Friday, July 24, 2015

Mr. Holmes -- A Cinematic Treasure

We saw “Mr. Holmes” last night, a throwback to film-making as it should be, sans special effects other than great cinematography.  It is an example of how a film format can uniquely tell a story, which on stage or in print would simply not be as effective (although it is based on a novel, by Mitch Cullin, A Slight Trick of the Mind which I understand the movie closely follows thanks to the playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay).  It is the marriage of fine directing, a great script, and superb acting.  It uniquely tells a revisionist story of Sherlock Holmes.  

It is 1947 and Holmes, played by Ian McKellen, is now 93.  He wants to set the record straight.  He feels that Dr. Watson -- who is long gone from the scene -- has distorted his legacy, in particular a case he handled in 1919.  So there are flashbacks to those times.  Holmes is in a race against time as senility is setting in and he is desperate to piece together what really happened and rewrite the truth.

He travels to post WW II occupied Japan to secure a kind of “royal jelly” that is supposed to have properties to improve memory.  He then returns to his home on the Sussex coast to work on rewriting the case and there he bonds with a young boy, Roger (Milo Parker), the son of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney).  Without going into the full plot, suffice it to say it is his relationship with Roger which haltingly, but ultimately unlocks his memory of the case.

But while Holmes has lost fragments of his life to memory loss and aging, his powers of observation remain keen: so much so that his brutally honest truths, he learns, have the power to hurt, and so the movie is a study of redemption as well.  He acquires a measure of humility.

The movie moves with the pace of the slow section of a symphony, not a criticism but an attribute given the subject matter.  Themes are developed and come back to you changed.  And speaking of music, the original soundtrack by Carter Burwell, always but unobtrusively in the background, is still another element that brings a distinctive dimension to the film. 

Bill Condon, the director has made the perfect film.  It is not going to appeal to a wide audience so see it if you can while it is in some theaters.  When it comes out in DVD, Ann and I hope to see it again, this time with subtitles to capture every bit of the dialogue.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hitchens’ Final Thoughts on Religion

It’s a masterpiece of logic and freethought: God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything.  In the small world department, it’s dedicated to his close friend and one of my favorite contemporary English novelists, Ian McEwan, with whom he no doubt extensively discussed the book’s contents as it was being written. 

I’ve never forgotten Cal Thomas’ reprehensible “Christmas message” extolling the death of the atheist Hitchens who died of esophageal cancer more than three years ago. As a secularist, I’m predisposed to Hitchens’ arguments, but as I’ve only read some of his essays in the past; it was time to read the book which Thomas castigates. While Hitchens carefully builds his arguments free from external dogma, Thomas uses the bible as his reference source.  As I said at the time Thomas published his piece, Hitchens would have annihilated him in a public debate.
Hitchens’ book begins with two brilliant introductory chapters.  The first, “Putting it Mildly,” sets out his fundamental arguments: How much vanity must be concealed – not too effectively at that – in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?  How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin?  How much needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to ‘fit’ with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities? How many saints and miracles and councils of conclaves are required in order to first be able to establish a dogma and then – after infinite pain and loss and absurdity and cruelty – to be forced to rescind one of those dogmas?  God did not create man in his own image.  Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.” 

What are the alternatives to organized religion?  Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – also the soul.  We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful….We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room.  We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse.  We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. [Emphasis is mine-- Ann and I were married at NYC’s Ethical Cultural Society which practices the “religion” of humanism – valuing the importance of each individual, celebrating diversity, and believing that our collective deeds create our own heaven or hell right here.] And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others….

No wonder Thomas went off the deep end reading this book.  The title of the second chapter is “Religion Kills” and is self explanatory.  How many people have died because of, or in the name of, religion?  How many wars were fought with both sides praying to “their” God to annihilate the other? 

