Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Kingston Halloween

At the Old Dutch Church, Jack-O-Lanterns adorn the graveyard.

I never thought of Halloween as an elegant holiday. Rather, it was a time for little kids to dress up in costumes and go door-to-door asking for candy bars, threatening serious mischief if thwarted in their extortion effort. I grew up in Fairhope, Alabama, in a time when the costumes were homemade and sometimes very inventive and amusing. A husband of mine grew up in a rural town in the Midwest where Halloween was an excuse to turn over outhouses all over the neighborhood.

Then I moved to the Northeast, where real ghosts abide in some measure, and the Hudson Valley, home of the original headless horseman. In historic Kingston, you can feel the presence of spirits just walking through the streets of stone houses and plaques telling of bygone days and heroic deeds. Not all the spirits are evil, but the good ones do not necessarily prevail.

When I lived in Hoboken, an old b-n-r ("born-n-raised" to the uninitiated, a Hoboken phrase for a local) took me to her church on All Hallows Eve. It was a lovely Catholic church, with a charming priest, and his homily was on the meaning of All Hallows Eve. He said that the holiday was a day to pray for the souls in purgatory. Being raised a Protestant, the concept was unknown to me, so his explanation of purgatory itself was a revelation. In all honesty, my friend said she never heard any of that either.

The information made Halloween somewhat more interesting to me, and in Kingston I am seeing an entirely different mode. Fall colors, crisp air, and a decided anticipation of the coming holiday mixes cheer with a certain foreboding. Fall will soon end, and with it, after a feast of turkey, we prepare for the death of one season and the ultimate change from brilliant color to shades of gray and white.

The lawn of a neighborhood house, as those of many others, celebrates the coming death of one season with a smattering of skeletons and gravestones.
It is only one of many such displays in town. Disconcerting at first, but artistically executed and charming in its horror-film kind of way.

I for one tire of the incessant promotion of Halloween on television, from Food Network's wall-to-wall "holiday food" shows with recipes for ghoulish and gruesome presentation, aimed, I suppose, at scaring children or encouraging adults to behave childishly. But I remember my own life as a trick-or-treater, in the distant past when this was as much an adolescent dress-up festival as a celebration of consumption. The movie channels are intent of dredging up all the best and worst horror films of all time, filling air time with incessant and disgusting images of nonsense.
A pumpkin carving at the Old Dutch Church produced a plethora of artistic vegetable sculptures

Yet in Kingston, I wait to see what happens on the night. An air of ghostly intensity pervades the quietude. Parties are slated, friends are preparing their costumes. Even the historic church puts on a festive air and proclaims the coming of a change--the dying of one season to be replaced in a moment by another. Did I say elegant? At least it's benign, and sometimes amusing. A nod to the spirit world from those of us who occupy the humdrum reality of quotidian life.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Back to Shakespeare

In the late 1980s I watched a PBS Frontline program called The Shakespeare Mystery. For centuries it has been debated whether a bland tradesman and sometime poacher of game could actually have written the oeuvre of the greatest poet in the English language. On the face of it, it just isn't logical.

The PBS piece convinced me of what most Shakespeare fans surely suspect. Whoever wrote those plays and poems had to be classically educated, well traveled, at home in court, and an extraordinary, larger than life man who had had numerous adventures--and was friendly with the riff-raff as well as the mighty. This does not seem possible for the little small-time businessman living in the isolated town of Stratford, days away from London. Try as the Stratfordians might to link their man Shakspere [sic] to the works of this Mr. Shakespeare of London, nobody in his lifetime ever commented on the Stratford man's writing talent.

I did some research on this when an article appeared in Harper's Magazine in the 1990s, and presented my talk at my hometown library. It was my aim to lay to rest the old myth that the writer of the plays was Shakspere of Stratford. I all but stated my belief as fact, based on what I had read, that the man known as Shakespeare was actually Edward De Vere, the earl of Oxford. I’ll tell you why.

