December 31, 2009

The Last of 2009

“As you grow older you grow lonely because your associates are no longer of your own generation. The companions of your youth are gone and the new generation speaks a language without an echo. Until finally the last and the best, the faithfullest, the wisest, the finest, most upright of all, are gone”.
from my mother's journal

On his last visit Russ was staying in "The Tower" on Sunset which has seen many re-incarnations.

Everybody has his or her favorite spot in L.A. Russ’ for a long time, was the Polo Lounge. However, the smell of canned pine had lost its charm. The Polo Lounge, no longer conjured up Sharon Tate or Jaqueline Susann. Just a week after Thanksgiving we had our last tête-à-tête there. We shared remembrances of old Hollywood and Beverly Hills. What was it like? Different we agreed.

Peter Finch suffered his fatal heart attack here on the red carpet leading from the parking lot to the foyer.
"There but for the grace of God"…said Russ, days before his own demise.

"The Tower" has seen many transformations. The dank smell of stale booze and smoke has vanished beneath a thousand coats of oatmeal colored paint. In the penthouse, framing a spectacular view, shiny glass glistens in the sun’s rays, and in the night, the city beckons with a million lights. The terrace wraps around the entire building. Truman Capote, Claudette Colbert, Errol Flynn and, of course, Montgomery Clift, among others, had all stood there and watched a thousand dusk fall.

The Hollywood hills rise sharply behind, with their houses perched on stilts, roads cut into the crumbling sand, and below the cities of the plain stretch into the haze. 

Thirty years ago, I adored this view and my heart raced just to stand above it. In my imagination, I summoned Monty, and we stood there together looking at the city.

The night before Russ was to return home, we had dinner with a group of Hollywood friends, at Dan Tana’s the old eccentric on Santa Monica. We were in great form, full of life, deeply anarchic, and of course, hysterically funny. We shared the Hollywood we all had loved. The other tables were sullen and speechless, lost in anesthetic by comparison. We on the other hand were raucous, tipsy, and overflowing with stories. Russ had an impressive narrative of “the juiciest skeletons in the choicest closets”. Opinions were aired and squashed. Entire careers were polished off in a sentence. Others were enhanced by some extraordinary revelation. Russ knew them all. It was a magical evening and we closed the restaurant.

Back at the Tower we stood on the terrace. The ghosts were all out on the streets of West Hollywood, shadows flitting through the air, rats watching from the palm trees. Somewhere down there, the next blockbuster was being written by a lonely tech geek hunched before a computer.

Strands of streetlights shimmered in the misty desert night, mile after mile, as unimaginable as the universe, and all of us up here on the terrace looked down in wonder. Truman, Claudette, the Duke, Errol, Monty, Russ, and I.

Now, one more ghost has joined the party.

December 24, 2009

so this is Christmas, again

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This season I will miss:

Mrs. Conroy's fudge
Mrs. Ruth's potato latkes
Bill's knockout eggnog
Uncle Augusts' rendition of Silent Night (in Swahili)
and, last...
Russ' irreverent, ribald version of
The Night before Christmas (Santa blushed), on Christmas morning.
To you and all whom you hold dear, heavenly Holidays.

Joyously, Ms. Edna

December 16, 2009

Where is Drosselmeyer? ...

...we need the Sugar Plum Fairy and a Nutcracker Prince.

I’ve always considered myself a fairly laidback godmother, so it came as quite a shock when I discovered that Clive, who was then age 8, thought that I was the rat king, from the Nutcracker.

Of course, he did not come right out and say so, but that is what the psychiatrist said he was thinking, and who am I to question a psychiatrist?

The whole thing started one Sunday afternoon when Clive and I were off to see the Nutcracker. A children’s Christmas tradition, so I am reminded.

This, unfortunately, was not the over-idyllic version, but an extravagant story of puppets and rats becoming the projection of the dreams of an adolescent girl. Closer to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s dark vision.

