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Theodore Roosevelt: On the Presidency

January 8, 2020

Theodore Roosevelt, Republican President from 1901 to 1909, had an insider’s view of the Oval Office. He did not view it as a private sanctuary from which to issue edicts and appoint unqualified people to positions of power and influence, solely because they might enhance his own self-image of power and wealth.

Among Roosevelt’s many thoughtful insights:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole.

“Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”

–Theodore Roosevelt, Kansas City Star (7 May 1918)–

Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale (Branagh Theatre Live): Bigger than Life

December 29, 2019

The filming of a great play performed onstage in front of a live audience can bring a whole new appreciation for the work—the spoken words, the actors’ finesse, the director’s control, the nuances of lighting and set design. Seen from the seats, all these blend into a single production. The details enhance the whole, but themselves remain largely unnoticed until brought to the big screen.

This is certainly the case with Branagh Theater Live’s current release of Shakespeare’s venerable Winter’s Tale. Watching Kenneth Branagh’s Leontes melt down in a torrent of jealous, murderous rage, his face filling the screen, his tears visible and real, brings that torment into a real-life perspective. His unjustly accused queen Hermione (Miranda Raison), bravely defending her honor in a court ready to convict her of adultery, calls to mind the harrowing last words of Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII the eve of her execution. The tender moments between those whose love defies the law and faces the ultimate threat, the alternating stabs of love and loss and redemption, all loom so much greater.

These tragedies sweep the stage raw in the first half, opening the way to a lighter second half, a where the two kings’ estranged children catch a glimpse of freedom and joy such as can only be felt by those not burdened by the weight of monarchy. There are dances and songs and witty indulgences of comic relief, enough at first to make it seem as though these two halves were inexpertly thrust together by a playwright not in full control. But, ah, this is the Bard, after all. There is a point to this. The joy and freedom cannot last. Pride and jealousy rear their ugly heads again; the threat of death looms near, the weight of tragedy darkens the stage.

But ah, this is Shakespeare, after all. By some all but mystical power the dead return to life, the kings and their children all rejoice in their reconciliation. What might seem mere plot devices in a play have become, through the magic of the motion picture, real and poignant elements of humanity, not so different from those affecting all of us in our ordinary lives.

Given the high production values, it’s no surprise that the acting is superb. I can’t name them all here, but everyone deserves special notice, with every role given its due respect. The late-Victorian costumes and splendidly conceived sets bring the era close enough to our own to feel personal. Cinema camera work allows us to take deeper note of the finer aspects of lighting; faces shimmer in multi-hued glows that would easily be missed from the orchestra.

There are many ways to take your Shakespeare. A motion picture like this, shot during a single performance, and brought to a big screen near you is one of the best.

Playing Jan. 5 and Jan. 8, 2019 @ Lark Theater, Larkspur CA. Check online for a theater near you.

Yeats on the pleasures of reading

February 12, 2019

. . .

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
in a crowded coffee shop,
an open book and empty cup
on the marble table-top.

When on the shop and street I gazed
my body of a sudden blazed;
and twenty minutes more or less
it seemed, so great my happiness,
that I was blessed and could bless.
. . . .

Need we say more?

(excerpted from “Vacillation.” Yeats actually sat in London shop.)

Not the physical heart, the other one

February 7, 2019

I ran into an old friend today. Hadn’t seen Tommy in a long time, evidently, as he related to me his open-heart surgery from August of last year.

How his doctors belatedly discovered that his shortness-of-breath was not asthma as they had long been telling him, but was instead the result of blockage in his heart veins to the extent of 95%, that he was (when they found this out) a “dead man walking.” How they sliced up his chest and spread it, took the heart right out on top, scavenged some veins from his leg and applied them to the heart, put it back in and stitched him right up.

How they wanted him walking in 16 hours, but he was up in 8. How they wanted him to use a walker, but he said “I’ve been walking my whole life” and set off down the hospital hall. How they wanted to keep him a week, but he was home in 3 days. Had to take care of his wife, you see.

Tom has this idea that it is love that keeps us alive, even when we are not. That the love that is in us lives eternally, whether we believe it or not. That our bodies are here for a short time only, so in terms of our lives it matters little whether we have one or not, it will be gone soon enough no matter what. Love is the thing.

Me, I’m more of a pragmatist. I’m pretty sure I’ll wake up tomorrow, so my job today is to be sure I wake up in a good place. And eventually that will be out of my hands anyway, whether or not I wake up, or where. No eternity for me.

But, nonetheless, maybe Tom and I think more-or-less the same. Whatever, right?

Before we parted, he kissed me on the cheek. Scratchy old gray beard. No other guy gets to do this, but Tom—well, he’s all right. Alive, too, after being so close to not-alive.

Makes you wonder, how many of us are that close to not-alive, and don’t even know it. Not the body, but the heart. Not the physical heart, the other one.