Much of the rest of the book examines religion by religion, showing the contradictions and logical fallacies of their scriptures, their inherent harshness, and their indoctrination procedures.  Get them while they’re young.  In fact one chapter questions whether religion could be considered child abuse.  I felt that way during my “religious training.”  How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith….[We] can be sure that religion has always hoped to practice upon the unformed and undefended minds of the young, and has gone to great lengths to make sure of this privilege by making alliances with secular powers in the material world.

As I said, I speak from experience.  I was baptized in a Presbyterian Church (as it was nearby the apartment my parents then lived in), and although my grandparents went to a Baptist Church (I think occasionally, not regularly), for some reason I wound up in the Congregational Church across the street.  My parents rarely went, but I was sent there for “religious training,” something to make me a better person.  This included training during “release time” while I was in grammar school.  Kids had Wednesday afternoons off to go to their churches for even more religious instruction.  So public schools were in this indoctrination scheme as well. I was “confirmed” into the church as a 13 year old, but continued to go to Sunday school.

I’m not sure whether it was unique with my particular Congregational church or it is a basic tenet of the sect, but Calvinism ran deeply in its teaching.  Hard work and good deeds will get you into heaven.  That part of the equation was OK by me at the time, but the corollary, the burning in hell part for eternity did not – even for the slightest of “sins.” As a young child I had nightmares about the devil and hell. 

The last time I went to church was when the minister urged the congregation to vote for Nixon as he warned that voting for Kennedy would mean control by the Vatican, just another missile thrown in the war of Protestants and Catholics.  (The Irish short story writer, William Trevor, deals with this issue in many of his writings, in particular “Lost Ground” where a Catholic saint appears to a Protestant boy and the outrage it creates in the town – “Why should a saint of [the Catholic] Church appear to a Protestant boy in a neighbourhood that was overwhelmingly Catholic, when there were so many Catholics to choose from?) Other than attending weddings and funerals, organized religion lost its hold on me then and there.

Hitchens is an equal opportunity exposer of religions, analyzing the hocus pocus of each.  He is most familiar with Christianity, but is well schooled in other religious texts, particularly the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism (he found out later in life that his mother was Jewish) and Islam.  Fascinating – his analysis of the schism within Islam -- and I’m wondering what he would say about ISIS, the latest incarnation claiming to be the caliphate.   

Unlike other religions, the Islamic tenet is that the Koran can never be translated and therefore be open to free inquiry by “non-believers.” This is why all Muslims, whatever their mother tongue, always recite the Koran in its original Arabic….Even if god is or was an Arab (an unsafe assumption), how could he expect to ‘reveal’ himself by way of an illiterate person who in turn could not possibly hope to pass on the unaltered (let alone unalterable) words?

I understand why a very religious person may dismiss this as a polemic, but anyone with an open mind will perhaps agree that organized religion just seems to complicate everything, and extreme interpretations of the scriptures, whether Christian, Muslim, etc. add violence to the equation.  I’ve always wondered how any religion can claim to be the “true” one when there are so many other ones including splinter sects claiming the same.  Surely, at least the majority is wrong if not all.  Of course, these are individual decisions and I try to respect all religions provided they are non-violent and do not proselytize.  In fact, there is something to envy about someone who is so confident that there will be a happy afterlife instead of the nothingness from which we came.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Another Summer, Another Year

This is a continuation of the prior entry, written a couple of weeks and 1,250 miles ago, the flip side of the same old 33 we’ve played on the record player before.  But oh that drive up I95!  I figure that over the years I’ve driven that road some 35 times one way.  At one time we did it over one night, but as we’ve aged have chosen a more “leisurely” two night drive, although this means schlepping bags into a hotel, not once, but twice.  We try to time our drive so we’re passing by Washington at about 8.00 AM on Sunday morning, just about the most benign time to traverse that heavily travelled corridor.  In fact, this time we didn’t take the I495 bypass but went straight through Washington, to the Washington-Baltimore Parkway, and was able to enjoy the sights of Washington we don’t normally see from I495.

