|Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII|
Sunday, December 9, 2012
A few weeks ago, bleary-eyed, I finished watching The Tudors (Showtime Networks, 2007-2010), the Elizabethan costume drama series, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry VIII. The movie poster for the production features Rhys Meyers, grim-faced, arms outspread, eyes fixed in a primal stare – a Christ-like figure for Anglicanism, perhaps, but for the Church of Rome, not to mention a few Henry VIII wives, an aspect of impending doom.
The Showtime production is but the latest in a host of films about Henry Tudor and his famous daughters, Elizabeth I and Mary I (“Bloody Mary”). The narrative is familiar: the English king who, defying a Medici pope, declares himself head of the Church of England, the better to divorce or murder a succession of wives in his quest for a male heir.
Inevitably the melodrama – découper des têtes plied to serial uxoricide – eclipses the finer points of ecclesiastical governance, no doubt the reason Hollywood keeps reprising this tale. With sibling tropes of lust, greed, power, false piety, and homicide to amuse you, who cares about papal politics?
As usual with Showtime, the series relies mightily on steamy sex as a draw, in this case legions of lords a-leaping, twelve ways ‘til Christmas, into the sack with ladies-in-waiting.
Maybe I’ve seen one too many of these betrothal-and-beheadal Henry VIII flicks, but for me, Ann Boleyn’s trundling noggin seems almost as well-traveled as Sisyphus’s famous boulder. So this time around, more compelling than custom decollation by a mail order French swordsman, was the film’s focus – more focused than usual for such films, I thought – on the styles of address of the English peerage.
The dialogue is replete with:
“Your majesty...“ (King Henry, popeless and self-appointed head of his church, yet stopped short of “Your Holiness.”)
“Your Grace,” “Your Grace,” “Your Grace” – there are oodles of Graces in this film. The series positively surfeits with Graces (three would’ve done for me), sometimes nearly to the point of, well, clumsiness.
And in addition:
“My Lord.” “My Lords...”
“My Lady.” “Your Ladyship.” “The Lady so-and-so…”
So what’s up with all these prefixes?
It’s how the English peerage, nobles with hereditary or honorary (albeit, legal) titles, address one another.
Paradoxically, the peerage consists of five ranks (in order of importance) that aren’t at all equal: Duke/Duchess; Marquess/Marchioness; Earl/Countess (Count is the European equivalent of Earl); Viscount/Viscountess; Baron/Baroness.
Each rank has its not necessarily distinctive call signs. Thus, you’re supposed to address a duke as My Lord Duke or Your Grace. But archbishops also go by Your Grace. Just about everyone else in the line-up can be hailed as My Lord, My Lady, The Most Honourable, or The Right Honourable.
Still further down the ladder are the gentry and minor nobility – baronets, knights, dames – whom you address as Sir, Madame, or Dame.
Occupying the lowest rung are blokes and blokettes – commoners, to you and me – who don’t rate any special acknowledgement.
To most Americans, all of this sounds like affected gobbledygook, although its often been the inspiration for creativity and humor.
Gene Chandler famously dubbed himself Duke of Earl (Vee-Jay Records, 1961), co-opting two English titles at once!
“Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl…
And when I hold you
You will be my Duchess, Duchess of Earl
We’ll walk through my dukedom…”
Fine, but best ye nay tell His Majesty!
My favorite American treatment of “duke” comes from the Clint Eastwood Western, The Unforgiven (Warner Bros., 1992). At one point in the film, we find Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, confronting expat British gunfighter, English Bob (Richard Harris), who’s arrived in town – with his biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) in tow, no less – for the purpose of doing some contract killing.
Little Bill and his deputies have gotten the drop on the duo and in the course of searching them for weapons, find a draft of the biography Beauchamp is writing.
Glancing over the title page, Little Bill asks “That you here, Bob, on the cover? ‘The Duck of Death?’”
“Duke, Bill, Duke!” protests Bob, “It’s Duke of Death!”
Little Bill proceeds to give the Duke of Death a condign thrashing, and you quickly surmise there’s been bad blood between these two all along. But if that ain’t enough, since when does a snooty Limey gunslinger make bold to haughtify in America’s Wild West, anyway?