De Vere’s named was uncovered by a clergyman, J. Thomas Looney, in the 1920s, who was convinced only that the plays had to have been written by someone other than the man Shakspere who was known to be contemporary to the dates when most of the plays were written. Not finding any evidence that the Stratford citizen was known to be a writer, and finding considerable evidence that he could not have known the vast amounts of classical literature, language, geography, philosophy, and even human nature the writer of the plays and poetry knew, he made a list of qualities the writer would have and set out to find better candidates for the actual writer. To his surprise, a nobleman emerged who not only met all the criteria he had but also had life experiences that paralleled many if not most of the plots in the Shakespeare plays.

Edward De Vere lived a life worth reading about. An aristocrat in Elizabethan England, he was a child prodigy, a poet courtier, an adventurer, and an all-around son of a bitch who made a ton of mistakes in his life. He was profligate with money, a great drinker and storyteller, a juror in such trials as that of Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Devereaux, the earl of Essex; and Philip Howard, who was found guilty of treason in plotting the victory of the Spanish Armada against England in 1589.

As a child, De Vere was the ward of William Cecil, principal adviser to Queen Elizabeth. He was tutored by the best educators in England of that day, having the following curriculum:

7-7:30 Dancing
7:30-8 Breakfast
8-9:00 French
9-10 Latin
10-10:30 Writing and Drawing
1-2:00 Cosmography
2-3:00 Latin
3-4:00 French
4-4:30 Exercises with his Pen

A rather impressive course of study for a boy, isn’t it? What is “cosmography,” you might well ask. As a matter of fact it was geography, history, physical science, astronomy, sociology, English, comparative literature, linguistics, and more. Basically it was everything known in the Elizabethan world. And de Vere had the finest teachers in England as his private tutors. On holy days (holidays) he was expected to “read before dinner the Epistle and Gospel in his own tongue and the other tongue [Greek] after dinner. All the rest of the day to be spent in riding, shooting, dancing, walking, and other commendable exercises, saving the time for prayer."

His intense education included the reading of Beowulf and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and detailed study of the Bible, as noted. That he was surrounded by the greatest personal libraries in England was a boon to him all his life, as he was a voracious reader and could write beautiful prose and poetry. He read the law and received a Master of Arts degree from St. John’s College at Cambridge.

De Vere grew up from a prodigy to be a brilliant if contentious and conflicted man. He was expert at squandering the funds and lands he’d inherited, and he was never entirely comfortable with William Cecil, his guardian. Cecil was an eminent Elizabethan favored as a trusted advisor to the Queen herself.

In one of the few missteps of his life, William Cecil arranged a marriage between his daughter Anne and De Vere in 1571. In 1575, De Vere took off for Italy for a year, claiming that his marriage had never been consummated. He spent some time in Venice, Florence, Sienna. On his journey he traveled to Greece, Croatia – then known as Illyria – and back to England to meet his first daughter and reconcile with his wife. Although he accepted the marriage he never really participated in it. He was rumored to have had an affair with Queen Elizabeth, and he fathered a child by his mistress Anna Vavasour. He got into many a scrap, including political ones. He was known as a poet and writer, a dandy, a great drinker and storyteller and a tempestuous poet possessed of a tormented soul.

He had a sister who may have been cut of the same cloth. When she set out to marry she would have none of the suitors William Cecil had chosen for her, preferring the hothead Peregrine Bertie. De Vere despised Peregrine Bertie and did what he could to block the marriage, but after it happened he accepted the couple and even became a good friend to his volatile brother in law. The couple provided quite a display of temperament and the constant drama of power struggles as they settled into married life. I am not the only one to note that their drama may have been the inspiration for The Taming of the Shrew.

This is only a fraction of the story, but even in this brief, partial re-telling, one can see not only the makings of an extraordinary life in one of the most compelling times and places in the history of the world but also quite possibly the seeds of some of the greatest theatrical writing ever to have been produced.

The man from Stratford, however, had at best a grammar school education and a rather ordinary life from what we can tell. Supporters, and particularly the Stratford Trust, say that his genius simply surpassed our comprehension, and some suggest it is snobbish to believe that a common man could have written so well. This is a side issue. The meat of literature is its stories—and Shakespeare’s work is rife with classical allusions, biblical references, the geography of the Elizabethan world--and life itself, none of which would have been known to a provincial shopkeeper. Mr. Shakspere of Stratford, as far as is known, did not own any books.