We listen to “books on tape” for most of the long, tedious drive and we were particularly pleased with our first choice, The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant.  Just about a perfect book to pass the time, 85 year old Addie Baum’s recollection of coming of age in early 20th century Boston, as told to her granddaughter.  This was very competently read by Linda Lavin who balanced an immigrant Jewish accent with that of a new Bostonian.  Highly recommended as something to listen to (not sure I would want to read it though).

First stop, as usual, was Savannah, an easy six hour drive from our house, where we meet up with our friends Suzanne and George, a tradition going back many years.  Remarkable, warm people – I had recently written about them in this entry.

After enjoying a leisurely dinner with them, catching up on recent events, particularly health issues, and an early to bed, we were up first thing in the morning to get the next leg out of the way, a 7 plus hour drive to Fredericksburg.  But that morning – in spite of having run the car six hours the day before -- we were greeted by the dreaded “click-click” of a dead battery, and this at 6 AM on July 4.  Obviously the battery was no longer accepting a charge from the alternator so we immediately called AAA, but they could only give us a charge, which would not solve the problem.  They could not replace the battery as the Mercedes ML 350’s is under the passenger’s seat!  Mercedes to the rescue, their customer service dispatched a very proficient young man from a nearby garage within 20 minutes, who had the correct battery and replaced it in another 30, and we were on our way, about an hour “behind schedule.” 

One never knows what to expect as one approaches the Fredericksburg area.  I’ve seen traffic there as horrendous as Washington’s.  Luckily, most people were probably already at their destination on the 4th so we arrived at our hotel with enough time to unwind and prepare for dinner. I revere the historical significance of the 4th but without the fireworks, one of the reasons we travel over the holiday.

We’ve stayed at many of the Hampton Inns up and down I95 including this one in South Fredericksburg and remembered there was only one restaurant within easy walking distance (hate getting back into the car after all those jaw clinching hours on the road).  That restaurant is “Hooters,” a most unlikely place to find a couple of septuagenarians.  Well, on the way walking there, this only two weeks after Ann had arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus on her left knee, she slipped on some wet grass, her left leg completely folding underneath her.  Nearby people saw her slip and a young Good Samaritan came running over to help me lift her up. We thought she compromised her operated knee, but, instead she pulled thigh muscles above and behind the knee, so not only did we old folks arrive at Hooters, but stumbled in, Ann asking for ice to put on her thigh.  Talk about attracting attention to yourself.

They were accommodating, bringing bags of ice for Ann to use, and one thing we’ll say about Hooters other than the obvious, they have some tasty grilled food if you’re into that kind of thing.  I had a burger and Ann a rack of ribs.  She ordered a glass of wine and they carded her; obviously their policy to card everyone and that way they stay out of trouble, period.  You must be kidding we thought, but probably a good policy so assuredly no one under age can “look” old enough to imbibe. However, Ann’s pocketbook was in the hotel and as I don’t drink, I ordered the wine for her, she ordered my Coke, so when they carded me, I gave the very attractive young waitress who was now sitting at our table in her official Hooters outfit, my laminated university student ID card which I carry around as a joke (still in pristine condition, better than me!).  She said, what’s this?  I said it’s my official picture ID.  She said who is this?  I asked how old she was.  She said 19 and I replied that was exactly my age in the picture.  Rather than drag her head about the philosophical implications, tempus fugit, etc., I unceremoniously pulled out my license.

We arrived at the boat on Sunday afternoon and after our son, Jonathan, and his girl friend, Anna, helped us unpack, they served US dinner (for a change).  Nice to see them, one of the reasons we still do this, and we went to bed exhausted and in some chaos.

Ann’s knee and thigh needed rest and ice the next day so I was off alone to Stew Leonard’s, my favorite supermarket of all time, ideal for shoppers such as myself as it is configured as an orderly maze so you have to pass by everything.  I loaded up with groceries to get us started and began to get back into the swing of things at our boat club, first having our traditional welcome back dinner with our friends, Ray and Sue.