Duke of Death, indeed – sic semper tyrannis!
Still, America has had its share of nobility. There was Elvis Presley, King of Rock & Roll, John “Duke” Wayne, William “Count” Basie, Nat “King” Cole, and Edward “Duke” Ellington. Benny Goodman was the King of Swing; Michael Jackson, the King of Pop (but only at Pepsi Cola).
Remember Leona Helmsley, the Queen who stood guard at Helmsley hotels ‘til she was thrown in the clink for tax cheating? JFK’s administration was dubbed Camelot, notably by Jack himself, though its sorely-taxed Guinevere (Jackie) wasn’t doing the cheating.
The good news in all this is that we Americans don’t have to call anybody “My Lady,” or ”Your Lordship.” Nor need we address the likes of, say, Richard Brodhead as Earl of Duke. We can just go for bloke, or here in the colonies, for dude or dudette.
But you'd better say “Your honor” to de jedge!
Thursday, October 25, 2012
BOOM! whacka-whacka-whacka (♪ “I wanna take you highhh-er…”♪♪)
Bollocks, a blown tire!
My turnpike trance was gone in a flash. Both hands gripped the steering wheel. I took my foot off the gas pedal and let the Ford U-Haul truck coast gradually to near-standstill, then nudged it off the highway.
During catastrophic tire failure like this, especially at high speed, you have to resist the temptation to hit the brakes. That could throw you out of control and even flip your vehicle. Instead, you just coast, steering cautiously to compensate for yaw.
For the past year and a half, Leah and I have been moving – one U-Haul load at a time – from west Texas to southern California. The trip follows Interstate 10 all the way to the California route 210 exit at Redlands. Typically, after the first day’s drive we overnight in Phoenix, then arrive at our destination late the following afternoon. It’s a journey of about nine hundred miles.
Interstate 10 runs from Jacksonville, Florida, to Santa Monica, California. The other major coast-to-coast freeway, Interstate 80, stretches from New Jersey to San Francisco.
Before the interstate system came along, most coast-to-coast road trips, including the six I made during college in the 1960s, followed legendary two-lane Route 66. Departing Virginia, I’d pick up the 66 in St. Louis and take it as far as Los Angeles, traveling through the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forrest, by Meteor Crater in Arizona, and finally across the Mojave Desert into California.
After awhile, I began to notice construction of Interstate 40, the four-lane freeway that eventually replaced the 66.
Route 66 has a storied history. Established in 1926, the road was a major thoroughfare westward during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes it as "the mother road.” In 1940, McDonald’s opened its first hamburger shop on a stretch of the 66 in San Bernardino, California. The U-Drop Inn is a famous art deco-styled motel, recently restored, on what used to be part of 66 in Shamrock, Texas.
The roadside attraction I recall best, though, is the Whiting Bros. chain of gasoline stations. About forty of these stations, some with restaurants and motels, were scattered along the 66 as far west as Barstow, California. Whenever the next one would be a ways off, you’d see a sign reading something like “Fifty miles to the next Whiting Bros.” This was important because back then there was nothing else out there. Even so, my red 1967 Volkswagen beetle, which got about thirty miles to the gallon and had a reserve fuel supply, allowed me to push the limits a bit.
The VW also had an air-cooled engine that did well in the heat. Crossing the Mojave, you’d see car radiators, lots of them, in the shade of a prickly pear, spluttering like a riled-up tea kettle.
But the Volkswagen was no Chevy corvette. It’s measly 53-horsepower produced a top speed of about 80 miles per hour, which could make passing an eighteen-wheeler a bit dicey. Where Route 66 crossed the Mojave west of Needles, California, the road was virtually a straightaway, and trucks would pick up speed there to make up for lost time. In order get around a big rig, I’d have to push the pedal to the metal and eke my way past, sometimes running abreast of the truck for a mile or more, trusting to fate that the oncoming traffic was only a mirage.