Quite an industry has grown up around the little city of Stratford. It is a beautifully preserved replica of Elizabethan England, and no doubt that is all because a man named Shakspere once lived there. It is a pleasure to visit and to see the magnificent productions at its huge theater. England is justly proud of its national treasure, and has invested a fortune in keeping Shakespeare’s name alive over the centuries, even if the research on Mr. Shakspere may be dubious. The big question seems to be, if De Vere wrote the plays, why did he not sign his name to them? Those who believe he did cite the reality that people of the theatre were not respected (to say the least) and it would not have befit a man of De Vere's standing to reveal his connection to them, no matter how far above the rabble he stood.

The controversy still rages in spite of the Trust’s considerable efforts to quell it. A group exists called The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which purports to debate, investigate, and ultimately find the answer. The group does not endorse De Vere or any other of the Shakespeare contenders. It asks only to investigate. The Trust has a great deal at stake and seeks to disqualify this group in order to keep the Stratford flame glowing. 

All the Authorship Coalition wants to do is consider other possibilities, and I’m squarely in their camp. Years ago I signed the group’s Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, which simply states that there are possibly other writers who might have written the works of Shakespeare. To read the document, and sign if you choose, click on the link and you'll receive occasional emails (one a year, I believe) about the latest signers. I received one last week which led me to buy an amusing and engrossing book--Shakespeare in Court, by Alexander Waugh.

The question remains. The traditionalist stick to the old story, denying that there is any question at all. According to William S. Niederkorn in the New York Times in 2002: "Most of the academic world has ignored the authorship question for generations, or belittled it as the obsession of idiosyncratic amateur scholars, while building altars in students' minds to the image the tragedian David Garrick promoted during the 1769 Shakespeare jubilee that created the Stratford tourism business: the man of humble origins who rose to the literary pantheon. The vast majority of academics still subscribe to that belief."

Where many have doubted the possibility that the isolated actor-turned-merchant of remote Stratford could have had the education and the grace to have written the monumental works of Shakespeare, no one has come up with a better candidate for the real author than Edward De Vere. I hope I have piqued your interest!

Saturday, October 18, 2014


The house and I had a party last night.

I wanted everybody I knew to see the renovations, including my electrician/plumber and my contractor and certainly their wives and kids. I wanted to bring together my neighbors and the friends I’d made at the Rosendale Theatre Collective. I wanted my family to meet the cast of characters in my new life so far.

I invited the committee I’m on from the Rosendale two weeks ago Monday. I sent a few emails and buttonholed neighbors as I saw them. I began amassing bottles of wine—bubbly, red, and white, and got the ingredients for ginger lemonade and bottles of water for non-drinkers. I started baking two days before the party and on the day-of had only to clean up, most of which consisted of shoving what I didn’t know what to do with into cartons and shoving the cartons into out of the way closets. I didn’t know if I’d ever remember where anything was.

The announced party hours were 5 P.M.-9 P.M. I’ve given enough parties to know the hours are usually ignored. The times were designed as a guide that it was not going to be a dinner party but I would have a lot of hors d’oeuvre and stuff to drink. It never works out that way, but I gave it a try. I did include crudités, lots of cheeses, crackers, nuts, and house specialties like salmon mousse. It was a meal, but not all that substantial.

At about 5:15 the first guest showed up. He was Howie, the new man on the Rosendale committee. Very nice guy and a good conversationalist, but for 20 minutes he was the only one I had to converse with. Then Gary showed up, one of the men who had just moved from the house next door. His partner didn’t come with him. Too bad--Gary had already seen the renovations to the house and maybe now his husband never would. They live just a few blocks away, but you never know. That’s one reason to give parties.

About six the third guest arrived—my actor friend Doug Motel, who had emailed me that he might do some readings if it seemed appropriate. I was delighted—I love to see him do his thing, and it inspired me to get one of my Dorothy Parker monologues out of mothballs and read it if I felt like it. Wine was beginning to flow and by now a few more people trickled in. This is typical. Note to self: Expect the party to begin an hour after the appointed time. Early arrivals are just gravy.