Wednesday nights is a family barbeque night here but it rained and as Ann was still somewhat immobile, I ended up “getting volunteered” to be a “runner” for the event, now held indoors, having to take orders and fill them in the club kitchen where other volunteers were laboring away grilling and prepping side orders. This event is a continuing testimony to the man who organized it years ago, Frank, and although he has now been partially disabled by a stroke, still overseas it to this day, with the able assistance of his wife, Barbara, and his sons. That following weekend was an antique car show in the parking lot and Ann was finally up and about for this, so here she is with a 1915 Chrysler.  There were also cars of my teenage dream years, T-Birds and Corvettes. 

So, our summer has begun here.

For me, living on the boat is increasingly complicated as at home I have my computer on most of the time and can stroll over to it and do what I need to do, managing our finances and particularly writing when I want to.  Here on the boat, the Wi-Fi no longer is “reachable” from where we are docked, so I’m dependent mostly on my iPhone’s cell connection and when I want to write anything lengthy, such as this for my blog, I have to set up my laptop and I’m dependent on the cellular “personal hotspot” to get connected.  This makes transferring photos more data intensive, expensive, slow, what can I say?  So if I post less, and some photos are compromised, that’s the reason.

Nonetheless, this is offset by more time to work on the boat (finished getting a few coats of sealer on the teak cover boards earlier in the week – they can be seen in one of the photos towards the end of this entry) and to read.  I’ve been alternating between William Trevor’s latest collection of short stories (Selected Stories) and the late Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything. 

Putting aside the Hitchens’ work for the time being -- which I’ll write about probably in my next entry -- one William Trevor short story each night is enough for the time being to satisfy my literary thirst.  The man simply never ceases to amaze me with his stories, the reader frequently thinking he is going with one part of the story, only to find the real story is about something else.  He deals with subtle aspects of relationships and his character descriptions are like photographs.  I’ve never read anyone like him.  It’s hard to read more than one story at a time as there is so much to think about.

Part of my routine – one borrowed from home – is my early morning walk.  I’ve written before about the nearby Shorefront Park, my walking grounds here.  It is an old waterfront community in Norwalk, sleepily nestled on the west shore of the Norwalk River.  When I first started walking the area years ago, mostly older homes from the 40’s and 50’s were the norm.  Over the years some of those older homes, particularly right on the river were torn down with new, much more expensive ones being built.  One problem with the area which was exposed during hurricane Sandy is it is low lying.  Many of the homes were inundated by the storm, becoming uninhabitable.  Some were repaired and raised off their foundations, insurance companies bearing all or part of the expense, while others were torn down and more mansion type homes being erected but at higher elevations.  This process is still going on, years after the storm.  So it is a place of change and I get to see it kaleidoscopically.
One thing that hasn’t changed when I walk it early in the morning is the sights and sounds of nature, so different here than in Florida.  The evening crickets are still evident in the grass, their murmur quieting by the early morning.  The aroma of pines permeates the air and the mornings can be cool, even in the summer.  A walk here is refreshing and nostalgic for me, remembering our decades in the area.  It is imprinted in my DNA by now. Then there is the view of the Norwalk Harbor, at the “turn around” point of my walk, a place where I always stop and take in the beauty of the scene. 

Still another reason to return.

The question as we age though, is how much longer?  The drive itself takes its toll.  Maybe fly up for only a month, leaving more time on the boat for our son (who has already stepped in maintaining it beautifully)?  Perhaps that will be something to consider next year.  It’s hard, maybe impossible, to just walk away from this area and our past.  Alternatively, let life dictate the outcome?

An event a couple of days ago -- at about 11.00 PM – will illustrate why boating and aging do not exactly mix.  We were already in bed as a strong cold front moved through. The boat began to bang against the port piling in a gusty NE wind. Our bow line had obviously stretched in the wind.  What to do?  Reluctantly, I decided I’d have to get out there to set up another bow line to keep the boat off the piling, as well as going down to the bilge to access another fender and setting it up against the piling.  I also thought it would be prudent to set up a redundant spring line to keep the swim platform off the dock.