When I dropped Clive off at home Larissa said, “You had a good time today I can tell didn’t you?”  “Yes – great,” Clive replied. “The ballet was full of murdering rats and a great, spooky magician called Herr Drosselmeyer who had a big crush on his goddaughter.”

Around one in the morning, a blood-chilling shriek pierced the air. Larissa and Ed rushed into Clive’s room, he was sitting up in bed, and he appeared to be extremely frightened. He was scared. Of what? Both where genuinely surprised, for up until this point in his life, Clive had never shown any indication of being scared. He was scared of the rat that was chasing him. Absurd there were no rats here. Yes, there were, and there was one under his bed right now. They looked under the bed, just to make sure that some rat hadn’t put one over on them, but there was nothing there except an empty cereal box and some toys that had been missing.

Then it suddenly dawned on them that Clive was having a delayed reaction from seeing the Nutcracker. Both sat down on the edge of Clive’s bed and together they tried to allay his fears.

First of all, they pointed out, he could not have been chased by a rat king, because he was still in his bed; he must have dreamed about it. Secondly, there could not be rats anywhere in the neighborhood, because the enchanted Malibu homeowners’ association would not permit it. Thirdly, even if there were a real rat king in the neighborhood, how could he get into the house without a key? Lastly, rat kings are fictional creatures they live only in people’s fantasy.

“That is not true”, objected Clive. “What about the rat king I saw this afternoon?”

“He was just a make-believe rat king, dear”, said Larissa in a soothing voice.

“If he was just make-believe, how could he cause so much trouble?” ask Clive skeptically.

After dad finished his long explanation of make belief to his eight-year old he ask,”Now do you understand about make believe?”

“Yes”, he answered, “but I’m still scared. I want to sleep in your bed.”

Before long, Clive was sleeping peacefully.

Larissa called me the next morning to inform me that there could be no more scary entertainment for Clive until he was a lot older. Apparently, this proofed too stimulating to him.
The same nightmare, apparently, returned five nights in a row. I was wondering if he was overdoing a good thing. How long could a person-even an eight-year-old-go on being frightened by the same rat?
I ask Larissa what she indented to do next. “Well,” she said, “I was talking with our neighbors today, and did you know, dear, that they have been taking Billy to a child psychiatrist ever since he bit his piano teacher?”
“I heard the teacher play, and I don’t blame Billy,” I said.
“No, I am serious,” said Larissa. “Maybe somebody like that could help.”
I could see she was not going to be satisfied until she had sought the advice of an expert. I could hardly wait for the outcome.
Larissa called me the next day. “How did it go?” I ask. She sounded evasive. “I will come to see you right now.”

When she arrived, she flashed me a rather peculiar smile.

“What’s all the secrecy?”

“I’m afraid you’re not going to be pleased,” she began hesitantly.

“You mean I am not going to be able to take Clive to any more kiddy matinees?”

Larissa fortified herself with a deep breath, looked at me, and said, “Dr. Freeman doesn’t believe the ballet has very much to do with Clive’s nightmares. He says the ballet just acted as a trigger mechanism that set off symptoms of some deep-seated psychological problems that are disturbing him. According to Dr. Freeman, Clive is going through a rough stage. He is in love with both of us, and he has a conflict over this.”
“What has that to do with rat kings?”

“It’s very simple. In Clive’s dreams, the rat king is merely a personification of his godmother. It is not a rat king he’s afraid of-it’s you!”

“Me?” I could not believe my ears. “Are you trying to tell me that Clive thinks I am a rat king? Is that what that quack told you? Why, that’s absurd. Why should Clive be afraid of me? Why-I’ve been nothing but nice to him ever since he was born. Rubbish! If the ballet didn’t have something to do with it, why is Clive suddenly dreaming about rat kings?”

“The rat king is only a symbol”, explained Larissa. “It just so happens that you took him to see Nutcracker when he was on the verge of this new stage.”