Upon completion of the interstate system in 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned. As work had progressed on I-40, bypassed sections of 66 were demoted to state or local use or fell into desuetude. Here and there, you can still see abandoned stretches of the old road, overgrown with weeds and littered with relics – rusted vehicles, placards for products no longer made, derelict remnants of the Whiting Bros. gasoline empire.
|Derelict Whiting Bros. gasoline station, Route 66|
On the morning of our big blowout near Buckeye, Arizona, just west of Phoenix, traffic along the I-10 was moderate. Random passenger cars weaved amongst loose clusters of slower moving eighteen-wheelers, the familiar warp and weft of interstate travel. The outside temperature was about 84 degrees Fahrenheit, cool by Arizona standards.
The situation for a blowout might have been worse.
After the bone-jolting whacka-whacka-whacka died away and the U-Haul came to a stop, I squeezed through the driver’s door and carefully picked my way aft between vehicle and roadway as though negotiating a narrow ledge. The traffic noise was deafening, and sudden bursts of air from vehicles speeding past hindered progress.
Except for some dry rot of the sidewalls, all four rear tires appeared to be OK. Returning with less effort along the passenger’s side, I checked the U-Haul’s other end.
Blown out Goodrich truck tire resembling Dante’s 10th circle.
The right front tire had virtually exploded, causing tread separation and noticeable damage to the wheel well and fender. The tire itself had been reduced to a vision of hell. Sprouting from what had been the tread was a shock of belting wire that looked like tangled tares of carbide tungsten, demonic ragweed or dogbane flourishing on basalt – Satan’s own cereal crop. It reminded me a bit of the Shatani (shaytan means devil in Arabic) lava flow in Kenya’s Tsavo West that we’d crossed one day in a Land Rover, escorted by guards armed to the teeth against Tanzanian renegades.
Lava flow or no, itinerancy can make you feel vulnerable, especially if you’re toting a strong box. So for this trip I‘d decided to bring a Colt .45 ACP semi-automatic Combat Commander (shorter barrel than the Model 1911 government version).
“A good thing, too,” I muttered to myself ruefully, feeling more than a little agitated and nervously fingering the .45’s thumb safety inside my green canvas and leather Orvis shoulder bag. Leah had packed up all her jewelry for this run, not to mention the dining room silver, and now here we were stranded, a couple of Berbers alone on the Silk Road with a lame camel and no caravansary.
For a handgun, you see, is not just a weapon, its a talisman. Its apotropaic magic forefends every mischief, mere ownership averts all peril. Its good luck nonpareil and a safeguard to liberty.
That’s why guns are so popular and for sale at Wal-Mart.
But it seems they’re no good for tires.
In the event, nothing much happened on I-10 that morning. In addition to no hockey-masked heistmeisters swooping down in souped-up dune buggies, other things conspired to make the whole business seem trivial.
First, U-Haul International, Inc. happens to be headquartered in Phoenix, so rescue by the mother ship was less than an hour away. Next, U-Haul trucks have an emergency "1-800" number emblazoned on the passenger’s-side visor that you can’t miss no matter how flustered you get, and it connects you to a helpful emergency centre.
Lastly, besides the Colt .45, I’d brought aboard a 3G-caliber iPhone 4S with an app for Google Maps, so alerting U-Haul’s roadside response team (one guy) to our location was simple.
These days help on the highway is just a cell tower away – and I had five bars. Itinerancy no longer exits. Wherever you may be, you’re always “@” your cell phone. Its almost like staying at home.
The repair technician showed up apace, changed out the demolished front tire, and pronounced us good to go. We arrived on the west coast tired, a few hours late, and shaken but not stirred.
After all, it was only a blowout – even if for a second it did take us higher.
I'm indebted to Wikipedia for background material
I'm indebted to Wikipedia for background material
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
In front of the Prague shop where he sold men's and women's fancy goods and accessories, Hermann Kafka, the father of Franz, hung a sign with a jackdaw painted next to his name – “kavka” means jackdaw in Czech. Hermann was a vociferous, selfish, overbearing, self-satisfied sort, and the jackdaw in folklore connotes thievery and vanity. So wordplay aside, the implied comparison suggests either uncommon self-awareness or beguiling cluelessness. Franz apparently considered it to be the former.