I donned my jeans over my pajamas and stuck a flashlight in my back pocket.  I don’t relish walking up the gunnels to the bow, even under the best conditions and thought I should alert Ann that I’d be off the boat doing this work in the dark and under those conditions.  She had just fallen into a deep sleep – amazing given all the banging, and I didn’t have the heart to wake her up at that point.  So I rehearsed every movement in my mind and where things could go wrong and then went about my business.  Hey, what was the worst that could happen – finding a floating body at the mouth of the river in the morning? (Shouldn’t joke like that as when we were at another marina someone on our dock arrived late at night, obviously slipped trying to get on his boat, and his body was found the next morning floating between the finger of the dock and his boat.)

As the morning-after-the-front-passage photographs attest, everything went fine, but for the balance of the night the wind was unrelenting and I felt as if we were underway, the water slapping against the hull and the rubbing of the fender against the piling (better than banging though).  Ann continued to sleep right through!   This used to be “fun” when we were younger, even at an anchorage where it is exponentially more dangerous than the same conditions at a dock. With the passage of time, though, it becomes more difficult to manage, to tolerate even— and it’s certainly no fun.  So, still another factor to consider for the future.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015


As I am prone to do in my more sentimental moments – and closing up our house for a couple of months while we return to our boat in Connecticut is such an occasion  – is to linger over the piano, a friend I have to leave during that period.  What to play, what to play?  I found myself drawn to a piece written by the great jazz pianist, Erroll Garner.  He was a self-taught pianist, couldn’t read a lick of music, and played strictly by ear.  Like me, his hands were small – very unusual for a jazz musician.  They say his hands could barely span an octave (I can reach it, but not much more).  Oscar Peterson, by comparison, could easily reach an octave and a half!  Yet, both Garner and Peterson were comfortable playing stride when called for. To hear Garner’s performances is to understand that he was simply in love with playing the piano, a process so natural that the effortlessness belies his great gift and distinctive sound.  I can in no way imitate his talent, but one of his compositions, No Moon (Young Love), seemed to suit the moment, and with my audio-flawed digital camera, I recorded my rendition.   When I listen to him play it I think I’d give my right arm (but I’d need it!) to even remotely play like that.  He was given the gift.

On an entirely different subject,I have to thank my son, Chris, for bringing this New Yorker article to my attention.  I’ve been practicing “bibliotherapy” ever since switching my major from psychology to literature in college and didn’t even know it!  No wonder I enjoy reading so much, becoming “involved” in other people’s lives.   Reading fiction is a mind and emotional exercise, an exploration of the writer’s imaginative world, both the outer and inner.    To immerse oneself in it is to help understand this mystifying journey we call life.

My last entry was about William Trevor.  His short stories are an addiction, so much so that I’ve ordered Trevor’s subsequently published Selected Stories and thanks to Amazon I’ll have it just in time for our departure.  This collection includes his After Rain (1996), The Hill Bachelors (2000), A Bit on the Side (2004), and Cheating at Canasta (2007) which as the Booklist notes “merge all their pages into this deep reservoir into which avid fiction readers will dip repeatedly.” Now that I’m finished with his earlier collection, the characters seem to inhabit my mind, and I’ll miss them.  Thus I look forward to reading Trevor’s more recent stories.  It’ll be a “reunion” of sorts!

So armed with some books, we soon begin our trek north to our boat in Connecticut, living in a few hundred square feet.  However, most of the days and many of the nights we are out, sometimes on the water, but there will be theatre in NYC and at the Westport Country Playhouse to attend, and friends and our two sons to see - and perhaps a brief return visit to Asheville on our drive back in September or, in other words, a nice break from Florida. We’re fortunate to still be able to do this.

One of the last details is to put away the boat we have in Florida.  Early Monday morning I was following a 60’ sport-fish out into Lake Worth, the Parker Bridge was just closing after it had passed under – so this was the view from my console.   
It was indeed like a lake on the water early that morning, the sun rising, the air temperature “just” in the high 70’s, but alas returning the boat to the dealer for storage and maintenance over the summer made it sort of a bitter-sweet trip.