The end of November and the beginning of December is a time of encroaching darkness. (Readers in the Southern Hemisphere can skip this until May of next year.) For reasons we can only guess at, the earth’s axis is tilted 23.4 degrees in respect to the plane of its track around the sun.* These months we in the North are tilted away from the sun, which is why it’s so low above the horizon — and, of course, in that position the sun’s radiant energy strikes us at a shallow angle, giving us reduced heat.
So now is a good time to hug the clothes when you fetch them from the dryer. Simply reach in, gather the wonderful warmth of freshly dried towels and pajamas and socks and what have you, and clasp that heap of warmth to your chest. Now hold them that way as you make your way to the sorting table. If your dryer is in the cellar and you have to climb stairs, hold the stair rail with one hand and the clothes with the other. Just keep going until you dump the still warm clothes on the bed and sort them there. The important thing is to hug that warmth. There’s nothing like it.
Or, if you just came in from the cold and your hands are reddish-blue blocks of ice, wash a few of those dishes that are stacked jumble-wise in the sink. The warm soapy water will melt your digits and you’ll feel better all over. And for dinner, we suggest soup.
*John Milton, the great Puritan poet, ascribed the tilting of the earth’s axis to Adam and Eve’s misbehavior in the Garden of Eden. In his Paradise Lost, the earth’s axis is vertical in relation to the ecliptic plane prior to their eating the Forbidden Fruit, so it’s summer all year round, but after the Fall of Man God tilts it awry. Some cosmologists have speculated that the newly formed earth was hit by a large asteroid that knocked the earth off the vertical and tore a chunk away that became our moon. These two explanations of axial tilt seem equally plausible. In any case, to calculate the diminished effect of the sun in winter, multiply the effect of the sun when directly overhead by the cosine of the sun’s angle above the horizon in winter.
Turkey is the main course at Thanksgiving dinner. And there’s good historical reason for that. William Bradford, the leader of that band of separatist Puritans who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, recorded in his history of the plantation that “besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”
Our focus on feast and family at Thanksgiving generally obscures the staggering hardships that those settlers endured— those few who survived. Bradford gives us our description of it in his history, named simply, Of Plimouth Plantation. Here is an excerpt describing their plight.
Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sumer being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world.
Bradford’s wife, Dorothy, died while the Mayflower was at anchor in Provincetown Harbor and by the end of the first winter half the colonists had perished.
The painting reproduced below, The First Thanksgiving, is contrary to most of what we know about that occasion. The painter, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, was born in Philadelphia in 1863 and died in 1930. His fame rested on a series of 78 historical painting, entitled The Pageant of a Nation. However, his fame did not last and those works have been rightly criticized as being Romantic idealizations of events — precise in their details but often inaccurate in total. The First Thanksgiving shows Wampanoag Indians with feathered headdress which, in fact, they didn’t wear. The details of the headdress are correct, but it belongs to a far different tribe; the chair on the right is an accurate portrayal of a chair owned by William Bradford, the 17th century clothing is accurate, but probably not worn by the Puritans. Whether a young woman would be serving the heathen native men of the area is doubtful. Certainly the trees would be bare in Plymouth, the weather would be, at best, quite chilly and the Europeans would not look so well fed, nor so healthy. By the way, if you’re familiar with the name Jean-Léon Gérôme you may wonder what the connection is between that better known French painter this American. Jean Ferris’s father was a painter who admired Gérôme and gave that name to his son.
Most likely you haven’t see The Fairy, a French movie with a story composed of brilliantly funny sequences of almost silent comedy. Advertising for the film compares it to the slapstick work of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati and in a sense that’s true — especially in regard to some of the work of Jacques Tati. But slapstick is a small part of this curious film.
The two central actors are Dominique Abel (playing Dom) and Fiona Gordon (playing Fiona), two members of a well known comedic trio that includes Bruno Romy who has a small role in this movie. The story is set in a gritty stretch of urban seaside in the ugly industrial port city of Le Havre.
Dom is the night clerk in a small hotel when Fiona, barefoot and in a rain-soaked jersey and baggy sports trousers, enters and asks for a room. She also announces that she’s a fairy and will grant him three wishes. Dom asks for 1) a motor scooter (during the credits we saw him peddling a bicycle with a loose chain through the rain) and 2) a lifetime supply of free gasoline. He can’t think of a third wish and Fiona tells him to take his time.