The kavka, or jackdaw, is a member of
the crow family
Franz Kafka respected, perhaps even feared, his father yet couldn’t have been more different from him. He had none of Hermann’s authoritarian and demanding character. His obvious intelligence and dry sense of humor went with boyish good looks and a cool, quiet, if somewhat austere demeanor. Max Brod, Kafka’s lifelong friend and curator, regarded Franz as one of the most entertaining people he’d ever met, someone who liked to laugh and make others laugh.
The writings of Kafka, deceptively subtle, allow for diverse interpretation. His themes of hopelessness and absurdity, for example, are emblematic of existentialism. Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre are among the authors influenced by him.
Yet Kafka’s writing is also relentlessly funny, even joyful – the futility of his characters' “Kafkaesque” struggles bespeaking a surreal sense of humor. Indeed, Kafka himself used to read drafts of his prose to friends, typically concentrating on the amusing parts which can creep up on you like an ambush.
Much of Kafka's work (e.g., The Castle and The Trial) famously focuses on the struggle of the individual with bureaucracy. This, along with Kafkaesque comedy, is what came to mind a few weeks ago in the aftermath of a minor incident that occurred in a hospital operating room.
During a surgical procedure, I was accidently stuck by a sharp instrument. Before it got to my finger, the tine of the instrument had to penetrate a double layer of latex rubber, so the latex had probably squeegeed off most of the bad stuff. Still, there’s a protocol for dealing with such mishaps – it starts with discarding the contaminated instrument and changing your gloves – and I followed it.
The first phase of the “needle stick” protocol went pretty smoothly. After completing the operation, I reported to the hospital emergency department to have a blood sample taken for HIV and hepatitis, viral infections that could result from my type of injury. You need to establish a baseline for the presence or absence of these pathogens even if you have no personal history of infection with them.
There were, of course, lots of forms to fill out – sundry waivers, affidavits, an account of the incident.
Then I was fitted with one of those hospital identification bracelets. I’d always thought of these as being meant to ward off misidentification of in-patients, not out-, but it was comforting to know I wouldn’t be confused with the guy next door in delirium tremens. What’s more, the ID bracelet gives you a certain sense of belonging, like a gangbanger’s distinctive tattoo or maybe a prisoner’s handcuffs.
A lab tech appeared and took a blood sample. Next came about thirty seconds of bonhomie from an emergency medicine doctor who told me to follow up with Occupational Health for repeat viral titers (more blood samples).
About this time I noticed a large lavender bruise spreading around the site of the blood draw – a consequence of those daily blood thinner cardiac aspirins I take, you see – so I went to some pains to apply more pressure. But to little avail – the bruise got bigger anyway. One of these days, I suppose, I could darken to purple entirely like a vintage Médoc merlot, but hopefully I won’t get a heart attack.
A few weeks later I received a notice to report to Occupational Health. My baseline blood tests had been negative, but I still needed follow-up titers to see if anything would change.
The hospital in the meantime had expedited an invoice payable for twelve hundred dollars. This caused me sustained apoplexy for awhile until Roxie, my secretary, finally took matters in hand.
“I’ll deal with this,” she’d vowed, through clinched teeth, her eyes narrowing.
And then the bill simply vanished. Did Roxie consign it to sea transit in perpetuity, say, aboard the Flying Dutchman? Its amazing what people can do!
“I’ll deal with this,” she’d vowed, through clinched teeth, her eyes narrowing.
And then the bill simply vanished. Did Roxie consign it to sea transit in perpetuity, say, aboard the Flying Dutchman? Its amazing what people can do!
The office of Occupational Health is located on the second floor of a grey annex that could have been constructed of oversized Legos®. The office itself has a glass façade and swinging glass door fronting a hallway just down from the elevators. Straight ahead as you enter, on the opposite side of the waiting room, is a glass partition and a second glass door leading into the patient treatment area. Off to the right is the receptionist’s window where a comely young woman in pink lipstick and smart healthcare livery operates a computer.
I’d visited Occupational Health many times (they do the employees’ obligatory annual TB skin tests) and knew their simple intake routine by rote. You come in, register with the receptionist, and take a seat in the waiting room. Nothing – nothing – ever happens until, like Beetlejuice, you’ve signed in and been seated.
On this occasion, though, as I was walking toward the receptionist window, a voice chimed out from the door of the treatment area.