Two Movies Together: “Vice” and “They Shall Not Grow Old”

February 4, 2019

I watched two theatrical-release movies this weekend. Since I average about one every two months, this is quite an anomaly in my life. But it happened that there were two that I was vitally interested in seeing: “Vice” (the biopic about our former vice president Dick Cheney) and “They Shall Not Grow Old” (the quasi-documentary using all archival film shot on the Western Front of the First World War).

Each was compelling in its own way. You can look elsewhere for reviews to determine which, if either, you’ll take the trouble to view.

What I found most compelling, though, came only through the juxtaposition of seeing them both in a 24-hour span, an experience that leads to different conclusions about the nature and meaning of war than would result from seeing either in isolation.

Every frame in “They Shall Not Grow Old” is digitally restored from original footage, cleaned up, brightened, regularized for film speed, colorized to convey the way it looked to those soldiers in the trenches—and narrated exclusively by oral history taken in the 70s and 80s from those surviving veterans. The horror of those battles—the sodden trenches, the devastated landscapes, the rotting corpses, the hordes of rats, the ranks of soldiers mowed down like wheat-stalks by the raking machine-gun fire—defies description. As does the utter senselessness of it all. This conduct of this war, like that of all wars, was determined by those in the halls of faraway governments, and in the boardrooms of those businesses who stood to gain the most.

“Vice,” an inside look at the Cheney-Bush administration, gives a fictionalized interior view of how those governments and corporations work hand in hand to create wars where none are necessary. How with a sharp eye out for a plausible excuse they can set the diplomatic and journalistic cogs in motion to get the war machine in tune and ready to run. Even though the strategic results may not turn out as planned, the unrestricted flow of resulting profit is sufficient victory–for those in a position to take it.

One of the veterans of WWI notes how, on returning home to England after sacrificing four years of their lives, they found there were no jobs for them, no honor, no respect. “Veterans need not apply.” One of the unintended consequences of the 2003 Iraq war (still being fought, though less vigorously) gave ISIS the freedom to grow, while no one was looking, from a few insurgents into the menace it is today. But the oil continues to flow.

Each of these films, seen in isolation, makes a powerful statement about a world we seldom see. Taken together, they speak to and with each other, in ways unimagined by their producers. We should listen.

When you go see “They Shall Not Grow Old,” by all means stay in your seat for the Director’s commentary on the production showing after the credits for the film. It is more than enlightening.

Box Office: Google each film for venues and times in your area

“What do we need? Really Need?”

June 26, 2018

“What does a man need–really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in–and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment.

“That is all–in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up with a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.

“The years thunder by, the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.

“Where then lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of the purse of bankruptcy of life?”

—-Sterling Hayden in “Wanderer” (1963)—-

On Writers Conferences: “Pen to Published” in Santa Rosa

April 26, 2018

While my own experience is relatively small—limited by geography and budget to local writers conferences with early-bird registration discounts—it leads me to offer this inevitable advice: Find one in your area, sign up, mark your calendar, and attend!

I’ve lately come from the Redwood Writers’ “Pen to Published Conference,” a one-day event held every other April in Santa Rosa CA. This is without a doubt the best bargain you can find. Two keynotes, choice of four half-day workshops or twelve one-hour sessions, breakfast and lunch—a full day that leaves you exhausted and energized all at once.

Exhausted in a good way, from having to focus on this wealth of knowledge and insight from all the presenters, from taking notes and compiling action-item lists, from meeting old friends and making new ones in this dynamic world of self-motivated writers and editors, publishers and poets.

Energized in an even better way. For most of us, our writing craft is a solitary endeavor, wherein we type madly away, eyes focused on the letters magically flowing from our fingertips to computer screen before us. To our friends and families, this obsession is hard to comprehend sometimes. We are isolated, turned inward.

But when we meet, all of us geeks to our craft in one way or another, we have found our community, our place to share this otherwise solitary experience. “I’m not so strange,” I think. “Look at these hundreds of people just like me. . . .”

It’s the community more than anything else that means so much to me. But right after that, it’s the insights that come from professional presentations on craft, genre, publishing, marketing and all the rest.

Keep an eye out for the next conference in your area. Make a point of attending. Go with a head full of high expectations, and come away having them fulfilled.

Review: Big King Richard II in a Small Space

February 16, 2018

The king is in your presence. One can see him in actor/director David Abrams, whose clear affiliation with this play, its relevance in our time brings Shakespeare’s lesser known King Richard II to the stage in Birdbath Theater’s remarkable new production.

Not only this king, but a complex web of courtiers, staring down each other in their own lust for power, banished, exiled, returned in rebellion. At the outset this shallow, intemperate king does not seem to know what he is doing, how his ill-considered whims and hasty his accommodations to those who flatter him and quick dismissals of those who don’t, will stoke the resentment of his underlings and in the end bring about his own downfall. Sound familiar?

All this takes place in a compressed theatre space carved out of the Key Tea House in San Rafael, with a raised stage at one end, and an elongated space between rows of folding chairs. The drama is between us, immediately in front of us, and drama it is.