It has to be said that neither Fiona nor Dom are beautiful people. Quite the contrary, they have extraordinarily plain faces and thin angular bodies. But they have a certain fluidity of motion, especially Fiona, and after they fall in love the viewer is on their side, hoping they’ll survive the twists and turns of the movie. (The not-so-beautiful faces of these two reminds us that you don’t have to be beautiful to be genuinely in love, and it can happen in an ugly industrial port city, too.) The plot is a bizarre linear farce in which each scene leads logically to the next, but always with unexpected results.
Fiona can grant Dom’s wish for free gasoline by giving the woman who manages huge gasoline storage tanks the key to her hotel room (the woman needs a place to meet her lover) in exchange for the key to a storage tank outflow pipe. In the movie there’s a café named Love is Blurred — an inexplicably odd name until we get to the café and discover that the owner, played by Bruno Romy, isn’t blind but extraordinarily nearsighted. (It may take a moment to get that one.)
There are a couple of minor sub plots which are neatly linked to the main plot. The central story is that Fiona disappears and Dom finds her in a hospital for the local nut cases from which she probably escaped prior to reaching his hotel. In the course of the movie Fiona gets pregnant more or less by willing it, producing a bulge with the speed and sound effects of blowing up a balloon. And later she delivers the baby in an equally unusual fashion. Whether Fiona is truly crazy or just a simpleton fairy doesn’t really matter. How he rescues her and how they get away together makes for 94 minutes of very, very light entertainment. This whimsical tale is on DVD disk in French with English subtitles. Check it out.
It’s over! The seemingly endless campaign has ended! As soon as it became clear that Obama would be back in the White House for four more years, it also became evident that he’d be facing essentially the same Congress and certainly the same major players. But while much remains the same, a lot has changed. And some of the changes are remarkable.
Two states, Colorado and Washington, astonished the other forty-eight by voting to decriminalize marijuana. It’s clear that the vote puts those states in conflict with the federal government, but we have no idea what it does to those currently imprisoned for previously illegal pot possession.
And two other states, Maine and Maryland, voted to legalize gay marriage — a decision which had never before come from the popular vote but only from legislatures or the courts.
A few months ago, Democrats seemed positioned to lose up to six seats in the Senate; instead, they added two. And Tammy Baldwin became not only the first woman senator from Wisconsin, but the first openly lesbian to be elected to the Senate. We haven’t tracked each of them down, but according to the Victory Fund, which supports gay and lesbian candidates, at least 118 gay or lesbian candidates won their races.
All in all, it was a good election cycle for women. There will now be more women in the Senate than ever before. Indeed, New Hampshire will have a woman governor and its entire Congressional delegation will be composed of women.
We’re back on Standard Time now. That means you drive home from work in the dark. Hawaii and Arizona never left Standard time, so they don’t have to mess with their clocks. Some of us liked it better before the world began organizing time. Some of us right here at Critical Pages, for example, get suicidal when twilight creeps up in the middle of the afternoon.
But suicide isn’t necessary. A study by professors Paul Fischbeck, at Carnegie Mellon University, and others, found that after the time change pedestrians walking during evening rush hour are nearly three times more likely to be struck and killed by cars than before the change. Which is another reason we don’t like messing with the clock.
Fooling with clocks is always lethal. “The Monday and Tuesday after moving the clocks ahead one hour in March is associated with a 10 percent increase in the risk of having a heart attack,” says Martin Young. Professor Young is in the Division of Cardiovascular Disease at the University of Alabama (Birmingham), so he probably knows what he’s talking about. Furthermore, he says, “The opposite is true when falling back in October. This risk decreases by about 10 percent.”
In the old days — we’re thinking of the 1800’s here — every town and city set its own time. When the sun was directly overhead, that was twelve noon, so they set the big town clock to twelve and everyone in town set their timepieces by the local clock. That worked fine until railroads became an important feature of life. British railroads switched from local time to the time set by the British observatory at Greenwich, hence what we call Greenwich Mean Time. And by most folks it was called Railway Time. During the 1800’s the British and the French were competing to set standards — standards for weights, lengths, time, and where the zero meridian should be placed. The French wanted it to run through Paris. The British won out, so it runs through Greenwich. On the other hand, the French won on length and had the final word on how long a meter was.