“Sir, sir…can I help you?”
“I’m here for a needle stick follow-up,” I replied in surprise, briefly halting in my tracks.
“Well, first you have to sign in with the receptionist,” said the voice authoritatively.
“Oookay, thanks,” I muttered, already in mid-stride again and a little puzzled at this seeming gratuitousness. At least I wasn’t being ignored.
The receptionist took my information, tapped away at her keyboard for awhile, then handed me a business card from a small cache beside her computer.
“You’ll have to contact this person – Ms. Nina Nullacre, Coordinator, Quality Improvement, Occupational Health,” she advised. “Her number is on the card.”
“Well, thanks,” I replied, and made my way out of the office.
Ms. Nullacre’s business card listed a phone number – let’s call it 915-634-0081 – and an email address. I punched up the number – correctly, too, according to my cell phone’s outgoing calls log – and waited.
“Internal Medicine,” answered a live female voice.
“Oh,” I said, “I’m trying to reach Ms. Nina Nullacre in Occupational Health.”
“You’ll have to dial 915-634-0081 for that,” the voice replied smoothly.
“But I’m speaking to you right now because I just dialed that number,” I insisted.
“Let me try some extensions,” she offered.
The extension search yielded several voicemail greetings, none of them Ms. Nullacre’s.
“Thanks very much,” I said at last. “I have an email address for Ms. Nullacre, so I think I’ll try that.”
Ms. Nullacre answered my email almost at once and instructed me to go to the office of Occupational Health located on the second floor of the grey Lego® building.
I briefly recounted my story for her, then inquired “What do you believe would happen if I returned to Occupational Health right now? When I went there before, they dispatched me in search of you.”
“Call Ms. Josephine Schlitz at this number,” Ms. Nullacre emailed back.
So I called Ms. Schlitz and trusting to fate, trudged off once again to Occupational Health.
Sure enough Ms. Schlitz was on hand to meet me! She ushered me into a treatment room, handed me several new forms to complete, and then graciously shot me full of DPT and hepatitis B booster vaccines.
As the flagpole-sized vaccination needle bored into the belly of my left deltoid muscle, who should appear but the receptionist with pink lipstick.
“I’m so sorry, doctor,” she said painfully, her face in a grimace.
“I know you’re here just to watch me suffer,” I joked, grimacing back at her.
“No, no!” she cried, her pink lips dancing pale ultraviolet in the glare of the fluorescent overheads. Or so it seemed through the pain – those damned DPT shots hurt!
“Kafka was right,” I thought. “We’re all soddin’ guilty, even the most blameless of us.”
“For irrealisms like these,
With the flow must thou roll,
Be it down coil-ed plain,
or up plane-ed col.”
This might’ve been an hallucinatory effect of the anesthetic – if I’d had one.
I left the second time laden with documents for my next visit at the end of October. I never saw Ms. Nullacre.
Is there a moral to this story? Maybe so. America right now is the only First World country on the planet without a national health care system. But there's one in the making, and to get a jump on it you might want to read Kafka.
I’m indebted to Wikipedia for background material. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, especially the guilty ones.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
Thus laments Rick Blaine when Ilsa, his erstwhile lover, shows up at Rick’s Cafe, Blaine’s Casablanca night club. It was hardly the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it was a typical line from Humphrey Bogart.
Who can forget Casablanca or the inimitable Bogie – his painful wince, that leer, the fiendish grin? In 1997, Entertainment Weekly magazine named him the number one movie legend of all time. Two years later, the American Film Institute ranked him the greatest male star of all time.
To be sure, greatest of all time really means best so far, but even today, nearly sixty years after his death, Bogart remains a cinema icon.
Why should this be?
Perhaps its because Bogart was one of the most authentic (more about this idea in a bit) actors of his day and managed to convey this quality seamlessly to his various film personages. With Bogie, on screen or off, what you saw was what you got – the solitary, stoic outsider who keeps his chin up no matter what.
In the aftermath of World War II, existentialist thought, especially the ideas of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre in France, which had suffered Nazi occupation, became not only fashionable but a media craze. On the other side of the Atlantic, unblighted by blitzkrieg, where philosophy mostly came out of movie theaters, the prototypical existentialist was not a beret-topped philosophe but an American film star – Humphrey Bogart.