David Abrams’ Richard evolves before our eyes, a subtly nuanced character revealed layer by layer. It is a genuine pleasure to watch Melanie Bandera-Haas dive so deeply into the depths of Shakespeare’s characters (first as the widowed Duchess of Gloucester, and then as Richard’s conflicted uncle the Duke of York) and bring them to such potent realization. Both captured the full range of the power and passion of this simmering tale of treason and its consequences.

Most of the actors (there are only eight) take on dual roles, all of them with precision and aplomb. Special note here for Rob Garcia’s moving portrayal of John of Gaunt, especially his “this England” speech, and Leon Goertzen’s turn as the Duchess of York.

The costuming, done with great ingenuity on a tiny budget, helps to further distinguish these alternating roles, and the spare stage and simple props show just how much can be done with so little, when you have such sublime acting talent making the most the Bard’s beautiful script.

If you want to have theatre in your home town, you have to patronize it, and Birdbath is definitely a company we want to keep going here, as an investment not in them, but in ourselves. We need this, we learn and grow from it. Go and see for yourself, before the short run of this amazing production comes to an end.

Run: Extended! Weekends through February 25, 2018
At: Key Tea House @ Open Secret Bookstore, 921 C Street, San Rafael, CA
Website: www.birdbaththeatres.com
Box Office: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3219795

Spindrift’s “Proof” Up Close and Personal

January 27, 2018

There’s a reason I so dearly love black box theater. When it all works. It’s because you are face to face with, in the same room with, in intimate connection with everything that is happening on the stage. The stage is your living room, the sibling characters are your own family, their confrontations and confusions every bit as real as those you’ve been a part of. You are witness to every withering look, recipient of every caustic innuendo, sharing in every withheld tear.

It all works in Pacifica Spindrift’s current production of “Proof.” I had the great fortune to score a front row seat, so close I had to make sure my feet were tucked under my seat lest the actors trip over them. I know these four people in front of me were actors, their roles scripted (by playwright David Auburn), their movements blocked, their emotions barely held in check or given full release at a moment’s notice. But to me, this night was like watching life unfolding, close enough to my own personal experience to keep me spellbound the whole night.

The crisis unravels from the arcane heights of abstract academic mathematics, but it has more to do with the fragile hold some of us can barely keep on reality while looking for meaning in life where it may not exist. Or maybe we try so hard to make connections between lofty principles that we fail to make the most important ones at our fingertips.

And so we see these four characters, the disillusioned father Robert (Charles Evans) and his two daughters Catherine (Devon Degroot) and Claire (Nicole Odell), none of whom really know how to treat with each other, and the grad student/boyfriend Hal (Justin Lucas) who stumbles into the mess and only makes it worse.

I can’t say enough good things about these four performers and the interpersonal dynamics they each brought to their roles. It was as though I were watching two real sisters BE sisters, watching Hal and Claire try to figure out what they need to be with each other, watching Robert rise and then fall through the fog of his encroaching madness. Kudos also to director Gabriel A. Ross for shaping this whole production to such a finely woven tapestry, and for the decision to display it within the intimate confines of Pacifica Spindrift’s black box of their Muriel Watkin Performance Space.

Through January 28, 2018
At: 1050 Crespi Drive, Pacifica, California 94044
(650) 359-8002
info@pacificaspindriftplayers.org

“You’ve Seen Me in Town. . . .”

January 15, 2018

I received a comment to the previous post (and a somewhat related letter of mine about “Christine” to the editor of our local newspaper) shortly after it appeared, words that brought me to consider my own-what they said, what they implied, and where they come in contact with my credo “either you do it or you talk about it.” Christine had been a homeless person, whose long unidentified body had been found beside the highway in our small town.

“There are those of us in town,” my respondent said, “who don’t have the same problems Christine had, but have been living in fear for years, who have nowhere to turn who are afraid they could end up with a similar fate. When you wrote about seeing people with haunted eyes I wondered if you had seen me. . . .”

Perhaps I had.

“. . . and wondered if you could see in my eyes what I have been through.”

Perhaps I had not.

“People who live normal lives tend to either not understand or blame the person somehow for the situation they are in, or it is too awful to believe for most people to grasp. They think on some level the person deserves it, or that all families are loving and supportive and if not, it must be something of the person’s own doing—but they would be wrong in this assumption.”

I believe I have been.

“David there are people like me who need help who are terrified every single day, who spend so much time looking over our shoulder and looking for help and only being confronted by well-wishers who say they will ‘pray for you’ but offer no real help, even knowing how bad it is.” Such prayers are for the benefit of those who make them. Prayers are not, as my respondent says, real help.

“This is happening in your town, David, not very far from where you are.” Christine lived and died here ten years ago. This is happening today. In my town, in your town, wherever you happen to be reading this.

“I don’t even know if you, like everyone else, will wave your hand at me and shake your head and say’ that is terrible, we should be more kind to each other’. But some people aren’t kind. And some people are very scared, like me.”

What then is real help? When our own homes are filled, our own resources are limited, when we share what limited time and money we have freely, sowing it into the world wherever we feel it will do the most good, what then, when that is not enough?

When it only reaches some, but cannot reach all?

What do we do next?