But we digress, as usual. The illustration for this post is a still from the 1923 movie “Safety Last” starring Harold Lloyd. It’s an example of how dangerous it is to mess with clocks. Check it out — if you have a few minutes of Standard Time.
L’Osservatore Romano, the 151-year-old newspaper put out by the Vatican, has gone gaga over James Bond. Or, maybe we should say that the editor, Gian Maria Vian, has taken to heart the Pope’s suggestion to liven up the daily. Some years ago L’Osservatore Romano praised The Blues Brothers, surprising just about everyone, but that was ages after the movie had premiered and, after all, it was a comedy and the plot featured John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd on a “mission from God” to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up. (By the way, though it came out in 1980, the film is still a blast.)
But praising the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, is different. This time the Vatican newspaper has five different articles related to the movie, all of them laudatory. “Skyfall does not disappoint,” says the Vatican. “The 23rd Bond film is one of the best in the longest cinematic story of all time…” Furthermore, according to L’Osservatore Romano, the film “does not lack any of the classic ingredients which have made James Bond a legend — the title credits song, adrenalin pumping action, amazing hyper-realistic chases, exotic locations, extremely beautiful Bond girls, the usual super villain and the essential vodka martini.” At the same time, Bond himself is “less attracted to the pleasures of life, darker and more introspective, less invulnerable physically and psychologically and because of this more human, even able to be moved and to cry – in a word, more real,” said the newspaper’s film critic, Gaetano Vallini. Not bad, especially when you remember he’s talking about a womanizer with a license to kill.
About the the hurricane Sandy and what it did it did to New York and New Jersey, the paper reported today that ” Sandy mette in ginocchio New York e il New Jersey” or, as we say in English, Sandy brought New York and New Jersey to their knees. Now that’s the kind of metaphor we expect to find in the Vatican newspaper. Frankly, we’ve never thought of L’Osservatore Roman as a source for movie reviews, so we missed the edition with the Bond mania. We’ve relied on the translation supplied by Britain’s Guardian.
Yes, that’s Emily Dickinson on the left. She was born in December, 1830, and died in May, 1886, having led a rather enclosed and secluded life in Amherst, Massachusetts. To read about her is to feel sorry for her, but we have such scant evidence of her life beyond her poems that we might be mistaken. She had deep friendships and a peppery sense of humor, so maybe she wasn’t utterly sad or solemn. She once wrote of her father, saying “He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind.” And of her family she wrote, “They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their ‘father’.” As for the image here, you had to remain perfectly still for several moments when sitting for a daguerreotype photo, such as this one, so she looks stiffer and more formally composed than she actually was. And she favored white garments, not the dark shade of whatever color the photo registers as plain black. Of her eyes, she once wrote that they were “like the sherry the guest leaves in the glass.” Now, the reason she’s on this page is because she wrote a poem about a hurricane, and as we have a huge one eating up the North-East Coast and moving inland today — it will reach Amherst — we thought we’d post her verse here today.
There came a Wind like a Bugle —
It quivered through the Grass
And a Green Chill upon the Heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the Windows and the Doors
As from an Emerald Ghost —
The Doom’s electric Moccasin
That very instant passed —
On a strange Mob of panting Trees
And Fences fled away
And Rivers where the Houses ran
Those looked that lived — that Day —
The Bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings told —
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the World!
O, we haven’t given up, called it quits, crept into a hole and pulled a rock over our head. Yes, we haven’t put up any fresh posts recently. But that’s only because we’re lazy. And, OK, just a wee bit depressed at the turn in the political life of the country. And, sure, the political life of the whole damned world. We hope to regroup and get back to these pages soon. Sooner or later, anyway. In good time. Don’t rush us! We’re thinking!
Obama came out fighting this time and the debate was a slug fest. The media folk who for the past week had been telling us that undecided voters were dismayed by Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate, now tell us those same voters are worried about the nasty alpha-male behavior of the candidates. Frankly, we’re getting tired of being told what voters are thinking. About half favor Obama and about half favor Romney. We think we’ve got that right. And then there are the undecided voters. We think those famous undecided voters must be stupid or willfully ignorant. Can’t they tell the difference between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama? Maybe the undecided can tell the difference but can’t make a choice. In either case, we suggest they stay home and not to go the polls on election day. And, yes, we’re feeling grumpy.