Besides the usual ravages of war, the struggle against Fascism had claimed emotional and spiritual casualties, too. Judeo-Christian faith had done nothing to forestall the conflict, and the erosion of traditional moral and religious values left many at sea. During such a crisis of confidence, it was reassuring to find Bogie up there on the silver screen showing the way, if not to spiritual revival, at least to a kind of heroic endurance.
By most accounts an atheist from the age of eight (a tour de force for an eight-year-old, perhaps), Bogart was nearly a born existentialist. Over the course of his life, he came to hate pretensions, phonies, and snobs, and not infrequently defied authority and conventional behavior. Yet he was also polite, articulate, punctual, and modest. He rarely saw his own films and avoided premieres. If he thought an actor, director, or movie studio had done something shoddy, he was more than apt to be openly critical, often in print.
As a professional, Bogart was by and large an autodidact. He had no formal education beyond high school (he was expelled from Phillips Academy, Andover) and never took acting lessons. In a sense he never really acted at all, for his on-screen presence was a genuine reflection of the man himself – the worldly wise (or weary), individualistic adventurer with traces of idealism and humor concealed beneath a tough exterior. His film personae, like the real-life Bogie, were wounded, laconic, charming, vulnerable, self-mocking loners who yet had a residual of honor. Even his most ruthless characters showed a hint of decency, and his heroes often had a dark side. He was a kaleidoscope of contradictions.
Especially interesting about Bogie was his capacity to turn cynicism into a kind of virtue as though, having peered into the abyss, he’d persevered by taking it all with a grain of salt – had had an epiphany that even cynics need to laugh. If angst led to heavy smoking and drinking on Bogie’s part (the habits eventually killed him), it was also the source of his humanity – and his great movie performances.
|Albert Camus (photo by Henri Cartier Bresson)|
Bogart would have been about fourteen years old when novelist-philosopher Albert Camus was born in 1913. Like Bogart, Camus was himself a man of action and a media sensation. In 1957, at the age of forty-four, he was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature, making him the second-youngest (after Rudyard Kipling) recipient ever. During World War II, he’d joined a cell of the French Resistance, Combat, which published an eponymous underground newspaper with Camus as editor. Thus, his credentials for courage or engagement were gold-plated – and the envy of his philosophic confrere, Jean-Paul Sartre.
|Jean-Paul Sartre (photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)|
In contrast to the owlish and irresolute Sartre, Camus didn’t allow metaphysics (or metapolitics, as one might say) to stand in the way of principle. He believed in sticking up for your friends and valued bravery and fair-play. He espoused the ideals of justice and truth and believed that all political action must have a solid moral basis. Even if existence is absurd, life is still what you make of it, he thought. A person is defined only insofar as he or she takes action, and he or she remains responsible for those actions.
In the end, it was all came down to authenticity which in the context of existentialism is the quality of being true to one's own personality, spirit, or character. And its this quality, I believe, that Bogart and Camus shared.
…sooner or later a person’s true character shows in his face.
Yet authenticity is about more than mere narrative. Its about demeanor as well, for sooner or later a person’s true character shows in his or her face. Is yours the mien of a straight shooter, a person of principle who walks the talk? Or do you have the shifty-eyed countenance of, say, the vicariously audacious, those who celebrate brutishness in others in order to conceal timidity in themselves?
Camus died at the age of forty-seven, killed in a car wreck. But in 1941 and 1942 when the Maltese Falcon and Casablanca – films among Bogart’s best – were released, Camus would have been in his twenties or early thirties. Bogart, moreover, was at the time quite popular in France (as he still is today).
Was Camus a fan of Bogart?
Probably so. Camus once described himself as a mix of Bogart, Fernandel (the French comedic actor), and a samurai. But it was the Bogie look – the precarious smoldering cigarette, the coat collar turned up like a gorget – that he sported, not grease paint or a katana.
Did Bogie for his part admire the author of The Rebel and The Stranger? We may never know, but its not a stretch to image Rick Blaine opining as did Camus:
''Those who pretend to know everything and settle everything finish by killing everything.''