I tried hard to follow the good doctor’s explanation and advice. I took Clive out, bent over backward to be nice to him. I studied him in amazement.  This cherub-faced, towheaded boy, who was barely three feet tall with his shoes on. It was hard to imagine him the third person in a complicated triangle. However, I had no choice but to do as the doctor ordered.
The next weeks were devoted chiefly to making Clive think of his godmother not as a rat king. We spent many (happy?) hours together. I did not do any punishing, nor did I speak any harsh words to Clive, no matter how much his behavior warranted it. I simply turned the case over to Larissa. She would see to it that he got his just deserts.
Dr. Freeman had recommended an excellent system. Larissa was the disciplinarian, and I was the amiable social director. There was only one problem with the system: the situation was not improving.
Ed was getting tired of the situation. “I’m sick of this nonsense,” he finally said one morning after a sleepless night.

He did not tell Larissa, but he decided the he’d been patient enough, and that the time had come for action.
It was half past twelve, when Clive came tiptoeing into the room.

“Daddy, there is a-“

“Out!” Ed roared, sitting up in bed and pointing to the door.

“Don’t give me that rat king routine. Go back to you room and go to sleep.”

“That’s no way to speak to our son, can’t you see he is frightened?” said Larissa.

“Frightened my eye. What he needs is a good sound spanking.”

“Nobody is going to spank this poor defenseless child-you big bully,” said Larissa, “Why he be traumatized for life.”

With that, Ed moved himself into one of the guest bedrooms and tried to go to sleep.

Just as he was drifting off he saw a figure steal into the room and over to the bed. He was short and wearing pajamas.

“Daddy,” said Clive in a loud whisper.

“What do you want?” ask Daddy.

“I did not have a nightmare tonight,” said Clive.

“Well, if you did not have a nightmare, what were you doing in our room?” Ask Ed.

“I just came to tell you about the mouse.”

“Mouse? What mouse?”

“The one that woke me up. I heard a noise and I went in the bathroom and there was a mouse.”

“It is running probably all over the house by now.” Said Ed.

“No, it isn’t,” said Clive. “I shut the bathroom door on it. It is still in there. I just heard it squeaking.”

That’s about all there is to the story. Ed cornered the mouse and there were no more nightmares.

But one day, two years later, when Mercedes was turning eight, she came to me and said, “Will you take me to see Nutcracker?”

“I’m afraid not,” I replied. Nutcracker is much too scary for children. It may give you bad dreams.”

“You took Clive to see it,” Mercedes reminded me.

“Well, I’m not taking you,” I said. “And that’s final.”

You can imagine my dismay when Mercedes said to me a few weeks later, “Guess what? You don’t have to take me to see Nutcracker. It’s going to be on television.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have let this frighten me, but on the weekend Nutcracker was scheduled to air, I made sure the television was not working. Being a rat king once in a lifetime was enough for me.

December 05, 2009

Santa, baby…

…the benevolent Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and the North Pole.

Don’t let the children know, but Santa Claus lies dead and buried. His present condition-a heap of dust, a cranium, and a few splinters of bone-and his present whereabouts-in the hot heel of Italy-do not hinder his Christmastime polar flights, his descent down chimneys, or his lavish offerings, so there is no need for anxiety. Indeed, perhaps the real surprise is that Santa could have died at all, since that entails that he once was as alive as you and I, that he was young, perhaps beardless, and may have weighed less than two hundred pounds.

In his long history, Santa had traveled much farther than the distance from the North Pole. He actually descends from a very ancient thaumaturge, or wonderworking saint, who has been venerated in Europe since the sixth century: Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra. The scarlet suited, cheery figure we celebrate today is a nineteenth-century creation. It was Washington Irving, in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, and Clement Moore, in A Visit from Saint Nicholas, who inaugurated in America the modern character of the Christmas holiday and its ritual largess. Although they represented the jovial lord of bounty with his sack of toys as entirely traditional, as an authentic and ancient part of Dutch Protestant culture in New Amsterdam, the personality of their Santa is largely an invention. Nevertheless, their version of the jolly Sinter Claes, the Lowlands’ patron of cookies and sweets whose feast is December 6, was enthusiastically adopted. Santa Claus became Manhattan’s saint and the genius of Western commercial Christmas.