My grandson Andy showed up with August, his friend and soccer teammate (and the son of my contractor). They had lost the game, and it was a big one, but they were not heartbroken. They circulated, ate some of the candy bacon, and were wonderful guests.

What do you talk about at a party? The theme was ML in a new-old house, so all I had to do was show people around and point out the décor. I’m very pleased with everything done to the house so far—kitchen and upstairs bathroom mostly, but paint was applied to the dining room wainscoting and some of the white trim had been repainted. My beloved stuff is everywhere, and wherever I could I dropped in an anecdote that gave the history of the objects, the artwork, and their connection to me. I was so self-obsessed that I may have left my guests to their own devices for obtaining food and drink. There was a lot left over. I may have to have another party to use it all up.

At the height of the festivities 19 people were in attendance. Doug and I did our party turn and were met with polite applause (I admit Doug’s reception was, understandably, somewhat more enthusiastic than mine, but I don’t think I embarrassed myself. I have to keep a hand in the acting game. My friends must understand this. You never know when there’s an agent present.)

As the size of the crowd dwindled, I prevailed on a few to stick around so I didn’t have to face the enormous silence alone. Then my older grandson, Elias, showed up in a jaunty, talkative mood and kept us going another 45 minutes or so. The last couple left, and Elias decided to leave and hang out with a friend.

We loaded the dishwasher and started it on its journey and I turned in to lie awake processing the successes of the evening. I didn’t go to bed until midnight—very unusual for me these days—and when I got up at six felt I hadn’t slept at all. The party had been a good way to launch into life in Kingston. Those who couldn’t make it have an open invitation to drop in, and those who did got to hear fragments of my life story they might not have known before.

I feel as satisfied as a hostess can feel the day after a long-awaited soiree. Bits of it will come back to me in dreams and memories—that is, if I ever do get back to sleep.

Monday, October 13, 2014

How I Got Square

When I first noticed. Circa 2011.
A few years ago somebody posted the above meme on Facebook and I totally didn't get it. I saw a page full of commas and a picture of some exotic reptile. I don't think I even knew what a meme was. I began railing about how the picture was NOT a chameleon, thinking of the benign little creatures not unlike the Geico gecko, running about on the Alabama front porch of my childhood, changing colors if you touched them, and losing their tails if you grabbed them, scampering off to safety.

The response to my rant was, "Mary Lois, I can't believe you're this square! Don't you recognize the song?"

I didn't. I suppose I heard it but had never paid attention. I still don't know what it means, but I know it was an important milestone in popular music in the early 1980s. There I go again. Thinking there should be meaning to the words of songs. Square. Out of touch. My problem was that bit about it having come to prominence in the 1980s. Where had I been for the last 30 years?

Probably the 1980s was when I got so square--although I'll own up to the fact that I was pretty square before that. My favorite music had been the kind my father had bought on 33 LP's when I was a teenager--big bands like Stan Kenton, old jazz like Duke Ellington. I was not averse to the new stuff like "Tequila" or "Shh-Boom," and I liked Eddie Fisher (but I knew he was just a kid version of Frank Sinatra). In the 60s and 70s I was up to date with folk music and early rock and roll.

In 1978 I married my third husband, who was 17 years my senior and definitely a WWII guy. He had a collection of jazz and big band records. We moved to Switzerland, which was like being on another planet, and lived there for six years. Jazz is big in Europe, and we sought it out. We went to concerts and little out of the way bistros where there were pianists. We bought more records. By the time we got back to the States, it was time to stock up on CD's, but I kept some of the jazz records, and when I moved to Hoboken I transferred most of my music from 33 RPM to my computer. But I kept all the Sinatra LPs, because, after all, it was Hoboken.

My grandsons listen to music that I cannot fathom. Rap is just awful to me; rock music has become just so much noise (whatever happened to "See Ya Later Alligator"?) and something about chameleons is already a classic. It all just goes in one of my ears and out the other. However, I heard it piped into the Muzak in a store at the mall yesterday, prompting this post. I said to myself, "Mary Lois, how did you get so square?"