As for the consequences of this second debate — Yes, Barack Obama showed there’s still fight in him, that he wants the job, that he’s still “presidential.” Mitt Romney had done a remarkable job of establishing himself as a plausible president in the first debate, and he wasn’t knocked down in this one. But you knew all that already. Other democracies have electoral campaigns that last a few months. You’re probably getting tired of this everlasting presidential contest and scandalized by the billions being spent on advertising. So are we. Let’s talk about the painting above this post.
The painting above is Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows. Bellows was a member of the “Ashcan School,” a group of eight painters who painted realistic scenes of urban life, focusing especially on the poor. Stag at Sharkey’s was painted in 1909 when boxing in New York was tolerated but not quite legal – nicely suggested by the black background and the darkness surrounding the starkly illuminated fighters. Bellows also made a lithograph of this same scene, and in that work musculature of the boxers is clear and correct, whereas in this painting the bodies are represented by raw slabs of paint with only a minimal attempt at anatomical accuracy. But that rawness, our visual recognition that the paint has been slapped and smeared violently onto the canvas, gives the painting the stunning immediacy and violence of the fight itself. Of course, George Bellows didn’t violently smear the canvas with paint — he merely made it look that way. You’ll also notice the dynamic imbalance of the boxers stance is made visually stable by the depiction of the referee, the three figures combining to make a solid pyramidal structure. Boxing in New York gained legal status and a firm set of rules in 1920 with the Walker Law which established an athletic commission to oversee the sport and to regulate the boxing matches.
You probably didn’t see Hysteria, the movie directed by Tanya Wexler.No great loss, as it’s a very silly comedy. On the other hand, if you’re facing a blank weekend and a lonely evening, a silly comedy will do. Maybe we should say right now that Hysteria is about the invention of the massage-vibrator. Yes, that one, the one used primarily by women for sexual relief. As the movie begins it announces that it’s based on “true events. Really.” Yes. Well. Sort of.
Hugh Dancy plays handsome Mortimer Granville — an enlightened doctor of the late 1800s who believes that germs exist and that washing your hands is a good thing to do if you’re a surgeon. In fact, his advanced ideas cause him to lose his job. Fortunately, he finds work as an assistant to Dr. Dalrymple, an upscale physician who caters to women diagnosed as having hysteria, a Victorian female problem with a collections of symptoms: insomnia, fatigue, sexual frustration and general nervousness.
Dalrymple’s successful cure consists of a discrete massage (masturbation is the word we’d use today) of the patient under something like a fancy red shawl that conceals what’s going on down there. Dr. Dalrymple happens to have two daughters: passive & conventional Emily, who lives with her widowed father, plays Chopin and studies phrenology, and feisty Charlotte, dramatized by Maggie Gallenhaal, who has left home to work in an impoverished settlement house, educating children of the poor, taking care of the sick and injured, a bright energetic woman with advanced ideas about medicine and women’s rights and sex. OK, you’ve got the setup.
But handsome Mortimer abruptly loses his smarts and, encouraged by his mentor Dr. Dalrymple, begins to court passive & conventional Emily! Young Dr. Mortimer becomes quite skilled at the massage cure for hysteria, so skilled that his patient list grows and he develops carpel tunnel syndrome. As it happens, his very rich young friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe, an inventor, is at work on a hand-held electric fan. It doesn’t work so well as a fan— it vibrates! OK, you get where the movie is going with this.
Viewers can enjoy being aghast at the hypocrisy and willful ignorance of Victorian society (as portrayed in this cartoonish movie) and can anticipate with pleasure Dr. Mortimer’s last-minuet recognition that smart, cheerful Charlotte, who looks terrific in a strapless gown, and who believes in germs and the washing of hands, but doesn’t believe in hysteria, a woman who is vibrantly sexual and who will take a husband as an equal, yes, our Charlotte is the one he admires and loves —why, he’ll even go down on one knee in the snowy courtyard of the settlement house to propose to her! And she’ll accept.
There was a doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville who is credited with inventing the electric percussive massaging instrument, but he refused to use it to cure women suffering from “female hysteria,” an affliction which rose to prominence in Victorian times and was, indeed, treated as portrayed in this movie.