Saint Nicholas, his avatar, was once of medieval Europe’s favorite saints. In France, the cathedral of Chartres narrates the story of his adventures and miracles on the south portal and in four stained-glass windows. In England, 385 churches were dedicated to him before the end of the fifteenth century, compared with 202 to the country’s patron saint, Saint George. His cult inspired the earliest verse dramas in Europe, tuneful musical liturgies and popular songs, and widely disseminated icon. His bones, which miraculously exuded myrrh, a fragrant oil of great power for healing, were the focus of one of medieval Europe’s most energetic cult.

Saint Nicholas has lain in the Italian port city of Bari since 1087. For more than seven hundred years before that, his body was venerated in his church in Myra, now in ruins, where, according to his legend, he was bishop in the fourth century A.D. Myra, a sheltered harbor on the southern coast in present-day Turkey, provided a refuge for his ships along that inhospitable shore, and the shrine was well attended by pilgrims giving thanks for the protection of Saint Nicholas. He could, they attested, fly through the air at will and still wintry storms. His flowing myrrh, gathered by the tomb’s guardians, who lowered the sponge into the sarcophagus and then squeezed the liquid into phials, was eagerly collected. This ability made him a special type of saint, a myroblythe, one who has the power to generate new relics perpetually.

The fame of the shrine spread, and after the Byzantine defeat by the Saracens at Manzikert in 1071, when that part of the Greek empire was occupied by the Moslems, the Christians of the western Mediterranean began to cast covetous eyes on the precious body of the saint. In an enterprise, that perfectly anticipates the Crusades in its blend of chivalry and crime, a company of sailors from Bari-sixty-two in all-sailed to Myra to save the beloved Saint Nicholas for the Christian world. They met with opposition, for the often-tolerant Saracens has left the sanctuary untouched, and its Greek clergy were still in attendance, attempting to prevent the Barians from stealing the relics. The Greeks “wailed and rent their priestly garments from their breasts,” wrote the chronicler Nicephorus soon after the event. Their efforts were to no avail. The Barians, declaring that they had been told in a vision to take the body, tied them up and scolded them: “It is only right that so important and illustrious a state as Bari should enjoy this great patronage.”

On May 9, 1087, Saint Nicholas was translated, as the liturgical phrase has it, and arrived in Bari. The feast of his translation is still celebrated on that day, the climax of a week of festivities. His arrival by sea is reenacted in the harbor, while the archbishop and notables of the town gather on land and in boats to greet the huge, garlanded effigy of the saint coming to shore.

Bari is prosperous today, the most well to do town in the new South, but then it was not “a great state” as the proud native son Nicephorus claimed. Saint Nicolas, it was thought, would help it to become one, just as Saint Mark, translated from Alexandria to Venice, had hallowed that city’s ambitions. Bari was a strategic base in the Norman kingdom that the family of Hauteville were consolidating in the South while their cousin William was conquering England. It was a crucial port for the great adventure in the East that would start with the First Crusade, a decade after Nicholas was translated. The acquisition of his wonder-working body contributed vitally to the aggrandizement of the town and of its new lord, Bohemond, the future prince of Antioch and cousin of Roger II, the future king of Sicily. Nicholas rendered illustrious the place where he came to rest, and by radiating holiness he confirmed his new owners’ legitimacy.

Bohemond ordered that the site of the former palace of the Byzantine governor be used for a new, splendid shrine to Saint Nicholas. The basilica of San Nicola di Bari rose quickly, an austere, uncompromising edifice. Just two years after Nicholas’s arrival, the new pope, Urban II, preacher of the Crusades, consecrated the crypt in which the saint still lies.

