has been—and is being—alleged that the “troubled” Affordable Healthcare Registry is a paragon of all known government hiring criteria, those criteria being: hire the most incompetent and most expensive company in order to line the pockets of personal friends and supporters. Specifically, it is being alleged that:
- CGI Federal is a subsidiary of the Canadian-owned company that tried and failed to establish the gun-registry program for the Canadian government, something that might make one pause to consider their qualifications.
- CGI Federal was awarded a “no-bid” contract (meaning there were no other companies even considered), something I wouldn’t do if I were hiring a plumber.
- Michelle Obama’s Princeton classmate Toni Townes-Whitley is a senior vice president at CGI Federal, a fact that, if true, looks just a trifle awkward.
- The same Toni Townes-Whitley was both a frequent visitor to the White House as well as a contributor to President Obama’s election campaign. If true, also a teensy bit awkward.
I have no idea what the truth is here—and if anyone does know more than I, please weigh in—but at the very least it still leaves the question: why not hire American? Who made that decision? Am I missing something here? Other than a paycheck, I mean.
I read a short story by John Updike the other night, during the insomniac hours, and I suddenly realized I associate Updike with death. Our paths crossed twice over the years, Updike’s and mine, in ways that were memorable for me, but that I doubt very much even registered on the Richter scale of his consciousness.
The first time was just after my father had been killed. My father died violently, and in misplaced anger and confusion I walked out on my then wife and my daughter. I was as completely and totally lost as I have ever been in my life. A friend in New York took me in. We shared his dreary, filthy, sixth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side and both of us flailed around trying to make something of our lives and accomplishing little, drinking heavily and doing a lot of drugs and other equally stupid and dangerous things. It was a dark time, and I felt as if the only thing I wanted to do was to explode.
But my friend came from a very wealthy family and they had, among other residences, an immense shared-extended-family house on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, very like something out of a short story by John Cheever. (Goodbye, My Brother, to be precise.) There was to be some weekend family event, and because I was lost and teetering on the brink of explosion or implosion, my friend kindly invited me up to the island. Along with other family members and guests staying in that vast shingled compound that weekend were John Updike and his wife. I knew who he was, of course, but I had never read any of his work back then, so beyond introductions and brief, polite chatter I never really spoke to him. Everybody, including my friend, played a card game, the name of which I cannot recall. There was an immense round table, and the object of the game was discard as many cards as possible as quickly as possible. It was played at lightening speed with loud good humor. No one in my family played cards of any kind, so I was a complete novice, way out of my league, and after three hands in which someone else won each time before I could even get my cards organized by suit or number, or even comprehend what I was holding, I withdrew and simply watched the others. Updike was tall, with a very distinctive, exotic face, rather like a cheerful and mischievous devil, but I remember his wife, Mary, better than I do him; very sexy in a zaftig, clean-scrubbed way, with a thick mane of hair pulled back into a ponytail. They looked very much like a couple out of one of his own short stories. (Possibly a story about the death of a marriage; they divorced later.)
The next time I saw him was twelve years later, a year or so after my mother had died. There was a big gala celebrity event being held in New York to raise money for some charity. I had achieved my own minor celebrity by then, and I had been invited to walk on stage and wave. I wasn’t clear how this was going inspire anyone to donate money to any charity, but I agreed to attend and flew back east. It was an unbelievable gathering of fame and talent. There weren’t enough chairs to go around, and all the actors were milling around in an upstairs room, cursing freely because—quite wisely—there was no bar. Perry King and I stood together and star-gazed. Jack Palance was rude and ominous. Michael Caine walked by, asking—like everyone else—where the damned bar was. When I went to find a restroom, a stout lady in pink chiffon who had taken her shoes off was trying to put them back on while standing, and she started to lose her balance. I caught her arm, and Olivia de Havilland turned to thank me. In the elevator, exhausted from the red-eye, I put my head back and closed my eyes. The elevator stopped, someone got on, and as the elevator started up again I thought, I’m being rude and what’s more I’m going to fall asleep if I don’t make an effort, and I opened my eyes to find myself gazing at Lawrence Olivier. Pierce Brosnan, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Sidney Poitier, William Shatner, Jimmy Stewart, many, many others, some still household names, some, like me, more transitory. It was that kind of event. And one of the celebrities I recognized was John Updike, but I still hadn’t read any of his work, and I was too shy to approach him. Later, when I mentioned the incident to someone, she told me I should have spoken to him, that Updike was quite star-struck and would have been delighted and delightful.