I don't think the music of the times is relevant to anything but the change in everything. There's a part of me that will always be a bit of a Dungaree Doll, Wishing You Were Here, dancing the jitterbug and waiting for life to happen. I'm square enough to accept that, and hip enough to try to understand at least. It's kind of a compliment to know that I can still surprise people with how square I am.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Time Out for Magic

Emma Stone, Colin Firth

I went to the movies last night. Having been warned by lukewarm reviews that Woody Allen's latest, Magic in the Moonlight, was wan and unsatisfying, I took a chance and found out for myself--that it is quite the opposite. From the beginning it was magical, intriguing, transporting, and ultimately left everybody in the audience delighted. Including me.

Some critics carped that Allen has been over these themes too many times. Faith vs. the lack of it, spirit vs. reason, magic vs. humbug. I say, keep trying, Mr. Allen. and with fare such as this we all may be able to find answers together.

One of the complaints is that Colin Firth and Emma Stone are mismatched for a romantic comedy. Some say he's just too old (I suspect those who wrote that are male), others that the chemistry between the pair is lacking. It may have seemed so because Firth's character is resistant to falling in love, in fact, he doesn't seem to consider its possibility until irrationality takes over his skeptical mind. As always, he is an extremely appealing actor, particularly in his stolid clumsiness. When he actually gets to a proposal of marriage it is reminiscent of the one he bumbled through in his portrayal of Mr. Darcy all those years ago. Is that performance so long in the past that we don't recall his perfection? How he almost singlehandedly creative an avalanche of attention to not only Pride and Prejudice but all of the works of Jane Austen? He does it again here in a thoroughly captivating scene, one that provides some of the few laughs in the film. There are elements of Rex Harrison as Prof. Higgins, wrestling with the irrationality of even considering romance as redemption. He is one of the best actors of his generation.

Emma Stone, I am uneasy saying, reminded me of young Mia Farrow here. She seems frail and waiflike, but as if she is working at it, where with Farrow it was second nature. But she pulls it off and the two of them kept me on edge wondering whether or not, or if.

The scene between Firth and Eileen Atkins, playing his wise and experienced aunt, was a masterpiece of English restraint and playing of the subtext. Like a scene from Oscar Wilde--without the puns and built-in laughs--they talked around a subject until he was led to the unavoidable conclusion that she had never once mentioned. 

The settings, costumes and cinematography must be mentioned. It is on a par with Vicki Cristina Barcelona for capturing the look and color of the place. As always in Allen flicks, a soupçon of sprightly love songs from the period adds atmosphere.

This is escapist fare worth watching, with thoughts to think on love, death, philosophy, and magic. If you're in the Rosendale/New Paltz/Kingston area, it will run at The Rosendale again tonight at 5 and 7:15, Sunday and Monday nights at 7:15. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Adding Stuff

First, I put the stuff I had in the living room.
The time comes when most of your stuff is unpacked and you need a few new things to fill in and make the space come to life. I'm there.

I liked the way my sofa looked even though it filled the living room almost to its edges, but what passed for a coffee table was not quite sufficient. I needed something bigger, but not too big. I also needed a place to hang the water color my husband and I had bought in the 1980s of the cathedral in Geneva when we lived there.

The windows were nice with no covering at all, but at night the room was a fishbowl. Simple curtains had to be found for privacy, and these also did the job of adding a bit of color to the room. Craigslist offered a coffee table of just the right size, made of recycled palettes, polished and designed with an extra shelf for oversized books and undersized objects.
Curtains at the window, a favorite painting, and a new coffee table.

Bit by bit, by adding stuff I had and adding judiciously to it, the place in uptown Kingston is beginning to remind me of my whole life.

In the dining room, with its sea-colored wainscoting, I found a place for both the driftwood table my mother gave me 20 years ago, and a non-objective by the Philadelphia artist Ed Bing Lee that I've owned for some 30 years.

A driftwood table, accessorized.

I've got more corners and crannies to show you, but they will wait. This is the way the house is shaping up--old with new, reused with recycled, all combined in a house that needed love and attention for years. 
Ed Bing Lee's painting graces the dining room.