Colonnaded like a shady, mysterious grove and starry with sanctuary lamps hung from the vaults, this subterranean shrine focuses all attention on the tomb of the saint, in the center.

A huge four-teenth-century icon, covered in chased and beaten silver gilt, hangs over it. Above the crypt, in the chancel of the basilica, the high altar stands under an exquisitely sculpted octagonal ciborium.

The archbishop’s throne, behind it, is a remarkable example of fantastic Lombard sculpture. On the floor of the chancel, ornamented with inlaid marbles, a border of Cufic lettering gives the name of God in Arabic, while the crypt houses the world’s first Orthodox chapel in use inside a Catholic church. Saint Nicholas indeed has the power to overlook differences and effect reconciliations; like his Norman devotees, who employed Arabs, Greeks, Jews, and Latins in their kingdom in the South, he counts few people strangers.

Saint Nicholas’s powers extend into many spheres: he is a dependable guardian against explosives, the favorite intercessor for perfumers, and, in Paris, the patron saint of firemen; but above all, he is a protector of children, like his descendant Santa Claus. Also, as his biographer C.W. Jones put in his learned and witty study Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, he has always shown” due respect for the material things in life” and so became the adopted saint of bankers, pawnbrokers, merchants, and shopkeepers. A typical miracle of Saint Nicholas, as told, for instance, in the twelfth-century comedy Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, by Jean Bodel, shows the saint's sensitive understanding of the human acquisitive impulse and proper sympathy with the need for possessions in this life. In the play, an icon of the saint is set up to guard a treasure belonging to a heathen "barbarian. " When thieves steal it, the owner whips the saint's image in fury. In response, Nicholas appears to the robbers and terrorizes them into returning the hoard to its owner, who promptly converts to Christianity.

Money is again the issue in another miracle play, in Latin, that takes place in Myra during Nicholas's youth. A father with three unmarried daughters decides that he will have to sell them into prostitution one by one since he cannot provide them with dowries. Nicholas, hearing of their straits, rescues each girl in turn from her fate by throwing a bag of gold in through the window at night. This clandestine act of selfless generosity, so similar to the nocturnal and secret visits of Santa, was painted with a delighting sense of human drama by Fra Angelico in one of the two panels illustrating Nicholas's life in the Vatican Pinacoteca.

The three bags of gold eventually migrated from piety to commerce and became the emblem of moneylenders, the familiar sign of the pawnbroker's shop.

In still another miracle play, also much painted, Saint Nicholas revives three youths murdered for their money by an avaricious innkeeper, who salted their corpses away in a tub of brine. Gradually, the saint's care for young people transformed a clerical celibate into a grandfatherly figure: in some of his cult statues, Saint Nicholas appears with a child beside him, like a man taking out his grandson. This child, called Basileos, or Adeodatus, "given by God," was kidnapped by Saracens, according to the Nicholas legend, and then taken into slavery to be cupbearer to the emir of Crete. His grief-stricken parents visited the shrine of Saint Nicholas, and there, on the steps, a year after his disappearance, they found their son again, with the emir's golden cup still in his hand.

Like Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas has magical powers of displacement and can transport himself and others anywhere at any time.

His care for children also inspired lullabies. In Apulia, tired mothers sing to their babies, telling them that the infant Nicholas abstained from his mother's breast out of piety and called instead for pen and ink and parchment. In these dialect songs, the miracle worker of Myra whose bones drip fragrant oil in the tomb in Bari often becomes recognizably Santa, provider of all things for children at Christmas.

When children consult with Santa asking for a special toy, they are unwittingly continuing the ancient Christian belief in intercession, so scorned by those very Dutch Protestants who were this country's first devotees of Santa, and keeping alive at the heart of Christmas materialism the religious cult of one of Christendom's oldest and best-loved saints.