The next time he crossed my path was after the horrors of 9/11. I was waiting in a doctor’s office and in a copy of the New Yorker was a short story by Updike, called Varieties of Religious Experience, written from the point of view of three of the people killed that awful day. It was the first piece of his work I ever read and I remember being stunned that he could have written so insightfully and beautifully about that tragedy so soon after it occurred.
And then, the other night, a story about the death of a marriage.
But what I want to share with you is a poem of his about death. Like everything else he ever wrote, he approached it from an unexpected angle, holding up the mirror of human experience from the unique perspective of a genius.
And another regrettable thing about death
Is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
Which took a whole life to develop and market –
The quips, the witticisms, the slant
Adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
The lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
In the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
Their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
Their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
Their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
In the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
Imitators and descendants aren’t the same.
I had one of those inexplicable brain farts recently. Stephen Bodio (http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com in my links) asked me to write the forward for his latest book, A Sportsman’s Library (Lyons Press). I was delighted to be asked and delighted to do it, but when the book came out, for some reason I thought it would be inappropriate for me to review a book which has my name on the cover. I pulled my copy down the other day to look up something and it suddenly struck me: Dummy, this ain’t your book. Go ahead and review the sucker.
A Sportsman’s Library is subtitled, 100 Essential, Engaging, Offbeat, and Occasionally Odd Fishing and Hunting Books for the Adventurous Reader, which pretty much sums it up, with two notable omissions. Each of the selections is a unique, well-written book in its own right, but what the title doesn’t tell you or even hint at is the extraordinary range of this volume. Only Steve Bodio could have written a book that encompasses the best books on hunting and fishing—and sometimes cooking what you have hunted and fished for—from Emperor Frederick II’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (which I’m sure you all immediately recognize as translating to The Art of Hunting with Birds, more commonly translated and known as The Art of Falconry) written sometime before the Emperor’s death in 1250, to Brian Plummer’s very funny late-twentieth century Tales of a Rat-Hunting Man. Think about it for a moment: that’s over seven centuries worth of literature. Who else, other than Steve Bodio, could possibly have the knowledge to be able to write intelligently about seven centuries worth of sporting literature? God knows I couldn’t.
The other item the title doesn’t hint at is Steve’s own writing. Each selection is introduced by him, and as singer-songwriter and writer Tom Russell says in his blurb on the back cover, “Steve Bodio is not only one of our finest ‘sporting’ and ‘nature’ writers, he is one of our finest American writers. Period.” Each of those introductions is why the book is worth owning and reading even if you have zero interest in hunting or fishing. I don’t care how much you know or think you know about Hemingway or Faulkner or Theodore Roosevelt or T. H. White or Isak Dinesen or any of the other writers he covers in this beautifully illustrated book, each of Steve’s introductions will gracefully introduce you to a new facet of that person’s life, a new way of thinking about that particular writer. Of course, for the most part, Steve introduces us all to writers we’ve never even heard of, and he does it so well and with such compelling grace, that the temptation is to empty the checking account buying up copies of books by people we didn’t know existed. All in all, it is a remarkable book, and one I highly recommend.
And if you need another reason to buy it, I happen to know there is a rather amusing forward written by…by, hold on, it’s…no, don’t tell me…damn, the name escapes me at the moment…